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American strategic nuclear weapons policy, 1975-87 : a critique of the conservative perspective Furtado, Francis Joseph


This thesis examines and critiques conservative prescriptions for American strategic nuclear weapons policy between 1975 and 1987, with a specific focus on the programs and priorities of the Reagan Administration. The essay will use a tendency analysis approach to assess the conservative view within the context of overall the American nuclear debate. In the past decade, this debate has become increasingly polarized, with the various schools of thought moving further apart from one another on the central questions of American nuclear weapons policy. The conservative view calls for the United States to secure nuclear escalation dominance over the Soviet Union, which conservatives argue, is essential to the success of American coercive diplomacy on behalf of those nations to which Washington extends the deterrent effect of its nuclear arsenal. During the Reagan administration, this has led to the pursuit of extensive counterforce capabilities, enhanced strategic ASW, and a renewed interest in strategic defence. However, conservative policy prescriptions are based upon an analysis of American national security and nuclear weapons which has, as its principal focus, the military aspects of nuclear weapons policy. What is largely absent from the conservative analysis is a sense of how other factors, including Alliance relationships, diplomacy, and domestic considerations, can affect containment policy. The current conservative program is destined to be a policy failure, on its own terms, because it overestimates the political, economic, organizational, and technical capacities of the United States to field a nuclear posture capable of conducting extensive nuclear operations while holding American losses to tolerable levels. The current strategic condition of Mutual Assured Destruction is very robust, and poses severe operational obstacles to the development of a high-confidence damage-limiting posture. As a matter of policy, the pursuit of escalation dominance has, as its focus, objectives that are too singular and inefficient for the proclivities of the United States in the post-Vietnam period. If anything, the drive for nuclear superiority in the Reagan administration has contributed to the decline of American power, especially as manifested by the current budgetary and trade deficits. In a larger sense, conservative program may be ill-suited to a politico-strategic culture like that which exists in the United States. The substantial defence budgetary increases of the early Reagan period could have been employed far better if the Administration had set more marginal objectives for its strategic nuclear program. Instead, the Administration sought nuclear policy objectives which were unnecessary, operationally unreachable, politically divisive, and managerially unsound. Reductions in defence spending seem to be a likely feature of the post-Reagan period. The paper concludes with two recommendations for American strategic policy. First, the United States should delegate more of the Western security burden to its allies, especially the nations of NATO-Europe, and Japan. Second, American nuclear planning should conform to a doctrine that stresses the capability to execute Limited Nuclear Options (LNOs). Such a posture might not be completely satisfying to either the liberal or conservative factions of the debate, but would seem to be the best way of maintaing a viable political coaltion which can sustain efficient, long-range planning for American strategic nuclear forces.

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