The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Nuclear Strategy and Today’s Operating Environment

At one time nuclear strategy was one of the central pillars of U.S. national defense strategy and foreign policy.  Its related technologies were probably the most expensive items in the U.S. defense budget.  Deterence was the central concept in the U.S. national strategy to meet the threat of nuclear attack.  It was most graphically illustrated by the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD).  However, since the end of the Cold War the idea of nuclear war has been pushed to the margins of the national defense strategy debate.  Since 9/11, strategy discussions have continued to largely ignore the issue of nuclear weapons.

There are two nuclear scenarios which have received some attention, both related to the issue of proliferation:  one is nuclear armed “rogue” states –most specifically a nuclear armed Korea and the potential for a nuclear armed Iran; and the other threat is small scale “suitcase” nuclear terror attack.  These threats are catagorized by the national defense strategy (NDS) as  “catastrophic challenges.” 

The 2005 NMS identifies the threat of WMD but it does not clearly articulate the role of the U.S. nuclear arsenal relative to the WMD and other threats.  The 2006 national military strategy to combat WMD says that offensive operations ”  Kinetic (both conventional and nuclear) and/or non-kinetic operations [will] defeat, neutralize or deter a WMD threat or subsequent use of WMD.”  The NMS for WMD implies that deterence is still a central part of strategy to combat the threat of nuclear attack.

Some questions to consider regarding the role of nuclear weapons in current strategy:

Is deterence a viable strategy agains the nuclear threats in today’s operating environment?  Is deterence against WMD integrated suffeciently with the overall national strategy?  Is current U.S. strategy asymetric or symetric?

February 8, 2010 - Posted by | H300 | , , , ,


  1. Having been a crew member on a B-52 and sat on alert with a fully loaded aircraft with nuclear warheads I have had the opportunity to sit and discuss the ramifications of this type of warfare with my fellow crew members. It is my opinion that deterence is only effective against a nation that is concerned with the welfare and safety of its people. When dealing with leadership of questionable mental stability or with terrorists groups then the dynamics drastically change. Especially when you are dealing with people whose only concern is causing pain to the people of the USA. Therefore it is my belief that the only course of action to deal with these senarios is to be pre-emptive and not allow these people to get these weapons in the first place.

    Comment by MAJ Wolf | February 19, 2009

  2. A couple of concerns that I have regarding the nuclear age.
    What does total world war look like in a nuclear age? The thought of it truly scares me. I don’t think the world can afford to ever reach total war again given the dynamics of nations with nuclear capabilities. The only way I can ever see the use of nuclear capability used on the battlefield as a part of war is only as a nation’s absolute last result and if they have lost all hope of maintaining their way of life.

    The scariest thought for me is that would not take a lot to draw the world into a nuclear holocaust because I believe that the use of nuclear response as less to do rational thought and more to do with emotional anger, for example, “You hurt me so I am going to hurt you back or I hate you.” With so much conflict and hate in the world all it would take to draw us into a nuclear war is a few unstable people make irrational and emotional decisions.
    That’s my take.

    Comment by MAJ Anthony Gray | February 19, 2009

  3. The title slide for the nuclear strategy class eluded to a return to limited warfare in the contemporary operating environment and this is obviously the case. Although recent national security documents don’t adequately address WMD nor provide a clear stance on retaliation I believe that its universal understanding implies a deterrence strategy is in effect. Through the use of asymetric or Kennan type policy the US implements a foreign policy that would make a WMD “first strike” a bad idea for any non-state or rogue state actors as well. To address terrorist factions our strategy demonstrates the ability to focus all the elements of national power in order to preempt WMD attacks. This means getting involved in many regions of the world to ensure terrorist safehavens and economic power bases are isolated. The paradox here revolves around the need for the US to increase human captital on the ground with supporting air, sea, and cyber LOCs around the globe. This of course can be understood as symetric warfare in the sense that DOD total force commitments complemented by USG agency efforts may amount to equal spending on national defense in the long run. Somebody has to do the math on that one because I’m not an economist.

    Comment by Vinny Ciuccoli | February 19, 2009

  4. The first slide was entitled “….limited warfare”. What we did not get into and was well explained in the article: “four paradoxes of nuclear strategy” was the fact that the nuclear age gave rebirth to limited warfare. The four paradoxes are: “the commitment to the use of force, nuclear or otherwise, paralyzed by the fear of having to use it; the search for a nuclear strategy which would avoid the predictable consequences of nuclear war; the pursuit of a nuclear armaments race joined with attempts to stop it; the pursuit of an alliance policy which the availability of nuclear weapons has rendered obsolete”. Because of those paradoxes, the state will not go to war unless it can “control” it. The total war might end up to the annihilation of all the actors. This idea of “controlling” war is against Clausewitz idea. The recent escalations between Russia and Georgia seem to give him credit.

    Comment by ydiop | February 19, 2009

  5. Is deterrence a viable strategy against the nuclear threats in today’s operating environment? Yes deter should be considered a viable strategy in COE because our adversaries must believe they will suffer severe consequences and their objectives will be denied if they threaten or resort to the use of nuclear weapons. We can argue that this strategy maybe does not work against some non-state actors include terrorist, extremists and few of nations where the concept of live and death is different to us, but in general is it a valuable strategy against conventional enemies. The deter strategy cannot be employed alone, have to be used with the others military strategy objectives described in NNS-CWMD (defeat, protect, respond, recover, defend, dissuade, deny, reduce, destroy, reserve). The use of information operations as non-kinetic options to deter or defeat a WMD attack should be considered the first option, and then considered the possibility of conduct offensive operations that include conventional and nuclear options.

    Comment by MAJ Jose A. Nieves | February 20, 2009

  6. There can be no doubt that deterrence remains a viable deterrence against potential nuclear threats posed by traditional nation-states. However, as the 2006 National Security Strategy identifies (p.22) (, deterrence as a strategy can no longer be solely a function of the threat posed by a devastating US attack against potential foes (I read this as massive nuclear retaliation by the US). The current concept of deterrence supports and is a reflection of the New Triad approach presented in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) (unclassified excerpts are available at: as a policy framework providing the necessary flexibility to meet an ever changing security environment. The three aspects of this triad are:
     Offensive strike systems (both nuclear and non-nuclear);
     Defenses (both active and passive); and
     A revitalized defense infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats.
    The intent as articulated in the NPR was that this triad would support the defense policy goals of assure, dissuade, deter, and defeat.
    Given the nature of nuclear devices, the resources required to develop, transport, and employ this type of weapon against the US, a non-state actor would almost require the active assistance of a nation-state, or at the very least an environment of permissive, non-interference. From this perspective, the US policy articulated in the Sept 2008 paper, National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, co-published by the DoD and DoE (, of holding state sponsors of terrorism accountable for the actions of their proxies (p.6) maybe the only viable method of deterrence or dissuasion available, to prevent a radical non-state actor from acquiring and using a nuclear device. In the current environment where non-state actors seem to pose an increasingly greater threat to US security, a significant shortcoming in our deterrence policy, is the danger of one of these non-state actors gaining a nuclear device of their own accord and using it against the US, an ally, or one of our key interests. As was suggested in class today, we have the scientific ability to determine the origins of the fissile material, but what good does it do to know this is we cannot demonstrate a linkage between the perpetrators of such an act and the source of the material. What is the US response in this case? What if no group takes responsibility for the attack, or it is a previously unknown organization, or even if it is the infamous Al Qaeda, how does the US retaliate against an organization without a perceivable organization, location, or structure. Against an extremist organization whose sole intent is to inflict as many casualties as possible on the US, thereby setting the conditions for an IO coup, whether the US overreacts with a retaliatory response or is unwilling to act over concern about inflicting extreme collateral damage against another nation, military/nuclear deterrence is unlikely to be effective since such a group seems to have little to lose from such an attack. The 2008 National Defense Strategy (NDS) ( ) recognizes that deterrence in the current environment must be tailored to “fit particular actors, situations, and forms of warfare (p.12),” but besides recognizing that this will require both military and non-military tools, the NDS does little address how such deterrence may be accomplished.
    Deterrence, and the US nuclear policies, although not articulated clearly or completely in any single source, seem to be integrated into the nation’s overall security strategy, but there is very little detail to indicate how deterrence will be achieved against both conventional (traditional nation-states) and asymmetric threats.
    Interestingly enough while doing some searching to look at our national policy documents, I found several other interesting items that seem applicable to the discussion:
    1)O/A, 9 Feb the US completed the reduction of its force obligation/caps IAW the Moscow treaty of 2002 with respect to the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads (ODSNW) (~2200) nearly three years ahead of the target date of 2012. This article gives a different perspective from the Federation of American Scientists in regards to US nuclear capabilities; it is interesting when contrasted with the National Security & Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century paper.
    2)Secretary Gates stated today (at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Poland), “A NATO [not-US] ballistic missile defense system wouldn’t be needed if Iran didn’t pose a threat.” (defense being one leg of the New Triad policy)
    3)National Security Advisor GEN (R) James L. Jones on 10 Feb in Munich made a number of observations about the need for institutions and approaches to security to change to meet the realities of the 21st century. He also made an interesting reference to the “elements of national influence” expanded from D-I-M-E to M-D-E (US economy), Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Cultural Outreach, and Moral Leadership.

    Perhaps some of the issues debated and batted around here in CGSC actually have greater significance than is immediately apparent.

