The Pentagon and the Bomb

Structuring the Department of Defense to Combat Nuclear Arms Proliferation

What U.N. inspection teams discovered in the aftermath of the gulf war–that a massive, secret nuclear weapon program had brought Iraq within 18-24 months of an atomic bomb–came as a cold shock to America and the West. No one should have been more chagrined than the U.S. Department of Defense.

If Saddam Hussein had succeeded, the consequences for the United States would have been profound; and they would have fallen most immediately and heavily on the U.S. defense establishment. If it had been suspected that even one of Saddam’s elusive Scuds were armed with a nuclear warhead, it is doubtful that the Saudis would have hosted American troops, that the Western coalition would have held together, or that Israel would have refrained from launching a preemptive strike.

A surprise Iraqi nuclear strike would have subjected coalition forces to staggering losses, and quite possibly forced the United States into an impossible choice between a humiliating withdrawal or nuclear retaliation.

In the end, it was left to the Pentagon to stop Saddam from getting the bomb. Yet the Pentagon had no sure way of knowing how close he was, and no means short of war to block him.

For years the Pentagon has relegated nuclear nonproliferation to the status of a housekeeping chore, to be pursued on a perfunctory basis by a handful of mid-level specialists buried in the Pentagon hierarchy. The small office responsible for tracking proliferation is staffed only by a director, an assistant director, two mid-level nuclear analysts, one missile analyst, and two borrowed military officers. It has no budget, is physically remote from major Pentagon policy offices, and plays no significant role in policy formulation or nuclear diplomacy.

With such meager tools the Pentagon cannot possibly confront the proliferation menace in the dozen or more nations that have crossed, or are trying to cross, the nuclear arms threshold. Improving the Pentagon’s ability to stop the spread of the bomb should be a high priority for the Clinton administration.


In the eyes of senior Defense planners, stopping the nuclear spread has not been immediately relevant to the Pentagon’s mission, which was to ensure America’s ability to contain the Soviet threat. They assumed that America’s vast nuclear prowess made an attack on the United States by newly emerging nuclear forces unthinkable. Thus, Defense officials regarded a third-world nuclear threat as a remote contingency, more the province of long-range diplomacy than of current national security planning. To a large degree this view was based on an uncritical and naive confidence in treaty commitments.

The Persian Gulf war dramatically exposed the danger of this complacency. Neither the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty nor the inspection system run by the International Atomic Energy Agency could detect or contain Iraq’s nuclear threat. Iraq conducted a clandestine bomb program, based largely upon imports from America and Europe, in flagrant violation of its treaty commitments. Never before had the drift into proliferation come so close to putting American military forces at risk.

Given this obvious danger to U.S. forces, the Pentagon can no longer limit its nonproliferation mission to military countermeasures after the fact. It must have a central role in halting proliferation before a military response is required.

The Pentagon should focus its attention on four areas: policymaking, export control, international inspection and counter-proliferation.

Policy formulation and diplomacy

America’s relations with other countries are central to its nonproliferation efforts; the Department of State therefore has the lead responsibility. But other departments, including Defense, should be informed of diplomatic developments that affect their missions. Defense should help formulate policy options, and should participate in discussions with other governments. These roles are essential to ensure that the Pentagon’s expertise and point of view are taken into account.

The Pentagon has not been able to perform these roles in the recent past, primarily because of policy clashes with personnel at the State Department. For years, sensitive State Department nonproliferation cables have been deliberately withheld from Defense. During the five-year negotiation of an extremely controversial nuclear agreement with Japan, State withheld virtually all information concerning the agreement from Pentagon staff, and State officials repeatedly refused access to the draft text of the agreement until it was finalized, initialed by both governments, and ready for submission to the White House. Nor was the Pentagon’s nonproliferation office consulted on a series of decisions to continue military aid to Pakistan despite that country’s well-known nuclear weapon program; nor did this office play any significant role in military planning for the Gulf war.

