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No, the U.S. didn’t just threaten a preventive nuclear strike. 5 things you need to know.

- October 4, 2018

During an Oct. 2, 2018, press briefing, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, raised eyebrows with comments that suggested the United States is preparing to “take out” Russian missiles deployed in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

No, this wasn’t a threat of a preventive strike, and Hutchison’s comments are in line with long-term trends in U.S. nuclear targeting. But the way they were delivered underscores the importance of public presentation in U.S. nuclear strategy.  Here’s what you need to know:

1. What is the U.S. complaint?

Russia has deployed a ground-based cruise missile, the 9M729, designated by NATO as the SSC-8 “Screwdriver.” With an estimated range of more than 1,000 kilometers, the missile violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned Washington and Moscow from testing, producing or deploying ground-launched missiles with a 500-to-5,500-kilometer range.

2. Hutchison did not threaten a preventive strike

While her initial statement was unclear and contained several inaccuracies, Hutchison clarified later that, if Russia did not come back into compliance with the INF Treaty, the United States would take corresponding measures to develop “the capability [emphasis added] to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska.” She did not elaborate on the exact nature of such a capability, but it was relatively clear she was referring to the development of targeting options to preempt Russian use in the event of war, rather than a preventive strike in peacetime.

3. What is the U.S. targeting policy?

In fact, Hutchison’s comments follow a well-established pattern in U.S. targeting policy. Recent historical research explains how the United States has consistently sought to improve its ability to limit the damage the country would sustain in the event of a nuclear war by attacking the offensive systems of its nuclear rivals, a doctrine known as counterforce. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara sketched out the concept in a 1962 speech, declaring that the United States should focus on “the destruction of the enemy’s forces,” not Soviet cities. Counterforce has been part of U.S. planning since then.

During the 1970s, advances in warhead accuracy and intelligence collection capabilities made counterforce options more realistic, lending a new qualitative character to the arms race. As Austin Long and Brendan Green have argued, the Soviets were aware of these developments and took the best measures they could to protect their forces, which in turn spurred greater U.S. efforts to locate and target Soviet submarines and mobile missiles.

When the Cold War ended, Russian nuclear forces atrophied because of a lack of funding, and arsenals were progressively cut.  The accuracy of U.S. warheads and intelligence collection capabilities continued to improve. These developments, combined with emerging sensors, data analysis technologies and other trends, have led some nuclear thinkers to conclude that counterforce has become a more credible option than ever before.

4. So what makes Hutchison’s comments controversial?

But Hutchison’s comments depart from the established style of U.S. declaratory policy — i.e., what the U.S. government says in public about its nuclear posture. While officials have referred to counterforce capabilities in the past, they have generally done so in ways designed to downplay anxieties regarding U.S. plans for a preventive strike against one of its nuclear rivals.

Such a declaratory posture is almost as old as counterforce itself. After his Ann Arbor speech, McNamara began to dial back the rhetoric, progressively downgrading his estimates of the U.S. capability to limit damage by striking the Soviet Union first. In the mid-1970s, Nixon’s secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, referred explicitly to the U.S. ability to kill “hard targets,” including Soviet missiles in certain limited scenarios — but emphasized that the damage resulting from nuclear war would rule it out “for any sane leader.” While including hard-target-kill systems in the Carter administration’s “countervailing” strategy later in the decade, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown also denied that the United States would have “a disarming first strike capability” against the Soviets.

5. Presentation of nuclear policy matters

The transition from the Carter to Reagan White House underscores the importance of presentation in declaratory policy. While the Reagan administration’s nuclear targeting strategy was, in fact, a limited extension of Carter’s, the presentation style created far greater controversy. While Carter-era officials talked about a “countervailing” strategy, the Reagan emphasized the goal of “prevailing” in a nuclear war and pledged to rebuild U.S. nuclear strength.

This marked difference in tone led to a strong backlash from scientists, strategists and policymakers, who criticized the administration for fueling the arms race and raising the chances of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. In the face of this backlash, President Reagan changed tack, downplaying the idea of prevailing in a nuclear war. He switched his attention to the long-term vision of a space-based missile defense system.

The Hutchison incident also underlines the importance of presentation in declaratory policy. Officials in the Trump Department of Defense appear to know this well, couching counterforce policy in traditional nuclear-strategic language. The Trump administration’s February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), perhaps the most hawkish such policy document for more than two decades, echoes the counterforce rhetoric of the Cold War:

The goal of limiting damage if deterrence fails in a regional contingency calls for robust adaptive planning to defeat and defend against attacks, including … capabilities to locate, track, and target mobile systems of regional adversaries.

This is almost exactly what Hutchison said, but the phrasing is radically different. The Nuclear Posture Review refers to “targeting mobile systems.” Hutchison threatened to “take [them] out.” While the NPR references unnamed “regional adversaries,” Hutchison not only singled out Russia but also specified a particular Russian missile. And while the quote above was buried in a 100-page government document, Hutchison made public comments at a news conference.

These differences may appear subtle, but the global reaction to Hutchison’s statement shows that they matter. Hutchison’s unvarnished language, stripped of the euphemisms that usually accompany nuclear strategy statements, and delivered directly to a room full of reporters, shows that what officials say about U.S. nuclear policy can be less important than how they say it.

James J. Cameron (@cameronjjj) is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation (OUP, 2017).