U.S Nuclear Weapon Policy

Current U.S. nuclear strategy is to retain a triad of nuclear weapons sufficient to counter the Russian strategic force and to provide a secure retaliatory capability to deter the use of nuclear weapons by hostile and irresponsible countries. That formulation, by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has also been adopted. The reasons for retaining a triad, a product of very conservative estimates of what would be required to cope with a disarming Soviet first strike, are not discussed officially. Current force levels and reductions, which have been driven largely by political events of the recent past, also are not necessarily tied to prior assessments of military requirements or efficiency. The assumption is that a floor exists beneath which U.S. forces cannot be allowed to fall, but this minimum level is not necessarily determined by targeting doctrine or the political goals that the doctrine is meant to uphold.

The question of which countries the United States will target with nuclear weapons in the future and under what circumstances is simply not articulated and certainly not clearly understood. According to some officials, this question does not require an a priori answer. The preponderance of U.S. strategic forces remains targeted at the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, considered an immutable imperative. Despite an agreement reached for the two sides to retarget their forces away from one another’s territories a symbolic step it is emphasized repeatedly by defense officials that weapons could be rapidly retargeted if necessary. The targeting review conducted by the Bush administration purportedly generated plans that provided for flexible options for global application, including the ability to retarget weapons quickly to meet any contingency. More recently, plans have been discussed to target third world countries with highly accurate conventional forces as well.

The vanishing Cold War nuclear order was the product of a need to deter aggression against NATO by superior Warsaw Pact conventional forces. NATO members were unwilling or unable to dedicate sufficient resources or to take the necessary steps to restructure their defense sectors to rectify the disparities in conventional capabilities. Nuclear weapons were a cheap way of maintaining a military balance. Outside of NATO, nuclear guarantees were extended very selectively to close U.S. allies who confronted proximate enemies allied with or part of the Soviet bloc. Insofar as these arrangements were considered legitimate, it was as part of a bipolar system in which the United States, Europe, and a few other allies were united in a defensive alliance, while the Soviet Union was seen as an expansionist power bent on global hegemony.

With the exception of Russia and China, the current nuclear threat, to the extent it can be reliably defined, consists of a handful of states with small or fledgling programs and sometimes just immodest ambitions. This is not to belittle the dangers such states may pose to international or regional stability in the future. But the sudden elevation of third world powers to the status of ruthless enemies on a par with the Soviet Union bears further examination, especially since it is now becoming a principal rationale for retaining a U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Part of the logic of this argument hinges on the notion that the Soviet Union was rational, valued its survival, and could be targeted effectively, whereas the nuclear powers of the future probably will not share these traits.

Now this may questioned “Will our nuclear adversaries always be rational, or at least operate with the same logic as we do? We can’t be sure. Will we always be able to put our adversaries at risk to make deterrence work? Not necessarily, particularly with terrorists whom we may not even be able to find.” But if one is going to make the argument that U.S. strategy falls apart in the face of a third world atomic adversary, one has the intellectual responsibility to explain the reasons. What is the basis for the vast differences in U.S. and Western resolve against enemies who are nuclear dwarfs compared with the Soviet Union? What does this say for the legacy of flexible response? Was the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union over Europe merely an abstraction, whereas the Iraqi scenario is serious?

The retroactive depiction of the Soviet Union as an essentially benign adversary who could be counted on to play by the rules certainly runs counter to the volumes written by erudite scholars about the Soviet proclivity for war or the lower value Soviet citizens placed on human life. Without even a decent interval, the Soviets have been strangely redeemed and emerging or aspiring third world nuclear powers have inherited the mantle of the evil empire. They are now the warmongers who have a higher tolerance for death and are driven by causes that supersede rational calculation. It hardly needs mention that this caricature of the third world is rather racist; one can also discern that it is often meant to depict the Islamic world. The notion that there are undeterrable states would seem to suggest that the architecture of nuclear-based deterrence has little utility in the modern world. Deterrence has always relied on the demonstrated ability and willingness to use nuclear weapons if necessary, and to communicate this intent to potential adversaries. But officials have proven remarkably squeamish when asked to articulate the way residual U.S. forces will be targeted and used in the new world order. The political hazards of discussing such contingencies are obvious, and no agreed-on procedures exist to even begin discussions about the future role of nuclear forces operating in the third world. (Zalmay Khalilzad, Jeremy Shapiro, 2002)

The haste to define new threats has left no opportunity for an adequate evaluation of the legacy of nuclear weapons for American security, let alone time to think about their future. Did nuclear weapons prevent war? What are the lessons to be derived from the history of nuclear deterrence, different operational practices, or the use of nuclear threats? Which among these lessons would we want other states to emulate? Unless the nuclear powers are willing to confront the security benefits or dangers of their own policies, it will not be possible to craft coherent policy for others. What is decided about the nuclear legacy, in short, has important ramifications for future force planning and, most important, for designing credible

The perception of the value ascribed to nuclear weapons by the established nuclear powers will play an influential role in determining the success or failure of the effort to extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A crisis is brewing between nuclear “haves” and “have nots” over the relative legitimacy of a regime premised on a belief that nuclear weapons can serve as the core of large powers’ sovereign security interests but must be denied to others in the interest of peace.

It is fair to say that only a concerted strategy by the United States and the other nuclear powers to deemphasize the role and utility of nuclear weapons as a global norm stands a chance of averting this crisis. The renunciation of plans to test nuclear weapons, at a minimum, would help reduce the asymmetries in the international protocol governing nuclear weapons. The established nuclear powers must begin to accommodate the demand among regional powers for greater equity in the regime if they are serious about stopping the spread of all weapons of mass destruction.


Zalmay Khalilzad, Jeremy Shapiro, 2002. Strategic Appraisal: United States Air and Space Power in the 21st Century; Rand

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