Even within the Pentagon, the nonproliferation office has been unable to have a major impact because of its lack of leadership and resources. Policymaking has resided in regional and country desks, which have often put nonproliferation below military and diplomatic relations on their list of concerns. The only way to balance the influence of the country desks is to ensure that those responsible for foreign policy issues that transcend geographic boundaries are given the resources, the leadership, and the bureaucratic clout to affect policy.

Export control

Every third-world country that has sought the bomb has imported the means to make it. Exporters have therefore adopted comprehensive controls on items that are unambiguously nuclear, such as reactor components and uranium fuel. But this is not true of “dual-use” items, those that have both nuclear and non-nuclear applications. Some of these are extremely sensitive. They can produce components for such things as uranium enrichment machines and nuclear weapon firing circuits, and they can help in bomb fabrication and testing. Millions of dollars’ worth of dual-use exports flow into worrisome countries each year, free of the international inspection that follows purely nuclear exports. Nuclear dual-use exports are routinely approved on the faith of end-use assurances that, as the buyer knows, are never verified.

Control of such exports by Western countries has ranged from poor to appallingly bad. Countries with nuclear ambitions have successfully resorted to deception, evasion and smuggling. Pakistan and Iraq developed such techniques to a high art, operating networks of procurement agents abetted by sloppy export practices, avarice, and the unwillingness of supplier nations to injure their own commercial interests or offend other governments through tighter controls or punitive measures against violators. Iran now seems to be following the same path.

There is an obvious need for concerted action to eliminate these abuses. Controlling dual-use equipment, because of its ambiguous nature, requires nuclear and industrial expertise, accurate intelligence, and good judgment. It also requires the political will to refuse lucrative contracts and even offend foreign governments. Establishing effective export controls is a daunting challenge, but it is cheaper than another Desert Storm. It should be a strong priority for the U.S. Defense Department.

The U.S. government should begin by cleaning its own house. The Commerce Department is now in charge of licensing dual-use nuclear exports. It writes the regulations and screens the license applications. It either issues the license immediately on its own or consults the Department of Energy for advice. Energy either advises Commerce to approve the case or to refer it to the interagency committee SNEC (Subgroup on Nuclear Export Control), whose decision is usually final.

This system is simply not working. Only two percent of the total applications approved for Iraq from 1985 to 1990 reached the SNEC. The Commerce-approved exports included millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. equipment earmarked for secret nuclear weapon research sites in Iraq. The Pentagon wound up bombing Commerce’s mistakes.

One remedy for this is to give the Pentagon a more decisive role in dual-use licensing. The Pentagon should have the power to review all license applications, the power to concur in approvals, the power to help draft any regulation affecting nuclear exports, and the power to cause any application to be forwarded to the SNEC. The Energy Department should no longer be permitted to advise Commerce unilaterally to approve nuclear cases; instead, Energy should act only as a conduit and secretariat for the SNEC.

The Energy Department currently funds Livermore Laboratory’s Z-division to advise it on the SNEC’s cases. But the Pentagon should also help fund, and have regular access to, the Z-division’s resources. Furthermore, the persons whom the agencies send to the SNEC should meet minimum standards of technical competence, and should be cleared for sensitive intelligence. That is not now the case.

Finally, the Secretary of Defense should direct that all military technical assistance and cooperation that the Pentagon provides to other nations, including training programs, be reviewed by the nonproliferation office to ensure that this assistance does not contribute to proliferation.

International inspection

Sensitive exports are often misused after approval. Saddam Hussein was able to divert civilian nuclear imports to his A-bomb program without detection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA’s inspectors visit only declared sites. They make no attempt to detect clandestine nuclear activities — they inspect only what the country voluntarily designates; they see only what the country wants them to see. The system is thus vulnerable to cheating. It can even abet proliferation by providing a cloak of legitimacy for illicit activities. This is precisely what happened in Iraq.

There is now no international agency with the authority and ability to inspect undeclared sites. The IAEA has neither the resources nor the will to do so. Indeed, one of the IAEA’s main tasks is to promote the spread of nuclear technology, which undermines its inspection function. Its authority is also subject to the will of its governing board, which includes countries suspected of secret bomb-making.

