About this Issue

When we think of nuclear weapons, we may think primarily of the Cold War, or of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. We may recall that North Korea threatened to obtain, and eventually obtained, nuclear weapons capability. Yet despite being an issue area that could destroy civilization in day, nuclear weapons policy only rarely intrudes into the public mind.

This probably ought to seem strange; not only are nuclear weapons an extraordinary danger, but the United States is a nuclear superpower, one that deters its rivals in significant part thanks to its stockpile of nuclear weapons. The responsible management of this force—is it possible? And what would it look like? What specifically do nuclear weapons do for U.S. security, and what do they do for other countries, particularly our rivals? And is there any hope that nuclear weapons may one day cease to threaten humanity?

This month’s lead essay is by Eric Gomez, the Cato Institute’s Director of Defense Policy Studies. Joining him to discuss will be Professor Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford University and the American Enterprise Institute; Michael Kofman, Director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA; and Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Each has a very different perspective on our topic, and each will have their say this month atCato Unbound. Readers are invited to participate in the comments as well; comments will remain open through the month.

Lead Essay

U.S. Nuclear Policy at an Inflection Point

U.S. nuclear policy faces a moment of great change and consequential decisions that will influence Washington’s approach to nuclear deterrence and strategy for many years to come. The United States is pushing ahead with a massive nuclear modernization plan that includes new delivery systems (missiles, submarines, aircraft, etc.) and new nuclear warhead designs. Given the multi-decade service lives of these weapons systems, the spending choices made over the next decade will determine the shape of the U.S. nuclear arsenal for a long time. The arsenal’s composition will subsequently impact U.S. nuclear strategy and its approach to arms control by creating sunk costs. Now is therefore the time to reconsider the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy and foreign policy.

The U.S. modernization plan’s moment of truth coincides with important structural changes in the international system that will impact nuclear policy. Nearly three decades of U.S. military and economic primacy are slowly coming to an end. The U.S.-China relationship is on a dire trajectory; the need for a drawn out “great power competition” with Beijing is fast becoming a rare bipartisan point of agreement in Washington. This shift toward confrontation does not bode well for arms control agreements that previously served as important guardrails for nuclear competition. Moreover, advances in long-range precise conventional weapons, missile defense systems, and emerging technology like artificial intelligence will add new wrinkles to the already difficult task of deterrence by giving states non-nuclear tools to disrupt their adversary’s nuclear forces.

In this transformative period, it is imperative to return to first-order questions about the purpose of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy and foreign policy. What kinds of threats does the United States use nuclear weapons to counteract? Are U.S. leaders expecting nuclear weapons to do too much or assigning qualities to nuclear weapons that they may not have? Washington has not grappled with fundamental questions like this since the end of the Cold War, but the magnitude of the various changes affecting nuclear policy demand fresh thinking and new answers. Forging ahead with detailed adjustments to the nuclear arsenal or making fine-tuned adjustments to strategic deterrence without contending with first-order questions is a recipe for bad policymaking that could have catastrophic consequences.

The Times They Are a Changing

American policymakers face the unenviable task of trying to craft nuclear policies and set the foundation for the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal concurrent with major changes in international politics. The three shifts that will affect U.S. nuclear policy the most are changing U.S. threat perceptions, the erosion of traditional arms control agreements, and the rise of non-nuclear strategic technologies. Taken together, these forces of change should prompt a reexamination of the first-order questions that animate U.S. nuclear policy.

The international threats facing the United States are the primary driver of its nuclear policy, which includes U.S. arms control, deterrence, and nuclear force posture issues. The Cold War’s global struggle between the United States and Soviet Union presented a very challenging yet narrowly defined nuclear threat. The Soviet Union was the primary threat, and U.S. nuclear policy was completely geared toward the communist superpower. Details of nuclear policy changed throughout the Cold War to adjust to new developments in the U.S.-Soviet balance, but these adjustments did not represent fundamental rethinking of the primary threat or the role of nuclear weapons in responding to it. The condition of mutual assured destruction produced a relatively stable nuclear balance and both superpowers were highly sensitive to any effort by the other to break out of mutual vulnerability. While each superpower attempted to adjust the nuclear balance in their favor, these efforts were closely monitored and quickly countered by the other side.

The Soviet Union’s collapse created a new threat environment and U.S. nuclear policy changed with it. While Russia remained America’s only nuclear peer in terms of number of warheads, the improving relationship between them meant that both could make reductions in their arsenals with less trepidation. New nuclear weapons states like India, North Korea, and Pakistan raised concerns about nuclear weapons in “regional” conflicts, and the Global War on Terror prompted threat inflation about the possibility of a nuclear terror attack against the United States. Washington’s fear of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of “rogue states” was an important driver of U.S. foreign policy in the post–Cold War period. Ironically, the military operations the United States conducted to deal with this fear may have encouraged more states to seek nuclear weapons as a form of regime survival insurance.

