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Not with impunity: assessing US policy for retaliating to a chemical or biological attack.

Sen. Jesse Helms: Suppose somebody used chemical weapons or poison gas on people in the United States. . . . Would they damn well regret it?

Secretary of Defense William Perry: Yes.

Helms: I want to know what the response will be if one of these rogue nations uses poison gas or chemical weaponry against either us or our allies. . . . What is the response of this country going to be?

Perry: Our response would be devastating

Helms: Devastating--to them?

Perry: To them, yes. . . . And I believe they would know that it would be devastating to them.

--Testimony of Secretary of Defense William Perry Senate Foreign Relations Committee 28 March 1996

Helms: Let the message go out.

HOW SHOULD THE United States determine its response to a chemical or biological attack against American personnel or interests? The current US retaliation policy, known as calculated ambiguity, warns potential adversaries that they can expect an "overwhelming and devastating" response if they use chemical or biological weapons (CBW) against the United States or its allies. (1) Implied in this policy is a threat of nuclear retaliation, but the specifics of the US response are left to the imagination. By not identifying a specific response to an attack, this intentionally vague policy is designed to maximize flexibility by giving the United States a virtually unlimited range of response options. (2) Ambiguity gives flexibility to policy makers and enhances deterrence by keeping adversaries guessing. But there is a downside to flexibility and ambiguity. Because it is easier to prepare to execute a specific strategy than it is to prepare for a broad range of possibilities, military preparedness suffers--at least at the strategic level--under a policy of ambiguity. It is not surprising that the policy of calculated ambiguity, intended to place doubt in the minds of potential adversaries, has engendered uncertainty among those who would implement the policy. This uncertainty could manifest itself in strategic unprepared-ness. The United States needs a clearer reprisal policy, one that strikes a better balance between flexibility and preparedness.

In general, national policy should facilitate strategy development. If a policy fails to provide enough substance for making strategy, the policy should be revised. Adjectives such as overwhelming and devastating are the only guidelines that the calculated-ambiguity policy provides to strategy makers. Because current policy aims to achieve unlimited flexibility through ambiguity, the policy simply lacks enough substance to support strategy development. Without a strategy, military means may not be able to support policy ends. In making the case that the current reprisal policy hampers strategic preparedness, this article examines existing policy and assesses its strengths and weaknesses; it then suggests a means for clarifying the policy with a view toward achieving a better balance between flexibility and preparedness. Having proposed a policy that better supports strategy development, the article then presents an analytic framework consisting of four critical variables that must be considered in formulatin g strategies for responding to a chemical or biological attack.

Current Reprisal Policy

President William Clinton's national security strategy (NSS) called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) "the greatest potential threat to global stability and security." (3) It further stated that "proliferation of advanced weapons and technologies threatens to provide rogue states, terrorists, and international crime organizations with the means to inflict terrible damage on the United States, our allies, and U.S. citizens and troops abroad." (4) At his confirmation hearing in 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen asserted, "I believe the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction presents the greatest threat that the world has ever known." (5) Barry Schneider, director of the US Air Force Counterproliferation Center, claims that "there are perhaps one hundred states that have the technical capability to manufacture and deploy biological weapons." (6) That Americans will be subject to a CBW attack is not a matter of if but when.

In 1969 President Richard Nixon stopped all biological weapons programs in America. More recently, the United States has begun to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. (7) The United States no longer has the option of responding in kind to a chemical or biological attack. This situation has made a conundrum of US retaliation policy: How best to respond to a WMD attack when the only WMDs in the arsenal are nuclear? In America's Struggle with Chemical-Biological Warfare, Albert Mauroni writes, "Our national policy of responding to enemy use of CB [chemical and/or biological] weapons has shifted over the years from one extreme to the other; from retaliation using similar CB weapons to massive conventional retaliation to (most recently) nuclear retaliation." (8)

