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Taking First-Use of Nukes Off the Table: Good for the United States and the World

July 14, 2016

The United States first used nuclear weapons more than 70 years ago on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fearing the threat from massive Soviet conventional forces and possible large-scale use of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. military and political leaders decided to keep the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Today, the United States in the world’s dominant global military power and the Soviet Union is long gone. The Cold War-era policy of not ruling out nuclear first-use poses a grave risk to the security of the United States and is not suitable for today’s global security and political environment.

The greatest threat to the United States and to any nation is from the enormous and indiscriminate destructive effects of nuclear weapons. It is in the interest of the United States that, as long as these weapons exist, all nuclear-armed states agree 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. It is time for the United States to adopt this policy.

In April 2009, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

On June 6, 2016, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “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.”

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported earlier this week that among the changes under consideration is the adoption of a clear no-first–use doctrine. Such a shift would build upon earlier adjustments made to U.S. nuclear policy in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

By declaring that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, Obama could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking, reduce the risk that a conventional military conflict turns into a nuclear catastrophe, and enhance U.S. and global security for decades to come.

Once Nuclear Weapons Are Used, There Is No Way to Prevent Escalation

Were the United States to exercise its contingency plans to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict against a nuclear-armed adversary, it risks retaliation and escalation that could lead to an all-out nuclear exchange.

The fog of war is thick. The fog of nuclear war is even thicker. During a heated conflict or rapidly developing crisis, political and military leaders are working with incomplete information. They have little time to think through highly consequential decisions and often have difficulty communicating with the people commanding their forces — to say nothing about their adversaries. Emotions are high, and the likelihood of miscalculation is increased.

Given these realities, responsible leaders understand that military options that can lead to mutual national suicide should not be on the table. As McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1982 about nuclear weapons first-use contingency plans in Europe, “No one has ever succeeded in advancing any persuasive reason to believe that any use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest scale, could reliably be expected to remain limited….”

Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. U.S. land- and sea-based strategic forces, armed with nearly 1,000 warheads, stand ready for immediate firing in peacetime. Many military targets are in or near urban areas.

It has been estimated that the use of even a fraction of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces could lead to the death of tens of millions of people in each country. An all-out exchange would kill hundreds of millions and produce catastrophic global consequences with adverse agricultural, economic, health, and environmental consequences for billions of people. It is impossible to imagine any U.S. political objective worth this cost.

A Nuclear First-Use Option Poses Grave Blowback Risks

The current U.S. policy of not ruling out the first-use of nuclear weapons is tied to maintaining a significant portion of its nuclear force in “launch-under-attack” posture, also referred to as “prompt launch.” As then Candidate Obama correctly said in 2008, prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

Based on my research and interactions with specialists from both Russia and China, it is clear that maintaining the option of first-use and keeping U.S. weapons on prompt launch plays a large role in compelling Moscow—and may soon help to lead Beijing—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chances that nuclear weapons might be used early — by accident or design — by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.

Russian and Chinese concern about the U.S. first-use posture is heightened by U.S. development of ballistic missile interceptors. Currently, the U.S. missile defense programs aim to defeat a few dozen incoming enemy long-range ballistic missiles but they may become capable of defeating even larger numbers in the future. Such missile defenses push Russia and China to keep more weapons than they otherwise might, which only adds to the threat to the United States.

U.S. Cyber Command is also contemplating ways in which it could utilize offensive cyber attacks to disrupt or prevent an opponent, such as Russia or China, from launching their own nuclear-armed strategic weapons against the United States. This adds to Russian and Chinese concerns about how to counter a U.S. first-strike and may lead them to seek similar capabilities. Cyber threats become more dangerous if weapons are kept ready for use as part of a first-strike posture.

A clear U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear miscalculation by nuclear-armed adversaries by alleviating concerns about a devastating U.S. nuclear first-strike, especially during a crisis. It would also allow Russia and China to relax their nuclear postures, encourage Russia cut its arsenal further, and might encourage China to stop building up its arsenal — all of which would reduce the threat to the U.S. homeland.

