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Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence


In recent years, the nuclear deterrence environment has changed dramatically. During the 1990s, the United States and Russia had a “gentleman’s agreement” to reduce their arsenals of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Nonstrategic nuclear weapons, often referred to as “tactical,” nuclear weapons, have a lower yield than their “strategic” counterparts have, and are for battlefield use rather than city annihilation. In 2009, then-President Obama famously discussed “A World without Nuclear Weapons” in Prague. Conversely, Russia has become increasingly aggressive in its nuclear posturing since Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power, likely to compensate for deficiencies in its conventional forces.

Part of Russia’s assertiveness has resulted in the development and deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, especially in Eastern Europe. The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review recommends deploying American nonstrategic nuclear weapons to counter Russia’s deployments. These developments worry many in the arms control community, based off the belief that these smaller nuclear weapons will only decrease the threshold for use.

Public Domain image courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration.

Ultimately, while nonstrategic nuclear weapons still necessitate a strategic response, the United States must be prepared to deploy additional nonstrategic weapons, credibly deterring Russia and its other nuclear rivals. This better reflects the current strategic realities, rather than the strategic ideal: the INF treaty still in effect, and Washington’s rivals treating all nuclear weapons as strategic, last resort weapons. By deploying nonstrategic nuclear weapons to close the perceived deterrence gap, as part of a dual-track strategy, the United States will prevent the kind of miscalculation that could lead to global thermonuclear war by better adapting to current strategic realities.

Deterrence Science

Deterrence is the raison d’etre of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. So, what makes for good deterrence? A deterrent must be credible in order to be effective. As part of being credible, a deterrent must also be functional. If it does not work, it cannot be used. Most important, however, is that the adversary must perceive the possessor of the deterrent as willing to use it. Thus, convincing one’s adversary of one’s willingness to use nuclear weapons is key in nuclear deterrence.

Washington believes that Moscow will use its tactical nuclear weapons as part of its so-called “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, though this doctrine should more accurately be termed “escalate to win.” Russia perceives a weakness in the United States’ nuclear deterrent – the absence of nonstrategic weapons. Would the United States be willing to start global thermonuclear war over the battlefield use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons?

The United States reiterating that “all nuclear weapons are strategic” will only go so far, since Russia currently does not see this stance as credible in relation to nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Deploying additional nonstrategic nuclear weapons would close this perceived weakness in the United States’ deterrent and disabuse Russia of the notion that it could use limited nuclear escalation to get NATO to back down.

Additionally, the United States faces a dilemma in that Russia and China have leapt ahead of the United States in modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The United States has made some strides, to be sure: the new B-21 bomber and Columbia-class SSBN are vital first steps. Nevertheless, a more robust modernization program, including the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon and a replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM will help restore credibility and complement the deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

An increase in the deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons would also reassure some of our allies that the United States is still holding the nuclear umbrella over their heads. One of the reasons that France’s force de frappe exists is that Charles de Gaulle believed that the United States “would not risk New York to save Lyons.” Should Russia, or North Korea, be allowed to create the same doubt in the United States’ allies by fielding nonstrategic nuclear weapons, these allies could emulate France and Britain and develop their own nuclear arsenals. North Korea’s recent announcement that it has tested a “tactical guided weapon” only reinforces the need for the United States to reassure its allies and counter its rivals’ forays into nonstrategic nuclear weapons deployment.

Preventing Global Thermonuclear War

Nonstrategic nuclear weapons have not traditionally been regulated by treaty or a formal arms control agreement. The INF treaty comes the closest, but it only addresses land-based weapons and is, for all intents and purposes, dead. The time to save it has passed. With New START set to expire in 2021, now is the time to lay the groundwork for a new arms control arrangement, perhaps an extension to New START, which limits nonstrategic nuclear weapons and includes the United Kingdom, France, and China. This would also restore confidence in the non-nuclear weapons states that the “official” nuclear powers are fulfilling their NPT obligation to work towards disarmament. This “dual track” approach, closing the nonstrategic deterrence gap while working towards arms control agreements, has proven successful in the recent past, and would be the best way to keep the U.S.’s deterrent credible while it works to prevent a large-scale nuclear arms race.

At the end of the day, credibility lies at the core of any deterrent. By closing the perceived nonstrategic weapons gap, the United States will make its nuclear deterrent credible in the eyes of Russia and North Korea’s defense planners, and prevent the kind of miscalculation that could lead to global thermonuclear war. Deploying new nonstrategic and lower yield nuclear weapons, however, is most definitely not a panacea to global thermonuclear war. It is, though, a necessary stopgap measure that reflects current strategic realities.

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