America Must Be Ready to Nuke First

French nuclear-weapons test. Flickr/James Vaughan

“No first use” makes no sense.

While the Obama administration contemplates a no-first-use policy, the Russians threaten the opposite: first, to intimidate and coerce U.S. allies and partners; and second, as part of a strategy of escalation, to de-escalate (that is, less apt to provoke a nuclear response and more conducive to war termination than second use). Russian military doctrine explicitly states that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons in response to “conventional aggression” if it endangers the existence of the state, and recent Russian exercises demonstrate Russia’s intent to use nuclear weapons first in a conventional conflict.          

For argument’s sake, if the Russians actually believed a U.S. or NATO no-first-use promise, Moscow might then gamble on optimizing force dispositions on NATO’s borders for non-nuclear attack. Thus, the no-first-use promise would have had the perverse effect of lowering the nuclear threshold; that is, the point where NATO, watching an ally being overrun by non-nuclear forces must choose between nuclear action and defeat. NATO’s nuclear posture is not based on the early use of nuclear weapons but, as our German colleagues say, on use as late as possible and as early as necessary—escalation is not a certainty. No-first-use means then, given Russian conventional superiority on NATO’s borders, that nuclear weapons use will never be “necessary,” and, unless our adversary uses them first, nuclear weapons are no longer a credible and effective deterrent.

The no-first-use promise would only lighten a potential aggressor’s perception of risk and, in doing so, weaken deterrence. Yet it would have done nothing dependable to diminish real risk. A no-first-use policy is unwise because deterrence is dependent on a credible threat to prevent both conventional and nuclear war.

We of course want to prevent wars, not fight them. In order to prevent another great-power war, NATO strategy calls for an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe to ensure credible deterrence. Nuclear weapons, and a demonstrable political will to use them in the event of aggression, whether conventional or with weapons of mass destruction, make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression incalculable and unacceptable.

Credible and effective deterrence is based on ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of the allies’ response to military aggression. The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons lies in the recognition or awareness by a potential aggressor that he cannot rule out the possibility of NATO using all the means at its disposal in response to aggression of any kind. It is that perceived possibility of NATO employing nuclear weapons in its defense that would strongly influence the aggressor’s risk and expected-gains calculation, a calculation that has led so far to the conclusion that the costs of aggression are unacceptable.

NFU removes the uncertainty built into our deterrence posture by removing a major risk. Ruling out, in advance, the necessity for an aggressor to consider all of NATO’s political and military options would weaken deterrence by removing uncertainty. An adversary could then conclude that, as long as he doesn’t use nuclear weapons, the way is open for aggression using all means available to him, to include other weapons of mass destruction.

One also wonders how seriously potential adversaries would take threats, such as the one issued by President Bush to Saddam Hussein, that he “will pay a terrible price” if Iraq uses chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies, which the Iraqis understood to mean a nuclear response. One may ask those that favor no first use how we deter those with chemical and biological weapons? There may even be cases in which the best and least costly choice in terms of lives and damage would be a nuclear weapon. In one instance during Desert Storm, a suspected bunker supposedly housed large quantities of dangerous pathogens. Planners considered using a small nuclear weapon that would have caused less damage compared to an attack with conventional weapons, which would have widely dispersed pathogens into the general population with catastrophic results.

On its face, no-first-use proposals are dangerous and undermine deterrence stability. Those that are responsible for maintaining our deterrence posture understand that war is so indeterminate that no firm predictions can be made as to its likely course and therefore no established limitations can be guaranteed to hold. In a recent hearing before the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, Adm. Cecil D. Haney, head of Strategic Command, said the current security environment is dangerous and unpredictable and made more so by, among other things, “the increasingly provocative and destabilizing behavior by potential adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.” Adopting a policy in which conventional and biological/chemical aggression no longer need fear nuclear retaliation opens the door for even more “provocative and destabilizing behavior” by our potential foes.