East Asia Nuclear Policy Project
Morton H. Halperin, The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Section 2, "American Nuclear Options (I)"


American Nuclear Options I

The U.S. government continues to wrestle with what nuclear policy and nuclear force structure make sense in light of the post-cold war situation and the increased attention to the problems of nuclear proliferation. The basic, available options for U.S. policy include: maintaining the status quo with minor changes; adopting a program to stigmatize nuclear weapons and to drastically reduce nuclear arsenals and reliance on nuclear weapons; and increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, especially to deter and respond to a range of actions by rogue states.

Before discussing these options, it is important to consider the purposes for which the United States might use nuclear weapons, as well as U.S. objectives in addressing the problems of nuclear proliferation.

The range of purposes (explained below) for which the United States might seek to use its nuclear weapons includes: deterring deliberate nuclear attacks on the United States, preventing accidental or unauthorized nuclear attacks on the United Sates, deterring nuclear attacks on U.S. allies, deterring conventional attacks against U.S. allies, and deterring the actions of rogue states or terrorists.

1. Deterring Deliberate Nuclear Attacks on the United States

Deterrence is the fundamental purpose for which the United States retains nuclear weapons.6 During the cold war, as the Soviet Union built up its capacity to launch a nuclear surprise first strike against the U.S. homeland, the United States devoted very substantial resources to developing a nuclear force capable of surviving a massive Soviet attack and delivering a devastating blow against a broad range of military targets in the Soviet Union. Until very recently, the U.S. goal was to "prevail" in such an encounter, but this unattainable objective has finally been abandoned.7 This minor change notwithstanding, U.S. nuclear policy continues to focus on deterring a deliberate surprise attack on the United States, including by threatening, and planning, to launch forces on warning of such an attack.8

However, especially since the end of the cold war and the withdrawal of Russian military forces from central Europe, the possibility of a deliberate nuclear attack on the United States has been greatly reduced from its already very low levels. No Russian objective in Europe or Asia could possibly rise to the level that Russian leaders would view launching a surprise attack as a rational and justifiable act in the context of the interest at stake in any specific conflict or in overall U.S.-Russian relations. Furthermore, China lacks the capacity to launch an attack aimed at destroying the U.S. capacity to retaliate and does not appear to have any motive to fire its relatively small nuclear force at U.S. territory; France and the United Kingdom lack either the capability or the interests. Finally, U.S. arms control policy- especially the SALT and START negotiations- has been designed to reduce and to shape the Soviet and then Russian nuclear arsenal so as to reduce the capacity for a surprise first strike, further decreasing the possibility of a deliberate nuclear attack on the United States by a nuclear weapons state.9

Recently, there has been much talk in the United States about the danger of a deliberate nuclear strike by a rogue nation.10 However, the policy debate centers on the desirability of deploying an ABM system to seek to shoot down missiles after they've already been fired at the United States, rather than on the means to deter the development of such capabilities or their use.

2. Preventing Accidental or Unauthorized Nuclear Attacks on the United States

The attempt by both Washington and Moscow to deter nuclear attacks by threatening and planning to launch a nuclear strike-on warning of attack if not in advance-has created the danger that these forces, kept on hair trigger alert, will be launched as a result of miscalculated, accidental, or unauthorized use. Leaders in both countries are regularly told that their nuclear forces may not survive a first strike with the capacity to carry out the necessary full retaliation. This gives rise to the phenomena of the reciprocal fear of surprise attack and the danger that a nuclear exchange will occur, even though the leaders of both countries would clearly have preferred not to use the weapons.

Thus, despite the reduced risk of a deliberate attack and the serious danger of inadvertent use, the nuclear forces of both Russia and the United States remain focused on deterring deliberate nuclear attacks.

3. Deterring Nuclear Attacks on U.S. Allies

Another major objective of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks on U.S. allies, especially Germany and Japan. In Europe, this issue has generally arisen in the context of the Soviet use of nuclear threats against Germany in a crisis or the initiation of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union against NATO forces in the field during a conventional war in Europe. In Asia, it is discussed under the rubric of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Japan and is generally understood to be designed to prevent Russia or China (or more recently the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) from coercing Japan by threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

Less attention has been paid to the deployment requirements of successful deterrence of nuclear attacks against allies. The assumption appears to be that an active alliance relation, coupled with the presence of U.S. military forces on the ally's territory, is the key to deterrence. In Europe, it was felt (and is still felt by some) that the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in the theater plays an important role in preventing nuclear threats or use. Furthermore, Japan leaders did not believe that they had the option of permitting nuclear weapons to be stored on their territory and had no reason to encourage debate on the issue of whether such storage was necessary to make deterrence credible.

Yet the U.S. government's explicit assurance to allies that the United States would respond to nuclear attacks against them by using nuclear weapons is, in my view, not only consistent with-but necessary to-a successful policy to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. If the United States suggested that its security guarantees to treaty partners did not include responding to nuclear attacks with nuclear weapons, the credibility of the guarantee as a whole would be called into question and allies would need to consider whether they needed to develop their own nuclear forces. Moreover, such guarantees are wholly consistent with the notion that the United States cannot ask other states to refrain from developing nuclear weapons unless it limits its own policy to "using" nuclear weapons only for the purpose of deterring their use by others.

