"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
One Step Forward

The new Presidential Decision Directive (PDD-60) on nuclear war plans constitutes a major step forward from Cold War thinking about nuclear weapons. In abandoning the requirement that the U.S. military be prepared to fight and win even a protracted, all-out nuclear war with Russia, the new guidance relieves the Joint Chiefs of an impossible task at any force level. By substituting the requirement that U.S. forces provide a secure deterrent, President Clinton has made it possible for the Joint Chiefs to support the force levels proposed for START III and much lower levels in the future.

During the Cold War, U.S. war plans in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack called for immediate and devastating nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union to eliminate any remaining strategic or other threatening military assets and to destroy its economy, its leadership and, collaterally, its society as well. Presumably, the Soviet Union had similar plans. Each side pursued the will-o'-the-wisp strategy that somehow, with enough weapons, it could emerge the winner of such an exchange despite the fact that both countries and their allies would certainly be utterly destroyed in the process. The prospect of such an apocalyptic end of civilization perhaps served as an effective deterrent to conflict between the superpowers.

The catastrophic domestic and global consequences of such gross overkill—involving force levels far in excess of those necessary to deter any adversary—became increasingly clear to a growing number inside and outside the military establishment. And with the end of the Cold War, it became obvious that deterrence could be accomplished with much smaller strategic forces. Now, with the elimination of the formal requirement to be able to fight and win a nuclear war, the Joint Chiefs—who long ago outgrew their initial infatuation with nuclear weapons for all purposes—are in a position to accept lower force levels with full confidence that any potential adversaries, including a highly unlikely recidivist Russia or aggressive China, will be deterred.

Some critics here and abroad have denounced the new guidance for continuing to embrace the concept of deterrence, clearly directed at Russia and China, with which we are seeking to develop friendly relations. Deterrence, however, is not a declaratory policy that can be repudiated but a fact of life as long as nuclear weapons and potential adversarial relationships exist. Any national leader with aggressive intentions will have to take existing nuclear arsenals into account before acting. In fact, nuclear weapons will continue to provide "virtual" deterrence even if they are eliminated because today's nuclear powers would retain the inherent capability to reconstitute nuclear forces relatively quickly in the face of unacceptable threats.

Some press reports have suggested that the new guidance calls for a nuclear response if chemical and biological weapons are ever used against the United States. If correct, this would indeed be a dangerous relaxation of existing constraints on the use of nuclear weapons. However, senior government spokesmen have stated that this is not the case and that U.S. policy will continue to honor the negative security assurances set forth in 1995 by Secretary of State Warren Christopher on behalf of the president in connection with the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This pledge committed the United States not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are members of the NPT unless they are engaged in an attack on the United States, its troops or allies in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state. This precludes the use of nuclear weapons against all countries except a few most unlikely U.S. adversaries that are also NPT hold-outs (Israel, India and Pakistan) and the other nuclear-weapon states (Britain, China, France and Russia). It is difficult to imagine any credible scenarios where an American president would initiate the use of nuclear weapons against any of these countries. With this guidance, the United States is moving, as it should, closer to a no-first-use posture, where its nuclear weapons serve only to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies.

The fine print in the classified directive could of course contain troublesome features. Given the confusion at home and abroad as to the nature of the guidance, the president should clarify the new U.S. nuclear doctrine. But the central thrust of the policy appears to move in the right direction by abandoning a nuclear war—fighting and war—winning doctrine and declaring in its place deterrence as the only role for nuclear weapons. This doctrine will facilitate the negotiation of much lower levels of nuclear arsenals and eventually the elimination of nuclear weapons if there are no nuclear threats to deter.