While there has not been a precipitous change in the global balance of power on the magnitude of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a slow but steady weakening of America’s dominant position in the world is underway. The Trump administration’s emphasis on “great power competition” will persist in Washington even if he loses the 2020 election due to strong bipartisan support for a more competitive U.S. strategy that can counter both China and Russia. Nuclear policy is already starting to play a prominent role in this new threat environment. The U.S. nuclear modernization plan, originally put in motion by the Obama administration prior to the new focus on great power competition, is frequently portrayed as a necessary reaction to similar Russian and Chinese efforts to improve their own nuclear arsenals. Certain arms control agreements, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which were regarded as stabilizing in previous threat environments, are now decried as too restrictive and limiting. For the time being, the world is unlikely to return to the kind of nuclear arms racing associated with the last period of competition between nuclear-armed great powers, but a general shift toward a more assertive U.S. nuclear policy is well underway.

A general erosion of arms control is making this new threat environment more dangerous. American withdrawals from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (2002), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (2019), and the Open Skies Treaty (2020) leaves the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as the last U.S.-Russia arms control treaty in effect. New START will expire unless extended by February 2021. While Moscow has indicated its willingness to extend the treaty, the Trump administration is insisting on conditions for extension, namely the inclusion of China in a follow-on agreement, which remain unresolved.

Multilateral arms control agreements are also in trouble. The United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in the summer of 2018 despite the agreement’s success at reducing Iran’s capacity to create a nuclear weapon. The other parties to the Iran deal have tried to keep it alive despite U.S. actions, but the damage to multilateral arms control caused by America’s withdrawal will be hard to reverse. The international Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is not at risk of outright collapse, but intensifying nuclear competition among the great powers and damage to other arms control agreements are making it harder for NPT members to reach consensus and make progress on new initiatives. Some countries and civil society groups, frustrated at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament that the NPT was supposed to encourage, created the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by the United Nations in July 2017. This new treaty was not created to weaken the NPT, but it may inadvertently make consensus among NPT states harder to achieve by underscoring the differences between nuclear haves and have nots.

The final structural change that impacts U.S. nuclear policy is the growth of non-nuclear strategic technologies. These are military capabilities that can hold targets at risk that previously could only be reliably held at risk by nuclear weapons, thereby blurring old dividing lines between nuclear and conventional war. For example, improvements in conventional missile accuracy and speed give them a much greater probability to destroy command and control facilities or mobile nuclear forces. Going after the same targets in the Cold War might have required using a nuclear weapon that could make up for lower accuracy with greater explosive power and a wider area of damage. In the Cold War scenario, using a nuclear weapon to target command and control or mobile nuclear forces guaranteed a response in kind, but in future conflicts the destruction of a country’s nuclear arsenal may not require the attacker to cross the nuclear threshold first. Precise conventional weapons cannot fully substitute for nuclear weapons—there are some targets that can only be reliably destroyed by a nuclear explosion—but even a small degree of substitution makes escalation harder to control.

Another worrying aspect of non-nuclear strategic technologies is their role in both conventional and nuclear operations. This conventional-nuclear entanglement is perhaps most noticeable in outer space. Modern militaries depend on satellites to provide secure communications, information about enemy movements, and early warning to protect against missile attacks. However, many of these satellites, especially in the U.S. military, also play roles in nuclear command and control or early warning. In a military conflict, an adversary would have a strong incentive to destroy or disable these satellites because of their important role in conventional missions but doing so would also impact the target’s nuclear systems.

Returning to First-Order Questions

The changing international environment and new, technology-based challenges to nuclear stability should encourage a wholesale reexamination of U.S. nuclear policy. The nuclear modernization plan’s timeline means that this reexamination needs to happen soon before programs advance further and create path dependency and sunk costs. Nuclear policy debates can quickly become bogged down in technical or budgetary minutiae instead of fundamental issues about the role and purpose of nuclear weapons. Returning to first-order questions is always good practice when crafting nuclear policy, but it is especially important in the current moment of a shifting international balance of power.

A good starting point for grappling with these questions is asking about the role of nuclear policy for accomplishing broader U.S. foreign policy goals. Put differently, what does the United States use nuclear weapons to do, and what kind of threats do they deter?

The United States is fond of expansive and maximalist foreign policy goals in general, and its current nuclear policies reflect this tendency. All nuclear-armed states, including the United States, use their arsenals to deter nuclear attack on their territory, and current U.S. nuclear policy easily accomplishes this fundamental task of deterring a first strike. However, the United States is the only country that currently practices extended deterrence, which entails using U.S. nuclear weapons to prevent both nuclear and, in the words of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against allied countries that do not possess their own nuclear weapons. The three goals of U.S. extended deterrence are preventing nuclear attacks on allies, preventing conventional attacks on allies, and reassuring allies so they don’t feel the need to obtain nuclear weapons. Extended deterrence has been an important pillar of U.S. nuclear policy since the early Cold War, and the American “nuclear umbrella” is credited with discouraging many friendly countries from launching their own weapons programs. These great expectations for U.S. nuclear weapons create a demand for a diversified, flexible arsenal that can be called upon to prevent a wide range of scenarios.

The Trump administration seems content to accept this familiar answer to the question of what threats U.S. nuclear policy is meant to deter. In fact, the administration has placed a greater burden on the U.S. nuclear arsenal by disdaining arms control treaties that would otherwise provide a degree of predictability or restraint in potential adversaries’ behavior. The chief problem with this approach is that it demands U.S. nuclear weapons to do far too much. Preventing nuclear attack on the United States and its allies is a relatively easy lift, but the growth of non-nuclear strategic technologies makes it harder for nuclear weapons to deter lower-intensity forms of conflict. Moreover, the conventional-nuclear entanglement associated with these new capabilities will challenge U.S. nuclear policies designed to prevent conflicts from escalating to large-scale nuclear war.

