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


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