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A Former Nuclear Commander Not Wild About Nukes
WASHINGTON -- Back in college, Gen. James Cartwright captained the University of Iowa's diving team, a consuming athletic challenge he pursued "all year long, seven days a week, multiple times a day," he said in an interview. He also did gymnastics on the side as "a good way to build up [the strength and] coordination that was necessary for the diving." But once the prospective marine graduated in 1971, he never returned to the diving board.
"If you walk away from it for a little bit of time, the ability to maintain the standard that you set for yourself is gone," the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explained. "It becomes more of a disappointment than something that you look forward to. And so when I stopped, I stopped."
Three and a half decades later, the general continues to show the same degree of personal discipline as he faces some daunting Defense Department-wide challenges. He has ascended to the U.S. military's highest ranks not through the old boy's fraternity of service academy graduates but through years of exacting performance. And, as he did with diving, Cartwright retains an uncanny ability to walk away from old commitments, without second thoughts, when he determines the time has come.
So it was not all that difficult to imagine that the Marine Corps general might take a slightly different tack regarding the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal when he arrived at U.S. Strategic Command's Nebraska headquarters in July 2004. In fact, the fighter pilot's military career to that point had little to do with these Cold War weapons.
Before his first year as commander of STRATCOM was up, Cartwright began publicly questioning the role of the nuclear arsenal in a way that none of his predecessors ever had. He did not go so far as to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons -- as a former STRATCOM leader, Air Force Gen. George Lee Butler, did in 1996, more than two years after his retirement.
But, while still in uniform, Cartwright has sufficiently broken with years of tradition to make some nuclear strategists nervous. Critics allege that the general naively ventured into an area outside his expertise and contend that he has no idea how much harm he is doing to U.S. national security.
It all started in April 2005, when Cartwright said that the United States could "drastically" reduce the nearly 10,000 warheads then in its atomic weapons stockpile by substituting conventional warheads to destroy many of the targets listed in STRATCOM's secret strategic nuclear war plans. The change became possible, Cartwright said, because conventional warheads are now so precise that they could destroy many of the same targets -- buildings, command bunkers, and missile silos -- that previously were the sole domain of the "big-bang" nukes.
A conventional weapon could now destroy 10 to 30 percent of STRATCOM's nuclear targets, one military analyst has estimated. Getting at hard-to-reach or very deeply buried, reinforced bunkers would, however, continue to demand levels of explosive energy offered solely by atomic bombs.
The challenge, the general said, would be in the realm of timing -- getting a conventional weapon to the target very quickly. For the most urgent targets possibly facing the United States today -- perhaps a terrorist ringleader detected at a safe house in Pakistan or a North Korean nuclear-tipped missile being readied for launch -- no conventional forces are likely to be on alert and within range. Nuclear-armed weapons mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles, it turns out, are the nation's only military tools available to hit targets thousands of miles away within minutes.
That didn't sit well with the strategic commander. Cartwright said he could offer the U.S. president no "credible" military tool with which to thwart today's surprise threats. The Information Age -- with news and images spread around the globe in fractions of a second -- magnifies the psychological power of gruesome attacks and compresses the amount of time national leaders feel they have to respond, he has said.
"A nuclear weapon is still a viable part of our inventory, but ... one size does not fit all," he told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee in March 2006. "What we'd like to do is ... field a [conventional] weapon that will give us a broader and potentially more appropriate choice for the nation."
With that, Cartwright became the first STRATCOM leader to actively press the Pentagon to build viable strategic alternatives to nuclear arms. These conventional missiles for a new mission called "global strike" would offer enough speed and range to hit a target anywhere in the world inside an hour of a launch order.
Late last year, Congress put the brakes on the general's plans for a new conventional missile that would be based on submarines, citing the potential dangers that might arise from launching nuclear and non-nuclear weapons from the same vessel. What if a U.S. submarine launched a strategic missile and the Russians or Chinese couldn't tell if it was a nuke or a conventional warhead -- what would they do? lawmakers asked. It could bring World War III. But lawmakers offered Cartwright a politically strategic win by endorsing the broad concept of "global strike."
Yet some defense experts are warning, "Not so fast." Cartwright may be at the forefront of a campaign to improve intelligence-gathering, but the ability to launch precise missiles at long range has outpaced the intel sector's ability to determine exactly who or what would be on the receiving end of that prompt firepower, critics charge.
The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated many targeting successes by air strikes. But time and again, the U.S. military has dropped bombs or missiles on suspected enemies only to learn after the fact that allied troops or innocent civilians were the lone victims. The mistakes are painful in the short term. In the long term, they risk damaging the U.S. image and the nation's interests abroad.
"That we can attack faraway targets in a matter of minutes is a reckless idea," Franklin (Chuck) Spinney, a retired Pentagon-reform advocate, said in February. "It is dependent on precise, timely intelligence, which is unlikely to occur in the real world."
"If you're going to strike suddenly, ... it has to be based on very powerful, very convincing intelligence," Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, said last June. And, he added, "in today's world, [a strike decision] has to also wash publicly."
Ironically, it is those very doubts that Cartwright uses to justify building conventionally armed, long-range missiles for quick strike. "The consequence of not having perfect intelligence with nuclear weapons is pretty significant, so you don't use them unless you are absolutely sure," Cartwright said in a February 2006 interview. "Wouldn't you like to have an option other than nuclear?"
Yet some see the general's candor about the geopolitical barriers to using nuclear weapons as near-heresy. If contemplating a nuclear war is "thinking the unthinkable," Cartwright has said the unspeakable: It is hard for him to imagine a U.S. president ever ordering a nuclear strike, he said last fall, even if the weapon were limited to a mere fraction of today's atomic explosive power.
"I don't want to put myself in the shoes of a president," he said, "but who is not going to take [as] incredibly serious the use of a nuclear weapon?" Any such strike "is going to change not just that country's future but all of our futures when we start using these things, big or little," he said.
Cartwright has acknowledged that the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is a national objective, as outlined clearly in the original Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but he does not think that it could happen any time soon.
"There is a nuclear deterrent that's going to be necessary out there for as long as I can see into the future," Cartwright said early this year. "But it is for those things that are the last ditch in the defense of this nation."
Some critics believe, though, that by so openly questioning whether a president would exercise the nuclear option, Cartwright could embolden adversaries that remain undeterred by U.S. conventional military strength.
"Any senior official who diminishes in any way the perception that the U.S. might use nuclear weapons, effectively denuclearizes us," retired Air Force Col. Tom Ehrhard, a onetime ICBM launch control officer and nuclear strategist, said in e-mailed comments. "It amounts to unilateral arms control by fiat."
Cartwright's response: "I'm not leading you down a path that I can get rid of nuclear weapons."
The general's approach does, however, reflect a realism rarely voiced in debates over nuclear arms. As a combatant commander leading STRATCOM, the Marine general saw it as his job "to kill targets," said a defense analyst who asked not to be identified. "For many of his predecessors, [strategic warfare] was a theoretical -- not a practical -- problem."
Back in the real world, what military response can a strategic commander recommend to a president, Cartwright asks, once an adversary has crossed a red line?
It is no longer enough to tell a rogue nation that has just attacked a U.S. ally abroad, "OK, you shot at your neighbor. I'm going to sail my armada and I'll be there in a month," the general said last October. The United States needs a tool usable in Information Age timelines, without generating a nuclear holocaust, he said.
"I have a gut feel and a conviction that there is something at the end of this rainbow," Cartwright said in April 2005, just as he was beginning to formulate his concept for long-range conventional strike. Until the United States fields such a weapon, "I'm not letting anybody sleep."
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