I’m way late in blurbing this, but I wrote my September Bulletin column on the conditions under which the United States might consider using nuclear weapons, using the debate over whether to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a jump off point. Here’s how I began (and FYI I wrote it before Secretary of State Kerry’s maybe not so off the cuff remark led to a diplomatic deal with Russia that is at least for now leading toward Syria’s chemical disarmament):
The Syrian regime’s large-scale use of chemical weapons has prompted a vigorous discussion about whether the United States should respond with military force, and if so, how. Those advocating the use of force have debated options ranging from limited cruise missile strikes to a much larger campaign designed to mortally wound Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
One military option that has thankfully not been part of the debate is the use of nuclear weapons. Yet unbeknownst to many, the most recent Nuclear Posture Review—a US government assessment of the proper role of nuclear weapons—technically does not rule out using them in response to nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons use by states, like Syria, deemed to be in noncompliance with their nonproliferation obligations.
There is, on the other hand, apparently universal agreement that using nuclear weapons in the midst of another country’s civil war would be wildly inappropriate and ineffective. But Syria’s use of chemical weapons raises several important questions that bear on US policy: If Washington wouldn’t consider using nuclear weapons even where its own official policy allows it, under what circumstances would it actually contemplate using them? And if it did, how many might it use?
Apart from responding to another country’s first use, the scenarios under which a US president would consider authorizing the use of these weapons are so limited as to be almost inconceivable. Moreover, if the president did use nuclear weapons, he or she would likely need only a handful, not the thousands the United States currently possesses. While nuclear weapons still retain value as a deterrent, changing geopolitical and technological conditions have made them a niche weapon, not the bedrock of US security that some still claim they are.
You can read the whole thing here. In a future column I hope to explore what a force premised more heavily on retaliation, including numbers, force posture, and warhead and delivery system types, might look like.