Today's New York Times describes the results of President Obama's "Nuclear Posture Review", which has been the product of 150 meetings and is a particularly bad example of the sausage-making process in the Executive Branch.
The United States' Nuclear Posture is the statement of when we will or will not use nuclear weapons. Under President Bush, the posture was essentially that any WMD attack could see a nuclear response. This is a simple and practical policy, because in the field of weapons of mass destruction the United States has divested itself of two of the three main categories of WMDs: chemical and biological. Under the Biological Weapons Convention that has been in force since 1975, the US does not maintain production facilities for or stockpiles of biological weapons. The US is also a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997. The US has been steadily destroying its own stockpile of chemical weapons, at considerable expense, and has now destroyed 70% of its chemical weapons, with complete destruction of all chemical weapons scheduled for 2023. If this seems like it's taking a long time, that is because we still have chemical weapon stockpiles from World War I, and that's not the kind of stuff you can throw in a bin and be done with.
So by treaty, the US has already destroyed its biological weapons capabilities, is destroying its chemical weapons capability, and has already pledged to not use either of those weapon classes in warfare. What we're left with is nuclear weapons, and those are so nasty and destructive that they function as a deterrent to the use of biological and chemical weapons. You hit us, we hit you back once, and harder than you can possibly imagine. It's a good policy, and one I agree with. The last President didn't promise to use nuclear weapons, he said that our response may include nuclear weapons.
The three issues involved in deterrence are possessing the means of reprisal, convincing potential foes that you have the will to use the means at your disposal, and keeping any potential adversaries uncertain as to the shape of your response. Deterrence is not the same as a challenge, under the former Nuclear Posture Review we were not daring other countries or groups to challenge us, we were simply announcing the consequences should there be an attack. Deterrence does not seek conflict any more than a concealed carry licensee seeks a gunfight. The consequences of any conflict involving WMD are going to be horrific, and reasonable people can look at the probable butcher's bill and consider other courses of action short of WMD release. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the reasonable people are already deterred, it's the unreasonable ones that are of the greatest concern and here's where the President's characteristic unconstrained worldview begins to fall down.
The President's policy described in the NYT article is not one of unilateral disarmament. We will still have Trident submarines in the water, Minuteman IIIs in the silos and nuclear-capable B-52s able to respond to a strike. The President further refined his policy by stating that the exemption to nuclear response does not extend to countries that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (he's looking at you, North Korea and Iran) and that if a biological attack is "serious enough" or biological weapons capabilities become significant enough, a nuclear response may be in order. It appears to me that he is attempting to use the Nuclear Posture Review as yet another lever in what has become a comic opera of trying to get Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as to disincentivize other countries from becoming nuclear powers (he's looking at you, Hugo Chavez). Unfortunately, he and his advisers are overlooking a huge problem.
From an economics standpoint, the barriers to entry to the nuclear weapons club are substantial. A country has to obtain uranium, perform isotope separation to enrich the uranium, create a nuclear reactor, operate the nuclear reactor to produce plutonium, and then separate the plutonium (the optimal nuclear bomb fuel) from the spent and highly-radioactive fuel rods. Then, once sufficient plutonium has been obtained, an implosion system has to be created and tested, and finally the first bomb has to be detonated to prove your technology prior to deployment of a weapon. All of this technology is now 65 years old, but none of it is particularly cheap and most of it has an extra tax in the form of having to be performed clandestinely, with added costs to keep things off the books. If you want to join the thermonuclear club, you need to obtain tritium (a byproduct of nuclear reactors), deuterium (from the sea) and/or lithium-6 deuteride for the second stage of a fission-fusion bomb, along with additional years of testing. So far, none of the "new" nuclear powers (Pakistan, North Korea) have gone to the trouble of making a two or three-stage nuclear weapon. If you're willing to impoverish your country and become a pariah state, at least in the eyes of the United States, all of this is doable but it is neither cheap nor fast.
On the other hand, biological weapons are relatively easily obtainable. The DNA sequence of the H1N1 influenza and 10 strains of the variola virus (smallpox) are available in the scientific literature, with a DNA sequencing machine that is available commercially these can be recreated in a competent laboratory. The US Defense Threat Reduction Agency tested the ability to detect a covert bioweapons facility beginning in 1999, an operation called Project Bachus. For under a million dollars the DTRA was able to create a laboratory that made Bacillus thurigensis, a benign bacterium used to kill mosquitoes in standing water. This doesn't sound like much, but a close cousin of Bacillus thurigensis is Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax. If you can make the one, you can make the other. If you have a competent virologist and a supply of chicken embryos (eggs), you have the makings of a nasty virological program even without having to obtain cell culture material. Besides influenza, smallpox and anthrax, there are a host of diseases including tularemia, plague, glanders and a variety of viruses that can and have been weaponized.