Nuclear First-Use Against Nonnuclear Threats Is Not Credible

The United States does not need to threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter or defeat a major conventional attack against the homeland or our allies. Given overwhelming U.S. conventional military advantages, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify —legally, morally, or militarily — the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat.

Even if there were to be a major conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or with China in the South China Sea or the Straits of Taiwan, the employment of nuclear weapons by the United States would be counterproductive. U.S. nuclear first use would run a high risk of triggering an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use by both sides. As a result, the threat of using nuclear weapons first to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.

Similarly, if the United States used nuclear weapons first in response to a non-nuclear military provocation from North Korea, not only would North Korea unleash its sizable conventional rocket forces that have the ability to devastate the megalopolis of Seoul. Worse still, North Korea could succeed in launching and delivering just a handful of its nuclear warheads against South Korea or Japan, which would have the potential of killing hundreds of thousands of people, if not more.

Thanks to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, which verifiably ban these classes of weapons altogether, the threat of large-scale, state-sponsored chemical and biological weapons use is extremely remote. Given their indiscriminate effects, nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyber attack by state or non-state actors

Adopting no-first-use would improve the credibility of deterrence against nuclear threats because it eliminates the so-called “commitment trap” associated with the current, ambiguous policy regarding when and if the United States might use nuclear weapons. As Scott Sagan wrote in 2009, if deterrence fails despite this ambiguity, “a president will feel increased pressure to use nuclear weapons to maintain his or her domestic reputation and America’s international reputation for honoring commitments.”

U.S. Alliance Partners Do Not Depend on the Threat of Nuclear First-Use

During the Cold War, the U.S. based nuclear weapons on the territory of many allies. Almost all these weapons were withdrawn with no erosion in the alliance.

Today, for all practical purposes, U.S. allies do not depend on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” to deter anything but a nuclear attack on their territory. Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not undermine the U.S. ability to protect its allies, including Japan, South Korea, and our NATO partners in Europe against nuclear or nonnuclear threats.

Key U.S. allies in Europe are nervous about Russia. Asian allies are concerned about North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile potential. These worries are understandable. It is also clear that in certain areas and in a few scenarios — namely a conflict with Russia in the Baltic region — the United States would be hard pressed to insert the conventional forces necessary to promptly counter an attack.

At the same time, the United States and our allies can no longer afford to threaten to use nuclear weapons first in these scenarios. The first-use of nuclear weapons by the United States on or near the territory of an ally in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state would result in devastation and human suffering that would vastly exceed whatever gains were sought. Crossing the nuclear threshold is militarily counterproductive and potentially suicidal for our allies and ourselves.

Maintaining the nuclear first-use option is, therefore, neither credible nor is it prudent. Instead, Washington must engage its allies and partners to ensure the necessary conventional forces, as well as effective diplomatic and financial tools, are in place to deter and if necessary repel those who would wage war on our coalition partners.

Bottom Line

The circumstances that led U.S. leaders reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict are long gone. There is no massive Soviet conventional military threat nor is there prospect of massive, state-sponsored chemical or biological attack.  The United States and our allies have the means to counter any other credible nonnuclear military threat with its superior conventional military capabilities.

Furthermore, the United States can continue to deter nuclear weapons use by other states against the homeland or U.S. allies without maintaining the option to use nuclear weapons first or by threatening to “launch-under-attack.” U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive first-strike nuclear attack, and, given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear arsenal would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any would-be nuclear aggressor.

In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that: “Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.

Now is the time for the United States to end dangerous, Cold War-era nuclear thinking and declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.

By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.

 

Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the nonpartisan, independent Arms Control Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @DarylGKimball.