This raises another question: If U.S. leaders are asking too much of nuclear weapons, how can they reduce the demands placed on nuclear policy? It is important to remember that deterrence is about preventing a state from doing something by increasing the costs or risks of them acting. Nuclear weapons can deter some actions very easily, while their value for deterring other actions is minimal or nonexistent. Shortening the list of actions that U.S. nuclear policy is expected to deter would be a good first step.

Deterring nuclear attack on American and allied territory should be the primary focus of U.S. nuclear policy. Responsibility for deterring lower-intensity forms of conflict should fall squarely on conventional capabilities. Ideally, friendly countries would be able to use such capabilities to provide a more robust self-defense posture that reduces the need for U.S. intervention. Given the shifts in non-nuclear strategic technology, smaller states can do more to deter larger states from attacking them even without resorting to nuclear weapons.

Finally, U.S. nuclear policy must accept the reality that shifts in the global balance of power require more limited, achievable objectives. If great power competition is the true top priority, then the United States must abandon maximalist demands on less important threats. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are two examples where more reasonable nuclear policy goals are badly needed. The Iran nuclear deal required the United States to compromise on some of its objectives, but it reduced the threat of a nuclear-armed Tehran at the negotiating table instead of on the battlefield. Dropping demands for North Korea’s complete denuclearization and focusing instead on arms control and nuclear risk reduction would still accomplish the U.S. goal of reducing the North Korean nuclear threat. Creative, diplomatic approaches to reducing nuclear risks from minor powers would allow the United States to focus its attention on the more difficult task of preventing conflict among the great powers.


The world is changing, and U.S. nuclear policy needs to change with it. Policymakers need to ask some difficult, fundamental questions about the purpose of the nuclear arsenal before sinking more money into a multi-decade nuclear modernization plan that will cost over a trillion dollars. Renewed focus on great power competition makes it tempting to return to old nuclear policies that served the United States well in the past. However, assigning nuclear weapons greater responsibility for countering new threats is not the right approach. There is still time to right the ship of U.S. nuclear policy before the modernization plan creates path dependency and sunk costs that will make change harder. Hopefully this Cato Unbound edition will make a positive contribution to these important policy debates.

Response Essays

The United States Must Avoid a Nuclear Arms Race with China

In his lead essay, Eric Gomez cites profound technological changes as the main reason why the United States should rethink its nuclear policy. However, there is one drastic change he does not adequately take into account: the rise of China. This response essay, therefore, focuses on the China factor in U.S. nuclear policy.

Chinese Nuclear Modernization

Since the turn of the century, China has been modernizing its nuclear forces in earnest. Currently, Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is estimated to number in the 200s. From 2017 to 2018, warheads increased by ten, and the Pentagon anticipates that the stockpile will double over the next ten years. These modernization efforts, such as moving from silo-based liquid-fueled ICBMs to mobile solid-fueled delivery vehicles, have focused mainly on improving force survivability. China also added a sea leg to its nuclear deterrent in 2016 with the introduction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (JL-2) on its Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

Additionally, China is producing ballistic missile systems with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) and maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) technologies that enhance missiles’ effectiveness. To this end, China has launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training in 2019 than the rest of the world combined. Meanwhile, the PLA’s new hypersonic cruise missiles supposedly are capable of piercing existing missile defense systems. Furthermore, structural reforms in China’s military reveal the critical role nuclear weapons play in Chinese strategy. In 2016, the branch in charge of China’s nuclear deterrent, the Second Artillery, was upgraded to a service, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Its commander was added to China’s highest military body, the Central Military Commission.

China’s drive to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces may cause some to argue with Gomez’s essential premise that new thinking is needed. This week, U.S. Strategic Commander Adm. Charles Richard remarked that China’s nuclear weapons buildup is “inconsistent” with their long-held no-first-use policy, emphasizing the need for the United States to pursue nuclear modernization. Indeed, there has been a resurgence in Cold War thinking about nuclear deterrence. For example, Former Senator Jon Kyl and Michael Morell argued for more low-yield nuclear warheads as part of an “escalate to deescalate” strategy. Similarly, Bret Stephens raised concerns that the U.S. arsenal is insufficient to prevent Chinese aggression.

However, I agree with Gomez that we need to rethink U.S. nuclear policy to ensure it can better meet contemporary challenges. Specifically, I argue that to best suit U.S. foreign policy interests, U.S. nuclear policy needs to minimize the role of nuclear weapons in U.S.-China great power competition and pave the way for arms control.

The Danger of Emphasizing Nuclear Competition within the Great Power Competition Framework

Since China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, it has adopted a relatively moderate and restrained nuclear policy, even as the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a nuclear arms race. China’s policy is one of assured retaliation with a no-first-use pledge designed to deter nuclear attack and coercion. China has not pursued “the kind of assured destruction capability that characterized U.S. and Soviet approaches.”

