U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Preventing Nuclear Use

This paper is part 1 of the 6-part series, U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Core Steps, 2018–2020.

As was true throughout the Cold War, preventing nuclear use by a nation state or non-state actor remains a vital national security interest of the United States. Thus, deterring and reducing the risk of nuclear use must remain the foundation of America’s nuclear policy and posture—and the United States should make clear the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Although our vital national security interest in preventing nuclear use is clear, the world is now moving in the wrong direction. Today’s nuclear world—including a growing number of nations with nuclear arms in volatile regions, technological advances, the continuing threat of nuclear terrorism and cyberattacks—poses high and potentially unmanageable risks, including the dangerous possibility of an accident, mistake, miscalculation, or blunder by one of many nuclear-capable actors leading to nuclear use.

For this reason, the United States must also continually seek to move forward with other states with nuclear weapons on practical steps that reduce the role and risks of nuclear weapons in global security policies. We must promote a safer and more stable form of security that does not rely primarily on nuclear weapons or nuclear threats to maintain international peace and security—and persuade others to move with us.

Possible steps include: 

1. Reaffirm our vital national security interest in preventing nuclear use. Reduce the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized launch of a nuclear ballistic missile—or a blunder that leads to a nuclear catastrophe. Consistent with reducing the role and risks of nuclear weapons in global security policies, state that the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others—and avoid issuing nuclear threats or a strategy for limited nuclear use that will encourage others to do the same. 

2. Reaffirm the vision of working toward a world free of nuclear weapons through practical, concrete steps that improve our security today. Continuing support for the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons is essential for America’s national security interests and leadership in strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The vision needs translation into practical steps that continuously reduce the risks of nuclear use. Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.

3. Reconcile strategic modernization of our nuclear forces in context of our deterrence needs, overall defense budget priorities, and emphasis on increasing stability and reducing reliance on nuclear weapons over time. The President and Congress should support what is necessary for maintaining a safe, secure, and credible nuclear posture while reducing the risk of nuclear use and avoiding unnecessary costs. Strong deterrence involves more than nuclear forces and we must at the same time sustain the competitive edge of our conventional forces and build the capacities needed to deal with terrorism, as well as new and emerging strategic threats like cyberattacks. 

4. Forgo new nuclear weapon types, capabilities, or basing options. Today, the United States has a robust nuclear deterrent—with a significant number of warheads on day-to-day alert—a flexible capability to deter nuclear use or destroy any potential nuclear adversary. The United States does not need to build new nuclear weapons types with new capabilities, or expand nuclear missions. Calls for more “usable” nuclear weapons make nuclear weapons use more probable.

The nuclear policy and posture course Washington sets now may well determine America’s path for the next decade. If the world’s greatest military power decides it cannot defend itself without new nuclear weapons and issues threats of nuclear use, and forgoes America’s historic—and moral—commitment to reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear dangers, it will send exactly the wrong signal. And that wrong signal will be sent at a time when international efforts to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons are under severe challenge. The United States has a unique responsibility and imperative to lead and set the right course.

February 1, 2018
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Thus, deterring and reducing the risk of nuclear use must remain the foundation of America’s nuclear policy and posture—and the United States should make clear the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others.