News Fighting Proliferation

Chapter 14

DOD’s Counterproliferation Initiative:
A Critical Assessment

Chris Williams

On 7 December 1993, Les Aspin—then the secretary of defense—announced a new Defense Counterproliferation Initiative (DCI). According to the secretary, the spread of weapons of mass destruction represented one of the most direct and urgent threats facing US national security. Aspin contrasted the old nuclear danger of a massive Soviet first strike with that of “perhaps a handful of nuclear devices in the hands of rogue states or even terrorist groups. The engine of this new danger is proliferation.” He also stated that “with this initiative, we [at the Department of Defense (DOD)] are making the essential change demanded by this increased [proliferation] threat. We are adding the task of protection to the task of prevention. . . . At the heart of the Defense Counterproliferation Initiative, therefore, is a drive to develop new military capabilities to deal with this new threat” (emphasis added).1

This announcement of DCI was met with concern in some quarters and confusion and derision in others. If the objective was to provoke a reaction, then Secretary Aspin clearly succeeded.

This essay highlights the reactions of several different domestic groups and bureaucracies to the DCI and then offers some personal views (and they are just that because I don’t speak for the House Armed Services Committee or its members). I will try to show that, although the DCI got off to a rocky start—in large measure because of DOD’s own foibles—the initiative does hold the promise of better focusing US military planning and capabilities on the threat posed by the proliferation of strategic technologies. However, I also believe that, if the initiative is to meet with success, it will have to evolve from its current—almost exclusive—emphasis on acquiring new hardware and instead concentrate more on developing and implementing a broad, multifaceted “competitive strategy” to deny any adversary the ability to benefit politically or militarily from the acquisition or use of strategic technology.

The arms-control community regarded Aspin’s speech as a declaration of war on traditional nonproliferation tools such as diplomacy and arms control. Aspin seemed to be suggesting that failure in US and international nonproliferation efforts was preordained. One should note, however, the secretary’s statement that “prevention remains our preeminent goal. . . . The DCI in no way means we will lessen our nonproliferation efforts.”2

Still, critics in the arms-control community would not be mollified. From their perspective, the Aspin speech appeared to be yet another half-baked idea from the same group—the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)—whose credentials were already tarnished by the positions it had taken on the important issue of export controls. Specifically, these critics objected to the new administration’s export “decontrol” policies and practices, including its actions to massively decontrol certain dual-use technologies such as computers and telecommunications and to disestablish the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls without having another international body to function in its place.

The arms-control community also reacted negatively to the evident endorsement—in a public forum—by Dr Ashton Carter, in writings prepared just prior to his appointment, of using preemptive military strikes as a means of “solving” the proliferation threat.3 Most arms-control proponents are not in favor of preemption, preferring to endorse reliance on diplomacy and other measures aimed at slowing or reversing proliferation. It is worth noting, however, that in hearings in 1994, some legislators who favored arms control opposed the development and deployment of US missile defenses on the grounds that emerging missile threats could be defeated through preemptive military attacks. Evidently, a split may exist in the arms-control community on this question.

How did various executive departments and agencies react to Aspin’s announcement? The State Department viewed it as a challenge to its preeminent role in dealing with all things related to proliferation. Officials there moved right away to limit the scope of the DCI to protect their role as vicars of nonproliferation policy. To achieve this objective, they turned to Daniel Poneman, an ally on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, who obliged them by promulgating a set of formal definitions for the terms nonproliferation and counterproliferation. The definition restricted counterproliferation only to “weapons of mass destruction” and placed it under—or subservient to—the administration’s broader nonproliferation efforts.

The Department of Energy (DOE)—particularly its Defense Programs element—saw the DCI as a means of reversing the downward spiral of its budget. The national laboratories, in particular, saw it as a potential godsend; after all, their primary mission—the development and testing of nuclear weapons—clearly does not have the support of the Clinton administration. Thus DOE scientists are seeking to sustain certain critical skills through challenging projects other than nuclear testing—and the DCI holds great promise in that regard.

