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"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Of Madmen and Nukes
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Daryl G. Kimball

Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu told journalists last July that China is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the United States if it targets Chinese ships, aircraft, or territory in a confrontation over Taiwan. “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds…of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese,” he warned.

With Zhu’s suicidal nuclear threats as backdrop, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told his military counterparts in Beijing last month that “advances in China’s strategic strike capacity raise questions” about its intentions. Rumsfeld suggested that “greater clarity would generate more certainty in the region.”

Excellent points, Mr. Secretary. But China, of course, is not the only state to amass nuclear weapons to defend and advance its interests. Although other Chinese officials disavowed Zhu’s remarks, he is not the first to suggest, officially or unofficially, that his government is “mad” enough to use massive nuclear force against conventional attacks.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, U.S. presidents have developed policies and issued statements intended to make nuclear threats appear credible and create uncertainty about when and where they might be used. As unnerving as China’s estimated arsenal of 100-400 nuclear weapons and Zhu’s remarks may be, Beijing’s official no-first-use policy arguably makes its posture more restrained than that of the United States today.

To deter other nuclear-armed states, particularly Russia, from attacking with their nuclear arms, current U.S. strategy calls for the maintenance of a massive arsenal of approximately 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on high alert through 2012 and beyond. In addition, the United States will still possess some 3,000 additional strategic warheads in storage and several hundred substrategic weapons.

The Pentagon’s March 2005 draft “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” also outlines a wide range of options to deal with non-nuclear scenarios. It would allow for the possible first use of nuclear weapons to help support U.S. forces or allies against conventional attacks, such as a conflict with China over Taiwan, as well as other scenarios, including pre-emptive nuclear strikes on suspected chemical or biological weapons targets in non-nuclear-weapon states.

Given the absence of a hostile, well-armed nuclear adversary, U.S. conventional military dominance, and the possibility that additional states might acquire nuclear weapons, is such a large U.S. arsenal and expansive view of the role of nuclear weapons necessary, justifiable, and sustainable? No.

There is no conceivable circumstance in which the United States would need to use or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to fight or terminate a conventional conflict with a non-nuclear adversary. On several occasions, U.S. presidents from Truman and Eisenhower to Kennedy, Nixon, and George H. W. Bush have considered the limited use of nuclear weapons in tactical situations, but they have always rejected doing so. The calculus should be no different today.

Policies that assert a war-fighting role for nuclear weapons only deepen the risk of proliferation. They undermine existing pledges by nuclear-weapon states that they will not use nuclear arms against countries without them. They give states such as North Korea and Iran a cynical excuse to maintain their nuclear weapons options and send a green light to nuclear rivals India and Pakistan to contemplate their battlefield use.

The lessons of the Cuban missile crisis and other U.S.-Soviet confrontations during the Cold War make clear that even limited nuclear engagement risks escalation and unacceptable annihilation. Nuclear weapons are, therefore, not a realistic war-fighting option in a conventional conflict against a nuclear-armed adversary.

Some nuclear acolytes believe new types of weapons are needed to provide “credible” options against future adversaries and targets, including underground bunkers and chemical or biological threats. Such thinking ignores the reality that employing any nuclear weapon would produce disproportionate and unacceptable collateral destruction and severe political fallout.

A saner nuclear weapons policy is feasible and overdue. As long as the United States and others possess nuclear weapons, their role should be limited to deterring other states from using them. Further, if that is their only function, there is no reason why the United States cannot observe a policy of no-first-use. Nor would there be any need to develop and test new nuclear-weapon capabilities or maintain Cold War-sized arsenals on high alert, a condition that risks accidental or unauthorized launch.

It has been 60 years since the last nuclear bomb was used in war. Perhaps more than any other state, the United States has the most to lose if others not only seek to acquire nuclear weapons but come to view them as legitimate and useful instruments of coercion and war. But if U.S. policymakers expect nuclear restraint from China and other states, they must reconsider and readjust the role of U.S. nuclear forces.