Prior to the Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush and other officials let it be known that nuclear weapons might be employed against Iraq if it used WMDs against coalition forces. (9) However, in private Bush reportedly ruled out the use of nuclear weapons. (10) During Operation Desert Shield, Secretary of State James Baker coined the term calculated ambiguity to describe this policy of secretly planning not to use nuclear weapons yet publicly threatening just the opposite. (11) Defense Secretary William Perry's testimony at hearings in 1996 on the Chemical Weapons Convention made it clear that ambiguity was still the policy of the Clinton administration. When asked what the US response to a chemical attack would be, Perry replied, "We would not specify in advance what our response to a chemical attack is, except to say that it would be devastating." (12) When asked if the response could include nuclear weapons, he responded, "The whole range [of weapons] would be considered." (13) Cohen, Perry's successor, reiterated the policy in 1998: "We think the ambiguity involved in the issue of nuclear weapons contributes to our own security, keeping any potential adversary who might use either chemical or biological [weapons] unsure of what our response would be." (14) It appears that the current Bush administration will advocate the same policy of ambiguity as did its predecessors. For example, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice threatens "national obliteration" to those who would use such weapons. (15) Robert Joseph, the Bush administration's senior advisor on counterproliferation issues, argues that nuclear weapons should be an "essential component of the U.S. deterrent posture against [proliferation of WMDs]." (16)

Nuclear weapons have always been a lightning rod for controversy, so it should come as no surprise that an intense debate has been raging over the possible use of nuclear weapons in a US reprisal against a CBW attack. At issue is the decades-long clash between so-called deterrence hawks, who advocate a prime role for nuclear weapons in the calculus of deterrence, and the counterproliferation doves, who maintain that there are safer ways to deter the use of CB attacks and that the United States should reject the first use of nuclear weapons. Deterrence theory, long relegated to the proverbial back burner, is witnessing a resurgence, driven in no small part by this reprisal policy, which, when taken at face value, allows the United States to use nuclear weapons in response to something other than a nuclear attack. On the one hand, according to deterrence hawks, the potential threat to American interests from these other attacks is so large that only by threatening absolute devastation with nuclear weapons can t he United States deter such attacks. (17) The deterrence doves, on the other hand, give primacy to countering nuclear proliferation. The dove position is that the goal of nuclear nonproliferation will be irreparably damaged if America continues to maintain a policy that allows the first use of nuclear weapons. The United States should renounce nuclear retaliation, they argue, and instead threaten a massive conventional response. (18)

Evaluating Current Policy

Is the current policy of calculated ambiguity viable? In assessing that policy, one must answer two questions: What are the general criteria for evaluating a reprisal policy? To what degree does the current US policy satisfy these criteria?

To answer the first question, one must measure retaliatory policy against two key criteria. First, does the policy meet its stated objective? Second, does it support the development of strategy? The objective of stated US reprisal policy is clear: to deter the use of CBWs against US interests. Colin Gray defines deterrence as "a condition wherein a deteree--the object of deterrent menaces--chooses not to behave in ways in which he would otherwise have chosen to behave, because he believes that the consequences would be intolerable." (19) Thus, there is no purpose in having a publicly stated reprisal policy if the United States does not believe that it will cause the deteree to avoid undesirable behavior. Moreover, it is important that a reprisal policy deter not only state actors, but also nonstate actors as well. To be effective against state and nonstate actors, the "deterrent menaces" of the policy must be applicable against each. Finally, the target audiences of the policy must perceive the threat as cred ible.

Deterrence has two essential objectives in a reprisal policy. Perhaps the most important one is deterrence of the first use of CBWs. Deterring first use sometimes fails, however, which leads to the second objective: preventing recurrences or escalation of CBW attacks. One can prevent recurrences with threats or direct military action. A primary mechanism for deterring or preventing escalation is punishment, the threat and execution of which is intended to serve as a deterrent against further CBW attacks on the part of the adversary or other parties. For example, the swift trial and conviction of Timothy McVeigh likely deterred other terrorists who might have been considering actions against the United States. Thus, in evaluating a reprisal policy, one must determine its applicability to state and nonstate actors, its credibility, and the degree to which the stated policy addresses the two objectives of deterrence.

The second criterion in evaluating reprisal policy is the degree to which it supports strategy development. If a policy requires military action that cannot be well executed, then the policy is flawed. Military forces may not be able to accomplish a proposed action because they do not have the necessary means, such as equipment. Conversely, if no viable strategy exists, military forces may not be able to carry out an action even if they have the proper equipment. In this case, the forces are strategically unprepared. (20) Policy must enable the development of strategy, which Gray defines as "the bridge that relates military power to political purpose." (21) Military strategy, according to Dennis Drew and Donald Snow, is "the art and science of coordinating the development, deployment, and employment of military forces to achieve national security objectives." (22) Thus, if a policy (political purpose) is not clearly defined, the development of strategy is problematic. A viable policy must embody clear nationa l-security objectives for the development of strategy.

