McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies

McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995


What principles should guide decision-makers in choosing whether to attempt to preemptively disarm an emerging dangerous and hostile nuclear regime? Obviously, U.S. preemptive counter-proliferation should be considered, if at all, only in very special cases, ideally characterized by optimal conditions. If these exist, all in the same situation, then a decision to initiate a PCP assault probably would be necessary, and could be successful. On the other hand, ill-considered preemptive strikes could backfire catastrophically. When and how should the United States consider preemption, if ever, to ward off an even greater danger downstream? Here are some questions that should be addressed when deciding whether or not the U.S. should intervene with military force in any given proliferation situation:

1. Is The Enemy Undeterrable, Violent and a Risk-taker? The regime about to acquire or in possession of nuclear weapons would have to be a sworn and dedicated enemy of the United States, its rulers ruthless practitioners of violence to achieve their ends, and willing to take extreme risks rather than following conservative foreign and military policies. The enemy would have to be considered erratic, unpredictable, and quite possibly non-deterrable by the threat of retaliation against his country's assets.

2. Is the Enemy On The WMD Threshold? Before acting, U.S. intelligence would have to have extremely convincing evidence that such an enemy regime was about to acquire nuclear weapons and/or other WMD, as well as the means of delivering them.

3. Are U.S. Vital Interests Directly Threatened? (Note 75) The situation would have to be seen very clearly as a kill-or-be-killed scenario. The enemy regime would have to pose a "clear and present danger" of striking the United States, its allies, or other vital interests after it had acquired a certain number of WMD. The costs of not striking first would have to be seen as totally unacceptable. This would have to be a case of either decisively intervening or there being a very high probability of being struck a devastating blow.

4. Are Key Enemy Targets Precisely Located and Vulnerable? The intelligence available would have to be documented that so U.S. leaders would conclude that they knew all locations of enemy WMD, and believed these targets to be vulnerable to U.S. conventional preemptive attacks, without causing extensive collateral damage to civilian populations. Damage expectancies would need to be high so that the adversary could not be expected to retaliate with a devastating counterattack on the United States, its allies, and vital interests. Moreover, the U.S. would need to be able to document the presence of enemy WMD to effectively counter enemy denials and propaganda.

5. Is Surprise Achievable? A preemptive strike to eliminate enemy WMD has a greater likelihood of success if it has not been telegraphed in advance. If the adversary had warning and time to move its relocatable nuclear assets, and prepare a retaliation attack, then a U.S. PCP operation should be aborted, unless the U.S. leadership was absolutely convinced that an enemy WMD strike was imminent.

6. Does the U.S. Have A First Strike Capability? Friendly forces within range of the enemy targets would need to be capable of carrying out a preemptive strike with a very high confidence of success against enemy WMDs, preferably with very few casualties among the civilian population of the enemy state. It would be best if the enemy leadership could be captured or neutralized, and replaced with one much less threatening.

7. Is the U.S. Homeland Safe From Enemy WMD? Even a small number of adversary nuclear weapons exploded on one or more large U.S. or allied cities would deliver a historically unprecedented number of war deaths on the United States and its friends. Starting an armed conflict, especially a highly dangerous one against a heavily armed and dangerous enemy, could only be done in the existential moment when the U.S. President and his top national security leaders were utterly convinced that the path of inaction was absolutely catastrophic, and that further delay and a failure to act would be fatal. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a WMD could not be used against the United States, since such a weapon could be smuggled into the country and exploded in a targeted area, even if the adversary lacked missiles or bombers capable of reaching North America.

8. Would The United States Be Safe From WMD Retaliation By Third Parties? It is particularly important that it be very unlikely that any other state with NBC weapons would be willing to strike the U.S. or its allies on behalf of the enemy engaged.

9. Has The U.S. Exhausted All Other Non-Military Options First? Clearly, the United States should and would not attack another state unless it tried and failed with all other diplomatic, political, and economic options to avert the threat to the United States. PCP should be the last resort unless time was clearly not available to pursue alternative means and to fail to act was to absorb almost certain catastrophic damage. Generally, however, PCP should be the very last resort. To do otherwise, would be immoral, set a very dangerous precedent, undermine international law, and could ruin the good reputation of the United States.

10. Has the U.S. Set Clear Objectives And Is It Using Appropriate Means? Clausewitz wrote, "No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it." (Note 76) If the war takes an unanticipated turn, we should continue to reassess ends and means keeping the use of force proportional to our needs while recognizing that when such a conflict is no longer in our national interest, we disengage expeditiously, just as we should also escalate some conflicts to bring their rapid termination about. (Note 77) Means must be appropriate to ends, however, excessive force (e.g., the use of nuclear weapons) would lose the high moral ground for the United States and could bring a backlash of major political and military problems.

11. Is The U.S. Commited to Win? As former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has recommended, "If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do it wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all." (Note 78) Remember that a preemptive strike, even for defensive purposes, is an act of war and is unlikely to remain an isolated incident, so the U.S. leadership and armed forces had better be fully prepared for what follows.

Unfortunately, real world decisions often must be made when time is short and information is incomplete. Decision-makers seldom have the luxury of perfect intelligence and a complete understanding of the adversary. Nor is it possible to predict with absolute certainty the future behavior of adversaries or the amount of rationality they will bring to future relations.

If the answer to all these questions are "yes", then the United States might be wise to intervene with military force to prevent a hostile radical state from acquring or using existing WMD. The more answers of "no" or "maybe" to these questions, the more likely the United States should decide against military intervention.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that these are guidelines, not iron laws for decision. Sometimes a President must act quickly with fragmentary information because to wait would be to miss the opportunity to succeed.

As early strategist William Shakespeare once said, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyages of their life is bound in shallows and miseries." (Note 79) Translation: the PCP window of opportunity to succeed may be a fleeting one.

On the other hand, a President is also warned about blindly leaping into the abyss. In general, decision-makers would do very well to proceed with extra caution when the preemptive decision they are tempted to make is based on many large uncertainties accompanied by huge costs for failure.

| Return to Top | Return to Contents | Next Chapter | Previous Chapter |