This op-ed originally appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
For the second time during his presidency, President Barack Obama and his top advisors are re-evaluating whether to adjust the declared role of nuclear weaponsin US national security policy to meet the evolving global strategic environment and reduce the risk of nuclear war.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association on June 6, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Benjamin Rhodes announced that the administration “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”
While the Obama administration in 2010 narrowed the circumstances under which the United States would consider using nuclear weapons, Washington still retains the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to preempt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against US forces or allies.
Since June, the president’s national security cabinet has met three times to discuss, among other nuclear weapons policy options, possible adoption of a policy stating that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to respond to a nuclear attack by other nuclear-armed states and only when the survival of the state or one of its allies is at stake.
Rhodes’ comments and subsequent news reports informed by leaked accounts of the meetings have prompted a renewed and overdue public debate about US nuclear weapons use and deterrence policy.
It is time to adjust US nuclear declaratory policy. The circumstances that led US leaders to reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict are long gone. Today, the United States and its allies have the means to counter any realistic nonnuclear military threat with superior conventional military, economic, and alliance capabilities. The threat of first use also lacks credibility, since the costs of such use would greatly outweigh the benefits.
Among other advantages, a clear US no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of Russian or Chinese nuclear miscalculation during a crisis by alleviating concerns about a devastating US nuclear first-strike. Such risks could grow in the future as Washington develops cyber offensive capabilities that can confuse nuclear command and control systems, as well as new strike capabilities and strategic ballistic missile interceptors that Russia and China believe may degrade their nuclear retaliatory potential.
A shift to no first use would also help the United States put the spotlight on states, particularly Pakistan and Russia, that threaten to use nuclear weapons in response to a major conventional military attack.
Of course, the reports about a possible shift to no first use have drawn out those who want to keep “all options on the table,” including nuclear first use. Some, such as Keith Payne and Frank Miller, try to downplay the risks of the current posture and the benefits of changing it.
Payne and Miller also argue, without providing any empirical evidence, that a US policy not to use nuclear weapons first would “degrade” the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, thereby inviting adversaries to attack the United States or its allies and prompt allies to acquire their own nuclear weapons.
Upon closer examination, these and other assertions against no first use don’t hold up.
Nuclear weapons aren't needed to counter nonnuclear threats. Today, given its overwhelming conventional military, economic, and alliance advantages, the United States does not need to threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter or defeat a major conventional attack against the homeland or US allies. None of the United States' most likely military adversaries—not Russia, or China, or, certainly, North Korea—can hope to defeat the United States and its allies in a protracted non-nuclear conflict, and that US superiority will continue as long as Washington makes prudent investments in sustaining US and allied conventional military forces.
Furthermore, removing the threat of nuclear first use does not make it more likely that Russia, China, and North Korea will attempt to take advantage of local or regional conventional imbalances vis a vis the United States or its allies. Certain US allies in Europe are justifiably nervous about Russian behavior, especially in the wake of President Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his ongoing meddling in eastern Ukraine. Asian allies have good reason to be concerned about China’s growing military capabilities, as well as North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile potential. It is also clear that in certain areas and in a few scenarios—such as a conflict with China over Taiwan or the South China Sea, or a confrontation with Russia in the Baltic region—the United States and its allies could have difficulty promptly countering a conventional attack with conventional weapons.
Nevertheless, Moscow understands very well that any territorial gains it might be able to accrue in the short-term in a conflict involving a NATO member state would be reversed by a determined and sustained NATO conventional military counterattack. Beyond that, the United States and its European allies are already taking steps to buttress their conventional footprint in the east to deter, and if necessary to respond to, any such Russian aggression against NATO countries in the Baltic region.
Some in Washington and Brussels have also expressed concern that the Kremlin might use or threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter NATO from pressing its conventional military advantage in a conflict that might erupt in the Baltics (a concept known as “escalate-to-de-escalate”). But these concerns only serve to underscore the extent of NATO’s military dominance. And any Russian first use, like any US nuclear first use, would of course risk nuclear retaliation and escalation.
Clearly, a nuclear war cannot be won and should not be initiated by either side. The threat of first use cannot overcome perceived or real conventional force imbalances and is not an effective substitute for prudently maintaining and upgrading US and NATO conventional forces in Europe.
