The Case for Retaining the First-Use Doctrine for Nuclear Weapons

Tech. Sgt. Timothy Cotterall is decontaminated following attempts to identify multiple biological contaminants in a simulated lab. Flickr/U.S. Air Force

Although we may dislike the idea of launching a first strike, retaining the option to do so may be the best way to achieve strategic objectives.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times urged President Obama to reverse decades of official U.S. nuclear doctrine and openly commit the United States to a no-first-use policy. Polls suggest that the American public would likely support an end to the first-use doctrine, but David Sanger and William Broad recently reported that Obama is unlikely to adopt such a change. In the wake of the outrage surrounding North Korea’s latest nuclear test, why would it be beneficial for the United States to retain the option of first use?

In this article I consider two situations in which the United States might introduce nuclear weapons. With these optimistic scenarios in mind we can then evaluate the drawbacks of maintaining a first-use doctrine and consider whether the doctrine itself provides any benefits for U.S. national strategy. Although we may dislike the idea of the United States launching a first strike, retaining the option to do so may be the best way for the United States to achieve its strategic objectives given current constraints on its ability to deploy additional conventional forces.

First-Use Scenarios

Imagine that the United States detected an imminent conventional attack on South Korea. The United States might decide to launch a first strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from using its nuclear weapons against South Korea. (A “first strike” usually refers to a nuclear strike like this one, in which one state launches a nuclear attack designed to eliminate the opponent’s nuclear arsenal. “First use” describes the use of nuclear weapons before the opponent has done so and could entail the use of smaller tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. In these terms, all first strikes constitute a first use of nuclear weapons, but not all cases of first use would be considered a first strike.) This would protect both South Korea and American troops on the peninsula from a nuclear attack. North Korea does not yet have a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental United States, so the immediate risk to the American homeland would be minimal in the event that the first strike failed to eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, consider the case of an impending Russian attack on Estonia. The United States does not currently have sufficient forces deployed in the Baltics to effectively repel an invasion, nor will the battalion planned for deployment in Poland be an effective deterrent to a Russian attack. American forces in Estonia would be at a huge disadvantage over their Russian counterparts fighting so close to their homeland with short lines of communication. A tactical nuclear weapon strike on Russian troops before they crossed the border into Estonia might allow the United States to destroy Russian forces and deter an additional attack without exposing American troops to a grinding ground war with Russia.

The Baltic scenario is in many ways more troubling than the Korean peninsula. Russia is capable of launching a retaliatory nuclear attack on the continental United States, and using nuclear weapons on the Russian border of Estonia could possibly destroy the very territory that the United States is trying to protect from invasion. This could be true in the Korean scenario as well. Seoul is far enough from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that that it could remain relatively unharmed by a small detonation in North Korea, but this is a risk in both scenarios.

The Possibility of First Use: Deterrence by Ambiguity

Keeping these two scenarios in mind, we can also distinguish between what the United States would actually do in a crisis and what it is useful for the United States to have others believe it might do in a crisis. If North Korea believes that the United States could use nuclear weapons to prevent or repel an invasion of South Korea, then it may be less willing to launch that invasion in the first place. Some might argue that the fear that the United States could launch an attack to eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons would give Kim Jong-Un an incentive to launch his own weapons preemptively lest he lose the ability to use them. This would make sense only if we believe that the North Korean leader wants to invite his own demise as part of his plan to take South Korea, since any use of a nuclear weapon by North Korea would result in swift retaliatory nuclear annihilation.

The logic also applies in the case of a Russian invasion of the Baltics. The battalion in Poland will not persuade Russia that the United States is heavily invested in Estonia’s independence, but perhaps the possibility—however remote—of an American nuclear attack on Russian troops might be enough to persuade Putin not to invade. If the United States openly disavowed the option of first use, it would lose this possibility of deterring an attack through ambiguity.