The United States should design its nuclear policy with the aim of increasing China’s confidence in its second-strike capabilities, so Beijing need not change its posture in ways that are destabilizing. Unfortunately, given concerns about great power competition with the United States and its force’s survivability, China may be rethinking its nuclear policy in ways detrimental to the United States. Recent developments in 2019 indicate China intends to increase its peacetime readiness nuclear posture from launch-on-attack to launch-on-warning. This suggests a move away from its no-first-use pledge. Such a move is also detrimental for crisis stability as it reduces how long decisionmakers have to assess the situation before they decide whether to respond with nuclear weapons. Additionally, given the vulnerability of China’s small force to a first strike, scholars worry that China may use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack on its nuclear deterrent.

There is another trend in Chinese nuclear thinking that U.S. policy must be careful not to dislodge as it reconsiders its nuclear policy: despite its nuclear and conventional military inferiority, China has not tried to compensate with a more offensive declaratory strategy or operational doctrine. Other states, such as Pakistan, explicitly use their nuclear arsenals to hedge against the prospect of losing a conventional war. If the direction of great power competition compelled China to make such a change—to use nuclear weapons to deter any U.S. involvement at all—this would force the United States to rethink its alliance commitments and role in the region.

Many nuclear experts worry that growing U.S. capabilities and Washington’s drive for strategic nuclear primacy may convince China to abandon such restraint. China has not done so to date, but revitalized U.S. efforts at nuclear competition could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. During the Cold War, the United States spent an average of $35 billion a year building and maintaining over 70,000 nuclear weapons. Gomez seems to agree that U.S. nuclear policy’s central goal needs to be to avoid going down the same road in this era of great power competition. While still rare, there are voices in China calling for a nuclear arms race. Any renewed nuclear policy must not undercut those Chinese strategists that believe the moderate minimal approach can still serve Chinese interests in the era of great power competition.

Paving the Way for Arms Control

The other priority of U.S. nuclear policy must be to facilitate arms control with China—this has become even more urgent as emerging technology “give states non-nuclear tools to disrupt their adversary’s nuclear forces.”

If China agreed to participate in such arrangements, this would be incredibly beneficial for the United States. First, China maintains opacity on its nuclear arsenal to ensure its survivability and provide a strategic nuclear deterrent to nuclear countries, including the United States, Russia, and India. An arms control agreement that included greater transparency into Chinese nuclear modernization would be beneficial and stabilizing.

Second, if China were a part of an arms control regime, the United States would have a better chance of persuading China to engage in better crisis stability practices. One concerning aspect to be discussed is that China comingles its nuclear and conventional command and control systems, meaning China might perceive an attack on conventional C4ISR as a nuclear threat.

The problem is that Chinese strategists insist that the United States and Russia must first commit to significant reductions in their arsenals before asking China to do the same. This position seems reasonable, as Russia and the United States have roughly 25 times more nuclear weapons than China. Thus, Moscow and Washington should work hard to revitalize their arms reduction efforts to pave the way for Beijing’s inclusion in follow on iterations.

Many in Washington may be skeptical that such efforts would bear fruit, and for good reason. Russia has expressed little interest in engaging in arms control in good faith. Nevertheless, it is worth another try, perhaps with a different approach. This is one of the few security issues for which China and the United States have the same position: both want Russia to cut its nuclear arsenal. And while U.S.-Russian relations are on the perpetual decline, Beijing and Moscow are more and more aligned. These developments present an opportunity for Washington to work with Beijing to get Moscow back on board. It is hard to say whether China would agree in the end to arms control agreements if the United States and Russia adopt more moderate nuclear postures. But it is worth engaging with Beijing to clarify what changes in U.S. nuclear policy would guarantee a willingness to be more transparent and restrained in its ongoing nuclear modernization efforts.

Concluding Thoughts

Gomez concludes his essay by asking how U.S. nuclear policy helps it accomplish its broader foreign policy goals. A return to building up the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal will do little to support the United States in its great power competition with China. Relatively weaker U.S. resolve makes nuclear use in contingencies incredible; China’s assured retaliation and non–first use doctrine relegate nuclear weapons to a secondary position in Chinese war planning to date—a policy the United States should not disrupt. In other words, both sides primarily consider the conventional balance of power when making security decisions. This conventional focus means that U.S. nuclear supremacy is doing much less for U.S. foreign policy in its competition with China than one may expect. The United States should, therefore, consider significantly reducing its arsenal (assuming it can convince Russia to do the same) to facilitate arms control agreements with China that will increase crisis stability and peace in the region. A smart U.S. nuclear policy can ensure a strong, credible U.S. nuclear deterrent while simultaneously encouraging China to maintain its current nuclear doctrine, thus avoiding an unnecessary and potentially destabilizing arms race.

The Time Is Right to Reconsider Nuclear Weapons. Entirely.

Eric Gomez is right to call for a reconsideration of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy and foreign policy. There are a number of major shifts in international politics that raise questions about the status quo of U.S. nuclear policy. Gomez identifies three of these changes: changing U.S. threat perceptions, the erosion of traditional arms control agreements, and the rise of non-nuclear strategic technologies. But he did not mention the shift in international politics impacting U.S. nuclear policy that will be caused by the imminent entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. What is the role of nuclear weapons in a world that has banned them?