China also poses a growing conventional military challenge to the United States and its regional allies. As a recently published RAND Corporation report concludes, “improving Chinese military capabilities challenge the assumption that the United States would emerge an early and decisive victor in a war with China.” The report states that the shrinking of the military gap could make a war intense, highly destructive, and protracted.
Yet retaining the option to use nuclear weapons first against China is not an effective or credible solution to this problem. As David Gompert, a coauthor of the RAND report, notes: “Even in an intensely violent conventional conflict [between China and the United States], neither side would regard its losses as so serious, its prospects so dire, or the stakes so vital that it would run the risk of devastating nuclear retaliation by using nuclear weapons first.”
The claim that abandoning the first use option would embolden China to act more aggressively is hardly convincing. China is already enhancing its conventional forces and augmenting its footprint in the region despite the continued US maintenance of a first-use option.
In fact, maintaining the threat of first use, coupled with continued US improvements to its nuclear, advanced conventional strike, missile defense, and cyber capabilities, could prompt China to rethink the merits of its own no-first-use policy and retaliatory strategic nuclear posture. This would undermine the regional security situation and increase the risks of early Chinese use of nuclear weapons in a crisis.
Given US alliance commitments in the region and the unpalatability of nuclear first use against China, Washington and its allies have no choice but to ensure that Beijing would at a minimum face severe costs early in a conventional conflict and ultimately could not win a protracted war. An equally important US objective in the region should be to seek diplomatic solutions to reduce security challenges and tensions.
North Korea, though perhaps less predictable, does not have a conventional military force capable of matching the combined conventional military strength of the United States and South Korea. There is no conventional military contingency on the Korean peninsula that could not be quickly dealt with by US and South Korean conventional forces. If North Korea is not deterred by the devastating damage these forces could inflict, then it will not be deterred by retaining the threat of nuclear first use.
Interestingly enough, Payne and Miller don’t attempt to rebut the reality of US non-nuclear dominance. Instead, they argue “there is no doubt” that the possibility of US first use has prevented major conventional war and the escalation of war, thereby avoiding the need to win at great cost.
But the only example Payne and Miller muster to support their sweeping generalization is the assertion that the threat of US nuclear weapons use helped to dissuade Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from escalating to the use of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons during the first Gulf War. And as Scott Sagan has convincingly demonstrated, this example is deeply flawed. Sagan marshals a litany of evidence demonstrating that “it appears highly unlikely that US leaders’ hints about possible nuclear retaliation were what stopped Saddam Hussein from using his chemical and biological weapons in 1991.”
The credibility problem. To effectively deter or coerce US adversaries, the threat of US nuclear weapons use must be seen as credible. Given the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, conventional alternatives are far more practical, credible, and effective means to deter or respond to a potential conventional attacks, and even chemical or biological attack by state or non-state actors.
As a 2007 report by the National Security Advisory Group, which included current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, put it:
“Nuclear weapons are much less credible in deterring conventional, biological, or chemical weapon attacks. A more effective way of deterring and defending against such nonnuclear attacks—and giving the president a wider range of credible response options—would be to rely on a robust array of conventional strike capabilities and strong declaratory policies.”
As has been the case for decades, the first use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed adversary runs the very high risk of triggering an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal spiral of nuclear escalation. Even if US nuclear weapons could be employed in a “limited” way and escalation averted, the allies we are seeking to defend would suffer enormously.
Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Princeton expert Bruce Blair summed it up in their August 14 New York Times op-ed:
“Using nuclear weapons first against Russia and China would endanger our and our allies’ very survival by encouraging full-scale retaliation. Any first use against lesser threats, such as countries or terrorist groups with chemical and biological weapons, would be gratuitous; there are alternative means of countering those threats. Such use against North Korea would be likely to result in the blanketing of Japan and possibly South Korea with deadly radioactive fallout.”
These realities lead some to argue that the United States currently has a de facto no-first-use policy, as it is nearly impossible to imagine a contingency in which the benefits of such use would outweigh the costs. But by maintaining an official policy of nuclear ambiguity, the United States is not accruing the benefits that an official policy of no first use would provide.
