US Nuclear Weapons: Should the US ever nuke first, ask questions later?

Why doesn’t the United States simply nuke its opponents? In addition to the politically unacceptable collateral damage caused, this is easily answered by the fear of nuclear escalation – that is, the rise in seriousness of war from conventional troops and bombs to all-out nuclear war. A more realistic question is one asking in what war scenarios might the United States possibly use nuclear weapons against an opponent offensively, rather than in retaliation. As a response to the annual Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) published April 2010, Michael Gerson, published in the international relations journal International Security stated that there are four possible options for US “nuclear first use” (NFU) (Gerson, 2010 (Fall), p. 13). All of which the Department of Defense states would be used only in “extreme circumstances” to defend “vital interests” (United States Department of Defense, 2010, p. 17).

One possible scenario is against an opponent with, in numeric terms, overwhelmingly superior forces. During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact forces (USSR & Eastern Europe) had a vastly superior advantage in available manpower on the ground. NATO utilized a policy that permitted the first use of nuclear weapons as a way to balance the equation. The USSR would then have to think whether it is willing to risk nuclear escalation before it invades new territory to the west (this did become a consideration for both the US and Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis – see the third situation for more)

A second possible first use of nuclear weapons might be realized when either deterring or responding to another state that uses chemical or biological weapons (CBW). Prior to the new NPR, the United States had been deliberately vague about whether it would, or would not, use nuclear weapons in response to a CBW attack – this was known as “calculated ambiguity”. The current and most recent (2010) Nuclear Posture Review upset the Iranian government because of the language it used on page 17: “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT [Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations” (United States Department of Defense, 2010, p. 17). This clearly leaves the door open for use of or threatened use of arms against North Korea and Iran if they decide to use CBW against the US.

In a related concern for Iran, states that are not “in compliance with their obligations” [the NPT and nuclear non-proliferation, such as Iran] may still face first use of nuclear weapons by the United States for deterrence of even conventional attacks if deemed prudent (United States Department of Defense, 2010, p. 16). As a result of this situation (Iran/North Korea), the US declined to adopt a policy such as NFU stating that the only purpose of its nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack on the US and its allies and partners.

A third situation might arise as a result of the need to preempt an impending or potential launch of nuclear weapons at the United States and its allies or partners. This situation may be the most obvious need for NFU (nuclear first use). This situation (in combination with the first scenario) was nearly encountered during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a well-recognized historical event in the US. Offensive nuclear missiles were deployed to the island of Cuba, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The United States felt it may have to invade Cuba to get the nuclear missiles removed from the island and believed that if they were to do so, the Soviet Union would attack Berlin. The allies could not allow this or any launch of nuclear missiles from Cuba, so the United States, reportedly, was prepared to launch a preemptive nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union.

Fourth, nuclear weapons may be called upon to destroy underground targets or to make such a target area more dangerous to stay in. As the United States was developing and implementing a “bunker buster” conventional warhead, the Bush 43 NPR (Nuclear Posture Review) indicated a desire to create nuclear payloads capable of breaking through a “hard and deeply buried target” (HDBT) in order to maximize the credibility of the US’ nuclear deterrent. Potential uses would be enemies that believe they can stay underground safely until it is safe to resurface.

The issue whether or not the US should maintain its “first-use” policy is a hotly debated one. The principle argument for NFU (No First Use) is that the maintenance of the policy might make smaller, nuclear-capable “rogue” nations afraid enough that they might use nuclear weapons first in an attempt to protect themselves, contributing to an escalation of the conflict and a more uncertain international response. The argument is that, if the US were to rule out first use as a military option, conventional wars would be more likely to stay conventional, particularly since the US maintains significant conventional superiority today anywhere in the world. NFU, of course, eliminates the military option to use these weapons were the need to arise; because of this, the current military posture states that: “the United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that the ‘sole purpose’ of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack…” What’s your position?

Works Cited

Gerson, M. S. (2010 (Fall)). No First Use: The Next Step for US Nuclear Policy. International Security , 007-047.

United States Department of Defense. (2010). Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Washington, DC: United States Department of Defense.

About Barry Saturday

The author is a Lexington, Ky-based financial advisor and formerly taught high school social studies for Fayette County Public Schools. Along with a M.A. in Education, his educational background consists of a B.A. in Foreign Languages and International Economics and an M.A. in Diplomacy with a concentration in Global Commerce. In 2012, he finished a two-month stint student teaching in Xi'an, China, and recently (2018) ran for City Council in Lexington, KY (District 4: Tates Creek / Nicholasville Rd area). Today's news outlets profit most from incendiary, surface-level appeals to emotion, which is poisoning much of our political discourse nationwide. Barry created this site in order to learn more about our world and share that knowledge with others. He hopes this site, aimed at an educated audience, will provide objective information for those seeking greater clarity and understanding than is often available in the current news environment. If you like what you see, feel free to comment and share with your network.

3 Responses to “US Nuclear Weapons: Should the US ever nuke first, ask questions later?”

  1. What was the context of the fourth situation?

    It seems odd that in the early 1990s we are getting jumpy enough about bunkers that we are developing a new conventional weapons payload and then decide to write it into our nuclear policy as an exemption.

  2. Absolutely right, in the early 1990s there was not likely a great need for such weapons as the US had recently eliminated the Soviet Union as a major threat, ushering in a “honeymoon” period that appeared to be quite peaceful.

    Regarding my article, Bush 43 was George W. Bush, while his father, George H.W. Bush, was Bush 41. The issue during George W. Bush’s term was likely regarding Iran, one of Bush’s “axis of evil” nations. Gerson says that Iran is building its newest nuclear facilities, including Qom, inside mountains so that current US munitions are unable to target them effectively. This, in addition to the concerns in Afghanistan, led to the perceived greater need for earth penetrating weapons. Gerson suggests that there are far better ways of targeting these installations than using nuclear weapons to directly destroy the facility itself. He suggests blasting the entrances and exits or “functionally defeating” them by destroying the power supplies and communication infrastructure, among other conventional tactics. The destruction of entrances and exits can be quite complicated, but Gerson says that if the blockage is successful, this method has the added benefit of permitting analysis and intelligence gathering from the actual facility once the fighting is finished. Thanks for the question!

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  1. Nuclear Weapons Postures: Why Some Nations Flaunt Nukes While Others Conceal Them | TheSaturdaySyndicate.com - 2011.12.20

    […] the United States would only use nuclear weapons first in certain situations (see my article on US Nuclear Weapons). When would the US actually use nuclear weapons? One of the most likely scenarios today involving […]

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