Moreover, there is no international or U.S. agency with the mission of carrying out destruction operations such as the United Nations and the IAEA are now performing in Iraq. These operations are now conducted on an ad hoc basis, without the support of Pentagon staff trained in the technologies that bear on nuclear and missile proliferation.

The Defense Department should urge that an international inspection agency be created under the auspices of the United Nations to perform these inspection and destruction missions. The Pentagon should have the staff necessary to support it, and should offer to train, and when necessary to protect, teams of inspectors to staff it.


The Pentagon must also plan for post-cold-war conflicts that could turn nuclear. Such planning will affect U.S. force structure, tactics, logistics, and equipment. There are also longer-range implications for research and development. The Pentagon’s nonproliferation policy office should be a catalyst, advisor, and point of liaison for these plans. Once the Pentagon begins to quantify the cost of combat in a regional nuclear war, its planners will realize how important it is to prevent a further drift into proliferation.


If the Pentagon is to have more than a marginal impact on nonproliferation policy, a major reorganization is essential. Currently, the Pentagon’s nonproliferation office labors under an impossible set of self-imposed, internal handicaps.

First, the nonproliferation office, NPP, is an organizational anomaly. It “reports” to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA), but it is not headed by a Deputy Assistant Secretary or organized like other ISA components. NPP has been directed by a political appointee (a former Dan Quayle staffer) whose title is simply “Deputy.” The office is physically remote from the rest of ISA, and shares space with the Office of Multilateral Negotiations, which is concerned primarily with chemical weapon treaty negotiations, and which reports to a different Assistant Secretary.

In addition to the Deputy and his assistant, whose functions are primarily administrative, the NPP staff consists of two nuclear analysts (a GS-15 and a GS-12), one missile analyst (GS-15) and two temporary duty military officers who assist on missile issues. The two nuclear analysts are overburdened with specific statutory responsibilities, such as serving on the SNEC and preparing physical security assessments for nuclear transfers, and have virtually no time for bilateral and multilateral meetings, analysis of nuclear agreements, intelligence monitoring, or for the many other tasks that determine policy. Similar conditions prevail for the missile analyst.

At interagency meetings, the Pentagon’s representative is usually no higher than a GS-15 analyst. Such a representative cannot deal on an equal footing with the higher-ranking representatives from other agencies. On the rare occasions when the ISA Assistant Secretary or his Principal Deputy participate in nonproliferation meetings, their shallow immersion in the subject has made them easy marks for their counterparts from other agencies who work proliferation issues full-time.

To make matters worse, NPP has no budget of its own. There are not enough funds to permit staff travel to meetings in other capitals. NPP has not attended recent bilateral talks with Australia, Great Britain, Canada or Russia. A recent trip to South Asia by a U.S. nonproliferation team included no one from the Defense Department.

Finally, NPP’s small staff has little time to communicate or coordinate with relevant staffs on the Pentagon’s regional desks, or with the Defense Intelligence Agency, DTSA, OSD/Acquisitions (which has most of OSD’s technical expertise and its own set of international contacts), the Defense Security Assistance Agency, the General Counsel/Legislative Affairs, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of these other Pentagon offices routinely take actions that affect nonproliferation policy. The NPP office should have enough personnel to insure adequate coordination with these offices if the Pentagon is to act coherently on nonproliferation.


Proposed below is a blueprint for a revitalized nonproliferation effort at the Pentagon. The requirements to staff and fund it are modest. The staffing levels proposed could, if necessary, be supplemented with military officers.