Declaratory policy and the “nuclear umbrella.” There is no reason why the adoption of a no-first-use policy should reduce the confidence of US allies in extended deterrence against nuclear attack. A no-first-use policy would still protect US allies from the threat of nuclear coercion or attacks, since given the size, accuracy, and diversity of US nuclear forces, the United States would be able to deliver a devastating retaliatory blow to any would-be nuclear aggressor, even after suffering a massive first-strike nuclear attack.
While some US allies, such as Japan and South Korea, might initially have concerns about the transition to a US no first use policy, they are highly likely to accept such a decision, since no first use will in no way weaken US military preparedness to confront non-nuclear threats to their security. Some other countries, including nuclear-armed France and Britain, may also initially oppose a US no first use declaration, but only because it would put a greater spotlight on their very vague nuclear declaratory policies. Many US allies, including NATO members Germany and the Netherlands, support the adoption of no-first-use policies by all nuclear-armed states.
The claim that some US allies might acquire their own nuclear weapons if Washington abandons the first-use option is pure hyperbole.
Were a US ally in Eastern Europe or East Asia to contemplate abandoning its commitment to nonproliferation, it would take far greater disruption to the alliance relationship than a change in US declaratory policy. What’s more, if the US maintenance of the first-use option were the only barrier to allied proliferation, then there would be strong reason to doubt the sustainability of the US alliance system. Fortunately, US alliance relationships are not as fragile as many opponents of no first use claim.
The credibility of a no-first-use pledge. Payne and Miller, as well as some lukewarm supporters of no first use, also argue that a US no-first-use pledge may not be taken seriously by adversaries and therefore won’t fundamentally change the status quo. But clear US statements of military policy carry serious weight, as evidenced by the intense debate about whether the United States should adopt a no-first-use policy.
Consider the fact that once a no-first-use policy is declared, the political and strategic costs to a president who violated it would be significant. For example, as research analyst Michael Gerson has written, “breaking a NFU [no-first-use] commitment risks damaging the United States’ reputation for honoring its commitments.”
Furthermore, over time, a no-first-use policy can be made more credible by adjusting US operational practices to clearly reflect the new nuclear declaratory policy. Were the United States to pair a no-first-use declaration with steps to reduce the readiness of its nuclear forces, relax existing requirements for prompt launch, and/or phase-out delivery systems that are seen as particularly amenable to early use in a conflict—such as a planned fleet of new nuclear air-launched cruise missiles—then such a declaration is likely to be viewed as more believable.
Indeed, key reasons why China’s no-first-use policy can’t be easily dismissed as cheap talk are Beijing’s nuclear doctrine and posture, currently much more well-suited to ride out a nuclear attack than to initiate one.
Of course, an adversary could never be 100 percent sure that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first in response to a particularly extreme or as yet unimaginable threat to its survival. But a no-first-use declaration would still have tremendous value, as it would be highly credible in the current and foreseeable strategic environment.
Time for change. US nuclear weapons and deterrence policy has changed significantly over the course of the nuclear age to adapt to changing technological and geopolitical circumstances. With a virtual monopoly on the bomb in the late-1940s, US leaders sought to block other nations from acquiring or using nuclear weapons. By the 1950s, US leaders, fearing Russia’s large conventional army, threatened massive nuclear retaliation to deter Soviet aggression against western Europe.
But as the size of the US and Soviet arsenals grew exponentially in the 1960s, and as the Soviets acquired nuclear-armed ballistic missiles capable of devastating the US mainland, massive retaliation was no longer considered viable. US leaders toyed with flexible nuclear responses, but could never escape the shadow of mutually assured destruction. And since the 1980s, the United States has significantly reduced the size of its nuclear arsenal, ceased nuclear testing, and changed the way it operates its nuclear forces.
Yet core elements of US nuclear posture have remained much the same for almost five decades, including the option to use nuclear weapons first. Over the years, we have been very lucky that nuclear weapons have been not used, by accident or by design. But in today’s global security environment, the threat of nuclear first use is no longer necessary, credible, or prudent.
As President Obama said in Hiroshima earlier this year about of the first use of nuclear weapons seven decades ago: “… we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” It is past time for the president to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict by adopting a clear no-first-use policy.