"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Little Content, Even Less Satisfaction in Obama’s Nuclear Weapons Policy

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Clark Murdock

In his June 19 speech in Berlin, President Barack Obama began his discussions of nuclear issues by saying, “We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.”[1] In fact, there is no such thing as “true” or “absolute” safety or security.

With regard to nuclear weapons, many people, including this author, disagree with Obama and believe that the existence of nuclear weapons has made the world safer and Americans more secure.

Nuclear weapons have awesome destructive power—so awesome that it has inhibited the leaders of nation-states with nuclear weapons from risking the actual employment of these weapons. This is a rational calculation, however, not a taboo. It is remarkable that nuclear weapons have not been employed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In part, that reflects the seriousness of the deliberations that countries usually have displayed when “thinking about the unthinkable.” In contrast, the new nuclear weapons employment strategy, as described in documents that the Obama administration released shortly after the Berlin speech, contains tortured logic, non sequiturs, and empty talk. This is hardly a serious attempt to think rigorously about the circumstances under which the United States would employ its nuclear weapons.

Congress had required the president to provide a report on any “modifications to the nuclear weapons employment strategy, plans, and options” and an assessment of the effects of those changes for the nuclear posture of the United States.[2] Instead, it received a report on how the Obama administration would implement its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)[3] and the justification for why, after “a comprehensive review,” Obama “determined that we can ensure the security of America and our Allies and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.”[4] Rather than providing a clear declaratory policy on how the United States would employ nuclear weapons to ensure its strategic interests[5] and how those interests would form the basis for determining U.S. nuclear requirements, the administration produced a document marked by complicated and inconsistent logic that reflected Obama’s ambivalence with respect to nuclear weapons. This document did little to fulfill his Berlin commitment to “maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent.”

Focusing on Reductions

Within three months of Senate approval of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), national security adviser Tom Donilon said, “As we implement New START, we’re making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions. Under the President’s direction, the Department of Defense will review our strategic requirements and develop options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile, which stands at approximately 5,000 warheads, including both deployed and reserve warheads.”[6]

Critics, including most Republicans interested in nuclear issues, jumped on this statement because it implied that the focus of the new employment strategy would be on making the case for further reductions, not on determining what U.S. nuclear posture requirements should be. The administration’s report, prepared by the Defense Department, showed that the critics were right.

Although the Pentagon report declared repeatedly that U.S. nuclear weapons employment strategy is adapting to changing security conditions in the 21st century, it clearly stated that the purpose of the comprehensive review was to assess “what changes to nuclear employment strategy could best support the five key objectives of U.S. nuclear weapons policies and postures outlined” in the 2010 NPR Report.[7] The recent review added a sixth objective, and of those six, two predetermined the outcome: “[r]educe the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy” and “[m]aintain strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels.”[8]

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if an administration wants to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and wants to achieve reduced nuclear force levels, it will. Nevertheless, before deciding that it is a good idea to reduce U.S. operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, that administration should first determine what the nuclear requirements actually are.

The Obama administration has argued consistently that if the United States increases its reliance on ballistic missile defenses or advanced conventional missiles, it has decreased its reliance on nuclear weapons, which in turn means a reduced role for nuclear weapons. The administration apparently has not considered the possibility that the enhanced role of non-nuclear weapons just increases U.S. security. There is no iron law that says that the United States can get only a finite amount of security.

The role of U.S. nuclear weapons has decreased since the end of the Cold War, but that change reflects the outsized role that nuclear deterrence played during the Cold War. U.S. nuclear weapons have played a critical role in international security and U.S. national security.[9] Greater reliance on ballistic missile defenses, for example, can provide stronger and more-credible deterrence against rogue regimes; the United States acquires these capabilities because they supplement, not replace, nuclear weapons.