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the United Nations in 2017, will enter into force ninety days after the 50th country deposits its instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance or approval. As of today, 45 countries have already done so. Once the treaty enters into force, it will become legally binding for all states parties, and signatories will be obligated not to violate the treaty’s object and purpose.

The treaty’s entry into force will create new legal obligations for states parties that will have a ripple effect in the international political arena that could in turn impact non-party states.

All states parties are required under Article 5 of the treaty to enact national measures such as legislation to implement the treaty and prevent treaty violations by its people or on its territory. These measures could penalize, for example, a financial institution in a state party investing in a nuclear weapon producing company in a non-party state. States parties with individuals impacted and land contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing will provide assistance to victims and work towards the remediation of contaminated land. Other states parties in a position to do so will help, as stipulated by Articles 6 and 7. All states parties, under Article 12, will be obligated to urge non-party states to join the treaty.

States parties in military alliances with non-party states will need to ensure they are not assisting these states with any of the core Article 1 prohibited activities under the treaty: developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory.

But if past weapons prohibitions set a precedent, the impact of the entry into force of the TPNW on international politics surrounding nuclear weapons will not stop at states parties’ implementation of core prohibitions and obligations. The United States has joined neither the Cluster Munitions Convention banning cluster munitions nor the Mine Ban Treaty banning landmines but has nevertheless altered its policies and behaviors after these treaties entered into force. After the entry into force of the Cluster Munitions Convention, U.S. companies stopped producing cluster munitions, and U.S. financial institutions stopped investing in companies that continued to produce the prohibited weapon.[i] Years after the entry into force of the Mine Ban Treaty, in 2014, the United States changed its policies on landmine use. Although those policies were later changed under the Trump administration, over 100 members of Congress wrote a joint letter protesting the move to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Why would the United States change its behavior and policies on a prohibited weapon when it hadn’t joined the treaty? Academics point to the role of international prohibition treaties in advancing a norm against that weapon, one that impacts even states that reject the treaty.[ii]

This norm will advance when the treaty enters into force and officially joins the body of international law, including international humanitarian law, that governs weapons and warfare, standing alongside the two other treaties banning weapons of mass destruction: the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention. It will continue to advance as states parties and civil society work toward universalization of the treaty.

The more than 1,000 elected representatives, including several U.S. representatives, who have pledged to work to get their government to join the treaty will open discussions within local and federal governments on the treaty’s entry into force. The treaty will be included in resolutions at the UN General Assembly and referenced within other relevant treaty meetings which non-party states, including the United States, take part.[iii] States parties to the TPNW, including allies of the United States, will be required under the treaty to urge non-party states to join.

The United States has actively opposed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons from before the start of its negotiations, just as it opposes the Mine Ban Treaty and Cluster Munitions Convention. It urged NATO allies to not support the negotiation of a nuclear prohibition treaty due in part to its potential impact on non-parties in a 2016 non-paper obtained by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

U.S. ardent opposition to the treaty shows that policymakers who support nuclear weapons understand the effect the treaty will have to diminish the role that U.S. nuclear weapons play in a world that increasingly finds them to be catastrophic and unacceptable means of warfare. It is a hard truth for those who make their living by preparing for the mass murder of civilians. But we must be realists. The United States, the eight other countries that possess nuclear weapons, and the couple dozen who include them in their security policies, cannot cling to their weapons of mass destruction forever.

The entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, both due to the implementation of legal obligations by states parties and the advancement of the norm against nuclear weapons, will impact U.S. nuclear policy in the years to come. The international community is creating a new normal for nuclear weapons—one which is supported by domestic populations even in the minority of countries that continue to rely on nuclear weapons.[iv] As the United States reconsiders its nuclear policy in the face of a shifting international political landscape, it cannot ignore the mounting pressure it will face from the international community—and its own constituents—to join the world’s majority and ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.


[i] Textron and Orbital ATK – two companies based in the United States stopped producing cluster munitions after the Cluster Munitions Convention entered into force. The U.S. based mutual fund Eventide Asset Management stopped investments. For details see: Worldwide Investment in Cluster Munitions, PAX, December 2018, https://www.paxforpeace.nl/publications/all-publications/worldwide-investment-in-cluster-munitions-2018.

[ii] Adam Bower, ‘Norms Without the Great Powers: International Law, Nested Social Structures, and the Ban on Antipersonnel Mines,’ International Studies Review, 17(3), September 2015, pp. 347–373.

[iii] See for example UN General Assembly resolution A/C.1/74/L.19 “Nuclear Disarmament,” available at: https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/1com/1com19/resolutions/L19.pdf and NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/CRP.4/Rev.1, the Recommendations for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, available at: https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom19/documents/CRP4Rev1.pdf

