An Appeal for a Nuclear Perspective in Army Education


Following last year’s indications that the United States would withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that such a move would lower the threshold for nuclear war between the two nations. The 1987 treaty eliminated all ground-based, nuclear-capable weapon systems with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km from each nation’s inventory. Despite this warning and citing Russian treaty violations, the United States officially suspended its INF involvement in February 2019, pending full withdrawal later in August. Shortly after, Moscow threatened nuclear strikes on targets within the continental United States, signaling the danger that could arise from the erosion of post-Cold War nuclear arms control.

This sobering 21st century return to a 20th century relationship between the United States and Russia requires military planners to consider the expanding role nuclear weapons now have. Recent Russian development of low yield, sub-kiloton nuclear weapons such as tactical Close Range Ballistic Missiles and dual-use cruise missiles should give Army planners in particular considerable pause. Within this context, they need to have some knowledge of U.S. nuclear capabilities and planning processes, should they become necessary in a future conflict.

One could assume that Navy and Air Force planners have the market cornered on nuclear matters. These two services operate all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad — intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. Yet in almost all imagined cases, these systems would deliver effects on the land, potentially ahead of or in some proximity to conventional ground maneuver formations. Further, the Army, through the US Army Nuclear and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Agency, has a requirement to provide planning capability for the joint employment of nuclear weapons. Army leaders should not consider themselves a service of bystanders in nuclear operations.

Therefore, mid-grade Army officers — the ranks who fill planning assignments on joint and land component commands — must be armed with an understanding of nuclear weapons in deterrence and employment. A nuclear appreciation may be critical to integrate effects, provide options in planning, and offer perspective for senior leader decisions. Unfortunately, there is virtually no curriculum and a tragic lack of emphasis on nuclear matters within the current Army professional military education pipeline to gain these skills.

Nuclear education used to be a core component of Army professional military education and required reading along with contemporary doctrine. AirLand Battle doctrine, the grandfather to current Unified Land Operations doctrine, anticipated nuclear use in concert with conventional operations. Yet for understandable reasons, the priority has atrophied since the end of the Cold War.

Nuclear studies at the Command and General Staff School peaked at 600 hours of core curriculum by 1960. However, nuclear treaties and the overwhelming, non-nuclear, conventional success during the Persian Gulf War drove a decline in demand for nuclear education at the staff college. Further, the 1991–92 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives mandated the withdrawal and elimination all non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe. This forced the end of most nuclear training and education at the U.S. Field Artillery School — then the proponent for Army nuclear capabilities such as the Pershing II missile and W82 nuclear artillery shell. For nearly the past 20 years, operational requirements have driven the study of low-intensity conflict and Army officers have rightly become professionals in it. However, this has come at the expense of high-intensity warfare, to include nuclear planning, doctrine, and operations a generation of officers understood, lived, and breathed not too long ago.



Outside the Functional Area 52 Nuclear and Counterproliferation career path, the only options for nuclear education for an Army major or lieutenant colonel may be at the Defense Nuclear Weapons School. Headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base and subordinate to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the school offers or hosts a broad menu of courses on nuclear issues. In particular, the U.S. Army Nuclear and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Agency runs the Theater Nuclear Operations Course. While an outstanding, voluntary course, much of the Theater Nuclear Operations Course material is not — but should be — part of a core professional military education curriculum. Little service-wide nuclear education implies there is no common appreciation for nuclear deterrence, triad capabilities, nuclear doctrines of potential adversaries, or options of integrating nuclear with conventional operations. Army planners who are unable to speak this nuclear language may struggle to provide nuclear options in planning. They may dismiss this kind of recommendation altogether assuming it is too unlikely or disproportional, an artifact from bygone days of warmaking and deterrence messaging among great powers.

Yet here we are, faced with a strategic environment involving renewed great power competition among nuclear-capable adversaries preparing its force for a tactical nuclear fight. In this light, mid-grade Army officer education — Captains Career Courses, Intermediate Level Education, and potentially the Advanced Military Studies Program — should include nuclear considerations as a part of their lesson plans. This will provide officers who serve on planning staffs at division, corps, service component, and joint force commands with baseline insights into nuclear deterrence and operational integration.

To produce officers capable of meeting this emerging requirement, the following topics may be useful. They come from the work the Basic Strategic Art Program, the qualification course for Functional Area 59 Army Strategists, has done to ensure its graduates have experience in deterrence and nuclear planning. One does not suggest other Army schools should adopt everything here, but consider it a menu of practical options, scalable to any level, all in order to get students thinking nuclear.

Nuclear Deterrence Theory

Theory is foundational to explaining the phenomenon of war and useful in anticipating future trends and behaviors. Professional military education should include some theoretical discussion to frame out nuclear history and identify current and future trends. Readings may include excerpts from Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence or Bernard Brodie’s Strategy in the Missile Age, both foundational works on nuclear deterrence. Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy develops several enduring strategic themes within a nuclear context such as deterrence by denial or punishment, the Clausewitizian “maximum exertion of strength,” war termination, and moral issues. Lawrence Freedman’s concise book (a modest 140 pages, considering the broad survey it provides), Deterrence offers a solid appreciation for the theory as one facet of coercive strategy. Freedman provides a chapter in Peter Paret’s Makers of Modern Strategy that covers the evolution of U.S. deterrence policy, weapons development, and challenges of extended deterrence within NATO. Countless works could make the list, but these may be the most available, accessible, and broad enough to provide a solid foundation for the Army professional. More importantly, they highlight deterrence as a coercive strategy and the role nuclear capability plays as a major (if not ultimate) deterrent among great power adversaries.