The 1998 cruise missile strikes against terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan provide an illustration of what the thinking of the Clinton administration was, relative to reprisal policy, and how this US action was intended as punishment and prevention of further attacks. In his address to the nation, announcing the strikes, Clinton stated that a key reason for the US response was "the imminent threat [the facilities] presented to our national security." (23) These strikes served several purposes: they sent a strong signal of US willingness to retaliate; they served as a form of punishment against terrorist behavior; and they decreased the likelihood that those facilities could be used again.


Does the current policy of calculated ambiguity meet the stated objective of deterrence, and does it support the development of strategy? When measured against these two key criteria, existing policy has some significant shortcomings. One of the weaknesses of the policy is its credibility. Would an American president really use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a CBW attack? It would seem that the threshold of damage would have to be high for a president to do so, yet the stated policy does not address thresholds of damage. The main reason for the policy's lack of credibility is that it fails to address proportionality. Adjectives such as overwhelming and devastating in the policy bring to mind a massive response. Yet, one of the widely held tenets of the international law of armed conflict--the rule of proportionality--holds that armed action "must be measured and not excessive in the sense of being out of proportion to the original wrong nor disproportionate in achieving its redress." (24)

Suppose an adversary killed several dozen American soldiers with a biological attack. Taken at face value, the current policy would seem to stipulate a response out of proportion to the original attack. A disproportionate response would surely trigger an international furor over US actions. Moreover, it is not clear that threatening massive retaliation is the best deterrent against GBW use. In his book The Continuing Storm, Avigdor Haselkorn writes, "Frequently, the bigger and more indiscriminate the threat, the less believable it is in the eyes of the target audience." (25) Unfortunately, current policy wording may commit the United States to a massive response when the situation does not actually call for it. (26) In their statements, policy makers seem to imply that all potential CBW events are equal, each demanding the same massive response. In reality, of course, future GBW events will vary widely, and US policy should be worded carefully to allow for a tailored response appropriate to the situation.

Another shortcoming of the current policy is its implicit focus on state actors, when in fact the threat of the use of CBWs from nonstate entities may be greater than that from states. More than likely, Rice's phrase "national obliteration" would not have much deterrent effect on terrorist groups. The current policy raises two questions: Does the threat of a nuclear response deter terrorists, and would the United States ever launch a nuclear weapon into a sovereign state in response to a terrorist attack? The answer to both questions is, "very unlikely." Although terrorists are a highly likely source of CBW attacks, the current policy all but ignores these nonstate threats.


The policy of calculated ambiguity does have one strong feature. The more uncertain an adversary is about US response, the less likely he is to use GBWs. As Paul Bernstein and Lewis Dunn write, "Deliberate ambiguity creates significant uncertainty for an adversary regarding the nature of our response to CBW use." (27) Indeed, ambiguity deters as long as the adversary perceives US willingness and ability to respond forcefully. Since the ambiguity in the current policy incorporates the possibility of nuclear retaliation, one must ask whether or not today's GB-capable adversaries are deterred by the US threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Even Scott Sagan, an articulate advocate of abandoning the role of nuclear weapons in US reprisal policy, concedes that nuclear weapons contribute "the extra margin of deterrence" against GBW use. (28) The inherent deterrent value of nuclear weapons is a strength of the current policy, but policy makers must clarify the conditions under which they might consider using nucl ear weapons.

Failure to Support Strategy Development

We have seen that the current US reprisal policy has weaknesses that should be redressed, the most important of which is a lack of clarity. The policy is so ambiguous that it hampers the development of strategies necessary for its implementation. Ample evidence indicates that the policy fails to support strategy development.