[iv] 79% of Australians, 79% of Swedes, 78% of Norwegians, 75% of Japanese, 84% of Finns, 70% of Italians, 68% of Germans, 67% of French, 64% of Belgians and 64.7% of Americans support their governments joining the TPNW. Sources: “Polls: Public opinion in EU host states firmly opposes nuclear weapons,” ICAN, https://www.icanw.org/polls_public_opinion_in_eu_host_states_firmly_opposes_nuclear_weapons; “75 years after Hiroshima, here are 4 things to know about nuclear disarmament efforts,” August 6 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/06/75-years-after-hiroshima-bombing-here-are-4-things-know-about-nuclear-disarmament-efforts/; Ipsos Public Opinion Poll, “Support for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” 13 November 2018; Olof Palme International Center, “The Swedish people are in favor of a nuclear ban,” 12 June 2019, https://www.palmecenter.se/article/svenska-folket-ar-for-ett-karnvapenforbud/; “Survey: 8 out of 10 Labor voters support a nuclear ban,” Dagsavisen, 2 April 2019, https://www.dagsavisen.no/nyheter/innenriks/undersokelse-8-av-10-ap-velgere-stotter-atomvapenforbud-1.1459213; Rauhanlitto, “The vast majority of Finns are in favor of banning nuclear weapons,”’ 7 November 2019, https://rauhanliitto.fi/rauhanliitto/ajankohtaista/tiedotteet/laaja-enemmisto-suomalaisista-kannattaa-ydinaseiden-kieltamista; Le Mouvement de la Paix, “76% are for France’s commitment in the nuclear weapons elimination process,” 5 July 2018, https://www.mvtpaix.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/CP-05.07.2018-Sondage-TIAN_EN.pdf

Sound Nuclear Policy Must Understand and Address Russian Nuclear Strategy

In his essay, Eric Gomez outlines three main reasons for why U.S. nuclear policy and modernization are at an inflection point: changing U.S. threat perceptions, the erosion of arms control, and the rise of non-nuclear strategic technologies. Some of these shifts are hardly new; for example, the strategic significance of conventional capabilities emerged out of the precision revolution of the 1980s, but these challenges may be nonetheless novel to the current generation of nuclear policy officials that must grapple with them. Gomez’s call to ask first-order questions is important. That is not something that gets done very often in Washington, D.C. Despite the attention that China presently garners in the defense community, at the end of the day U.S. nuclear strategy and policy must first consider Russia’s nuclear force posture, capabilities, and evolving thinking on nuclear employment.

Moscow holds by far the largest, most diverse, and sophisticated set of nuclear capabilities, strategic and non-strategic, representing a sizable share of nuclear warheads in existence outside of the United States and the arsenals of its allies. Russia’s nuclear arsenal has already undergone substantial reinvestment, with new platforms, means of delivery, and warheads deployed across the force. Novel nuclear weapons have also been deployed, or are far along in development, such as the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle Avangard, or the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo. There is much to take note of in Russia’s modernized nuclear arsenal, including lower yield warheads better suited to executing contemporary strategies for escalation management, or advanced work on hypersonic weapons which are likely to have conventional and nuclear payloads.

Yet the fundamental problem facing U.S. nuclear strategy today is not a capability gap, but a cognitive gap. Strategy should be about choices. The rote instinct to pursue a more flexible nuclear force as a hedge against adversary capabilities can inevitably be used to justify the procurement of any system. It is facile to argue that any capability is necessary in America’s nuclear quiver to “hedge against an uncertain future.” In thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in contemporary conflict scenarios, their relationship to conventional means, and their purpose in deterring adversaries, the United States is currently playing catch-up. While planners will inevitably reach for tried and tested solutions: the procurement of things to solve strategic challenges, it’s unclear if the United States has a working theory of victory in how these capabilities will manage escalation dynamics and shape adversary decisionmaking, a problem Brad Roberts and others have cogently identified. Ideally, nuclear modernization should offer answers to deterrence of conflict with likely adversaries, intra-war deterrence if war occurs, and some thesis on war termination beyond hoping to get lucky.

To this end, the United States should avoid chasing Russian nuclear capability or modernization, and work from reasonable sufficiency, buying what it needs based on deterrence strategies it wants to pursue. America’s principal advantage over Russia will continue to be in conventional capability, not nuclear weapons. Nuclear investments must be in the furtherance of answers to thorny questions in strategy, with some coherent thesis, rather than a costly scramble for options and flexibility. Buying stuff, to have more stuff, to have more flexibility, does not a strategy make.

Furthermore, the defense enterprise writ large must recognize that it is just not serious about Russia, as successive Secretaries of Defense have continued to espouse the fantasy that Russia is an ephemeral challenge, not long for this world, and due to become a lesser threat because the United States wishes it to be so. Nowhere is that less true than in the realm of nuclear capabilities and nuclear strategy, a fact that is generally appreciated. However, senior political and military leaders continue to cling to the view that the Russian threat will decline, even as they make an exception for nuclear considerations, chiefly because they do not wish to plan for a future where they have to deal with two significant and sustained challengers. That intellectual backdrop bodes ill for the cohesion of any U.S. effort to deal with an adversarial great power that happens to be America’s only true nuclear peer.

The Evolution of Russian Nuclear Strategy

Russia’s current nuclear strategy is intended to answer the challenge posed by the precision revolution, grappling with the threat of massed aerospace attack using long range precision guided weapons, electronic warfare, stealth, and similar technologies. These make real the proposition that the United States could inflict strategic levels of damage against Russian critical infrastructure, or the Russian military, without having to resort to nuclear use. The key tenets of Russian thinking sort ways and means based on the type of conflict considered, developing a chain of interlinked actions that offer options to the political leadership during a threatened period of war, the opening phases of a conflict, and nuclear warfighting options should escalation management fail. The Russian objective has been to find answers to contemporary challenges in modern warfare that do not have simple warfighting solutions, develop a theory for escalation management, and address the escalation dilemmas implicit in dealing with an adversary that has superiority in strategic conventional capabilities.

