Asymmetric warfare—a military buzzword of the 1990s—means attacking a stronger force's weaknesses with unexpected or innovative means, while avoiding its strengths. How can a future foe hold the United States at bay? Certainly not by going head-to-head with the world's dominant military power. Planners can see the disastrous results of such an ill-conceived strategy in the Gulf War. Future foes will resort to tactics in which political objectives are obtained through indefensible—or difficult to defend—acts, or by the threat of such acts. This is where the difficulty lies in General Butler's proposal for nuclear disarmament. Total nuclear disarmament by the United States would lay the groundwork for a future foe to gain an asymmetric advantage that would be almost impossible to defend against.
Beyond the risk of a present nuclear state failing to comply with a total-disarmament agreement—could a future foe develop a nuclear capability? Is the technology available? Is there an accessible supply of weapons-grade plutonium? Could a small country—or country-sponsored terrorist organization—construct a nuclear weapon? Unfortunately, the answer to all of these questions is "Yes." Therefore, the United States has no choice but to maintain a proportionate-response capability.
A proportionate capability is not a panacea that will deter all nuclear attacks. The likelihood of such an attack occurring would increase dramatically, however, if a proportionate capability did not exist. Should the United States continue to push for ratification of nuclear reduction treaties such as START II—and its possible follow-on, START III? Absolutely. But the United States also must maintain a credible nuclear option, to deter rogue nations from the development and use of nuclear weapons.
Commander Keiler is a senior military fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National War College, Washington, D.C. He recently served in the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate of the Joint Staff.