The Defense Counter-Proliferation Initiative
at Five Years: A Critical Review

Dr. Mitchel Wallerstein, Vice President,
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

September 23, 1998

The Gulf War of 1990-91 focused attention on the increasing threat posed by the proliferation of unconventional weapons. The United States had been unprepared for the extent of the Iraqi chemical, nuclear and missile programs. Three lessons learned during the war indicated that a major review of American proliferation policy was in order. First of all, the Gulf War suggested that in future conflicts the United States would increasingly fight in coalition with other states. Second, Iraqi strategy during the war showed that militarily inferior enemies could use unconventional weapons to try to fragment opposing coalitions. Finally, the war raised the "lowest common denominator problem," highlighting the fact that a coalition is only as strong as its weakest link.

These lessons, in combination with the conclusions of the Bottom-Up Review, led Congress to direct the Pentagon to launch the Defense Counter-Proliferation Initiative (CPI) in 1993. Although nuclear deterrence remains a central aspect of the US response to the threat of unconventional weapons, the CPI sought to generate a new focus on strategies of counter-proliferation. Some initial responses to the CPI were critical, particularly over whether the CPI represented a judgment that previous non-proliferation policies had failed. However, counter-proliferation is designed to complement, not replace, existing non-proliferation regimes and policies.

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) provided additional emphasis on counter-proliferation. The QDR challenged the CPI to move beyond the Bottom-Up Review and integrate counter-proliferation considerations throughout all aspects of military planning. The threat assumptions proposed by the QDR also increased the focus on the threat posed by unconventional weapons. The QDR states that unconventional weapons will be "a likely condition of future warfare" and that these weapons could threaten the United States’ ability to carry out operations ranging from small scale deployments to major theater wars. Specifically, the QDR suggested that in future conflicts US enemies (1) are likely to use nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) weapons to counter US conventional military superiority; (2) will attempt to defeat the US through a strategy of "death by 1000 cuts" not in decisive military battles; and (3) will attempt to use NBC weapons to disrupt US airbase operations and logistics early in the conflict in an effort to diminish the US capability to project its forces into the theater. These considerations led the QDR to three major conclusions. First, counter-proliferation is a vital US interest. Second, US nuclear weapons will remain an important hedge against the threat of unconventional warfare. Third, nuclear deterrence alone may not be sufficient to deal with this threat. The United States needs both offensive and defensive conventional options to compliment its nuclear forces.

In the five years since its inception, the CPI has accomplished many important goals. First, major resistance from both military and civilian institutions has been overcome. A near consensus on the importance of counter-proliferation has emerged in the Defense Department and the threats posed by nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are now accepted as a real security issue. Second, substantial progress has been made in integrating unconventional warfare considerations in many aspects of military planning. Third, increased funding for counter-proliferation technologies has been secured.

However, much still remains to be done. First, counter-proliferation considerations must be further imbedded and institutionalized throughout US overall strategy, operational plans, doctrine, training, security assistance and alliance programs. Second, counter-proliferation efforts must be internationalized to address our allies’ vulnerabilities and to distribute the burden and cost of counter-proliferation efforts. Finally, the CPI must focus on identifying new threats and new strategies for dealing with these threats.

Rapporteur: Ben Valentino

Back to Seminar Schedule, Fall 1998