America Must Be Ready to Nuke First

August 3, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: United StatesDeterrenceNuclear WeaponsWMDDefense

America Must Be Ready to Nuke First

“No first use” makes no sense.


A recent article in the Washington Post disclosed the White House’s evident determination to implement new nuclear policies in the final months of the Obama presidency to add to his disarmament legacy. The president declared in his 2009 Prague speech his determination to seek the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” However, one of the proposals being seriously considered is to declare “no first use” (NFU). This is unwise, inherently dangerous and could very well have the opposite effect by substantially weakening the ability of the United States and its allies to effectively deter aggression.

Proposals for NFU have been around for a long time. During the Cold War they were a recurring element of Soviet propaganda. Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, has rejected a no-first-use policy, no doubt because of its inherent unverifiability and the fact that it was a chimera. It was later discovered after the Soviet Union’s collapse that the Warsaw Pact, even though it enjoyed conventional superiority, had first-use operational war plans calling for the massive use of nuclear and chemical weapons on the first day of conflict with NATO forces.


Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration conducted a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in which it specifically rejected NFU primarily on the basis of a potentially devastating biological attack but also because the security environment was so precarious. If anything the situation is much more precarious today, particularly for our NATO allies facing intimidation and coercive tactics by a revanchist Russia. Likewise, our NATO allies are nervous over announcing a no first use policy in the face of Russian nuclear saber rattling—threatening first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional confrontation with NATO. Japan, understandably worried over the diminishment of the U.S. deterrence umbrella, has called for talks to voice their concerns. If the allies perceive such a shift of policy as a weakening of deterrence how could our adversaries, or the president for that matter, not?

When NATO reviewed its deterrence and defense posture (approved in 2012) change proponents then had the burden of proof of demonstrating how those proposals would bolster or enhance our deterrence posture. Likewise, the burden of showing how NFU enhancing us or our allies’ security rests with President Obama. Other than feel-good disarmament rhetoric, it is difficult to see how changing to a no-first-use policy will bolster deterrence. Instead, it is likely to put our allies at greater risk. Recent Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine and intimidation tactics by Russia and China against other allies underscore the complex new risks to peace and stability requiring an even more robust deterrence posture across the spectrum of conflict.

While the administration remains eager to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce their salience it has not asserted that NFU enhances our security, the sine qua non for any security policy. It is hard to see for the moment how Washington’s deeply vital interests are at all likely to be threatened by non-nuclear means that could not be countered in non-nuclear ways. But what if a truly vital interest were indeed about to be lost by non-nuclear means—a chemical and biological attack for example? The idea that a nuclear power would let itself be overwhelmed simply because of a no-first-use promise is patently absurd, hence its lack of credibility and diminishment of the current deterrence posture. A nuclear possessor state may decide that under the circumstances it preferred defeat to the risks of embarking upon nuclear action, but the NFU promise would likely not weigh all that heavily in that cost-benefit calculation.

Of course the no-first-use promise would also apply to our allies. Notwithstanding the fact—discounted in the NPR—that large-scale conventional aggression against NATO territory is highly unlikely today, the possibility of such a threat cannot now be ruled out. In addition to Russia, the security of the alliance remains subject to a wide variety of military risks, including those from weapons of mass destruction, which are multidirectional and difficult to predict.

Given the diversity of risks NATO, at its most recent summit in Warsaw, again reaffirmed the need to maintain the forces and strategy necessary to ensure credible and effective deterrence. NATO members agreed that this cannot be ensured by the alliance’s conventional forces alone. Herein lies another compelling reason to say “no” to no-first-use. Ruling out in advance the necessity for an aggressor to consider all of NATO’s political and military options of response would weaken deterrence by removing the uncertainty of NATO’s response.

Since the nature and scope of potential future conflicts cannot be predicted, NATO (and, up until now, the United States) does not predetermine its possible reaction to military attack of whatever ilk. It leaves the question open as to how we would respond to armed aggression, to be decided as and when such a situation materializes. Removing this uncertainty by embracing NFU would undercut NATO’s primary objective of war prevention and could make nuclear warfare seem a rational option.

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.

As NATO did in drafting and reaffirming its current nuclear-deterrence posture, any proposed changes to that posture needs to be measured by how it bolsters or enhances—not diminishes—our deterrence posture. The Obama administration will carry a heavy burden convincing the public how embracing NFU will enhance U.S. and allied security and strategic stability, and deter war. Indeed, one struggles to show how it would even benefit our nonproliferation policies when more and more countries and nonstate actors have or pursue other weapons of mass destruction, ignoring any so-called “red lines” to punish acquisition or use. With a no-first-use promise, the other promise of “unacceptable costs” of aggression disappears since our adversary need no longer fear nuclear annihilation.

No one should disagree that deterrence centered on nuclear weapons has played a key role in preventing another major world war. Certainly recognizing the success of deterrence is not to accept it as the last word in ensuring freedom from war. In our multipolar world, we are besieged by terrorism, aggression and growing extremism. We must continue to unremittingly seek better ways of ordering the world. But the search will likely be a long one and no safer or effective system than deterrence is in view. Impatience in seeking a nuclear-free world is a catastrophic guide in that search.

To tear down—or at least drastically modify—the present structure by embracing no first use before a better policy is firmly within our grasp would be an immensely dangerous and irresponsible act. One can only hope that our security and long-standing commitments to our allies ultimately prevail, ending this administration’s legacy of lunacy.

Guy B. Roberts is former NATO deputy secretary general for WMD policy and director for nuclear policy.

Image: French nuclear-weapons test. Flickr/James Vaughan