Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on August 27, 2012
Article summary below; read the full text online.
As the plausible military rationales for nuclear weapons continue to deteriorate in the aftermath of the Cold War, political and psychological rationales for nuclear weapons -- like providing reassurance to US allies -- are increasingly viewed to be just as important as deterrence. For example, the 2009 final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States proclaimed: "Indeed, the assurance function of the force is as important as ever."
The commission also argued that some US "allies believe that their needs can only be met with very specific US capabilities." In particular, the commission highlighted the importance of nonstrategic (or "tactical") nuclear weapons, lower-yield warheads intended for short-range applications or even battlefield use. It noted that the continued deployment of approximately 200 US nonstrategic B61 gravity bombs in Europe and the maintenance of nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles (TLAM-N) in the Pacific are essential to extending deterrence on behalf US partners in Eastern Europe and East Asia. Without these capabilities, the commission hinted, some US allies might just choose to develop their own nuclear weapons.
Critics of the continued reduction in the role and number of US nuclear weapons have latched onto these arguments in their efforts to stymie changes to US nuclear posture. For example, in this year's House version of the defense authorization bill, Republicans included provisions that, if written into law, would predicate the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe on several extreme conditions and require the Pentagon to study the potential redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific.