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R E T H I N K I N G N U C L E A R D E T E R R E N C E D O C T R I N E

“We will complete a nuclear posture review that opens the door to deeper cuts and reduces the role of
nuclear weapons.” - President Obama to United Nations, Wednesday, September 23, 2009

IS DETERRENCE, EVEN NUCLEAR DETERRENCE, A ZOMBIE


SITUATION?
Herman Kahn used to argue that there were three kinds of problems in the world: (1)
those that are insoluble by human intervention; (2) those that are made worse by
human intervention; and (3) those that are solvable by timely and sufficient human
intervention.

My argument is that the problem of how to achieve nuclear nonproliferation and nu-
clear disarmament is an insoluble problem as long as nuclear deterrence continues to
provide the basis for military defense. Military defense as the primary means of
achieving national security is also expensive (~$60,000 billion in current U.S. dollars
consumed over the past 64-years). Essentially, we are playing a game of nuclear de-
terrence rationalized as a means of military defense that may represent a zombie
situation (i.e. the game is unwinnable). Thus, if this is so, it is not only expensive to
continue playing this game for capital might be allocated more productively to other
activities for national security, it may be highly risky to continue with a nuclear pos-
ture that is no longer of strategic value.

For example, what if, unlike the game of nuclear deterrence as a means for national
defense that may no longer be considered of strategic value for national security, the
problem of mitigating global warming was considered of strategic value for national
security? That one engages in the enterprise of allocating capital to mitigate climate
change does not depend whether it is a resultant of either natural or man-made
forces. It is occurring. It is happening with great rapidity. It is unbelievably expensive
in its impact on the world's economies. Significant reallocation of capital is required
to adequately address this problem adequately in a timely fashion. The consequential
systemic risk is very, very large. I would argue that a responsible calculation of this
systemic risk (probabilistic forecast of occurrence and consequences, reduced to an
estimated economic value) would be greater than that risk associated with either fu-
ture conventional wars or potential unconventional (e.g. terrorist) violence (i.e. the
supposed raison d'être of national defense)

Thus, from a systemic risk perspective, if we are willing to support policies that re-
sult in the expenditure of ~$60,000 billion over the next 64-years for military defense as
presently constellated (this is the present trajectory!), might we also be willing to
support an equal or greater allocation of capital for the amelioration and mitigation
of the very real, economic costs of global warming?

This, of course, serves to illuminate the faulty thinking of some present national se-
curity policies. It is highly unlikely that the world’s economy is able to support two

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equally strategic initiatives of ~$60,000 billion each over the next 64-years. Either fu-
ture policy initiatives will continue to be ruled by non-analytical reasoning, conven-
tion (what has happened in the past serves as the primary guide to future choices;
the world is ruled by stationarity), and convenient, often self-serving rhetoric, or
conversely, sound analysis and considered, rational policy choices will begin to rule
the day. If the problem of responsible and twenty-first century national security initia-
tives are to be addressed adequately in a timely fashion, the question on the table is:
“Which shall we choose?”

THE STATED OBJECT OF DETERRENCE IS TO AVERT WAR


Deterrence as developed through national defense strategy, despite its overt military
focus, touches practically everything and everyone. It’s success, or lack thereof, either
establishes or destroys the platform for cultural stability and human development. Its
cost of implementation affects the global economy and diverts capital from other
uses. If too much capital is diverted from civilian needs, technical innovation, eco-
nomic prosperity, and the means to improve general welfare of the nations will be
harmed.

DETERRENCE BASED ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS IS A FOOL’S GAME


National defense in the U.S. and many other countries of the world, either directly or
through nuclear umbrellas of nuclear states still relies on nuclear deterrence. This is
based on the maintenance of large stockpiles of hydrogen-nuclear weapons and
launchers capable of delivering a devastating counterattack against any opponent
foolish enough to launch an attack. Nuclear weapons have not been used in the 64-
years since 1945 and there's never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between
two states that possess them. Yet, there is data that nuclear weapons do not deter war
between states with them and those without nuclear weapons (e.g. Korea, Vietnam,
Gulf War, Iraq War, Af-Pak War).

The foundational assumption of the value of nuclear deterrence was originally based
on MAD (mutual assured destruction), a strategy developed from economic game the-
ory. This strategy assumed a Nash Equilibrium would be achieved between two
players. It would be in neither player’s interest to engage in a First Use attack, if the
result is a counterattack that destroys the attacking side. With the appearance of mul-
tiple parties possessing nuclear weapons, MAD morphed into various flavors of the
same game: Assured Destruction, Massive Retaliation, Minimal Deterrence, etc.

A growing number of nations now believe it is beneficial to possess nuclear weapons,


or the capability to make them in the future, as needed, to deter aggression by adver-
saries with superior forces. The resulting counterattack, although not as decisive as in
the original MAD game, would still be potentially catastrophic to the attacker.

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Thus, nuclear deterrence provides an impetus for nuclear proliferation, potentially a


more volatile brinksmanship defined decision-space, and the ever increasing possi-
bility that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists who may have noth-
ing to lose by First Use, as no credible counterattack could be launched against them.

The problem with much of the thinking concerning nuclear deterrence is that it is
based on technological positivism and the logical fallacy of retrospective determin-
ism. It also presumes stationarity - past history is a guide to the future.

QUESTIONING THE BASIS FOR NUCLEAR DETERRENCE


Technological positivism presumes that the correct number of nuclear weapons ana-
lytically derived will achieve deterrence and extended deterrence objectives. The fal-
lacy of retrospective determinism attributes nuclear deterrence, post ipso facto, as the
sole or primary cause for no nuclear exchanges between nuclear powers over the past
64-years. The assumption of stationarity imagines that along with the other assump-
tions of nuclear deterrence: (1) approximate parity so that neither side has an advan-
tage for First Use, (2) both sides have enough information that they can make in-
formed, rational decisions as the game progresses, and (3) the players are rational
(subscribe to rational choice theory), that (4) this strategy (of nuclear deterrence) can
be employed indefinitely through time, into the indeterminate future. 1

Has nuclear deterrence encouraged an arms race in conventional weaponry and


preparations for national defense? Must a state develop ever more lethal weapons so
that a state doesn’t have to use the nuclear option? Has nuclear deterrence been par-
tially responsible for nations collectively spending $60,000 billion on national defense
over the past 64-years, and spending $1,500 billion additionally each year? Does this
massive diversion of capital to military-based defense merely divert scarce capital
from human development and economic growth? Does this diversion of capital make
aggression more probable, rather than less so?

Other question that need answering include: Is nuclear deterrence, and its overde-
termined extended deterrence, a risk factor in economic recovery, addressing climate
change, protecting cyberspace, and succeeding at disarmament and nonproliferation
efforts? Have nuclear weapons, collectively along with nuclear deterrence doctrine,
become a doomsday machine it is long past time to unplug?

For example, if a Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) of the continued use of the nu-
clear deterrence was performed, 2 would these be the outcomes:

1 The Economic Games Behind Nuclear Deterrence http://www.scribd.com/doc/20228926/.

2 Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) is an analytical process that begins with two system de-
sign counterfactuals: (1) the magnitude (severity) of the potential adverse consequences of
system failures; and (2) the likelihood (probability) of the occurrence of each potential conse-
quence.

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Consequences of deterrence failure are unacceptably large;

Probability of deterrence failure is beyond an acceptable risk level;

Nuclear deterrence is not appropriate for cyberspace;

Nuclear deterrence is a barrier for disarmament and nonproliferation;

Nuclear deterrence provides an impetus for increasing defense budgets.

QUESTIONING THE RISKS OF NUCLEAR DETERRENCE


In the risk assessment of the behavior of complex, non-linear systems (all complex
systems are non-linear) we encounter a number of practical/philosophical limitations
in any probability risk analysis:

All associated events that may occur in complex (engineered and natural) sys-
tems may not be anticipated due to the presence of system emergence. Emergence
is a characteristic of all complex systems due to their nonlinearity; the system
will always be capable of surprise. All the system’s attributes and variables may
not be fully known, as the system’s behavior evolves over time and unique com-
binations of inputs/outputs feedback to the system in unanticipated sequences
of commands over a long operating history that involves human input where
mistakes and arbitrarily determined (outside standard operating procedures)
may occur at any time over many years of operation;

Consequences will tend to follow a power law distribution rather than a normal
distribution. That is, consequences may be immaterial over a very wide range of
system and subsystem inputs/failures, but rise to exceedingly catastrophic con-
sequences once a tipping point is reached or exceeded; 3 and

In calculating probabilities of events that may occur, we must concede that any
probability we predict must be highly uncertain due to the fact that we have not
accumulated a full complement of data over the predicted time period.

Even if we have collected this periodic data, we run into issues related to assump-
tions about stationarity (assuming that the future is as ‘similar’ to the past as may be
required for historical data to have relevance in calculating forecasts) and Black Swan
events (events that cannot be predicted with any accuracy because they cannot be
adequately specified as individual events, but, as a class of potential nut imaginable
events, they will almost always occur with near certainty) that PRA methods were

3All systems have a tipping point, a set of stresses (an overload beyond a threshold rate of
change of inputs) beyond which they breakdown (loose complexity and cease to function
within normal ranges) and sometimes collapse (recovery is uncertain). As failure proceeds,
moments of contingency arise.