The military services reacted skeptically, seeing the DCI as (1) a potential drain on service budgets already strained to the breaking point and (2) as another OSD-driven “initiative,” such as the Strategic Defense Initiative: imposed from above without a great deal of forethought and with little or no involvement of the military. Their concern was heightened when Dr Harold Smith, assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy, speaking at a conference in New Mexico, suggested that DOD would budget $300–400 million per year on the DCI, mostly for new hardware programs. How would OSD seek to pay for this new, unfunded mandate? Each of the services fully expected to be hit with a “tax” that would further undermine readiness and slow the few remaining modernization projects.

The services also reacted negatively to the blunt challenge issued by OSD’s Dr Carter. In a July 1994 interview with Jane’s Defence Weekly, Carter warned that DOD civilians would dictate to the services how much would be spent on the DCI. According to him, if the services “do not hear the music, then we will have to do it ourselves.”4 This sort of statement clearly did not convey a strong willingness on the part of senior OSD officials involved in the DCI to take into account service concerns.

Likewise, the Joint Staff appears to have been surprised by the announcement. It forced the staff to begin to consider issues such as whether counterproliferation represented a “new mission area”—or, if not, what it did represent—and whether a single commander in chief (CINC) such as the CINC of US Strategic Command should be granted lead responsibility for planning and executing counterproliferation operations. Furthermore, the Joint Staff agreed with the services in questioning the wisdom of spending vast sums per year on counterproliferation-related technologies and hardware.

In response to a report of May 1994 to Congress by Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch detailing how the $400 million per year for DCI would be spent, Adm William Owens, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), moved to make counterproliferation a key area of focus in his joint war-fighting, capability-assessment program. The objective was to provide a war fighter’s perspective on which technologies and systems truly merit additional funding in an era of constrained resources. Owens’s gambit proved successful; in fiscal years 1996 through 2000, DOD will program (i.e., budget) approximately $60–80 million for counterproliferation instead of the $400 million contemplated earlier by OSD civilians.

How valid are the criticisms and concerns expressed by various interest groups and bureaucracies? First, I understand the concerns that many people in the arms-control community and elsewhere share regarding preemption. But no one would debate that in a war, we would want to be able to limit the damage an opponent might inflict upon us or our allies with strategic weapons. This necessarily means that we must have the capability to knock out certain targets. But theoretical arguments about preemption ultimately make it harder for us to acquire the capabilities that everyone agrees we need.

Furthermore, I do not believe, as the State Department apparently believed, that its preeminent role in the formulation of nonproliferation policy was ever under direct challenge. The definitions issued by Mr Poneman as a result of the department’s entreaty are decidedly unhelpful. As Henry Sokolski has correctly pointed out, the problem is much broader than simply weapons of mass destruction; it includes a variety of other “strategic technologies” such as unmanned aerial vehicles, submarines, cruise missiles, imagery derived from space-based sensors, and more.5

The concerns expressed by the services and the Joint Staff about the initiative were both substantive and legitimate. They were correct in arguing that $400 million per year is probably more than is needed and would in fact place additional strain on service budgets. Similarly, their concerns about the lack of OSD coordination were valid. Admiral Owens was entirely justified in instituting a process to ensure that US military commanders have an opportunity to assess relevant technologies and system concepts before DOD commits to fielding them. Also important are reviewing whether counterproliferation is indeed a “new mission area” and canvassing the CINCs to determine their knowledge of the proliferation threat and their capabilities for responding to it.

I believe that DOD erred by focusing its attention on the wrong end of the problem. When Secretary Aspin stressed development of new technologies and systems—a so-called hardware solution—he diverted attention from what I consider to be more important issues. These include (1) developing appropriate “competitive strategies” for preventing the emergence of regional actors that can threaten our interests and (2) instituting changes to military doctrine, training, and operations to deal with emerging or extant proliferation threats.

As a useful first step, Secretary Aspin should have asked the Joint Staff—representing the war-fighting CINCs—and all of the services to perform a detailed assessment of how their ability to control the aerospace, sea, and land could be degraded, disrupted, or denied by the possession or use of strategic technologies by an adversary. Such an endeavor would have taken a significant amount of time and energy and would have forced the system to grapple with such fundamental issues as what constitutes a strategic technology and why.