Thus, beyond a survivable strategic nuclear deterrent, the Russian military continues to see nuclear weapons as an asymmetric instrument in deterring a regional or large-scale war, and complementary to growing strategic conventional capabilities. Although the Russian armed forces have undergone extensive transformation and modernization since 2008, it is an earnestly held belief in the Russian General Staff that only strategic deterrence forces, integrating select conventional, non-strategic nuclear, and strategic nuclear capabilities, can deter the United States. Their concepts rest largely on the premise of raising costs above anticipated gains. They assume that denying the United States a quick or easy victory in any conflict is possible, but that sustaining defense in a conventional-only war is ultimately cost prohibitive.

The growth of Russia’s long-range conventional arsenal, including emerging technologies such as hypersonic weapons, will not substitute for the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Russian thinking. It has reduced dependence on the nuclear toolkit, shifting the need or consideration of nuclear employment away from the initial period of war, but the Russian military expects a great-power war to eventually involve nuclear weapons and is comfortable with this reality, unlike the U.S. strategy community, which generally seeks nuclear weapons in the hope of deterring adversary nuclear use. Nuclear weapons continue to stand out in Russian strategy because of their psychological impact, and ruble-to-deterrence cost ratio, which cannot be supplanted by conventional means. This helps explain the concurrent growth of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal alongside its conventional precision guided weapons.

The main departure from late-Soviet thinking on this subject is that while the Russian military leadership may believe that a nuclear war cannot be won, it does not believe that limited nuclear use will necessarily result in uncontrolled escalation. Russian thinking in this area is based on deterrence by intimidation, or fear inducement, and deterrence through limited use of force. In practical terms these include signaling readiness to strike critical economic and military targets, the use of conventional weapons in single and grouped strikes against them, nuclear demonstrations, and the follow-on use of nuclear weapons in limited employment roles. A modernized nuclear arsenal, with lower yields and precise means of delivery, is better able realize such missions, whether it is select use for the purpose of escalation management or nuclear warfighting in geography proximate to Russia’s own borders.

Gaps in the U.S. Understanding of Russian Nuclear Strategy

In general, Russian strategy reflects a balanced recognition that nuclear weapons are not credible in deterring or coercing in limited conflict scenarios, crises, or the early phases of a war. Conventional capabilities have overtaken some of these deterrence or escalation management tasks in lesser conflicts and early phases of larger wars. Here the views espoused in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review on Russian nuclear strategy are not only dated, but also incorrect. There is an erroneous perception that Washington and Moscow shared a common view of the nuclear threshold, and that Russia dramatically departed from this understanding leading to a much-lowered nuclear threshold. Broadly speaking, this is a misperception. This consensus probably never existed, and the Russian nuclear threshold has not been shifting dramatically about. What has changed is the timing of when Moscow may feel the need to use nuclear weapons in war, depending on how quickly or slowly their criteria for nuclear employment is reached. Ultimately, de-escalation in Russian strategy means escalation management, not preemptive war termination. This vision is not borne of unrealistic confidence, nor is there a prevailing belief in Moscow that it is possible to start and quickly end a conflict on Russian terms thanks to nuclear coercion.

That said, the United States must invariably hedge against the prospect that in a conflict, whatever its causes, Moscow decides to employ nuclear weapons, either in an attempt to manage escalation via calibrated coercion, or for limited warfighting once the conflict escalates or becomes militarily untenable. This brings out the second glaring misperception: the yield gap. Russian nuclear strategy is not based on the assumption that the United States faces an escalation dilemma due to an asymmetry of yields. This perception is borne chiefly of U.S. planners fearing that our own political leadership will be self-deterred. Hence a flexible arsenal with lower yields may be prudent, but it is best not to fall victim to the belief that it will either deter limited Russian nuclear use or answer the proverbial mail when it comes to Russian nuclear strategy. On the contrary, planning to respond in kind reduces the risk of uncontrolled nuclear escalation for Russian strategy and sets the United States up for a schizophrenic nuclear posture whereby our body language says that we plan to engage in limited nuclear counter-escalation all the while professing that such strategies are reckless and that controlled nuclear escalation is not possible. This may be a better problem to have than self-deterrence, or inflexibility, but it is an incoherence that should be recognized because it impinges on coercive credibility.

The third misperception stems from Russian investments in novel nuclear systems and means of delivery, such as Avangard, Poseidon, or Burevestnik. While these have generated much media publicity, they change preciously little in the strategic nuclear balance, or the ability of Russian nuclear forces to inflict unacceptable damage upon the United States. Although testing and development for some of these systems began well before the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, much of the impetus behind them has been the Russian fear of a competition in missile defense. These programs are effectively a hedge against a U.S. breakthrough in missile defense technology. They can be accounted for under existing arms control agreements, or incorporated into new ones, but these weapon systems do not pose destabilizing challenges or add to the coercive potential of Russia’s already sizable, and diverse, nuclear arsenal. Russian investment in these programs should not used as an alibi to abandon arms control, nor as vehicle to sell our own nuclear modernization, which has preciously little to do with these developments.