4. Deterring Conventional Attacks against Allies

The deterrence of conventional attacks against allies is often lumped together with the deterrence of nuclear attacks on allies with the label "extended deterrence," and the United States has reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks on its allies by states possessing nuclear weapons or allied with a nuclear weapons state.

It is important to keep these two objectives separate, since the effort to deter conventional attacks by nuclear threats has important implications for efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. If the United States is asserting the right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons to respond to conventional attacks on its allies, it is not in a credible position to insist that other states, not protected by U.S. guarantees, give up the right to use nuclear weapons in response to conventional aggression against their territory.

Historically, the United States never seriously contemplated the use of nuclear weapons in Asia to deter or respond to conventional attacks except during a brief period at the end of the Eisenhower administration, when U.S. military policy viewed nuclear weapons as "conventional" and presidential guidance provided that the authority to use nuclear weapons would be granted during any protracted conflict. However, since 1961, U.S. policy has emphasized the need to deter conventional threats by conventional means and planning has proceeded on that assumption. Nevertheless, the United States has insisted on maintaining the right to respond to a conventional attack against itself or its allies by initiating the use of nuclear weapons, if the state committing the aggression is a nuclear weapons state, is not a party in good standing of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) or is a state allied with a nuclear power. Whether the Clinton administration now applies this exception to its no-first use policy to the DPRK is unclear. The administration does not view North Korea as in full compliance with the NPT in that it may possess some weapons-grade material, and it now believes that in certain situations, North Korea remains allied with Russia or China. This ambiguity not withstanding, the administration appears to have made separate commitments not to threaten the use of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

5. Deterring the Actions of Rogue States or Terrorists

Deterring the actions of rogue states or terrorists is a relatively new objective for U.S. nuclear forces, emerging most clearly in the post-cold war period. It can take a number of different forms.

It is sometimes suggested that warnings of nuclear retaliation should be used to deter rogue states from engaging in the "terrorist" use of nuclear or biological weapons against U.S. territory. Alternately, the threat is said to deter the use of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, against U.S. or allied forces or against the civilian population of a state cooperating with the United States in containing a rogue state.11

Most recently, there are hints that nuclear threats might be used to deter conventional attacks by rogue states. Yet even during the Persian Gulf war, when some believed that threats to use nuclear weapons in response to the employment of chemical or biological weapons by Iraq were made and believed, President Bush had ruled out the use of nuclear weapons.12

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6 See Statement of the Honorable Walter B. Slocombe, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, before the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services (12 February 1997), in which he asserts that "for the foreseeable future, we will continue to need a reliable and flexible deterrent." According to Slocombe, this is "entirely consistent with NATO's Strategic Concept which.... states the fundamental purpose of NATO's nuclear force is to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war and 'nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression incalculable and unacceptable.'"Back

7 R. Jeffrey Smith, "Clinton Directive Changes Strategy On Nuclear Arms; Centering On Deterrence, Officials Drop Terms for Long Atomic War," The Washington Post (7 December 1997): A1. Back

8 See statement of Edward L. Warner III, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction, before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (31 March 1998). The same strategies are reiterated in the U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen's Annual Report to the President and the Congress (1998). According to chapter five of this report, a new Presidential Decision Directive, issued in November 1997, states that "The United States will not rely on a launch-on-warning nuclear retaliation strategy (although an adversary could never be sure the United States would not launch a counterattack before the adversary's nuclear weapons arrived)." Back

9 START I limits each state to 6,000 nuclear warheads; START II would further reduce capacity to 3,000-3,500 for each state. START II was signed by Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin in January 1993 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in January 1996, but has not yet been ratified by the Russian Duma. Tentative goals for START III have been set by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin at 2,000-2,500 warheads per state. David Hoffman, "Troubles Invigorate Debate on START II; Russian Crisis Saps Budget for Missiles," The Washington Post (19 November 1998): A42; and Jim Hoagland, "The Russia Deal," The Washington Post (22 November 1998): C07. For a detailed summary of START negotiations and nuclear arsenals see: William M. Arkin, Robert S. Norris and Joshua Handler, Taking Stock: Worldwide Nuclear Deployments 1998 (Natural Resources Defense Council: March 1998). Back

10 This is clearly reflected in Under Secretary Slocombe's assertion, "One cannot survey the list of rogue states with potential WMD and conclude there are not any threats of a gravity requiring the option of nuclear deterrence." (12 February 1997). Back

11 See, for example, remarks by Anthony Lake, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (24 May 1996), and a press briefing by Mike McCurry and Robert Bell, at the White House (11 April 1996), in which they discuss the treaty of Pelindaba, creating an African nuclear weapons free zone. Back

12 This policy is explicitly stated in James A. Baker III with Thomas M. DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995): 359; also see Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict: 1990-1991 (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1993): 288-9; and Colin Powell with Joseph E. Perisco, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995): 485-6, 503-4. Back


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