I contend that the US military has yet to form a credible opinion on this topic. By way of example, you may have heard the same stories I have about the high-level war game that sought to address possible response options to the use of nuclear weapons in a given theater of operations. According to the story, once a nuke went off, the generals got up and pushed in their chairs; the game was over. The problem was simply too difficult to handle—too hard to think about.

Such a response is no longer acceptable—if it ever was. The military must take steps now to better understand what constitutes a strategic threat and how such threats will affect its ability to perform its most basic functions.

I am pleased to report that the military is beginning to take the proliferation issue seriously, and we in Congress ought to encourage such efforts. For example, the war-fighting commands are carefully reviewing the threat of strategic technology in their particular area of responsibility. And the services’ institutions of higher learning are beginning to address these issues. That’s a positive development because the war colleges and universities are where much of the most insightful “freethinking” occurs.

I’m not necessarily talking about big-think policy analyses. Instead, I’m considering such questions as how does use of a biological weapon against a port or airfield affect aircraft sortie rates, and how can these effects be mitigated? How much of what types of antidotes should be prepositioned in-theater? How many times a year should US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines don full chemical protective gear in order to provide a realistic training experience? What types of weapons are needed to destroy a deeply buried chemical laboratory or command and control center? And so forth and so forth. These issues may sound mundane, especially when compared to such lofty topics as determining whether the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will be extended indefinitely or for only 20 years. But in some ways, they are far more important.

After such a detailed assessment of the threat and its implications is completed, DOD should then undertake a review of the extent to which changes in doctrine, training, and logistics would meet existing or emerging requirements—that is, it should explore nonhardware solutions to the problem. Field manuals, JCS publications, and the like may not be standard reading for most Americans, but they are the lifeblood of the services. They form the basis on which our military writes plans and actually prosecutes wars in the interests of the American people. These documents need to be reviewed to ensure that they reflect emerging strategic threats and opportunities for countering them. Again, some progress is being made, but more needs to be done.

Next, if we determine that changes in doctrine, training, and so forth, would not do the trick, then DOD should review existing military capabilities (weapons, sensors, airlift, prepositioned equipment, chemical gear, etc.) to determine whether they would suffice in meeting the requirement. If these assets proved insufficient, then—and only then—DOD should consider new hardware-development programs. Moreover, in light of other pressing needs and fiscal constraints, DOD should pursue only those system concepts with the highest potential payoff.

Unfortunately, this approach is precisely the opposite of Secretary Aspin’s (i.e., hardware first—doctrine/training/threat analysis later). In my judgment, he got it backwards.

Does this mean that the DCI is not worth pursuing? Absolutely not. As noted above, there are signs that DOD is beginning to ask the right questions and take the proliferation of strategic technology seriously. For its part, Congress has taken some limited—but useful—steps to encourage progress in this area. For example, Congress has set aside some modest funding for JCS-coordinated simulations and exercises to better assess the threat and its implications; it has provided some seed money for the war colleges and National Defense University to begin germinating novel concepts and bring the right people together to discuss the issues; and it has also provided a modest amount of funding for development of the highest priority technology and hardware systems, such as those referred to in John Deutch’s report, mentioned above.

Finally, I would encourage the administration to think long and hard about the need to develop truly competitive strategies that have as their objective preventing the emergence of major regional competitors to the US in the first place. In this regard, I urge senior officials in DOD, the Department of State, NSC, and other departments and agencies to give them the most serious consideration.


1. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, speech to the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 7 December 1993.

2. Ibid.

3. See Robert D. Blackwill and Ashton B. Carter, “The Role of Intelligence,” in New Nuclear Nations: Consequences for U.S. Policy, ed. Robert D. Blackwill and Albert Carnesale (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993), 234.

4. “Jane’s Interview: Ashton Carter,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 30 July 1994, 40.

5. Henry Sokolski, “Nonapocalyptic Proliferation: A New Strategic Threat?” Washington Quarterly 17 (Spring 1994): 2.