Going beyond naturally-occuring pathogens, genetic engineering can create chimeric (mixed) strains of bacteria that can produce diseases the like of which we have never seen. In his 1999 book Biohazard, former Russian bioweapon scientist Ken Alibek describes an experiment performed in the former Soviet Union. A weapons developer inserted the gene for myelin, the protein that sheaths nerve cells, into a strain of Legionella pneumophila, a common and mildly-infectious bacterium that is most often remembered as the cause of "Legionnaire's disease". Legionella is lives in water, and is often found in the condensate within air conditioners. It most commonly causes a mild respiratory illness, and in the rabbits exposed to the engineered strain this occurred as expected. The genetically-engineerd barb in this bacteriological hook began to show several weeks later: by including the myelin protein in the bacterium, the host's immune system was taught that myelin was an invader and should be destroyed. Antibodies to myelin began to destroy myelin throughout the rabbits' bodies, resulting in paralysis and loss of function. In essence, they got a mild respiratory disease that also caused the equivalent of multiple sclerosis. Can you imagine the impact of an extra hundred thousand patients with florid multiple sclerosis? How about a million?
The flaw in the President's plan is that by telling potential enemies that we will respond with nuclear weapons only to a nuclear attack (and even then, only from a non-proliferating state), we are in essence telling them where to spend their efforts. Why build a trillion-dollar infrastructure to make nuclear weapons when a billion will buy you a first-rate biological weapons lab? The proviso that the policy will be reviewed should biological weapons prove to be more "dangerous" than previously thought overlooks the fact that they are already dangerous, and much more so than is currently considered by the President's advisers. This is a pointless policy change that, thinking like an adversary, dictates a cheaper and no less destructive avenue of attack.
A potential enemy doesn't even have to target humans -- the Ug99 strain of wheat rust could affect up to 90% of our wheat production if it makes it to the United States. A couple of bottles of wheat rust spores would take up no more space than a Gatorade, but like most biological weapons with the ability to self-replicate the wheat harvest of the US and Canada could be almost completely destroyed in a few seasons. How many millions would that kill due to famine and starvation?
Rationality works fine with other rational people, but the President has had a singular lack of success in convincing other countries to come along despite his great faith in his own gifts of persuasion. He cannot even convince Brazil to come along on economic sanctions on Iran, much less convince Iran to do much of anything. He has negotiated a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia, which is unsurprising if you are aware of the decrepit state of Russia's nuclear forces. Their current nuclear missile submarines are the 1970s-era Delta-class, and they are reaching the end of their service lives. Their proposed replacement, the Borei-class, are having terrible troubles with their missiles and it's going to cost a fortune to fix those problems and launch new boats. In agreeing to mutual limits on nuclear weapons, the President has solved some very expensive problems for the Russians, with little gain on our side.
The article also mentions that the President's policy "renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary." The program in question is most likely the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a lower-yield but more-reliable and simpler nuclear warhead to replace our current stockpile. The net effect of bypassing the RRW is that our nuclear forces will continue a decline or require even more expensive refits to remain reliable. When our stockpile was designed "reliability" meant that a warhead would detonate as programmed and for a specified yield after a 6,000 mile flight at Mach 15 or so. Now that we've had them for a while and now that even underground testing is prohibited, reliability has come to mean the knowledge that these exceptionally complex devices will perform as designed after 20 or 30 or even 50 years of riding around in their delivery vehicles. Maintaining that level of reliability for high-speed low-drag mechanisms like the W76 warhead in Trident missiles and the W80 in Tomahawk cruise missiles can be a problem, namely that the things used to originally make those warheads can be difficult to recreate, and therefore even more expensive.
The RRW program was defunded by the Democratic Congress in 2008, and this administration's continued policy consigns our nuclear deterrent to obsolescence. The justification will be for cost reasons, the public will be told that it is just too expensive to maintain our nuclear deterrent, given all the other challenges we face as a nation, and it will sound reasonable. On the other hand, if we lived in a world full of reasonable people we wouldn't really need a nuclear deterrent. This policy is yet another example of ego trumping common sense, the President may be a reasonable man but his election did not make those who wish to strike at our populace any more reasonable. For a leader who claims the mantle of pragmatism, this is a policy that actually makes us more likely to be attacked by signaling that our deterrence is more conditional than it should be, and therefore less assured. By not wanting to appear threatening, the President is actually inviting more attacks, and history is pretty clear that at an unthreatening posture is not a reliable method of defense. We do have a very powerful conventional military, but that is best used for conventional foes. Foes willing to be unconventional should be heartened by our new 'posture'.