May 10th marked my 20th year serving in the US Air Force’s nuclear community. Two decades into the job as a missileer, I have a reasonable understanding of strategic nuclear deterrence. Acknowledging nuclear weapons remain a clear existential threat to America is the first step in understanding the relevance of nuclear deterrence. Bottom line up front: nuclear weapons can kill tens of millions of Americans in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, a serious and ongoing debate continues about the relevance of nuclear weapons in the 21st Century. Here are answers to some of the most frequent questions and statements on the subject.
“America has a highly technically advanced space, cyber and exceedingly accurate conventional weapons capability; wouldn’t such a capability deter a massive nuclear attack?” Non-nuclear weapons cannot achieve the existential impact of a nuclear attack, and as a result cannot deter conflict to the same degree. Conventional capabilities cannot dissuade a massive attack from an adversary. Even a “small” nuclear attack could severely degrade U.S. conventional capabilities. The imbalance in destructive capacity between nuclear and non-nuclear equipped nations places the non-nuclear equipped nation at a severe strategic disadvantage and subjects it to nuclear blackmail.
“But America’s conventional capability is far superior and growing exponentially compared to Russia…right?” Few outside of Russia would even attempt to argue that point. It is this very reason that nuclear deterrence is playing an ever-increasing role within totalitarian countries. These countries understand the disparity between conventional and nuclear weapons effects. The threat of conventional weapons use will never deter another nation to the extent that a potential adversary would second-guess their intent to attack, as a nuclear weapon can.
“The threat of a massive American conventional weapon attack, in conjunction with international alliances, can deter a nuclear attack.” To deter a nuclear attack requires the knowledge that conventional weapons, though exceedingly accurate and powerful, lack the ability to pose an existential threat to deter nuclear weapons states. Miniaturization of thermonuclear weapons further complicates this calculus by allowing one bomber or missile to carry numerous nuclear weapons. These weapons are exponentially more powerful than those used on Japan in 1945. However, in order to deter a nuclear attack, a potential adversary must believe a nuclear arsenal is credible and that there is a willingness to respond in kind.
“Why are nations interested in acquiring nuclear weapons?” The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the fall of imperial Japan and established physiological effects associated with a nuclear explosion. Through fear of reprisal, nuclear weapons have the ability to deter a nuclear attack but can also deter a conventional attack that threatens national sovereignty. This is most notable through North Korea’s contested treatment of their population and nuclear weapon acquisition despite international pressures. Moreover, nuclear weapons have enabled nations to threaten the sovereignty of other nations, such as Ukraine, under the auspices of a nuclear response should other nations attempt to get involved. Furthermore, once they establish a better foothold through their land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, China might also use such a deterrent tactic to allow for a more aggressive acquisition of land.
“Why does America still need three different weapon systems to deter an attack?” America maintains multiple weapon systems in the form of a nuclear triad: submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and intercontinental nuclear capable bomber aircraft. Together, these systems provide separate and distinct attributes that require completely separate capabilities to render any one of them ineffective. Combined, the minuscule probability of eliminating the capability of each of these elements of the triad are what form the high probability of deterring an adversary attack and at the same time allows for a flexible response should the need arise.
“If the United States is on the path to eliminating nuclear weapons, why would it continue to reinvest in them?” The path to eliminating or significantly reducing nuclear weapons will only occur with time and a willingness from all nuclear weapon states to meet this goal. In the interim, nuclear states have a responsibility to ensure their respective nuclear weapons stockpiles remain safe, secure, and credible. Doing so assures continued stability among nuclear equipped nations.
As President Obama stated during his April 5, 2009 remarks in Prague, “Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.” By ensuring nuclear weapon safety, security, and effectiveness, America will continue to deter against nation-state use of nuclear weapons contributing to global stability.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.