The first piece of evidence is the waffling of the Bush administration during the Gulf War, when the United States faced a foe known to have used chemical weapons in the recent past and suspected of possessing biological weapons. (29) Bush and his top advisors struggled to answer the question, What should the United States do if Iraq uses these weapons? (30) In his book Crusade, Rick Atkinson describes the alternatives under consideration: a recommendation by Gen Norman Schwarzkopf to threaten the use of nuclear weapons; air strikes against the presidential palace; a proposal to strike dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers above Baghdad; Brent Scowcroft's suggestion to attack the oil fields; and a hint by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney that Israel would retaliate with nuclear weapons if Iraq attacked it with CBWs. (31) There was no consensus on how to respond. (32) In the end, writes Haselkorn, "The ambiguity of the U.S. position on the proper response to Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction was as much a result of the conflicting stands within the Bush administration as it was part of a calculated policy." (38) The widely varying views taken by these influential individuals should be of great concern. If we had needed to retaliate, uncertainty and lack of consensus among our political and military leaders would have created difficulties in planning and executing a response.

The second piece of evidence that suggests the current policy's lack of pragmatism is the persistent stumbling over the issue by the Clinton administration. In An Elusive Consensus, Janne Nolan concludes that confusion over US reprisal policy persisted throughout the Clinton administration. (34) The most visible issue with which the administration grappled was the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (ANWFZ) Treaty, in which the United States promised not to use nuclear weapons in Africa. To assuage Pentagon concerns, the administration issued a declaration reserving the US right to use such weapons against states that employ WMDs against US interests. In another incident, a senior Pentagon official publicly argued for development of a new, earth-penetrating nuclear weapon that could be targeted against a Libyan chemical weapons plant. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon later had to issue a clarification to "correct the impression.., that the U.S. had accepted a policy of nuclear preemption against Libya," which would violate the ANWFZ Treaty. (35) This waffling and stumbling by the last two administrations raise the question of whether it is possible to develop sound military strategy when policy is unclear. The answer appears to be "no."

The third piece of evidence that the flawed reprisal policy has hampered strategy development is the disconnection between statements of grand strategy (including the NSS) and the national military strategy (NMS) of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Recent grand-strategy documents have trumpeted the national security threat posed by CBWs, whereas NMS barely gives it a nod. A perusal of these two documents highlights the disparity in focus between grand strategy and military strategy. President Clinton's NSS of 1999 makes numerous references to a counter-WMD strategy, including the previously cited statement that WMDs present "the greatest potential threat to global stability and security," (36) as well as the following: "Because terrorist organizations may not be deterred by traditional means, we must ensure a robust capability to accurately attribute the source of attacks against the United States or its citizens, and to respond effectively and decisively to protect our national interests." (37) Th e NSS also specifically addresses the issue of reprisal: "The United States will act to deter or prevent such [WMD] attacks and, if attacks occur despite those efforts, will be prepared to defend against them, limit the damage they cause, and respond effectively against the perpetrators." (38) The predominant focus of the NMS, on the other hand, is the nation's strategy for two major theater wars, with relatively minor emphasis on WMDs. The NMS concedes that the use of WMDs by an adversary is "increasingly likely" and states that the armed forces must be able to detect and destroy WMDs, deter their use, protect forces from the effects of such weapons, and restore affected areas. (39) But the NMS barely addresses the challenges of WMD use by nonstate actors--and it does not discuss retaliation.

The evidence is clear: because of an ambiguous policy of CBW reprisal, no strategy links military capabilities with political objectives. Given the increasing likelihood that CBWs will be used against the United States, it is time to begin redressing the broken link. The time frame immediately following the first large-scale use of CBWs against Americans is certain to be filled with extreme emotions. During a CB crisis, leaders will be inclined to make emotional judgments. Terry Hawkins, director of nonproliferation and international security at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, warns, "If you don't have the preplanning, it will be almost impossible to deal with in the panic of the moment." (40) To rectify this situation, we must implement two changes: the policy must be clarified, and the strategy bridge linking ends and means must be developed.

Clarifying the Policy: Balancing Flexibility and Preparedness

To clarify US reprisal policy, we must make regime survival and accountability the hallmark of the policy and then determine under what conditions nuclear weapons would be used. Rather than making vague threats such as "national obliteration," we should see to it that the primary feature of US reprisal policy is a guarantee to bring to justice those responsible for a GB attack, such as the leaders who directed the action, as well as their lieutenants who executed it. Making regime survival and accountability the hallmark of the reprisal policy has many benefits. First, it applies equally well to state and nonstate actors, a distinct advantage over the current policy. Second, a promised retribution against the responsible parties does not have to be implemented immediately. Recent US experiences with terrorism--including the joint Yemeni/Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the bombing of the USS Cole (which netted six suspects and prompted others to flee to Afghanistan), the embassy bombings in Afric a, and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103--demonstrate the effectiveness of American and international justice systems when patience and diligence are applied to challenging scenarios. Third, focusing the reprisal actions on those responsible for a GBW attack averts the potential criticism of a disproportionate US response, which would be likely under the current policy. Certainly, solid precedent exists for threatening regime destruction. At his meeting with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz two weeks before Operation Desert Storm, Secretary Baker told him, "If there is any use of weapons [of mass destruction], our objective won't just be the liberation of Kuwait, but the elimination of the current Iraqi regime, and anyone responsible for using those weapons would be held accountable." (41) Finally, issuing direct threats against the decision makers responsible for the attacks--instead of promising "national obliteration"--would enhance policy credibility as a deterrent. (42)

The second major change to current US reprisal policy should be to clarify when nuclear weapons would be used. Existing policy leaves this as an open issue. Some people argue that this ambiguity enhances deterrence. The mushroom cloud is indeed one of the enduring images of the twentieth century, and only the most ardent of the nonproliferators would argue that the threat of nuclear weapons has no deterrent effect. Nuclear weapons may simply be too good a deterrent to take off the table. Yet, because current policy provides no guidance on the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be considered, planning and strategy regarding both conventional and nuclear responses have been severely hampered. Bernstein and Dunn capture the controversial issue of when and whether to use nuclear weapons: "There is no way to resolve fully these competing considerations related to what punishment to threaten. It would be dangerous to rule out the possibility of a nuclear response to CBW use, particularly in the face of eg regious and highly damaging attacks. But it would be equally imprudent to rely exclusively on nuclear threats for deterrence of CBW use." (43)

Nuclear weapons should be considered only in the most horrifying and damaging attacks. Policy should reflect the reality that nuclear weapons will be used only in the most extreme circumstances. This will enable planners and strategists to get on with the business of planning and developing strategies for conventional response--the most likely kind to be directed by the president.

Joseph asserts that "for deterrence to work, the adversary must be convinced of our will and capability to respond decisively. On this score, ambiguity and uncertainty play very much against But emphasizing regime survival/accountability and clarifying the role of nuclear weapons would result in a less ambiguous policy. Given the current situation in which an unclear policy has paralyzed US planning and strategy, it is time to make these clarifying changes to policy. The benefit--a clear policy that supports strategy development--outweighs the drawbacks.

Analytic Framework: Four Critical Variables

How should the United States determine its response to a GBW attack? Guided by political objectives inherent in a clearly articulated reprisal policy, one can proceed with crisis-response analysis by examining four key variables: context (wartime or peacetime), adversary class, number and type of casualties, and identification of perpetrators. These variables form the genesis of an analytic framework that can enable policy makers and planners to begin developing reprisal strategies.


Our response to a "bolt-from-the-blue" CBW attack is likely to be far different than if US armed forces were attacked during a conflict or period of hostilities. During hostilities, the mind-set of American leaders and the public is at a higher state of alert. If casualties in a conflict have already occurred from conventional means prior to a CBW attack, the leadership and the public may be somewhat hardened and may not react as strongly as they would in a peacetime scenario. Moreover, during hostilities, US forces are likely to use CBW defense equipment, such as masks and detection devices, which could serve to minimize the adverse effects of a CBW attack. In fact, depending upon the nature and scope of the attack, US forces could "take it in stride," with little if any change in operational plans. In this case, a specific reprisal action may not be necessary.

The international legal standards for retaliation during peacetime are much higher. Richard Erickson makes the point that reprisal has a "very low level of acceptability" in international law. "The general view is that articles 2(3) and 2(4) of the UN Charter have outlawed peacetime reprisals.... When states have relied upon it, the UN Security Council has condemned their action soundly." (45) Thus, reprisals in peacetime will have to pass a stricter set of criteria.

Adversary Class

One must also determine whether the perpetrator is a state or nonstate actor. International law gives clear guidance as to how states may legally respond to attacks from other states, but the law is murky when it deals with nonstate actors; hence, any proposed US retaliatory action must take this difference into account. For example, despite the evidence and strong justification for its actions against terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan, the United States endured much condemnation from the international community-not to mention internal criticism. US reprisal attacks against nonstate actors are likely to require much more evidence and justification, compared to similar actions against state actors. Many kinds of military actions can be taken against a state actor, whereas those against nonstate actors may be limited. The type of actor involved, therefore, will heavily influence the nature of the reprisal.

