While one looks with alarm at the massive Russian nuclear modernization effort now nearing completion, the disarmament lobby views such modernization as simply a reflection of how the American threat is perceived by the Russians. (Image source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons)
There is a widespread belief, especially among advocates of nuclear disarmament, that a country with nuclear weapons is primarily interested in self-protection. The narrative continues with another belief -- really more of a wish -- that nuclear weapons should never be used to deter anything other than a nuclear attack from an adversary and, if that can be agreed upon, nations would then be willing to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether.
Those beliefs then requires a further assumption that nuclear weapons cannot practically be used as instruments of aggression, coercion or blackmail and -- because nuclear weapons are so deadly -- that they also would not be used to deter non-nuclear attacks, such as those involving cyber, an electromagnetic pulse, or biological weapons.
A further assumption, held by many leaders in the disarmament community, is that even if nuclear deterrence breaks down, no retaliatory use of nuclear weapons is warranted -- because, again, the risks of escalation toward an all-out nuclear Armageddon are too great. As it is also assumed that no nuclear-armed country would risk such an Armageddon, nuclear-armed adversaries of the US must therefore only be seeking to deter US attacks and therefore have no nuclear ambitions beyond that.
Disarmament supporters go even further. They argue that even should nuclear deterrence break down, the United States should still use only conventional weapons. The late founder of Global Zero at Princeton University, for example, Bruce Blair, testified before Congress in 2019 that for the United States, any response to being attacked with nuclear weapons should be limited just to conventional weapons.
As a consequence, while one looks with alarm at the massive Russian nuclear modernization effort now nearing completion, the disarmament lobby -- such as Ploughshares and Global Zero -- views such modernization as simply a reflection of how the American threat is perceived by the Russians. According to this logic, if the US simply diminished its threat by, say, pledging never to use nuclear weapons first and to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America's deterrent strategy, nuclear dangers would markedly diminish and Russia, too, would diminish its nuclear modernization efforts.
Insofar as nuclear and arms control issues are involved, it is important to devise sound policies that advance the interests and values of the US and its allies. Especially as President-elect Biden has now indicated his interest in cutting both the budget for low-yield nuclear weapons and adopting abrupt changes such as "no-first-use" in nuclear policy, it is necessary to rely on evidence and facts, not mythology.
Particularly worrisome are the comments from defense experts associated with the incoming administration who are calling for policies never adopted by previous administrations or Congress in all of the 75 years of the nuclear age. These ideas include eliminating the ICBM leg of the land-sea-air Triad, stopping the acquisition of both low-yield warheads and the new bomber cruise missile, and adopting such policies as "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons, all under the assumptions that nuclear weapons -- even those held by adversaries -- exist to deter the possible use of nuclear weapons and serve no other deterrent or political goal.
Although discussions about United States nuclear policy should not cease, it remains a fact that since 1945, the United States has held a bipartisan consensus on the need over time to update and modernize the entire nuclear establishment to ensure the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of a US nuclear deterrent. This consensus is a remarkable achievement through 13 Presidential administrations, 7 Republican and 6 Democratic. It illustrates how, over 75 years, a bipartisan policy can be thoughtfully and successfully pursued. Such a consensus should not be jettisoned cavalierly.
It now appears, however, that this consensus is at risk. That possibility is not just consequential for the United States. It is also critical for America's allies: their safety has long been acknowledged as a vital US interest.
It is therefore most urgent to fully examine a popular argument: that it should be US policy to assert that nuclear weapons' sole purpose can only be to deter other nuclear weapons from being used first. This argument, unfortunately, not only happens to be factually false, it is also dishonest -- both morally and politically -- no small achievement.
In many instances, such as Russia's and China's attainment of nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation took place, at least in part, precisely to overcome and deter the superiority of conventional weapons possessed by the Free World's adversaries. This was true for NATO strategy during the Cold War and apparently today as well.
Whether we are discussing India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, Russia or China, it seems clear that the rulers of these states were frightened by the specter of their rivals' conventional superiority and sought nuclear weapons expressly to deter the possible use of those superior conventional forces. There is also little doubt that the Russian Federation's priority investment in nuclear weapons was -- and remains -- aimed primarily to checkmate the United States' conventional weapons superiority, and give Russia a free hand to use its own military power for hegemonic purposes. The same could be said of North Korea and Iran's decisions to go along their paths toward nuclear breakout.