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not designed to address adequately. 4 For example, the SOARCA study due in 2010
does not calculate the consequences or or probability of a terrorist attack on a nuclear
power plant, nor does it do a PRA for accidents with spent fuel rods awaiting long-
term storage off-site. 5

In the end, models arrived at through PRA or any other analytical methods may be
wonderful tools at thinking through engineering and design issues in comprehensive
and systematic ways to minimize risk. However, these models can end up offering
false policy guidance and misplaced certainty, if one imagines that the numerical
precision resulting from PRA are predictive, rather than merely descriptive. It is
highly unlikely that reality can be adequately predicted through the use of PRA. Es-
pecially with Black Swan events, the asymmetry of these events allows one only to be
confident that something will go wrong (i.e. that our analysis is incomplete and
probably not completely trustworthy), not about what we believe is deterministically
right concerning the PRA. That is because typically our error rate grows exponen-
tially as we project into the far future. Small errors become very large; potentially
many magnitudes off the mark. In using PRA, we must avoid misplaced concreteness
where we make the mistake of confusing our model with the physical reality it was
meant to describe.

An expensive example of misplaced concreteness, is the most recent collapse of the


global financial markets that were largely caused by Wall Street’s difficulties with
toxic assets beginning in mid-2007 and escalating to a full blown crisis through most
of 2008 and into 2009. The toxic assets in question were financially engineered collat-
eralized debt obligations (CDOs). The construction of these derivative financial
products were based on underlying home mortgages, some subprime mortgages (risky
credits) and some prime home mortgages (better credits). Wall Street firms hired PhD
physicists to design these derivatives based on complex risk models, similar to the
risk models used in PRA.

What occurred in 2008, according to the risk models that Wall Street spent an esti-
mated $2 billion developing, should never, ever have happened: the chances of the
derivatives loosing their value as they did and becoming toxic assets was calculated
as less than once in a a billion years (i.e one in a billion probability of occurrence).
Also, the consequences of such an event occurring were calculated to be negligible as
the risks were believed to be so well hedged (financially engineered). Yet, these deri-
vates became toxic, in many cases in less than 5-7 years. The consequences have also

4Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably (New York: Ran-
dom House: 2007).

5United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission


http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/regulatory/research/soar/faqs.html.

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not been negligible. The U.S. government and the U.S. Federal Reserve System have
allocated $17,489 billion of capital in the form of grants, loans, guarantees, and tax
relief to address the meltdown of financial markets and to restart the domestic econ-
omy. Wall Street’s misplaced concreteness in its use of CDO’s (engineered based on
PRA-type risk models) has cost the global economy more than $50,000 million in lost
value of financial assets to date. The moral to this tale is that even the most sophisti-
cated risk models, developed at a cost of a couple of billion dollars can get systemic
risk very wrong, and a Black Swan event (in this case the meltdown of the sub-prime
market was the precipitating event), unanticipated and unplanned for, can become
catastrophic in its consequences and may occur with a probability closer to 1.00
(P<1.0) than the often small probabilities for an event occurring calculated under
standard PRA methodology.

The above catastrophic failure of the use of PRA-type models in the financial indus-
try does not suggest that these models do not have value or that the results produced
from such models should not be weighed in decision-making for allocating scarce
capital. Only that PRA results should not be mistaken as predictive of future reality. The
value of their results is descriptive. One example of an engineering and design prob-
lem where the non-use of PRA-type models is potentially catastrophically expensive
is in developing potential consequences and probabilities regarding the failure of
nuclear nonproliferation programs.

For example, if the possibility that nuclear deterrence would fail once every 100,000-
weapon years (years where more than 100 operational hydrogen weapons are pos-
sessed by more than one nuclear armed state), the risk would approximate the risk of
skydiving each year for 100,000 years. However, the consequence of chute failure
would not be one person dead, but many millions dead. The cost would not be the
cost of a destroyed parachute and bloody clothes, but potentially $1,000 billion in lost
GDP over a multi-year period, or much, much more in a worst-case scenario (loss of
two or more billion human lives and as much as $100,000 billion casualty loss in a
worst-case scenario) rather than an average case scenario.

