During the past half century, no president has dared to change the nation’s nuclear strategy in any fundamental way. Mired in a Cold-War mind-set, the strategy today has grown less and less connected to the contemporary world and its emerging security threats: terrorism, proliferation, cyber warfare, economic disruption, mass refugee migrations and climate change. Though the strategy’s underlying principles are increasingly outdated, they still underlie a raft of crucial defense policies and programs.
President Obama may be trying to change that in the six months he has left in office. In Prague in April 2009, in the first big foreign policy speech of his presidency, Obama laid out a vision of “a world without nuclear weapons.” Seven years later, he’s done little to realize this goal, but now Obama is contemplating some bold ideas to advance his Prague vision, involving two major reforms in nuclear policy. They are: “no-first-use”—taking off the table the option of ever initiating the use of U.S. nuclear weapons—and “no-launch-on-warning”—eliminating the option of unleashing nuclear weapons immediately after detecting an apparent nuclear strike in progress but before the incoming weapons reach their targets.
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Both changes would make the world a dramatically safer place, giving the president much more latitude to avoid using nuclear weapons. Based on my conversations with administration officials, I believe Obama will soon announce that henceforth the United States will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. I hope he will go further and reject the idea of launch on warning, gearing U.S. nuclear strategy instead to an idea of deterrence based upon the pledge of retaliation from survivable forces and command systems after absorbing a nuclear strike.
Obama has come close to adopting these changes in the past, only to bow to pressure from the national security apparatus. He leaned heavily toward endorsing the principle behind no-first-use—by declaring that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by adversaries—in his 2010 “nuclear posture review,” but he acquiesced to resistance from within his bureaucracy at the last minute. No launch-on-warning received presidential support under the rubric of “increasing warning and decision time,” and in his 2013 “nuclear employment guidance” Obama demanded new efforts to reduce U.S. reliance on launch-on-warning (otherwise known as launch-under-attack).
Like every president before him, Obama faced the disturbing reality that he might have only a few short minutes to decide whether to launch U.S. strategic missiles from their underground silos and submarine launch tubes on the basis of “blips on a radar screen” indicating enemy warheads inbound at 4 miles per second.
As I have advised the Obama administration in consultations over the past several months, these missiles also should be taken off of hair-trigger alert. My recommendation is to de-alert immediately all the strategic forces slated for elimination under the new START treaty, and seek agreement with Russia to initiate a phased mutual stand down of U.S. and Russian launch-ready strategic forces to reduce the risks of accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch. A full squadron of Minuteman missiles would be removed immediately from launch-readiness status.
Why are these changes necessary? Our current, outdated nuclear strategy requires preparations for the first use of U.S. nuclear weapons, including preemptive nuclear strikes against Russia, China and North Korea as well as nations that do not even possess nuclear weapons, such as Iran (and until very recently, Syria). The strategy emphasizes war-fighting—meaning that the majority of targets are nuclear forces and the command centers that direct them. Dressed up as “deterrence requirements,” the war-fighting goal is to destroy the vast bulk of nearly 1,000 aim points in Russia (including 100 in the Moscow area), 500 in China, and scores in North Korea and Iran. It defies common sense that this degree of overkill is needed to deter; the scale of destruction vastly exceeds any reasonable person’s notion of what is necessary to deter an adversary from attacking the United States. This excess also begets excessive counter preparations that only stimulate arms racing in peacetime and fuel instability during a crisis.
The strategy also sustains dangerous “hair-trigger” operational practices that risk causing an accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch of strategic missiles. Both the United States and Russia are poised to launch quickly on warning of an incoming strike, and to a significant degree each relies on it in order to be able to destroy the very long list of targets on the other side. Their “launch-on-warning” options impose extremely short deadlines for assessing warning and rendering a decision. The U.S. president would have only minutes—at most 12 minutes—to determine whether and how to respond to indications of an apparent missile attack. Because of Russia’s decrepit satellites, its president has only two to four minutes to sort out the situation and order a response. Their hair-trigger postures carry a very real risk that a catastrophic nuclear exchange could begin with a false or confusing report from early warning sensors compounded by fear and panic.
The strategy also drives wasteful investments in nuclear weapons “modernization.” The United States is embarking on a trillion-dollar investment to trade in its aging strategic land-based missiles, submarines and bombers (the “Triad” of nuclear attack vehicles) for newer versions in order to sustain its accident-prone, destabilizing, first-use and quick-second-use (launch on warning), war-fighting strategy designed for Cold War scenarios that no longer make any sense. The perverse misallocation of investment driven by such Cold War anachronisms as the strategic requirement to maintain three kinds of attack vehicles—the Triad—is exemplified by plans to replace the vulnerable land-based strategic missile force in fixed underground silos with—yes, you guessed it—vulnerable land-based strategic missile forces in fixed underground silos. These sitting ducks are an albatross around the neck of any president who might not wish to be saddled with highly vulnerable forces at a moment of confusion over reports of enemy attack coming from early warning sensors.