Strained Reasoning

The new nuclear employment strategy says more about what the U.S. nuclear posture should be—maintain the traditional triad, prevent “large disparities in nuclear capabilities” between Russia and the United States, “maintain the capability to forward-deploy nuclear weapons with heavy bombers and dual-capable aircraft,” and “safely” pursue a reduction of up to one-third in deployed nuclear weapons[10]—than it does about employment strategy. The four “guiding principles” are the same as in the 2010 NPR Report. Yet, there are a few new wrinkles, mostly in the section entitled “Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons.”[11]

After restating the NPR Report’s negative security assurance that the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” the Defense Department report says that “[t]he new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries. The new guidance does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ or ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy.”[12]

That passage describes what the new employment strategy is not—a minimum deterrence strategy that relies on retaliation against cities—rather than what it is. More importantly, the section on nuclear employment planning guidance fails to give any targeting guidance for maintaining strategic stability with Russia or China or for deterring regional rogue states.

Although failing to provide any meaningful guidance to those who formulate employment plans, the new strategy states that all plans must be consistent with the fundamental principles of the law of armed conflict and “will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.”[13] No one should object to this, although it can be difficult to apply to weapons having the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The use of even the smallest nuclear weapon will cause much death and destruction.

Finally, the report says that although the United States cannot adopt a policy declaring that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks, “the new guidance reiterates the intention to work toward that goal over time. Toward that end, the new guidance directs [the Defense Department] to undertake concrete steps toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”[14] The Obama administration’s new nuclear employment strategy is really a report on how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, not a strategy for how U.S. nuclear weapons might be employed in defense of U.S. strategic goals. Obama had repeatedly stated that the United States must maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal “as long as nuclear weapons exist.”[15] If the United States has to retain nuclear weapons, it needs to think through how they might be used. It is inconsistent to direct the Pentagon to reduce the role of nuclear weapons regardless of whether the number of nuclear weapons or nuclear-armed states is going up, going down, or staying the same.

After providing little if any meaningful guidance for employing nuclear weapons, the strategy directs the Defense Department “to conduct deliberate planning for non-nuclear strike options to assess what objectives and efforts could be achieved through integrated non-nuclear strike options, and to propose possible means to make these objectives and effects achievable. Although they are not a substitute for nuclear weapons, planning for non-nuclear strike options is a central part of reducing the role of nuclear weapons.”[16] This is a non sequitur.

If conventional weapons are not a substitute for nuclear weapons, there are very significant limits on the degree to which decisions on employment of conventional weapons should affect decisions on employment of nuclear weapons. As the quote indicates, Obama’s nuclear weapons employment strategy is really about reducing the role and, as a consequence, the numbers of nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department report takes a similar line of reasoning with respect to the strategy of “launch under attack.” According to the report, the guidance directs the Pentagon “to examine further options to reduce the role [that] Launch Under Attack plays in U.S. planning, while retaining the ability to Launch Under Attack if directed.”[17]

This is empty talk, as it suggests a change in policy—a smaller role for a launch-under-attack strategy—when there has been no change in capabilities. Defense planners formulate their plans on the basis of a potential adversary’s capabilities and recognize that intentions can always change. Thus, issuing a declaratory policy that downplays a particular capability but adds, in the same sentence, that the United States will retain that capability is a bit absurd.

Obama’s Goal for Reductions

Obama asserted in his Berlin speech that the United States could reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third, a claim repeated in the Defense Department report. One-third may be the right number, but that depends on the answers to several questions.[18]

What concessions did the United States have to make on ballistic missile defense or advanced conventional weapons to get Russia to agree to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third? What provisions are being made with respect to nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons? Russia probably has about 2,000 of these weapons, while the United States reportedly has about 200 deployed in six European NATO countries. Finally, will the United States retain adequate nuclear superiority over China? U.S. non-nuclear allies, such as Japan and South Korea, depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and would be quite concerned about perceptions that the Chinese were inching closer to parity with the United States.

One could argue that a report on how the United States might employ its nuclear weapons is not the place to address these issues. Yet because the report really is making the case for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, it should have provided a rationale for the size of the reduction it is advocating.