Image: Air Force, Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson

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9 thoughts on “Taking First-Use of Nukes Off the Table: Good for the United States and the World

  1. “Thanks to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, which verifiably ban these classes of weapons altogether, the threat of large-scale, state-sponsored chemical and biological weapons use is extremely remote. Given their indiscriminate effects, nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyber attack by state or non-state actors”

    Do you really think this ban matters? Were you not around during the Cold War when the Soviet Union had the largest Chemical & Biological Weapons program in the history of mankind?
    Do you not believe that after the collapse of the Soviet Union that their scientists and secrets spilled out to other countries? Do you not believe that China, North Korea and Ira have explored similar programs?
    Do you not believe if North Korea finally decided to resume the conflict with the South, given their clear disadvantage with outdated military systems, that they wouldn’t consider using chemical or biological weapons?
    Extremely remote chance of use is a pretty poor assessment, given some of the likely future conflict scenarios

    1. Mike: We enforce standards of courtesy in the comments section. I’ve edited your comment to remove the insult you led with. You are free to robustly disagree, but you are not free to lob insults.

    2. All of this is predicated on a major, and frankly flawed, assumption: namely that the threat of nuclear use is sufficient to deter a state actor from using a chemical or biological weapon.

      This simply isn’t credible, and hasn’t been so for a long time. One of the major reasons for building a new generation of chemical weapons at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s was that threatening a nuclear escalation in response to a Warsaw Pact chemical attack wasn’t seen as at all credible. As such, chemical weapons were required to act as a deterrent force.

      That dynamic exists today. Let’s examine three categories of actors: non-nuclear, “petite nuclear”, and near-peer states.

      In the case of the first category, responding with nuclear weapons to a CBW attack would be seen as such an overreaction by the rest of the world as to eliminate any sympathy it may engender and to lead to all of our allies running to the exits. Our opponents aren’t stupid. Since you mentioned the Korean peninsula, simply assessing the probable aftermath of nuclear use (namely fallout), and looking at the population density of the surrounding area, makes it plain such a use would be massively destructive. It won’t take too many cameras watching Japanese or South Korean citizens suffering from acute radiation sickness for that decision to come back and bite us.

      This limitation applies to a lesser extent to the second category, though I suspect they’ll use what nuclear weapons they have early and as often as possible. But that’s a discussion for another day.

      As for the third category, are we really going to risk a nuclear escalation to an existential nuclear threat over CBW use? It’s highly unlikely, and they’re likely to understand that.

      In all three of these cases, we’re already looking at a fairly empty threat. And that threat assumes that those states have looked at a potential war with the United States, with its nuclear capabilities known worldwide, and opted to attack anyway.

      Kimball already made this clear in his comment when we remarked on the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons. As such, this is merely re-asserting the same arguments made for eschewing a no-first use posture without engaging with the reason why it was listed as unfeasible.

      There is little evidence that we can use to determine how effective a nuclear threat is in deterring CBW. The only possible example is Iraq in 1991 (the only time they had such a capability to threaten us with), and in that event it’s not entirely clear that Saddam was rational in the same way we view it. The Iraq Study Group report indicated that rather than thinking we deterred him, he felt that he had deterred *us* from using nuclear weapons. He was convinced the United States had deployed Pershing II missiles into theater, and that the threat of CBW attacks (and his own “brilliant” deception operations) deterred the United States from using them. As such, the only data point we have that can confirm the deterrent power of nuclear weapons in the CBW context does not confirm the hypothesis.

      As a parting aside, take a look at the probable costs associated with a CBW attack on US forces. Then look at the unclassified numbers released by decision makers during the Gulf War as to how many tactical nuclear weapons would have been needed and the cost of those weapons. Absorbing a chemical attack, recovering from it, and being postured to continue on is far less expensive than plinking North Korean truck-mobile formations with B61s.

  2. “The United States does not need to threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter or defeat a major conventional attack against the homeland or our allies. Given overwhelming U.S. conventional military advantages, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify —legally, morally, or militarily — the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat…Even if there were to be a major conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or with China in the South China Sea or the Straits of Taiwan, the employment of nuclear weapons by the United States would be counterproductive.”

    This is the core assumption of the argument, and it is inherently flawed both by ignoring the prospect of regional advantages overcoming absolute capabilities advantages and ignoring the basic concept of deterrence.

