My March Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column is now online and I tried to tackle the issue of whether it makes sense for the U.S. to place greater emphasis on counterforce (i.e. targeting an adversary’s leadership and strategic forces) in its nuclear strategy by retaining and modernizing it’s lowest-yield weapons. I conclude:
US nuclear weapons policy is at a critical crossroad. The administration is currently reviewing future deterrence requirements, which will ultimately revise existing presidential guidance regarding the targeting of nuclear weapons, appropriate force levels, and more. Meanwhile, the Pentagon must decide how, on a tight budget, to replace the land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers that make up the nuclear triad, all of which are nearing the end of their service lives at roughly the same time.
The threats posed by rogue states like North Korea and Iran present real security challenges to the United States, but they can’t be addressed by nurturing US nuclear war-fighting capabilities. The United States can easily continue to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in its security strategy and still maintain a devastating deterrent without placing greater emphasis on counterforce.
The article pushes back against the argument that augmenting low-yield counterforce options could enhance deterrence of nuclear use (or even low-level conventional provocations) by a rogue state adversary or limit damage in the event deterrence fails.
These proposals are remedies in search of a problem (i.e. the credibility of existing U.S. nuclear and let’s not forget conventional capabilities) that doesn’t exist. And they wouldn’t work in any event (because the missiles we’d try to target would probably be mobile and most likely gone before our nukes ever arrived). And they would have significant costs. The fact is that our current strategy is about as credible as it can be at this point.
As one colleague put it to me re: augmenting low-yield nukes to strengthen deterrence of low-level conventional provocations “what military official in Pyongyang is looking at the U.S. nuclear arsenal and thinks that we would never use the B-61 against them, but we wouldn’t hesitate to use a .2 kiloton cruise missile if they sank another ship?” Moreover, what military official in Pyongyang believes that the U.S. would be “self-deterred” by its existing nuclear arsenal in the event Pyongyang launched nuclear weapons against the U.S. homeland, U.S. troops, or a U.S. ally?
One issue I didn’t explore in the piece is the enormous U.S. political and quite frankly moral obstacles to the use of nuclear weapons (i.e. the “nuclear taboo”). It’s hard for me to believe that a reduction in yield would reduce these barriers, though placing great emphasis on low-yield options that could allegedly cause fewer civilian casualties certainly wouldn’t strengthen the taboo.