Number and Types of Casualties

The number of American casualties suffered due to a WMD attack may well be the most important variable in determining the nature of the US reprisal. A key question here is how many Americans would have to be killed to prompt a massive response by the United States. The bombing of marines in Lebanon, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 each resulted in a casualty count of roughly the same magnitude (150-300 deaths). Although these events caused anger and a desire for retaliation among the American public, they prompted no serious call for massive or nuclear retaliation. The body count from a single biological attack could easily be one or two orders of magnitude higher than the casualties caused by these events. Using the rule of proportionality as a guide, one could justifiably debate whether the United States should use massive force in responding to an event that resulted in only a few thousand deaths. However, what if the casualty count was around 300,000? Such an unthinkable re sult from a single CBW incident is not beyond the realm of possibility: "According to the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, 100 kg of anthrax spores delivered by an efficient aerosol generator on a large urban target would be between two and six times as lethal as a one megaton thermo-nuclear bomb." (46) Would the deaths of 300,000 Americans be enough to trigger a nuclear response? In this case, proportionality does not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.

Besides simply the total number of casualties, the types of casualties--predominantly military versus civilian--will also affect the nature and scope of the US reprisal action. Military combat entails known risks, and the emotions resulting from a significant number of military casualties are not likely to be as forceful as they would be if the attack were against civilians.

World War II provides perhaps the best examples for the kind of event or circumstance that would have to take place to trigger a nuclear response. A CBW event that produced a shock and death toll roughly equivalent to those arising from the attack on Pearl Harbor might be sufficient to prompt a nuclear retaliation. President Harry Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki--based upon a calculation that up to one million casualties might be incurred in an invasion of the Japanese homeland (47)--is an example of the kind of thought process that would have to occur prior to a nuclear response to a CBW event. Victor Utgoff suggests that "if nuclear retaliation is seen at the time to offer the best prospects for suppressing further GB attacks and speeding the defeat of the aggressor, and if the original attacks had caused severe damage that had outraged American or allied publics, nuclear retaliation would be more than just a possibility, whatever promises had been made." (48)

Even the "overwhelming and devastating" conventional response threatened by Secretary Perry would seem unlikely unless a large number of Americans or allies died. (49) In any event, it is imperative that policy makers and planners consider that the number and types of casualties, as well as the attendant public opinion resulting from those casualties, will play a significant role in determining the nature of US reprisal actions.

Identification of the Perpetrator

Before taking action against the parties responsible for a CBW attack, the United States is compelled to demonstrate that it has strong evidence linking the perpetrators to the act itself How compelling does the evidence have to be? According to Erickson, "the threshold for what constitutes sufficient evidence varies. Factors that must be considered are the threat, the response contemplated, and the audience to be persuaded." (50) Stronger evidence may allow the United States to conduct a stronger response. As a final consideration on the issue of evidence, policy makers must consider the possibility of a large-scale attack with heavy US or allied casualties that yielded insufficient evidence to allow for a reprisal.

In the final analysis, the US response must be determined by a thorough cost-benefit calculation. Decision makers must determine the potential results of a reprisal, both internationally and domestically. Are there any unanticipated consequences? Are there any vulnerabilities in the strategy? Tough questions such as these must be answered prior to determining a reprisal action. Current policy, with its reliance on an "overwhelming response," is not useful in many potential situations. Indeed, Bernstein and Dunn call it "a false justification for inaction--for avoiding tough resource allocation decisions needed to improve our ability to defend against hostile CBW acts." (51)

Implications and Conclusion

The suggested policy clarifications and strategic framework proposed above could serve to bound and focus policy debates and, if implemented, would enable strategists to better link military capabilities with political objectives. Adapting these policy changes has implications for at least two elements of US military power: intelligence and special operations. If regime survival becomes the hallmark of US reprisal policy, then the intelligence community must improve its collection activities against organizations suspected to be involved with CBWs. Successful collection of this needed intelligence requires new ways of thinking about intelligence, improved cooperation among domestic and allied intelligence agencies, and increased budgets to reflect the national priority and concern for WMDs.