If the PRA results were that the probability of nuclear deterrence failing was once in
100 weapon-years, then this would approximate the risk of making 3 parachute
jumps daily for 100 years, with potential consequences as above in an average case
scenario. Another way to think about this level of risk is that it corresponds to play-
ing Russian Roulette six times during this 100-year period, or once every 16.7 elapsed
years. But each additional 16.7 year period, another bullet is added to the cylinder
(the revolver’s cylinder holds six bullets). On the other hand, if the PRA calculated
probability of a deterrence failure was once in fifty years, that would mean that every
year of delay in addressing (and fixing) this policy engineering problem related to a
potential failure in nuclear deterrence would result in an opportunity cost of $20 bil-

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lion (2% x $1,000 billion average case consequence from the failure of nuclear
deterrence). 6 That is $200 billion in opportunity costs over a decade of doing nothing
other than harboring the delusion that deterrence will work forever.

A significant problem with all these calculations of probabilities and their conse-
quences is that no PRA has ever been conducted on the potential failure of nuclear
deterrence, to the best of our knowledge. It’s unlikely that a secret PRA exists in that
the only value of such a study would be its public knowledge. That’s comparable to
asserting that deterrence will never fail more than once in a billion years. Somehow,
this assertion seem highly unlikely, even as “no mathematical model can capture the
intricacies of human psychology.... as [we] must guess what other people are going to
do. But their eventual actions will depend on what they think [we] are going to do.”7

INVENTING A NEW DETERRENCE STRATEGY: WHY IS IT SO HARD?


Might there be perverse economic incentives to maintain nuclear deterrence? What if
the maintenance of nuclear deterrence is a similar situation to the CDO meltdown on
Wall Street that destroyed $50,000 billion in asset values? Systemic risk was/is not
being managed.8

The systemic risk of nuclear weapons must be costed and included in defense budget
discussions. Otherwise, it may appear that nuclear deterrence produces a positive
economic return to those countries that hold nuclear weapons (or the capacity to
quickly assemble them). This assumption is mistaken thinking. Nuclear weapons, if
their systemic risk is included in their costs (e.g. systemic risk insurance premiums)
might be understood as unbelievably expensive and dis-economic (as well as morally
and ethically untenable). 9

But, as long as states mis-account for their true cost, nuclear weapons look inexpen-
sive and economically attractive from a strategic perspective. Maybe that is why
they’re so hard to get rid of. Instead of the horse and buggy that they are, states con-
tinue to mistake them for a shiny new technological wonder.

The downside to not including the economic cost of managing systemic risk in calcu-
lating the cost of nuclear weapons are that: (a) systemic risk may not be managed

6See Martin E. Hellman, “Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence,” The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, The
Engineering Honor Society (Spring 2008) 14-22; Martin Hellman, “Soaring, Cryptography and
Nuclear Weapons” (October 21, 2008) at http://nuclearrisk.org/soaring_article.php.

7 Quoting Emanuel Derman, former Goldman Sachs executive, ‘quant,’ physics PhD, and pro-
fessor at Columbia University in Pablo Triana, Lecturing Birds on Flying: Can Mathematical Theo-
ries Destroy the Financial Markets? (NY: Wiley, 2009).

8 See “Securitization of Risk” at http://www.scribd.com/doc/20747708/.

9 “Costing Systemic Risk from Doomsday Machines” http://www.scribd.com/doc/19772476/

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adequately as its costs are not included in allocating capital to national defense; (b)
budgets drive wasteful, zero-sum activities even as no deterrence or national defense
or national security value-added may be achieved; (c) capital is misallocated as an
improper discount rate is often chosen that may make deterrence/defense projects
look more attractive than they actually are in practice.

Not managing systemic risk is ultimately destructive of capital and national security.
Certeris paribus (all things being equal) does not apply to nuclear deterrence as ac-
counting for the systemic risk of nuclear weapons is a world-changer. Even limited
nuclear war is presently believed to cause global destruction of ecosystem services
and potential for world-wide famines. The use of nuclear weapons is predicated on
hetacomb - the belief that the deaths of many are necessary to save a privileged few.
That some utility may result from nuclear deterrence doctrine does not belie that nu-
clear weapons hang like a Sword of Damocles over all the peoples of the earth and the
earth’s life-sustaining environment.

It is long past the time to examine the feasibility for: (a) developing an updated de-
terrence framework; (b) deterrence that does not depend on nuclear weapons; and (c)
an alternate methodology for allocating capital to deterrence based on this new
framework. Otherwise, the global economy is set to spend yet another ~$60,000 bil-
lion (in current US dollars) for national defense predicated on nuclear deterrence (ei-
ther directly or under the nuclear umbrellas of nuclear states) over the next 64-years.
Can the world afford this allocation of capital today in the face of known national
security risks? Should the world afford nuclear deterrence at all, given this doctrine’s
systemic risks and that rational choice theory upon which nuclear doctrine rests has
been apply proven to be a highly deficient description of human behavior (e.g. 2008
financial markets meltdown)?

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