Sandia LabNews

Pursuing a new nuclear weapons policy for the 21st century

Do nuclear weapons still have a role to play in US national security? Does the nation’s nuclear stockpile as it is now configured provide the range of deterrent options needed in the post-Cold War era? For that matter, does US policy regarding nuclear weapons reflect the 21st century threat in all its many dimensions?

Now, Labs Director C. Paul Robinson has weighed in publicly with a white paper offering his voice to the debate. The paper, "Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century," represents Paul’s long years of thinking about this most serious matter. (Paul has for decades lived and breathed this issue, but usually in a less visible role.)

The 6,000-word white paper is available in its entirety on Sandia’s web site at A thousand-word except was published last week in the Albuquerque Tribune. In the paper, Paul argues that though the Cold War face-off between two superpowers is a thing of the past, nuclear weapons will continue to be of paramount importance to the nation’s security. He writes that nuclear weapons "must have an abiding place in the international scene for the foreseeable future." He emphasizes that nuclear weapons should "never be thought of as war fighting tools." Rather, the nation should view them as "war prevention" or "war termination" tools — when termination cannot be achieved by other means.

Paul proposes that the 21st-century US nuclear arsenal, which evolved to address and counter — almost to the exclusion of any other considerations — the potential of the Soviet Union to literally destroy the nation, needs to be reconfigured to address new threats.

Capability One and Capability Two

That configuration, he writes, should have two components: Capability One and Capability Two. Capability One represents what Paul calls "central deterrence": an on-going ability to maintain a viable deterrent to Russia’s still very substantial nuclear arsenal. (Other nations may someday pose a risk of the same scale as Russia; today only Russia has the capability to utterly destroy American society.) Capability two, Paul writes, should be thought of as the "non-Russian force," a force scaled and deployed to deter threats from rogue states and sub-national movements.

In an interview, Paul told the Lab News the timing was right for him to offer public comments on the issue. He said a new century, a new administration, and new, more complex threats to the nation’s security demand a new round of hard thinking about nuclear weapons. "What you’re seeing in that paper," Paul says, " is my attempt to put down on paper some suggestions for the upcoming strategic review."

Need for new policy obvious to many

"I would say it has been fairly obvious to a number of people for the past few years that we really needed to start thinking much more broadly than just US-Russian deterrence and that policy. Now, the strategic review, which is held usually at the start of each new administration, seemed to be the best opportunity to influence thinking and get people thinking in new ways."

Paul noted that while he has served for eight years as chair of the US Strategic Command Strategic Advisory Group policy subcommittee, and has learned much from his STRATCOM experience, the thoughts in the white paper are his own.

"I don’t claim that this is a consensus opinion of anybody. . . . It really is my own food for thought that I’m contributing to help the discussion along."

Paul recognizes that there will be skeptics who consider his involvement in the discussion as motivated by a desire to stimulate jobs at the national labs. One local newspaper account, for example, characterized Paul’s public advocacy of his policy views as "seeking ways for the nation’s nuclear weapons complex to remain relevant in the post-Cold War world."

"What was most wrong with that characterization," Paul says, "is that there is not a first- or even second-order connection between the numbers of weapons in the stockpile and the amount of design work which Sandia does. It [the motivation for writing the white paper] really was, the world has changed enough that we were running out of policy. That, and the fact that I’ve been exposed to this [the policy debate over America’s nuclear weapons posture] for so many years decided I ought to set my hand at trying to make some contributions. What value these ideas will have in the nuclear posture review, I don’t know. This is input in that process and it comes from the unique background I’ve had."

Paul is convinced that the nation’s deterrent policy for the 21st century needs to incorporate nuclear weapons and not rely (as some even in the military have advocated) solely on advanced conventional arms. He comes to this perspective not from his role as a laboratory director but from personal experience and observation during his tenure as an arms control negotiator in Geneva.

Monuments to failed deterrence

"I’ve never believed that we could rely on conventional weapons alone for deterrence. When I’d get a chance to take a ride through Europe, which was a battleground twice last century, I used to point out to people that in every little town, there’d be a monument to the folly of conventional deterrence — with lots of names on it, just like the Vietnam wall. And so I found myself when I set out to write this paper saying, ‘I need to make some of those thoughts known — that nuclear weapons really did change things, and their purpose has not been well-understood between war-fighting and deterrence. If you look at the mission statement of the military services, they’ve all had statements that have incorporated the words ‘To fight and win the nation’s wars.’ Deterrence is not that. Deterrence is to prevent the war from ever occurring." And nuclear weapons, even in a post-Cold War world, are the most potent tool for deterrence the world has yet found. Or, as Paul wrote in his paper, citing Margaret Thatcher’s quotation of a warning from Winston Churchill: "Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure, and more sure than sure, that other means of preserving the peace are in your hands."