Obama’s Flawed Vision

Even those who believe in the Prague vision of a world without nuclear weapons were less than satisfied with the Berlin speech. For example, while calling Obama’s Berlin remarks “overdue and welcome,” Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association and publisher of Arms Control Today, said that the “pace and scope of his proposals for further nuclear reductions are incremental at best and changes in the U.S. nuclear war plan are less than meets the eye.” He went on to conclude that

“[t]o overcome the obstacles and accelerate the pace of progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons during his time in office, President Obama and his team will need to devote far greater energy, creativity, and determination than we’ve seen over the past two years.”[19]

In a July 5 op-ed in The Washington Post, Stimson Center co-founder Barry Blechman was almost mournful: “For those of us who share Obama’s stated desire for ‘the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,’ his Berlin speech and, particularly, the recent [nuclear employment strategy] report are great disappointments.”[20] Blechman argued that the United States should “move unilaterally to the level of forces necessary to ensure our security with or without the other side” and that if the “Russians want to waste their resources on nuclear dinosaurs, let them.”[21]

As argued above, the Prague vision is flawed. Two facts about the Cold War are indisputable: nuclear weapons were not employed during it, and it ended without a major war between the two superpowers. These are historic firsts: two hostile major powers “fought” for more than four decades without resorting to war or using the most powerful weapon available to them. As seen in the Cuban missile crisis, the risk that conventional war could escalate to the nuclear level suppressed the risk-taking propensities in Soviet and U.S. policymakers and made them more cautious. This is a good thing. It is not difficult to imagine what a world without nuclear weapons would look like; it existed before 1945, and it included World War I and World War II.

There is no guarantee that the non-use of nuclear weapons will continue for decades more. The chances that nuclear weapons will be employed may well be increasing because less-deterrable countries have joined or are seeking to join the nuclear club. In addition, new technologies, such as cyberweapons, which many believe pose existential threats to physical and financial infrastructures, are proliferating as well. Nuclear weapons may have lost the centrality they had during the Cold War, but they are not irrelevant today or for the foreseeable future. Any planning with respect to their possible employment should be done with the utmost seriousness. Obama’s new nuclear weapons employment strategy fails to meet this standard.

Clark Murdock is a senior adviser on defense and national security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and a former government official and university professor.



1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate—Berlin, Germany,” June 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/remarks-president-obama-brandenburg-gate-berlin-germany (hereinafter Obama Berlin remarks).

2. Congress has enacted this requirement with slight wording variations in recent defense authorization acts. For the most recent version, see National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, 10 U.S.C. § 491(a) (2013). For one version, see U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 12, 2013, p. 1.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf.

4. Obama Berlin remarks.

5. Congress mandated that the president identify the implications of any changes in nuclear weapons employment strategy, plans, and options for “the ability” of U.S. strategic nuclear forces “to support the goals of the United States with respect to nuclear deterrence, extended deterrence, assurance and defense.” National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, 10 U.S.C. § 491(a)(3) (2012).

6. Tom Donilon, “The Prague Agenda: The Road Ahead” (remarks at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, DC, March 29, 2011), http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2011/03/20110330120145su5.553401e-02.html.

7. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” p. 1.

8. Ibid., pp. 1, 2.

9. For a fuller development of this view, see Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Reflections on Nuclear Policy on the 68th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima: A Discussion With Dr. Clark Murdock,” August 6, 2013, http://csis.org/blog/reflections-nuclear-policy-68th-anniversary-atomic-bombing-hiroshima-discussion-dr-clark-murdoc.

10. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” pp. 3, 6.

11. Ibid., p. 4.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

14. Ibid., p. 5.

15. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama—Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April, 5, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered.

16. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” p. 5.

17. Ibid.

18. For a more extensive analysis of this issue, see CSIS, “Reflections on Nuclear Policy on the 68th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima.”

19. Daryl G. Kimball, “Death by Cuts to a Thousand,” ForeignPolicy.com, June 20, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/06/19/death_by_cuts_to_a_thousand_obama_nuclear_reductions.

20. Barry M. Blechman, “U.S. Nuclear Policy Is Sound,” The Washington Post, July 5, 2013, p. A19.

21. Ibid.