Anyone who postulates that the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons should be solely to deter nuclear threats would therefore seem to have a false grasp of reality. Historical studies of the evolution of the American nuclear deterrent reveal that it too was driven to a considerable degree by the need to provide extended deterrence against the clearly understood threat of a superior Soviet conventional (and, as we now know nuclear, as well) thrust into Europe, or another Chinese conventional attack on U.S. allies in Asia. The claim that the sole purpose of having nuclear weapons is to deter other states' nuclear weapons is simply historically not accurate.
What brings the issue to the forefront today is that many luminaries of previous administrations who may now be staffing the incoming administration still hold these historically inaccurate views. Further, the argument concerning the sole purpose of nuclear weapons also serves as a Trojan horse aimed to get the United States and its allies to rely on a declared "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons as a stated policy and then rebrand it so it can be sold without explicitly naming it to American audiences. If nuclear weapons are solely for the purpose of stopping the first use of nuclear weapons, the argument goes, well then the adoption of a "no-first-use" policy obviates the need for nuclear weapons in the first place and might even gradually lead to their abolition.
The argument for "no-first-use" is therefore not only disingenuous, but also dangerous. A "no-first-use" policy would unilaterally undermine not only US interests but those of its allies in both Asia and Europe. Indeed, former Defense Secretary William Perry, who has since his retirement from office become an exponent of "no-first-use," has candidly admitted that the "sole purpose" argument is a stalking horse for significant nuclear disarmament. How that is meant to improve our allies' confidence in US leadership, and support multilateral efforts to solve security problems, is beyond understanding.
These arguments also ignore Russian and Chinese military developments. Russia's present nuclear force structure is actually designed, as the Russian government admitted in 2020, for a first strike in order to deter conventional as well as nuclear attacks by its main enemy, the West. News reports reveal that Russia has just produced a 6,200-kilometer range missile, with a speed of 15,000 kilometers an hour, each missile carrying 16-20 nuclear warheads. Just 100 such missiles would be able to put into Russia's force 233% of the total warheads allowed by the US and Russia's 2010 New Start Treaty -- hardly reflective of a nuclear armed power interested in nuclear disarmament.
A commitment to a "sole-purpose" posture -- or to its equivalent, a "no-first-use" stance -- not only undermines the US nuclear umbrella upon which America's allies have relied for 70 years, it also invites a Russian first strike. Moscow's conventional and nuclear forces are configured for just that kind of operation and are ultimately restrained only by the American nuclear deterrent. If the United States wrongly assumes that Russia's deterrent serves no offensive purpose, we would be ignoring recent evidence to the contrary.
Experts on the Russian military fully understand that Russia's military posture is fundamentally offensive. As Michael Kofman wrote in 2019, because Russia appears to shun deterrence by denial, its doctrine has evolved into what Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov calls "active defense":
This is a set of preemptive nonmilitary and military measures, deterrence and escalation management based on cost imposition. The Russian armed forces are geared towards being able to preemptively neutralize an emerging threat or deter by showing the ability and willingness to inflict unacceptable consequences on the potential adversary. In practice this includes a range of calibrated damage, from single and grouped conventional strikes against economic or military infrastructure, to massed employment of precision guided weapons, followed by non-strategic nuclear weapons, and at the outer edges, theater-strategic nuclear warfare.
Similarly, the Norwegian expert, Katarzyna Zysk shows that from 2000, if not before, Russia engaged in what Zysk calls "stake-raising strategies." These involve using the threat of nuclear weapons to deter US conventional superiority on the same principle: raising the costs of any attack on Russia to prohibitive levels. Since 2000, Russian military doctrines, including the updated 2014 version, "maintained clauses permitting Russia the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict." While Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promises that non-nuclear deterrence will be completely ready by 2021, it is unlikely that this promise can or will be realized. That omission leaves Russian nuclear weapons configured in an offensive first-strike mode, including new hypersonic weapons that threaten strategic stability, as Russia's primary and most reliable military force.
The historical and current evidence of Russia's policy shows not only that the "sole purpose" argument is bankrupt both factually and politically; it also clearly reveals what the consequences of a "no-first-use" policy would be. Since 2008, Russia has repeatedly used its nuclear deterrent to shield conventional invasions against its neighbors while undertaking literally hundreds of probes against NATO and US defenses. In short, Russia's ability to initiate conventional strikes against its rivals and adversaries is closely backed up by nuclear weapons. Russia is not alone in so doing. North Korea's and Pakistan's unremitting support for terrorism against India and the Republic of Korea, respectively, operates on a similar principle of using nuclear weapons to backstop aggressive conventional or terrorist operations.
