Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #4: Give Nuclear Weapons a Sole Purpose

February 23, 2015
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

As I outlined in an earlier piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list is to reduce U.S. long-range nuclear forces to 1,000 deployed warheads.

The second is to remove U.S. ground-based long-range nuclear-armed missiles from their current “prompt launch” status.

The third is to cancel the planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile.

The fourth is to declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, and to respond to such an attack if necessary.

As part of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Obama administration has already taken steps in this direction. The policy review stated:

The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.

This formulation clearly prioritizes deterring a nuclear attack, but stops short of making it the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. But later the document sets that out as a goal:

The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons. (Emphasis added.)

In addition to setting out that goal, the 2010 NPR takes specific steps to reduce the roles that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy. Under old policies, the United States retained the option of using nuclear weapons for a range of military purposes, including:

  • Deterring, responding to, and even preempting conventional, chemical, or biological attacks.
  • Destroying chemical or biological agents
  • Deterring or responding to other unspecified threats to U.S. vital interests

In the 2010 NPR, the Obama administration narrowed these roles by declaring that the United States would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any country without nuclear weapons that was in compliance with its nuclear nonproliferation obligations. In particular, the NPR declares that, even if a country attacked the United States with chemical or biological weapons, the United States would not use nuclear weapons in response. The NPR also ended the policy of permitting U.S. nuclear attacks on non-nuclear countries in alliance with nuclear-armed states, a hold-over from the days of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, which collapsed in 1991.

This is sensible progress. Giving nuclear weapons roles beyond deterring nuclear attack is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Those roles add little to the deterrence of non-nuclear attacks provided by U.S. conventional forces or to the U.S. ability to respond to such attacks. In addition, if U.S. policy treats nuclear weapons as valuable tools with multiple uses, then other countries will be more inclined to seek nuclear weapons.

But, as noted above, in the 2010 NPR the Obama administration was unwilling to declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is nuclear deterrence. The report cited “a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners” for countries that have nuclear weapons or that are not in compliance with their nonproliferation agreements.

This “narrow range of contingencies” is short-sighted. U.S. leaders should weigh these potential threats against the grave damage that using nuclear weapons first would do to American security overall. In the short term, nuclear attacks could turn world opinion against the United States and undermine efforts to develop a collective response against an offender. The long-term effects would be even more profound, dealing a fatal blow to U.S. leadership and alliances, wrecking the nonproliferation regime, and spurring other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. While the United States has considered using nuclear weapons on several occasions since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has not done so, in part because of just such considerations.

In short, the marginal value of explicit threats to use nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks is small, the wisdom of carrying out such threats is dubious, and the potential long-term security costs of making such threats is great. Moreover, U.S. security is strongly reinforced by maintaining and strengthening the firebreak against the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

President Obama should change US policy so that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attacks.