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Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century

SW21 2009
International Dynamics, Policy, and Strategy: Assessing Risk and the Need to Hedge

Keith Payne

The two most important risks in today's strategic climate are (1) the risk that deterrence might fail, and (2) the risk that the U.S. might fail adequately to assure its allies. In the former case, probabilities are difficult to assign, not least because of the variety of potential non-state or state actors, including small states, and because the potential degree of consequence (short of general nuclear exchange) has risen relative to the potential consequences of which such actors were previously capable.

A principle hedge against deterrence failure lies in the degree of knowledge (intelligence) the U.S. possesses about potential adversaries. Such knowledge includes understanding their organizations and hierarchies, their values, their degree of determination, and whether or not they are deterrable. It is also important to know whether or how to communicate directly or indirectly with such actors. It is necessary to have such understanding for many potential adversaries, and no numbers of weapons or other military capability has much value in the absence of such knowledge. Should deterrence actually fail, the U.S. needs both active and passive means to defend itself, and the capability to attribute the attack (forensics). It will also want a wide range of communication and other channels for influencing behaviors and directing sanctions.

With respect to the other principal risk – failure to assure allies – there are some who have been explicit about the degree to which their nuclear ambitions are linked to the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. Indicators of such credibility include, but are not limited to, available weapon types, their location and their degree of delivery precision. Developing hedges should involve directly asking allies what it takes to assure them, and then responding appropriately. Perhaps assurance can be provided by non-nuclear means, but only the allies can say. In any case, coordination with allies is essential; there should be no surprises.

Michael Nacht

Thinking about upsets to the international security system can help us develop hedges that minimize potential consequences. Surprises and mistakes keep cropping up that have important consequences for international security. Some examples include: underestimating Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project; overestimating the pace of proliferation in the 1960s; underestimating Iraq's nuclear efforts in 1991; and overestimating Iraq's WMD capabilities in 2001. We should think about the consequences of such errors. For example, what might happen if we fail to stop the nuclear programs of the DPRK or Iran? What can we do now to limit the potential consequences?

We should also exert some effort to think what would be the consequences for security of possible shocks to the international system, e.g., if there were a transition to democracy by the PRC, or if PRC unrest festers because of the current economic downturn. More broadly, how severe will this downturn become and what will be its consequences? What might be its plausible impact on nuclear proliferation or on nuclear weapons issues? Many have pointed out the potential linkages between an expansion in use of nuclear power, but it remains uncertain how fast such growth might be given the reduced availability of leveraged investment capital – for both nuclear power and alternative energy.

Another concern whose potential consequences deserve attention is the vulnerability of both space systems and cyber systems. We are more dependent now on our space assets, but they are also more vulnerable now and it is unclear how to protect them. Testimony to the vulnerability of cyber systems can be found in the Russian cyber attacks on Estonia in 2007, and on Georgia in 2008 (through individuals in a way that gives Russia plausible deniability).

During discussion, it was suggested that governments are often reluctant to examine ‘what ifs,' because they tend to leak and people tend to react by ultimately believing they could live with the consequences.

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