    As the title of this subsection eludes, for deterrence to deter it MUST be credible. A non-credible deterrence will not deter anybody. This is actually why a first use policy is necessary – if all nuclear states maintain a no-first-use policy, then nobody’s nuclear deterrence is credible, and thus deterrence itself will break down (or, more likely, at least one if not all parties are lying in which case we exacerbate a security dilemma and greater risk for escalation under ambiguous intentions).

    Further, the goal of deterrence from a capabilities standpoint IS to be counterproductive. This is a feature, not a bug. We need to be willing to risk the escalation and be credible in doing so in order to assure it never comes to that. As is often ascribed to Schelling, we need to be willing to dance on the edge of the cliff if our deterrence threats are to be taken seriously.

    The true worst case scenario is for us to stumble into a conflict somewhere line SCS believing, as you seem to, that we will win on conventional power alone and then, should that fail, run the risk of steady escalation towards a nuclear exchange. This scenario is the one where we are more likely to actually employ weapons with the counter-productive results you fear. We are better to prioritize the dangers of specific conflicts that are threats to our vital interests first, and then use our full range of capabilities to deter the conflict from happening in the first place rather than putting too much faith in conventional deterrence/conventional power to prevail once the shooting starts.

    1. “As the title of this subsection eludes, for deterrence to deter it MUST be credible. A non-credible deterrence will not deter anybody. This is actually why a first use policy is necessary – if all nuclear states maintain a no-first-use policy, then nobody’s nuclear deterrence is credible, and thus deterrence itself will break down (or, more likely, at least one if not all parties are lying in which case we exacerbate a security dilemma and greater risk for escalation under ambiguous intentions).”

      This is a strange assertion. Implicit in deterrence is a corresponding promise of non-use in the event of compliance. “If you do X, I will attack you. If you don’t do X, I will not attack you.” The utility of a deterrent threat declines the further away from this proposition you signal yourself to be; restraint is the core element of a strong deterrent.

      Since you brought him up, Thomas Schelling said it far better than I just did: “We have learned the threat of massive destruction deters only if there is a corresponding implicit promise of nondestruction in the event he complies …”

      1. After the collapse of the SU, only China and India remain NFU states. Unless the US leads the way to become a NFU state, China and India will also have a policy of first use. That makes the world an extremely dangerous place.

  3. Think most of the commentators covered the folly of a non first use posture.

    Beyond those comments, I would add the thought that our C2 could withstand a first strike is utterly false. It’s always and continues to be our single biggest vulnerability to our land based and Ariel nuclear deterrent. Even for our second strike capabilities we no longer field the same numbers of tacmo and other systems to guarantee positive control in the event of a first strike on our deterrent forces.

  4. A fool hardy exercise in naivety of thought and strategic thinking. Think most of the commentators covered the folly of a non first use posture.

    Beyond those comments, I would add the thought that our C2 could withstand a first strike is utterly false. It’s always and continues to be our single biggest vulnerability to our land based and Ariel nuclear deterrent. Even for our second strike capablities we no longer field the same numbers of tacmo and other systems to guarantee positive control in the event of a first strike on our deterrent forces.

  5. Makes sense. It is the policy we talk here, not what actually happens. Although China has a clear no first use (NFU) policy, it may use nukes first! A policy conveys a nation’s stand to the world on deterrence based on compliance. It matters little if a policy is not adhered to in the event of a nuclear exchange anyway. Other states may use USA’s first use policy to claim moral high ground and even justify their continuing nuclear weapons development. So it makes sense for USA to change its Cold War relic nuclear weapons usage policy.

    Then there are tactical nukes. Both Russia and China are developing plenty of them and don’t consider their use as “first use”. That makes murky waters of the issue. While they claim moral high ground over USA with their no first use policy, they actually intend to use tactical nukes first. Use of tactical nukes is much more probable. Would it necessarily ensue a nuclear exchange? Very unlikely.

    The world will be an extremely dangerous place if remaining NFU nuclear powers adopt a first use policy. Unless USA changes it’s policy, inevitably China and India will soon follow suit.

    Fearing a nuclear first strike, others may even develop and deploy them as first or second strike weapons – chemical, biological and bio-chemical weapons once again as tensions escalate.