Further underlying the push for adopting policies such as "no-first-use" or dismantling elements of America's nuclear deterrent, is a belief that the United States can reduce international tensions by a partial unilateral disarmament -- by the power of setting an example. Just as the "sole purpose" and "no-first-use" arguments on nuclear weapons fall to pieces when examined in the light of history and the actual policies of nuclear states, so too does this moralistic and implicitly self-righteous fantasy. It neglects that both China and Russia, not to mention North Korea and Iran, have feared the United States' conventional superiority, and that such fear has driven -- and still drives – the nuclear and non-nuclear weapons programs of America's adversaries.
Unless the US disarms conventionally, the thinking goes -- a notion hardly to be expected -- the nuclear ambitions of those four adversaries of the US will not change.
It is important to call out the perfervid moralism that afflicts many commentators who think it is evil for the US to have, and threaten to use, nuclear weapons but who omit or overlook that other states have no compunction about threatening to use their nuclear weapons. Worse, the record of observance of disarmament treaties leaves much to be desired.
These critics also fail to consider that US steps toward unilateral disarmament designed to showcase a superior moral posture might immediately trigger a wave of panic-stricken nuclear proliferation in Europe and Asia among America's allies. As one Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) study concluded, these allies of the United States would then lose faith in America's reliability and scramble to enhance their own nuclear capabilities. The same arms-race would occur in the Middle East if US allies there feared facing a potential nuclear-armed Iran by themselves.
It also is worth asking whether North Korea or China, for instance, if the US withdrew its protective nuclear umbrella, would actually wait for South Korea or Japan to attain their own nuclear weapons first, or whether they would act preemptively to prevent such an eventuality. Iran would undoubtedly see even partial unilateral US disarmament as a green light for its nuclear quest. One can imagine what that would lead to in the Middle East. A partial US disarmament there might very well mean an upsurge of terrorism and potential major conventional or nuclear wars throughout that region.
To be sure, there are those who now advocate giving countries such as South Korea and Japan a green light to go nuclear on their own. It is clear, however, that this argument merely cloaks a US unilateral withdrawal from its alliances: a betrayal. The move amounts to unilateral disarmament and does not seem a realistic assessment of how the threat of unleashing nuclear weapons is actually used.
The sentiment to disparage or even abolish nuclear weapons and the politics of nuclear weapons is constantly being revived. While such sentiments are understandable, that does not make them more noble, practical or correct. Nuclear war would be an unspeakable horror for the world but this genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Moreover, nuclear deterrence, whatever its faults, has kept the peace between superpowers for three quarters of a century, despite the moralism of the anti-nuclear forces who would like to ignore that major nuclear powers do not always follow international treaties decreeing an end to nuclear weapons or to war in general.
All these are hard, if dismaying, facts. Both Moscow and Beijing are building hundreds of new nuclear weapons. China is on track to double them during this decade. Moreover, US unilateral acts of altruism, designed to lead by example, sadly will not be reciprocated: states in general, and certainly Russia and China, are, to quote Charles De Gaulle, "cold monsters".
The appropriate US response to nuclear moves by Russia and China will, of course, be debated by Congress and others. But the unbudgeable facts presented here suggest that nuclear modernization, supported by the long-held bilateral consensus of maintaining a safe, reliable and effective nuclear deterrent to advance the interests of the US and its allies, merits continuation for the foreseeable future. We should not deceive ourselves into believing that Moscow or Beijing will suddenly become more accommodating if the US jettisons major elements of its nuclear deterrent. They would probably just regard the US as foolish and naïve. Indeed, the British Parliament concluded in a summer 2020 report that Putin and his gang of oligarchs will not relent in their struggle against the West even if London made major concessions to it.
Policymakers in the "world as it is" rather than in the "world as we wish it were" -- if not academics and intellectuals -- understand this. Hard analytical observation of military history and nuclear threats -- rather than outraged moralism -- is required. While the quest for arms control, security and peace deserves to be pursued, such a quest requires a morality based on the evidence of history and recognizing that one can only peacefully reduce nuclear threats by appearing uninviting to attack. So far, that seems the only way throughout centuries that has kept the cold monsters from launching hot wars.
Peter Huessy, Senior Consulting Analyst at Ravenna Associates, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.