Readiness to retaliate following a CBW attack against the United States also implies an increased emphasis on special operations forces. In such situations, "[these forces], because of their unique skills, regional expertise, cultural sensitivity and operational experience, may be the force of choice for meeting the strategic requirements of the [president and secretary of defense] " (52) Finally, the United States must continue its investment in GB defense. If defense equipment can mitigate the effects of a CBW attack, the adversary may see no advantage in using WMDs.

Ultimately, the aim of CBW retaliation policy is deterrence. Although an element of ambiguity certainly can serve to enhance deterrence by keeping adversaries guessing about the response to an attack, it seems more likely that the United States is stuck with the current approach because we have dedicated scant critical thinking to devising a more robust policy. In other words, the current policy of calculated ambiguity--with its overreliance on the nuclear "big stick"--is a cop-out. America is paying full price for this half-policy, the result of which is that the armed forces may find themselves strategically unprepared to respond when the time comes.

In the days following the cruise missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said that those strikes "have made it clear that those who attack or target the United States cannot do so with impunity." (53) To back up this statement with a credible deterrent threat requires the United States to have a robust, well-considered retaliation policy. Without such a policy, America is fated to fall victim to the panic of the moment.


(1.) Senate, Prepared Statement of William Perry; Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, 104th cong., 2d sess., 28 March 1996. See also Scott D. Sagan, "The commitment Trap," International Security 24, no. 4 (spring 2000): 85.

(2.) Because the calculated ambiguity policy seeks to maximize the options available to policy makers, it could also be called absolute flexibility.

(3.) William J. Clinton, A National Security Strategy for a New Century (Washington, D.C.: The White House, December 1999), 6.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Testimony of Secretary William S. Cohen, quoted in Department of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response. 1997, on-line, Internet, 15 January 2001, available from http://www.defenselink. mil/pubs/prolift97/index.html.

(6.) Barry R Schneider, Future War and Counterproliferation: U.S. Military Responses to NBC Proliferation Threats (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999), 199.

(7.) Albert J. Mauroni, Chemical-Biological Defense (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999), 171. Effective 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention "outlines a verifiable ban on all production, storage, and use of chemical weapons" (171).

(8.) Albert J. Mauroni, America's Struggle with Chemical-Biological Warfare (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000), 4.

(9.) Stephen I. Schwartz, "Miscalculated Ambiguity: U.S. Policy on the Use and Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons," Global Beat, February 1998, on-line, Internet, 15 January 2001, available from

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Senate, Prepared Statement of William J. Perry.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, quoted in Sagan, 85.

(15.) Condoleezza Rice, "Promoting the National Interest," Foreign Affairs 79, no. 1 (January/February 2000): 61.

(16.) Robert C. Joseph and Barry M. Blechman, "Deterring Chemical and Biological Weapons," Transforming Nuclear Deterrence, Institute for National Strategic Studies, on-line, Internet, 25 January 2001, available from html.

(17.) See three recent publications that provide excellent discussions of the two sides of this heated debate: victor A. Utgoff, Nuclear Weapons and the Deterrence of Biological and Chemical Warfare, Occasional Paper no. 36 (Washington, D.C.: Henry L. Stimson Center, October 1997); Sagan; and Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, Responding to the Biological Weapons Challenge: Developing an Integrated Strategy (Alexandria, Va.: Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, 2000).

(18.) Utgoff; Sagan; and Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, Responding to the Biological Weapons Challenge.

(19.) Colin S. Gray, "Deterrence in the 21st Century," Comparative Strategy 19, no. 3 (July/September 2000): 256.

(20.) The failed attempt in 1980 to rescue the hostages held in Iran is a good example of this second case. US military forces had clear political objectives (rescue the hostages), and they had the equipment; however, they lacked a viable strategy, joint doctrine, training, and interoperability. In other words, the United States was not "strategically prepared" for the Desert One operation.

(21.) Colin S. Cray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17.

(22.) Dennis M. Drew and Donald M. Snow, Making Strategy (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1988), 18.

(23.) William J. Clinton, "The right against Terrorism,' Vital Speeches of the Day 64, no. 23 (15 September 1998): 706-7.

(24.) Richard J. Erickson, Legitimate Use of Military Force against State-Sponsored International Terrorism (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989), 180.

(25.) Avigdor Haselkorn, The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 49.