Nuclear Deterrence in Practice

Assuming nuclear non-use is a good thing, then an historical study of how the United States and others have deterred conflict from escalating to the nuclear level may be useful. Deterrence history should focus on how the shadow of nuclear weapons kept a limited conventional conflict from growing into something more serious.

A prime example is non-use during the Korean War, a case where U.S. senior leadership considered nuclear weapons, but constrained operations to conventional means. Nina Tannenwald, Director of the International Relations Program at Brown University, describes the evolution of a nuclear taboo that has precluded the nuclear option from the end of World War II through the various setbacks in Korea. Moral revulsion, disproportionality, a lowered threshold for future use, and even fears of racism precluded nuclear use in Korea. However, there is a practical strategic lesson in the narrative.

Although nuclear use on Chinese targets in Manchuria would have provided an operational effect in stymieing third-party intervention, non-use allowed the war to stay limited — even if bloody and inconclusive — geographically to the Korean peninsula. One of Truman’s fears was that a nuclear attack would induce the Chinese to invade and retake Taiwan, expanding the theater of war in the Pacific. The United States did employ nuclear capability elsewhere, however, during the same period to deter other would-be adversaries. Truman ordered nuclear-capable B-29 strategic bombers to Great Britain to ward off any Soviet impression of military weakness they may have gleaned from Korea and opportunistic moves in Europe. From this or many other case studies, students could appreciate the vertically escalating potential of nuclear weapons and their ability to neutralize horizontal escalation across regions and threats.

Korea, 1950 to 1953, provides a good illustration on nuclear theory in practice for the Army planner, but other examples exists: the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Able Archer 83, or more contemporary situations such as India-Pakistan tensions or North Korea 2017–2018. The intent is for a post-Cold War generation of practitioners to explore nuclear deterrence from recent history through today. They may realize that the mere existence of nuclear weapons, like the notion of a fleet-in-being, provides a continuous means to deter and influence adversaries.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and Nuclear Capabilities.

The Nuclear Posture Review is the most strategic, current, and publicly available document the Defense Department has that describes U.S. nuclear policy and arsenal. It should fall alongside discussion of other defense and national strategy capstone documents. The review may be the ideal point to discuss characteristics of the nuclear triad — potentially an unfamiliar notion to younger Army planners — to include benefits and limitations of each leg.

Since the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, nuclear modernization and development has returned to a top Defense priority. Students should explore the history of the Army’s role in the nuclear enterprise as it sought a niche in the non-strategic (“tactical”) arm of nuclear capability. Discussion on the Pentomic Division or nuclear artillery do not need to fall within the museum of Cold War oddities and relics. They can serve as perfect examples of organizational and materiel force management decisions, made by thoughtful people trying to solve operational and strategic problems. They can help explain the interplay among threats, doctrine, budget, and the force. Anticipation of a nuclear battlefield helped shaped the development of Active Defense and AirLand Battle doctrine and the “Big Five” weapon systems. Students of war ought to consider how the potential for a nuclear battlefield tomorrow should shape force management, doctrine, and investment decisions today.

Adversary Doctrine and Capabilities

Lessons that have a regional focus must draw the student’s attention to the nuclear postures, policies, and known doctrines of potential adversaries. At a more practical level, planning exercises should include considerations for operating on a nuclear battlefield and appreciation for the ranges and yields adversaries could bring to bear in a conflict. Useful, unclassified data for these purposes is widely available. The intent here is for Army officers, as students of the profession, to be as familiar with adversary nuclear capabilities and doctrine as they are with adversary conventional capabilities and doctrine.

Nuclear-Conventional Integration

Future Army planners should become familiar with how to integrate nuclear and conventional operations and how to provide a nuclear option to a geographic combatant commander. These leaders may have a critical role in ensuring nuclear effects complement a conventional fight. Using the Integrated Weapons of Mass Destruction Toolset — an unclassified “For Official Use Only,” web-based system that requires minimal familiarization to use — students could model nuclear effects in order to offer it as an option during exercise course of action development. Modeled fallout projections would force planners to consider risk to the friendly formations and propose alternative routes to steer clear of radiation. They could become familiar with nuclear strike warning messages to provide safe operating distances for ground forces. In all cases, the tools and considerations for nuclear-conventional integration are practical and useful for Army planners.

Army officers need a more pragmatic appreciation of nuclear weapons to include how they may be a part of their operational or strategic planning in future assignments. Recoding some planning assignments to require the Nuclear Targeting Analyst additional skill identifier may incentivize commands to send more officers through the Theater Nuclear Operations Course in order to achieve it. However, given the grave challenges of likely future conflicts, the Army must inculcate a service-wide nuclear perspective across the force through professional military education. The above is a recommendation for Army course authors and instructors to consider as a menu of perspectives to include in their curriculum. It is also a recommendation as a start for self-study and development, just as it has been for this author. More importantly, developing a new generation of Army officers, educated in nuclear planning and proficient in operating on a nuclear battlefield, has a deterrent value all its own. Considering the current adversarial conditions with Russia, planners need to stop considering nuclear weapons as something different and unspoken, but as a likely tool should the call be made.



Brad Hardy is a major in the U.S. Army and deputy director of the Basic Strategic Art Program at the U.S. Army War College. He has held prior planning assignments at Eighth Army and U.S. Army North. The opinions expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Angel D. Martinez