Nuked: Destroying the Myth of Minimum Deterrence

Those few Democratic and Republicans presidents who have entered office with some expressed interest in minimum-deterrence policies have been sobered by reality and backed away from them. 

For over five decades, every Republican and Democratic administration has rejected minimum nuclear-deterrence policies and corresponding calls for the reduction of the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons down to a range of “several” weapons to hundreds. This decades-long rejection of minimum-deterrence nuclear policies reflects a rare enduring bipartisan consensus.

Those few Democratic and Republican presidents who have entered office with some expressed interest in minimum-deterrence policies have been sobered by reality and backed away from them. Most famously, President-elect Jimmy Carter began his discussions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff by inquiring if U.S. nuclear-deterrence responsibilities could be met by an extremely small number of forces. Before the end of his term, however, President Carter endorsed robust U.S. nuclear policies, including Presidential Directive-59, which emphasized the U.S. need for multiple nuclear options and flexibility and established the basic direction for the subsequent Reagan administration’s nuclear policies and programs—a far cry from minimum deterrence.

More recently, President Obama’s enthusiasm for nuclear reductions and “nuclear zero” led to renewed advocacy of minimum deterrence by various groups and individuals, such as Robert Gard and Greg Terryn. The president’s appointment of Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense following Hagel’s endorsement of a report advocating minimum deterrence and nuclear zero also heightened expectation among minimum-deterrence proponents.

However, the Department of Defense’s 2013 unclassified Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States notes specifically it has rejected a “minimum deterrence strategy.” Instead, President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel committed to a comprehensive modernization program for U.S. nuclear forces. These developments have led advocates of minimum deterrence to ask, “What went wrong?”

In fact, the consistent official rejection of minimum-deterrence arguments is a reassuring sign that Washington can, on an enduring and bipartisan basis, get it right. How so? For decades, minimum-deterrence proponents have made roughly the same canonical claims and assertions in favor of their preferred policies with little reference to evidence. This may be because when actual evidence is brought to bear vis-a-vis minimum-deterrence claims and assertions, it becomes readily apparent that they are demonstrably false or contrary to abundant available evidence. Minimum-deterrence proponents continue to make the same set of arguments, but the cat is now out of the bag with regard to the demonstrable lack of veracity underlying minimum deterrence—regardless of the rank or credentials of the persons advocating therefor.

For example, minimum-deterrence proponents claim that their favored low number of nuclear weapons—whether “several” or hundreds—surely will be adequate for U.S. nuclear-deterrence purposes, and moving to much lower nuclear-force numbers will provide numerous benefits. Underlying this claim are the following arguments: 1. very few nuclear weapons are adequate for U.S. deterrence purposes because societal targets are so vulnerable to nuclear weapons that few U.S. weapons are sufficient to deter opponents with the threat of great societal destruction; 2. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless to counter the priority post–Cold War threat to the United States—nuclear terrorism; 3. the Cold War is over and will not return, so deep U.S. reductions are now in order; 4. superior U.S. conventional threats can substitute largely or entirely for U.S. nuclear forces for the purposes of deterring enemies and assuring allies; 5. U.S. nuclear weapons should have the “sole purpose” of deterring nuclear attack on the United States; other purposes that suggest the need for additional nuclear forces should be rejected as so much Cold War detritus; 6. deep reductions in U.S. nuclear forces will save billions of dollars in defense spending and help promote nonproliferation by providing exemplary U.S. behavior to the world; and 7. reducing the number of nuclear weapons will reduce the probability of accidents and other nuclear dangers.

The assertions/arguments underlying this popular minimum-deterrence narrative are, as noted, demonstrably false or contrary to considerable available evidence. Briefly reviewing each in turn demonstrates this point.