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Nuclear Strategy and Arms Control

The nuclear strategy involves the development of doctrines and strategies for the production and use of nuclear weapons.

As a sub-branch of military strategy, nuclear strategy attempts to match nuclear weapons as means to political ends. In addition to the actual use of nuclear weapons whether on the battlefield or strategically, a large part of the nuclear strategy involves their use as a bargaining tool.

Some of the issues considered within the nuclear strategy include:

  • What conditions does it serve a nation’s interest to develop nuclear weapons?
  • What types of nuclear weapons should be developed?
  • When and how should such weapons be used?

Many strategists argue that nuclear strategy differs from other forms of military strategy because the immense and terrifying power of the weapons makes their use in seeking victory in a traditional military sense impossible.

Perhaps counterintuitively, an important focus of nuclear strategy has been determining how to prevent and deter their use, a crucial part of mutually assured destruction.

In the context of nuclear proliferation and maintaining the balance of power, states also seek to prevent other states from acquiring nuclear weapons as part of their nuclear strategy.

What is the nuclear strategy mean

a policy for the use of nuclear weapons. The first atomic bombs were used in the context of the Allies’ World War II policy of strategic bombing. Early in the cold war, U.S. policy was for massive retaliation with Strategic Air Command bombers in the event of war with the USSR. In 1949, after the Soviets exploded their first atomic device, the United States elaborated other policies, but these did not affect the ever-increasing numbers, types, and explosive force of nuclear arsenals throughout the world.

During the cold war, the nuclear strategies of the United States and the USSR ranged from straightforward deterrence to the threat of massive retaliation during the early 1950s, to limited forward deployment in the late 1950s, to various forms of flexible response in the 1960s. These have included the options of aiming nuclear weapons at other nuclear weapons and aiming them at enemy cities. Behind all of these approaches is the idea that any nuclear war would involve mutually assured destruction (MAD) for the principals, and possibly for the world as well. As a result, the United States developed a weapons arsenal large enough to ensure that enough weapons would survive an enemy’s first strike to retaliate effectively.

The cold war spawned a subculture of nuclear strategists who moved among jobs in academia, at think tanks, and in government departments. Some theorized on how to use nuclear weapons politically and militarily. They proposed various strategies for winning a nuclear war, including first, managing escalation so that the weaker nation withdraws before a full exchange occurs; second, staging a massive first strike that preempts an effective response; third, launching a surgical first strike that destroys enemy leadership; and fourth, a technological breakthrough that makes effective strategic defense possible.

Other strategists concluded that nuclear weapons were so unlike conventional weapons that they changed war fundamentally. Defense proposals, such as the civil defense complexes and antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses of the 1950s and 60s (and the later Strategic Defense Initiative), were seen as destabilizing because they included the concept of acceptable losses in a nuclear conflict. At various times the United States and the USSR pursued arms control proposals designed to improve the stability of the balance of power and to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Opponents of nuclear war have popularized the theory that it could trigger a climatic disaster. pacifists consider nuclear weapons the ultimate argument against war. Some analysts point to the way that nuclear policy has served the interests of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”

The end of the cold war eliminated the fear of a U.S.-USSR confrontation, but both the United States and Russia retain substantial forces. The danger now comes primarily from smaller, less stable nations in more volatile areas of the world that may develop or obtain nuclear weapons capabilities. During the Persian Gulf War, the United States and its allies were concerned about how close Iraq was to developing an operational nuclear weapon. The threat of nuclear war has profoundly shaped human language and culture in the late 20th cent.

Arms control

is an umbrella term for restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, and usage of weapons, especially weapons of mass destruction. Arms control is typically exercised through the use of diplomacy which seeks to impose such limitations upon consenting participants through international treaties and agreements, although it may also comprise efforts by a nation or group of nations to enforce limitations upon a non-consenting country.

On a national or community level, arms control can amount to programs to control the access of private citizens to weapons. This is often referred to as gun politics, as a firearm

Strategic Bombers

The U.S. operational bomber force consists of 92 aircraft armed with 1,800 modern warheads and cruise missiles. The old fleet of B-52H bombers is expected to fly for another 30 years, the modern B-2 production has stopped at 21 aircraft although the production line is kept open just in case. The B-1 bomber was removed from nuclear planning in 1997 with SIOP-98, but can be re-nuclearized on relatively short notice if necessary.

In comparison, despite recent show-off deployments of bombers off Iceland, none of Russia’s 113 bombers, wherever located, is believed to be in a state of day-to-day readiness. When not on alert, the Russian bomber and strategic submarine force probably present less than a dozen targets. There is no known bomber modernization program.