(26.) Sagan advocates removing nuclear weapons from the US reprisal calculus because American leadership may feel committed to responding to a CBW attack with nuclear weapons based on strong policy declarations and promises to allies. Sagan calls this conundrum the commitment trap.

(27.) Paul I. Bernstein and Lewis A. Dunn, "Adapting Deterrence to the WMD Threat," in Countering the Proliferation and Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, ed. Peter L. Hays, Vincent J.Jodoin, and Alan R. Van Tassel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 159.

(28.) Sagan, 114.

(29.) Mauroni, Chemical-Biological Defense, 26-27.

(30.) Ibid., 28.

(31.) Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 86-87.

(32.) McGeorge Bundy reported that some of these differing opinions became public: "The President's associates ... sometimes disagreed with each other. The most notable of these disagreements was that between some Pentagon officials and John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, who at one point found it prudent to give assurance that there was no likelihood of resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Nameless Pentagon sources then rebuked him for the military error of telling the enemy what we were not going to do." Bundy, "Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf," Foreign Affairs 70, no. 4 (fall 1991): 86.

(33.) Haselkorn, 60.

(34.) Janne E. Nolan, An Elusive Consensus (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 81.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Clinton, A National Security Strategy for a New Century, 6.

(37.) Ibid., 15.

(38.) Ibid., 20.

(39.) John M. Shalikashvili, Shape, Respond, Prepare Now: A National Military Strategy for a New Era (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, 1997), on-line, Internet, 15 January 2003, available from

(40.) Terry L. Hawkins, "The Role and Limits of Science and Technology" (presentation to Air War College NBC Seminar, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N. Mex., 12 September 2000).

(41.) James A. Baker III, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), 359.

(42.) Making regime accountability the linchpin of US reprisal policy would imply some modest changes to today's military force structure. According to Bernstein and Dunn, a significant challenge for the United States lies in "operationalizing and projecting a credible threat [of regime elimination)" (159). To meet this challenge--of making credible the threat of regime elimination--the United States should place more emphasis on human intelligence and special operations.

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) Joseph and Blechman.

(45.) Erickson, 180.

(46.) Congressional report cited in Randall J. Larsen and Robert P. Kadlec, Biological Warfare: A Post Cold War Threat to America's Strategic Mobility Forces (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1995), 7.

(47.) Richard B. Frank, Downfall (New York: Random House, 1999), 338. Frank discusses the current debate over the number of casualties that Truman expected and the methodology for determining those estimates. Whether he believed 25,000 or 250,000 US servicemen would be killed in an invasion of the Japanese homeland, Truman made the decision. His calculus in World War II is not dissimilar to what might face a future US president if extremely large numbers of Americans are killed by a CB attack.

(48.) Utgoff, 3.

(49.) Perry, quoted in Sagan, 85.

(50.) Erickson, 105.

(51.) Bernstein and Dunn, 152.

(52.) United States Special Operations Forces Posture Statement (Washington, D.C.: US Special Operations Command, 1998), 38.

(53.) Dian MacDonald, "Berger: Those Who Attack U.S. 'Cannot Do So with Impunity,' " USIS Washington File, 23 August 1998, on-line, Internet, available from

Editorial Abstract: Devastation, annihilation, obliteration--these words convey how US leaders would deal with enemies who use chemical/biological weapons against either the homeland or US troops and personnel abroad. The author argues that such words provide diplomatic flexibility but insufficient structure for developing a credible strategy for retaliation should the unthinkable occur. Rather than imply that the US reaction would include nuclear weapons, Colonel Conley offers four variables (context, adversary class, number/types of casualties, and identification of perpetrators) that serve as a decision matrix to determine the type of response to what some analysts see as an inevitable chemical/biological attack on the United States.

Lt Col Harry W. Conley (USAFA; MBA. University of West Florida; MS. Georgia Institute of Technology) is chief of the Systems Analysis Branch, Directorate of Requirements, Headquarters Air Combat Command (ACC), Langley AFB, Virginia. He is responsible to the ACC commander for analytic studies that evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of current and future combat Air Force weapon systems. He previously served as deputy manager of the Joint Simulation System Joint Program Office in Orlando, Florida; air analyst at Combined Forces Command, Seoul, South Korea; and operations research analyst at site Air Force Studies and Analysis Agency, Pentagon, Washington, D.C. Colonel Conley is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and Air War College.
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Author:Conley, Lt Col Harry W.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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