Towards Judicious Modernization

U.S. nuclear modernization will not result in a new arms race with Russia; the arms race, if it exists, is in strategic conventional capabilities. However, it is important to extend the New START Treaty and continue to pursue arms control. These agreements have generally been favorable to the United States, improving stability, reducing costs, and affording the pursuit of qualitative versus quantitative superiority. Arms control continues to be more prudent for U.S. strategy than the fantasy of unbridled nuclear superiority, much of which is irrelevant anyway when it comes to the political calculus behind nuclear use of force. While it makes no sense to stay in agreements which are simply not being implemented by the other side, as was the case with the INF Treaty, arms control should be one of the pillars of U.S. strategy in dealing with Russia’s nuclear forces. In practice, and considering realistic resource constraints, the United States will not attain any meaningful superiority relative to Russia were strategic arms control abandoned.

Nonetheless, existing arms control agreements do not offer answers to two critical concerns on both sides. For the United States, it is Russia’s growing non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and for Moscow, the long-standing U.S. superiority in long-range conventional weapons. It’s unclear if this gap can be bridged, because even in an alternate universe where threat perceptions are markedly different, both countries would eschew constraints on such capabilities because they need them for deterring China. Yet here too it merits asking some first-order questions. For example, if Russia cut its non-strategic nuclear arsenal in half from 2,000 to 1,000, what difference would it make for U.S. operational plans or extended deterrence commitments?

The United States needs to modernize judiciously. Just because Russia’s nuclear arsenal is a zoo, it does not mean we need the same diversity to address the present-day challenges of nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence. There must be a logic to U.S. nuclear weapons procurement and it should not be premised on the logical fallacy that because they have a thing, we need a thing like that to deter it—or face a dreadful gap in capability and fear being coerced on an imaginary escalation ladder. Deterrence doesn’t really work that way. This type of logic is a path to ruin. If Russia needs its non-strategic nuclear weapons for escalation management, and as an offset to our conventional superiority, or that of other powers, do we need a similar arsenal? How much is enough, and to what end? These questions should illuminate discussions on whether we need both the Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSO), and the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, along with the low-yield submarine launched ballistic missile (W76-2), etc. These should be choices, not a nuclear buffet.

This raises the question: do we have a theory of escalation management or war termination? The problem is not with Russian thinking on these questions, it is with a lack of our intellectual investment on the subject. U.S. thinking on great power war has at least three significant assumptions on escalation management and war termination which are not fleshed out or sufficiently debated: first, that a high-end fight with Russia can be geographically confined to fit our scenarios, second that the United States can achieve military objectives while deterring nuclear use, and third, that the war can be ended when the United States feels it has accomplished its goals. There is a thesis that new U.S. nuclear weapons will play a role in enabling these, or perhaps should, but that role is not always clear or explicitly stated in our assumptions. Thinking on intra-war deterrence and war termination should influence debates on nuclear modernization.

As a corollary, telling the Russians that their strategy will not work is not only unhelpful, but it is an encouragement for them to buy more non-strategic nuclear weapons because it betrays our fear and concern. Similarly, trying to scare them with China’s growing nuclear arsenal is, again, a suggestion for Moscow to further invest in theater nuclear warfighting as a cost-effective deterrent against Beijing.


In thinking about nuclear modernization, it is important to recognize that nuclear weapons by themselves are only one part of an equation that makes for credible deterrence. Questions of resolve cannot be easily solved with flexibility in yields or new means of delivery. These investments are ways by which planners might seek to offer options to decisionmakers, but political leaders do not think the way planners or wargamers do. Nuclear use is ultimately a political decision. This is something that many wargames and simulations tend to get wrong. Planners and strategists informing this process have to keep in mind the political calculus of adversaries, and most importantly, that political leaders tend not to think the way they do. In many cases the requirements for deterrence, that is what is reasonably sufficient to enable the sort of outcomes we might seek, need not entail costly or arduous solutions that take away from areas where the United States could meaningfully seek advantages or pursue competitive strategies.

The Conversation

Nuclear Weapons Will Always Be Possible

I laud Beatrice Fihn’s bold thinking and her work on abolishing nuclear weapons. I agree that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will positively affect the choices of even non-signatories, as is often the case with international regimes. My main critique is not novel; in a world where nuclear weapons are possible, I believe the United States needs them to protect against nuclear use and blackmail. Even if all countries signed and promised to adhere to the Treaty, I would still not advocate for the United States to give up all its nuclear weapons. Countries break their promises; China and Russia are no exceptions. So, while I think we should work toward global zero, I do not support achieving reaching this goal.

But this does not mean the United States should not rethink its nuclear policy entirely, as Ms. Fihn argues. Many emerging technologies have not are yet to be fully operationalized in the military sense, such as hypersonics and AI. These are areas where arms control and restrictive treaties could have a real impact. Chinese military officers have suggested to me that China would be open to such discussions precisely because it is easier not to do something than to reverse a capability once it is developed. What are some capabilities that everyone would be worse off if all the greatest militaries in the world developed and fielded them? We need to think ahead to create norms and regimes now to prevent the introduction of new technologies that could have a destabilizing impact. This is one way we can make the world a safer place, even if it still has nuclear weapons in it.