Altogether, at current alert levels, the United States maintains a robust short-warning first-strike capability. When current reductions and upgrades are completed under START II (in the 2007 timeframe), the United States will retain 900 warheads with hard-target kill capability. In comparison, the Russian force in its START II day-to-day configuration will likely represent some 300 targets. Even adding supporting command and storage, there will be fewer than 500 targets for U.S. nuclear planners to aim their 3,500 accountable START II warheads at. Such a level of overkill capability — potentially seven highly accurate warheads per target (if ignoring China) — is of Cold War proportions and difficult to justify even for the most hardened cold warrior. Other reasons for the overkill in the U.S. enduring arsenal must be found outside Russia, primarily in China but increasingly also in “rogue” states.

Deterrence theory

United States policy of deterrence during the Cold War underwent significant variations. The early stages of the Cold War were generally characterized by the ideology of Containment, an aggressive stance on behalf of the United States especially regarding developing nations under their sphere of influence. This period was characterized by numerous proxy wars throughout most of the globe, particularly in Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America. A notable such conflict was the Korean War. In contrast to general opinion, George F. Kennan, who is taken to be the founder of this ideology in the famous Long Telegram, asserted that his ideas had been misinterpreted and that he never advocated military intervention, merely economic support.

Minimal deterrence involves the ability to respond to a nuclear attack with a minimal nuclear counterstrike. In contrast to mutually assured destruction, the counterstrike would not have the ability to destroy the attacker but rather is intended to severely damage the attacker in order to deter an attack. It appears to be the nuclear posture that the People’s Republic of China maintains toward the United States as well as the nuclear policy of India and Pakistan.

Implementing the New Deterrence

After NPR was completed, STRATCOM continued to refine the role of WMD in the U.S. nuclear posture. In April 1995, one of the primary advisory groups to the head of STRATCOM completed an in-depth review of deterrence against Third World proliferators. The review provided “Terms of Reference” to be used as a baseline “to expand the concept of Deterrence of the Use of WMD.”

The review, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence” bluntly criticized the pledge given by President Clinton not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the NPT. It is “easy to see the difficulty we have caused ourselves,” the review said, “by putting forward declaratory policies such as the ‘Negative Security Assurances’ which were put forward to encourage nations to sign up for the Non-proliferation Treaty.” The review warned that “if we put no effort into deterring these [WMD] threats, they will be ‘undeterrable’ by definition.” Threatening what an adversary value most is essential, the review stressed, and here is the anecdote it used to demonstrate it:

The story of the tactic applied by the Soviets during the earliest days of the Lebanon chaos is a case in point. When three of its citizens and their driver were kidnapped and killed, two days later the Soviets had delivered to the leader of the revolutionary activity a package containing a single testicle – that of his eldest son – with a message that said in no uncertain terms, “never bother our people again.” It was successful throughout the period of the conflicts there. Such insightful tailoring of what is valued within a culture, and its weaving into a deterrence message, along with a projection of the capability that is mustered, is the type of creative thinking that must go into deciding what to hold at risk in framing deterrent targeting for multilateral situations in the future.

The review strongly recommended ambiguity in U.S. nuclear deterrence and used President Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein in January 1991 against using chemical weapons as an example of the value of this. But it added another twist to the equation, warning that in threatening nuclear destruction the United States must not appear too-rational and cool-headed. Indeed, that “some elements may appear potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial” to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision-makers. This essential sense of fear, the review concluded, is the working force of deterrence. “That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”

Although STRATCOM later downplayed the status of this review when it was first disclosed in the press in 1998, it used the deterrence review in a test on a potential WMD adversary. In the fall of 1995, shortly after the crisis over North Korea’s threat to withdraw from the NPT, Chief of STRATCOM Admiral Chiles directed that the deterrence review be tested on North Korea. Although the details of that experiment remain classified, it demonstrates that “rogue” states were brought into the mainstream of U.S. nuclear strategy.

When President Clinton put his signature on the PDD-60 in November 1997, he not only ordered the nuclear planners to reduce targeting in Russia and broaden the scope of targeting in China, he also identified specific regional contingencies (such as the Persian Gulf and the Korean Peninsula) where U.S. nuclear forces could be directed against opponents armed with WMD.

This was the situation when Germany and Canada in late 1998 proposed that NATO (and thus the United States) should be reviewed and adopt a no-first-use policy. The United States completely rejected a review but instead of referring to the need to deter the enemies that had the most nuclear weapons pointed against the United States, it was “rogue” states armed with chemical and biological weapons that were used as the justification for maintaining status quo. In his dismissal, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen stated in what almost looked like an excerpt from one of STRATCOM’s submissions to the Nuclear Posture Review working group in 1994:

We think that the ambiguity involved in the issue of the use of nuclear weapons contributes to our own security, keeping any potential adversary who might use either chemical or biologicals [sic] unsure of what our response would be. So we think it’s a sound doctrine. It was adopted certainly during the Cold War but modified even following and reaffirmed following at the end of the Cold War. It is an integral part of our strategic concept and we think it should remain exactly as it is.

