A Most Nuclear Year: What Did We Learn About Nuclear Weapons, Deterrence, and Arms Control in 2018?


Editor’s Note: As 2018 comes to a close, War on the Rocks is publishing a series of year-end reflections on what our editors and contributors learned from the publication’s coverage of various national security topics. These reflections will examine how War on the Rocks coverage evolved over the year, what it taught us about the issue in question, and what questions remain to be answered in 2019 and beyond. Enjoy, and see you next year!


After President Donald Trump’s infamous threat to North Korea last summer, I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that the only “fire and fury” we got in 2018 was a tell-all book. Indeed, while 2017 gave journalists, analysts, and policymakers ample reason to worry about a volatile president with singular authority to launch a nuclear attack, in 2018 those fears abated (somewhat). Headlines this year were perhaps less nerve-wracking, but 2018 still offered many opportunities to reexamine long-held assumptions about nuclear use and nuclear stability. On War on the Rocks this year, we hosted lively, still-unresolved debates on the role of nuclear weapons — particularly lower-yield weapons — in U.S. and Russian strategy during an era of renewed near-peer competition. We also saw a consensus begin to emerge about the need to update the longstanding framework of agreements, norms, and procedures that has been built around the world’s nuclear arsenals over the past seven decades.

The Trump administration kicked off the year with its Nuclear Posture Review, which focused our attention on great power competition with Russia and China and opened a big debate about a little nuke. The fundamental question: Do lower-yield, more “usable” nuclear weapons make nuclear conflict more or less likely? We saw some lively disagreements about the “discrimination problem of low-yield weapons and Russia’s much-litigated escalate-to-de-escalate doctrine. The latter was particularly relevant, as the Nuclear Posture Review cited the doctrine as a justification for building America’s own lower-yield weapons, but skepticism soon emerged in these pages about whether this was indeed Russia’s doctrine — and about whether the escalate-to-de-escalate terminology was all that useful. Ultimately, as Olya Oliker and Andrei Baklitskiy suggested in their article, the lesson may be less about Russian practice than about the dangers of any nuclear power pursuing “usability.”

Commentary on the Nuclear Posture Review was plentiful and excellent, but Frank Gavin’s insightful introduction to a Texas National Security Review roundtable counseled humility in our analysis of the document, given the longstanding gap between rhetoric and reality in U.S. declaratory nuclear policy and the difficulty of measuring the effects of U.S. actions in this realm. And the conversations sparked by the Nuclear Posture Review aren’t new. As Joshua Rovner took stock of the discussion in March, he reminded us that this debate is in some ways an iteration of a broader, more enduring one about the nuclear revolution: Did nuclear weapons fundamentally change statecraft, as many academics argue, or are they normal weapons of warfighting, as many leaders have treated them? Moreover, as Janne Nolan wrote nearly three decades ago and reiterated in her roundtable entry with Brian Radzinsky, policymakers have long searched in vain for more limited, flexible, and credible nuclear options. A year later, much about American and Russian nuclear warfighting doctrine and thought remains unresolved, suggesting Rovner and Nolan are right that this is a bigger, intractable debate and vindicating Gavin’s thesis that we know less about nuclear strategy and history than we think.

If the debate about low-yield weapons and U.S. nuclear posture offered an opportunity to apply some enduring Cold War precepts to a new strategic landscape, experts found themselves in comparatively uncharted waters when it came to arms control. This year, writers in War on the Rocks and elsewhere observed a marked shift away from the traditional model of arms control, which emphasizes bilateral agreements focusing on quantitative limits on strategic systems. This shift was a product both of the Trump administration’s apparent antipathy to arms control agreements and of a changing strategic situation that has made some aspects of the conventional model less relevant. In an excellent historical essay in March, Austin Long argued that it would be impossible to revive treaty-based U.S.-Russian arms control without addressing Moscow’s long-abiding hang-ups about American missile defenses. Alexandra Bell and Andrew Futter were more sanguine, arguing that there is opportunity in the supposed “death” of the old way of doing arms control. Their article advocated for new approaches that take emerging technologies into account and integrate new experts who may be less steeped in the Cold War model. Emerging technology and arms control created a fruitful nexus indeed, with several War on the Rocks authors examining how cyber and information warfare and high-precision weapons could be used against the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Moving beyond the traditional bilateral arms control architecture also involves acknowledging the relevance of new nuclear powers. In an article that framed much of the discussion about the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), Eric Sayers explained that the INF discussion had to consider not just the European theater but the increasingly important Indo-Pacific one as well. Shortly after the announcement of the withdrawal, writing in the Texas National Security Review, Scott Cuomo outlined a comprehensive post-INF approach for the U.S. military in the Western Pacific.

Nuclear stability vis-a-vis near-peer adversaries was a major theme this year thanks in large part to Trump administration strategy documents. At the same time, authors in our electronic pages continued to analyze two longstanding nuclear proliferation challenges — North Korea and Iran. I’ll leave the discussion of the former to my brilliant colleagues Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang. On Iran, paradoxically, the main takeaway this year seems to be that America’s myopic policy has stopped treating this like a nuclear problem. Increasingly, U.S. “nonproliferation” efforts in Iran are thinly disguised regime change policy (or simply an anti-Obama political football).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the world did go another year without a nuclear attack, another weapon of mass destruction was repeatedly used this year with seemingly little consequence — though we may justifiably question the wisdom of placing chemical and biological weapons in the catch-all “WMD” category rather than treating them as another weapon of war. Several authors highlighted the importance — and difficulty — of robust multilateral action to hold perpetrators of chemical attacks accountable. And Al Mauroni was trenchant, as always, on how the U.S. government should organize to deal appropriately with WMD terror threats.

Editing War on the Rocks is always refreshing in that it offers an opportunity to step back from a frenetic national security news cycle and think more deliberately about what’s changed, what hasn’t, what matters, and what doesn’t. This is especially true of nuclear issues. Given the high stakes of today’s nuclear developments, it is easy, tempting, and — frequently — justified to react with hand-wringing and alarmist headlines. But the high stakes also make it especially important to be critical and exacting about the historical assumptions, the analytical categories, and the terms themselves that we use in our discussions. As an eventful year in the nuclear policy space comes to a close, I’m grateful to War on the Rocks writers for the opportunity to work together on improving our collective understanding of this most terrible weapon.


Usha Sahay is the managing editor of War on the Rocks. She is the host of a forthcoming War on the Rocks podcast about the history of the nuclear age.

Image: U.S. Navy