  1. Defense’s nonproliferation effort should be headed by a distinguished senior official with experience in nonproliferation. The position should be at the Assistant Secretary level, with one Deputy Assistant Secretary for nuclear and missile proliferation, and one for chemical and biological warfare (CBW).
  2. The nuclear/missile effort should not be integrated with the CBW effort below the Assistant Secretary level. The differences in technology, export laws, treaty obligations, etc., would prejudice the ability of a combined office to deal with either subject effectively.
  3. Under the Deputy Assistant Secretary for nuclear/missile proliferation, there should be four separate offices, each headed by a career Senior Executive Service officer. These officers should not be political appointees. They should be experts in their fields, as are their counterparts in the State and Energy Departments. In addition, these positions should be available on a civil service career path in order to encourage Pentagon employees to specialize in nonproliferation. Such “career path rewards” do not now exist at the Pentagon. The four offices are as follows:
    • Nuclear policy (staff of 8 to 10). Function: to participate in nuclear policy development and diplomacy, including bilateral cooperation agreements, the IAEA, transfers of nuclear materials, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and other multilateral consultations on nonproliferation. In order to help level the playing field vis-a-vis the ISA country desks, some members of the policy staff should also be political specialists with recognized expertise in regions of proliferation concern. This office should be located in the Pentagon in close proximity to the Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation.
    • Missile policy (staff of 4 to 5). Function: analogous to the above nuclear policy office, except that it would be devoted to missile proliferation topics such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). A total staff of 12 to 14 would be divided between the nuclear and missile policy offices.
    • Export control (staff of 10 to 12). Function: to screen nuclear- and missile-related export license applications, and to represent the Pentagon on SNEC and its MTCR counterpart. These nuclear and missile experts, at least some of whom would have export control experience at DTSA or elsewhere, would also work on improving export controls. They should have access through a computer link to the nuclear and missile export databases maintained by the Commerce and Energy Departments.
    • International inspection (initial staff of 2 to 3). Function: to help create an international inspection agency and supply trained staff. The immediate task of this office would be to support the U.N. Special Commission in Iraq. This staff could be increased as negotiations progressed toward an international inspection agency.
  4. Similar offices should be established under the Deputy Assistant Secretary for chemical and biological warfare.
  5. Few policy areas are as dependent on reliable, timely intelligence as nonproliferation. The Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation should have an intelligence office, with a staff of four, to serve the entire effort. It would track and analyze foreign nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs, including their procurement activities. This office would cooperate with the intelligence community.


How not to organize the Pentagon’s nonproliferation effort

A member of the armed services is now circulating a proposal to reorganize the Pentagon’s nonproliferation effort by subsuming it within the Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA), which would be given a new name and mission: Counter-Proliferation.

DTSA is a relic of the cold war whose chief function was to control the export of militarily useful technology to the Soviet bloc. DTSA now finds itself without a mission and in danger of drastic downsizing or elimination.

The proposal contemplates moving all or most of the Pentagon’s current nonproliferation staff, and the Office of Multilateral Negotiations (a CBW policy office) out of the Pentagon and into DTSA’s quarters at 400 Army-Navy Drive. There they would enter a large empire, employing over 100 people, replete with a Chief of Staff, an Ombudsman, a Secretariat, an Office of Public and Legislative Affairs, and a General Counsel. The purpose of this change is touted as bringing the large forces of DTSA to bear on a new “counter-proliferation” mission.

That mission, however, would concentrate heavily on planning military countermeasures, including an emphasis on maintaining a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent. It therefore suffers from precisely the kind of thinking that has kept the Pentagon out of nonproliferation policymaking in the past. Policy and diplomacy would be left in the hands of the State Department, and the Pentagon would clean up the mess with military countermeasures if the policy and diplomacy fail.

The physical move alone would be a blow for the nonproliferation office. It would cripple communication with top policymakers and would instantly demote the nonproliferation effort in the eyes of other Pentagon offices and other agencies.

Putting the existing nonproliferation and CBW staff in DTSA would leave them outnumbered ten to one by DTSA staff. They would be submerged in an organization studded with high-ranking officials lacking any apparent qualification for a nonproliferation role. DTSA is far too large, too bloated, and too tied to its cold-war-oriented past to be converted to an effective nonproliferation force. Few of its employees have the right technical skills or the knowledge of foreign nuclear programs, international agreements, and international institutions that form the context for nonproliferation policy.

What DTSA can offer to nonproliferation is its experience in export control, and in dealing with American industry. The difficulty, however, is that its focus has been on the Soviet Union and the advanced technologies that were relevant to superpower military competition. It has little experience in the nuclear-related exports that are the central concern of nonproliferation, or with many of the companies that produce them. An expanded nonproliferation effort may profit by absorbing a few DTSA employees, but attempting to convert DTSA into a nonproliferation office could never work.