Is The No First Use Policy the Right Policy?
Should the United States adopt a new policy of pledging never to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict? The Arms Control Association (ACA) thinks so. They argue that since there is no need for the US to go first with the use of nuclear weapons, why don’t we simply make it official and declare it as US policy?
They argue—quite correctly-- that because “it is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack” there is no reason to strike first because “…the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.”
But on the other hand, if our nuclear forces are structured in such a way to avoid any pressures to go first, what problem is ACA trying to solve beyond the symbolism of such a “no first use” declaration? And furthermore, could such a declaration worsen strategic stability, making conflict more likely?
While ACA argues our forces are sufficiently survivable to retaliate with a “devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor”, they argue simultaneously that our nuclear forces are also on a “prompt launch” hair trigger, ready to fire at our enemies at the first sign of a crisis.
What is going on? Which is it—are our nuclear forces secure enough to retaliate or so vulnerable to require an immediate launch in a crisis?
The explanation is quite simple. At play is nuclear politics.
Many in the arms control community are unhappy that the administration supports major nuclear modernization. They want to cut nuclear funding. With an administration that pledged in 2009 to work to get to zero nuclear weapons, it was assumed lots of nuclear funding could be, and would be, eliminated.
But the administration along with Congress realized we have to spend the money planned for modernization. After a many decades’ long nuclear modernization “holiday”, our nuclear deterrent was in danger of “rusting to obsolescence”.
And to modernize the entire deterrent will cost $24-34 billion a year over the next decade. That is roughly a very reasonable 4-5% of the projected defense budget but significantly less than the 25% during the height of the Cold War.
On the other hand, to save billions we could place all of our nuclear forces on land-based missiles each armed with 10 warheads. Given we are limited to 1550 warheads under the New Start Treaty, we could deploy such a force of 150 missiles for $10 billion.
This compares to the current plan to acquire 12 submarines, 400 Minuteman missiles and 60 strategic bombers for a future modernized force at a cost of more than $200 billion over the next 25 years.
For over half a century, the United States has built three nuclear legs of what is known as a Triad for a key reason. We have penetrating bombers also carrying cruise missiles, silo land based missiles spread out over tens of thousands of square miles and submarines continuously at sea. This structure means this Triad of over 500 targets cannot be simultaneously attacked by an aggressor. Thus, in a crisis a nuclear armed adversary has no incentive to try and get the drop on us with a surprise disarming attack. It won’t work.
Now this modernized force is diverse and more expensive than a force of just a single type of deterrent. It also has to be flexible and capable of being expanded or upgraded as it has to remain in place for over four decades. It has to meet changes in the strategic environment such as the rise of new peer competitors or the surprise deployment of new nuclear missiles.
For example, President Kennedy announced to the nation on October 22, 1962 that the Soviets had put nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba, a potential game-changer in the strategic environment.
As President Kennedy explained later, the US was simultaneously—luckily-- modernizing its nuclear deterrent. In fact, 10 brand new Minuteman ICBM’s went on alert on October 22, 1982, what the President described as “my ace in the hole”. Modernization in the nick of time probably prevented nuclear war.
The default position of much of the arms control community is to be against nuclear arms spending in general. But despite their efforts to cut nuclear spending, the administration and Congress have not cut back.
In fact, Congressional defense leaders have argued for going forward aggressively with the entire modernization effort. The administration has said it is their top defense priority.
Unable to cut US nuclear force modernization, ACA tries for what they consider the next best thing. They seek to change US nuclear policy. Thus the proposal for no first use.
But if US nuclear forces structured to give a US President time to make a careful decision in a crisis, why the need for a change in policy? Why would a future US President act recklessly and disregard decades of US policy and quickly launch our nuclear missiles on the onset of any number of crises? As our nuclear forces are highly survivable, no quick decision about their use is needed.
And furthermore, in the 1990’s, the US officially de-targeted our missiles so if launched accidentally the warheads would land in the middle of the broad ocean. Though our nuclear adversaries probably made no such change, the United States did so making accidental launch fears unfounded.
One could argue that in the case of a future crisis the United States could publicly change back to the current policy of strategic ambiguity—where we have declared we reserve the right to use all available American military power—including nuclear weapons—but will not delineate how and where such power will be used.
But publicly announcing such a nuclear policy in the midst of a crisis may seriously confuse both our allies and enemies. Our adversaries may think we may be getting ready to use nuclear weapons and our friends may think we have given up on diplomacy.
Either way we may mistakenly be sending the wrong signal.
Brad Roberts, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Policy and Missile Defense, explained such confusing messages could well trigger what he called a “1914 event,” as in the period just before World War I, where actions thought by one country to clearly deter war were interpreted as preparations for war by another country.
Is there a need to change our nuclear declaratory policy? It does not appear so. Our current ambiguous nuclear policy on when we would or would not use nuclear weapons has kept the nuclear peace for 70 years. Why the rush, just at the end of an administration, to change it now?
To conclude, our current nuclear policy isn’t sick; but this “cure” could put it in the hospital. Or to put it differently, remember we survived World War I. But could we survive the next one?