Deterrence or Warfighting

The situation of Russia’s dwindling nuclear might on the one hand and the increasing prominence of “other” enemies in U.S. nuclear strategy, on the other hand, has created several paradoxes:

First: despite the thaw in U.S.-Russian relations, significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals, and the publication of several new directives and reviews changing U.S. nuclear planning in the post-Cold War era, nuclear advocates and unreformed Cold Warriors managed to manipulate nuclear policy, codifying a more flexible and adaptable nuclear war plan, one that now accentuates some of the most threatening and destabilizing aspects of nuclear forces.

Second: while the end of the Cold War has permitted a dramatic reduction in the number of targets in Russia and thus U.S. nuclear weapons, the shift from weapons-rich to a target-rich environment with “fewer but more widespread targets has created inherent obstacles to deep nuclear reductions. As the number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has declined, the value and role of each weapon have increased. This creates a need for “effective deterrence” which in turn drives force modernization, stockpile stewardship, robust planning capability, threat-warning, and survivable forces.

Third: while Russia remains the predominant focus of U.S. nuclear planning and the target for the vast majority of U.S. nuclear warheads, it is China and “rogue” states that are mainly pointed to when the U.S. nuclear posture is defended.

Fourth: although defense planners point to the need to maintain ambiguity about the likely U.S. response to a chemical or biological weapons attack, such a policy may be not only inconsistent but inherently dangerous because the United States cannot make its nuclear threat credible without also increasing the likelihood that a U.S. president will feel compelled to use nuclear weapons if deterrence fails. Moreover, explicit or implicit U.S. nuclear threats might also increase adversaries’ fears of U.S. attacks that directly target their central political leaders in their command bunkers by encouraging them to pre-delegate authority to use weapons of mass destruction to lower-level military officers.

Fifth: while part of the objective of the latest Presidential guidance (PDD-60) was to allow the U.S. posture to accommodate anticipated reductions under a START III treaty Russia, the order to plan nuclear contingencies against “rogue” states armed with WMD immediately created inherent obstacles to further reductions in the future. In the study of post-Cold War deterrence from 1995, STRATCOM discovered that expanding the target base globally collided with nuclear weapons reductions. Basically, there would not be enough operational nuclear weapons in the arsenal to cover Russia and China, as well as half a dozen regional troublemakers.

STRATCOM’s internal review of the pros and cons of reducing the number of nuclear warheads below the START II level of 3,500 recommended against deeper cuts partly to maintain enough nuclear weapons for a “broader base to address WMD.” Once an addendum to nuclear war planning, targeting WMD proliferators had become a prominent driver and obstacle to deep cuts.

This development is very different from the description Clinton Administration and Pentagon officials have provided about the changes in the U.S. nuclear posture in the first post-Cold War decade. They talk about reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons but also of reaffirming and maintaining nuclear deterrence as a centerpiece of U.S. national security in the foreseeable future. The main spin they gave on the PDD-60 was that the United States had now removed all requirements that U.S. nuclear forces must prevail in a protracted nuclear war — a “prudent step” it was said given the changes in the World.

The new guidance almost attained an aura of harmony; of being the latest step in the Clinton Administration’s plan to reduce further the position of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy toward eventually.

a relationship existed between the United States’ nuclear weapons employment policy and its arms control policy from the 195Os to the present. Specifically, we sought to determine if one policy was a causal factor for the other, or if the policies evolved in a cooperative manner. The research involved building a comparative chronology of the development and implementation of the two policies. After examining the history it was apparent they are linked in every case.

Because the relationship was so variable, it must be described as a function of time; the driving force behind the relationship changed with successive US administrations and as the relative balance of nuclear strength shifted between the US and the Soviet Union. However, running through the decades were two discernible threads. One was that the short-term goal for arms control always seemed to be to create the equivalence of capability, and the other was that the long-term goal for both employment policy and arms control was to create the appropriate conditions to avoid nuclear war. The conclusion is that long term stability must take priority over short-term numerical equivalence.


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Lavoy, Peter R., Scott D. Sagan, and James J. Wirtz, eds. Planning the Unthinkable: How New Powers Will Use Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons. Ithaca, N.Y., 2000.

Chang, Gordon H. “To the Nuclear Brink: Eisenhower, Dulles and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis.” International Security 12, no. 4 (1988).

Baylis, John, and John Garnett. Makers of Nuclear Strategy. London: Pinter, 1991.

US Strategic Command, “History of the United States Strategic Command, 1994,” Top Secret, [n.d.] p. 42.

John M. Shalikashvili, “National Military Strategy of the United States of America,” Washington D.C.,  1995.