Lastly, the strategy thwarts progress toward Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It works to stimulate nuclear arms competition among the rivals, whose numbers have risen to nine, with the jury still out on a 10th (Iran) and with dozens of potential proliferators in the wings. A nuclear war-fighting strategy that requires the destruction of several other countries’ capacity for nuclear war-fighting is a formula for preserving, not eliminating, the arsenals.
Obama is undoubtedly reconsidering no-first-use and no-launch-on-warning as ways to break out of this hoary strategic dead end. The logic for adopting no-first-use begins with the hard fact that the first use of U.S. nuclear weapons on any scale against Russia or China would only ensure the destruction of the United States by their nuclear forces launched in retaliation. Some observers challenge this conclusion on the grounds that the United States possesses nuclear primacy over these countries and could effectively disarm them in a first strike. This argument is wrong, but even if the United States achieved such superiority and could sustain it over time, its security would only be undermined because it would create a powerful incentive for an adversary to launch a preemptive attack in a crisis out of fear of a U.S. disarming strike.
U.S. security would be far better served if we lacked such primacy and convinced potential nuclear aggressors that we neither possess nor want it, and in fact have abandoned first-use plans and placed top priority on survivable forces that do not project a first-strike threat.
Regarding other adversaries such as Iran and Syria, “sole purpose” implies that U.S. nuclear forces would not be used in conflict with them because they lack nuclear weapons. Nor would U.S. nukes be needed in fighting them, or for that matter fighting any other challenger. The capabilities of today’s non-nuclear U.S. forces constitute a juggernaut capable of delivering a fatal blow to Iranian, Syrian, and terrorist threats to U.S. interests, including biological or chemical weapons threats.
The launch-ready nuclear postures of Russia and the United States are throwbacks to a bygone era.
U.S. conventional capabilities in combination with South Korean armed forces could also handily defeat North Korean conventional, nuclear, biological or chemical aggression. Although U.S. nuclear forces would serve to deter North Korea from initiating a nuclear strike against the U.S. or our allies, there exist strong disincentives against their actual use against the DPRK. Such use would cause a huge self-inflicted wound from the prevailing winds on the Korean Peninsula blowing deadly radioactive fallout into Japanese territory. At any rate, U.S. and South Korean non-nuclear forces would prevail in any conflict with North Korea.
The second reform of eliminating plans for and exercising of “launch on warning” would increase the president’s decision time and reduce the risks of the mistaken launch of U.S. strategic missiles on false warning. Given the 15- to 30-minute flight times of incoming missiles, a presidential launch decision must be made at such lightning speed that careful deliberation is simply impossible. As long as they retain and rely upon launch on warning, both the United States and Russia will run the risk of launching on false indications of enemy attack—indeed false alarms have brought both close to mistaken launch on numerous occasions—and the emergence of cyber warfare threats to early warning databases has increased the risk.
The launch-ready nuclear postures of Russia and the United States are throwbacks to a bygone era. The likelihood is extremely remote that either nation would deliberately initiate a massive strike aimed at comprehensively destroying the other side’s strategic forces. (No-first-use policies would further reduce this likelihood.) The risks run by these archaic postures are thus unnecessary because the underlying attack scenario is implausible. There is therefore an urgent need and opportunity for the U.S. and Russia to immediately eliminate “launch on warning” from their operational repertoire, either by mutual agreement or independent action.
In short, there exists no plausible circumstance in which nuclear first use would be in the national security interest of the United States. Although U.S. nuclear forces would continue to deter the first use of Russian, Chinese, and North Korean nuclear weapons, this role is not served, but rather is undermined, by any first use of U.S. nuclear weapons. The removal of the U.S. threat of a nuclear first strike would strengthen strategic and crisis stability, and would also exert pressure on other nations whose doctrines allow for nuclear first use—Russia and Pakistan in particular—to revise those doctrines accordingly. Secondly, since the risks of launch on false warning outweigh any plausible benefits, the president should order an end to planning, training and exercising it.
President Obama ought to shed the straitjacket of the Washington national security playbook and implement both reforms. Taking the nuclear first-use and quick-launch options off the table would be controversial, but he would have reason and morality on his side. In reality, these bold reforms would strengthen the national security, put the United States in good stead with the disarmament pillar of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, reinforce the maxim that nuclear wars cannot be won and must not be initiated, and live up to the promise of Prague.
By BRUCE BLAIR