    Comment by MAJ Paul J. Hilaski | February 20, 2009

  7. Is “deterence” a viable strategy against the nuclear threats in today’s operating environment? With the large diversity of threats that the U.S. currently faces, both symmetric and asymmetric, the concept of deterrence could be slowly diminishing because the measure of plausibility for the employment of WMD by these contemporary threats remains high while the model for U.S. counterforce strategy to utilize nuclear weapons as a method of massive retaliation is still being debated and will be questioned at all levels of our government, the U.S. public, and the international community.
    The original Deterrence Theory was based on the psychological premise that two national opponents are “rationally” aware of the inevitability of their own destruction in the event they both resorted to nuclear force BUT with the added element that both sides also contained a small degree of “irrationality,” thereby exhibiting the capacity to initiate nuclear devastation as a slight measure of possibilities that can’t be ignored. This deterrence policy was obviously developed to counter the clearly identifiable, symmetric threat of a rival Superpower during the Cold War.
    However, in today’s contemporary operating environment, potential threats have escalated beyond the scope of symmetric adversaries to asymmetric opponents (such as non-state actors promoting terrorist strategies and undisciplined nemeses labeled as “rogue states”) who operate on a level of ideological reasoning that transend beyond normal logic and rational thinking, thinking that strongly influenced the whole principle of assured deterrence. Therefore, the issue is not whether these rogue states and non-state actors can reasonably analyze the possibility of their own mutual assured destruction but the question is, “do they truly care about the apocalyptic results of massive retaliation and a nuclear counter-strike as a result of their first strike WMD attack?” With the element of rationality disappearing from the equation, the follow-up question is this, “if these rogue states and non-state actors (such as Al-Qaeda, Korea, and Iran) who operate on a methodology of near-irrationality due to pure ideological reasons or lack of mental reservation and have little concern for national preservation and the well-being of their own group or citizens, how can U.S. policy-makers remain confident in their belief that our current kinetic/non-kinetic capabilities will have any type of deterring factor or neutralizing means against WMD threats of this magnitutude and influence?”
    Furthermore, the positive effects of deterrence against threats of this nature are likely to decrease with the continued and increased frequency of utilization by U.S. strategists to the point that the psychological gains of such deterrence may well be expended to nullification while bolder challenges to make good on our counter-threat policy will come to fruition, an event that our U.S. leaders and international community may not be fully prepared to live with just yet.

    Comment by MAJ Lance A. Okamura | February 20, 2009

  8. I have not read anything about the link between the development of a limited nuclear war strategy and its real or potential consequences on coalitions’ cohesion.
    Being a NATO officer, with a certain degree of experience in coalition issues, I am convinced that one of the most important factors that forced the US/NATO and Soviet/Warsaw Pact planners to avoid developing in details a limited nuclear war strategy was the possible, obvious, and easily understandable concern that woud have risen between their allies, with potentially dangerous consequences under the aspect of block’s cohesion.
    Even if it may be true that the Soviet pressure could have kept the Eastern block (apparently) tied together, it is also true that the devotion to the cause of countries such as Poland, Hungary, Ceckoslovakia (that would have been completely destroyed by a NATO “limited” nuclear stryke) could not have been as strong as usual.
    On the other side of the wall, the situation was not too much different. Western Germany and Italy, for instance, did not see any difference between a limited and a total nuclear war. The consequences on their people and lands would have been exactly the same.
    Clearly, NATO and US did not have the same power of coercion the USSR had on its allies and, for this reason, the issue of the detailed development of a limited nuclear war strategy in the western side of the wall was even more sensitive than in the other.

    Comment by fdelfavero | February 21, 2009

  9. I feel that nuclear deterrence is a viable strategy in a limited sense. Vigilance is the other half of the equation. Iran recently launched a small satellite into low earth orbit. The satellite is a 60 pound object circling the earth 15 times a day. While it is unclear how accurate the guidance system is, the fact that they were able to put it into stable orbit says a lot; so far only a few countries have been able to do that. There is also the possibility of a non-state actor developing or purchasing a nuclear weapon and threating or using it against a United States interest. Fortunately one is not able to get Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 easily; it requires expensive equipment and sophisticated technology to gather and assemble the material needed for a nuclear device. I would image that it is very difficult to move that type of material around without someone knowing about it. All the same the United States and allies must remain vigilant against a foe either symmetric or asymmetric.

    Comment by MAJ Wayne Vornholt | February 22, 2009

  10. Perhaps the one thing we can all agree on is that nuclear strategy (and perhaps all national strategy) is complex. When dealing with such a large concept with seemingly innumerable consequences, I find it important to ensure the main terms are clearly defined (as we keep hearing, words have meaning). So, to answer the question of whether or not deterrence is a viable strategy against the nuclear threats in today’s operating environment, one key word I will clarify is deterrence. Merriam-Webster says to deter is “to turn aside, discourage, or prevent from acting.” Perhaps the question here assumes our nuclear arsenal as the method of deterrence? Without knowing for sure, I will throw in my two cents on either question (our nuclear arsenal as a deterrent and deterrence in general).

    To the first question, my answer would be no…at least in the long term. First, while I agree with the previous post that a nuclear attack would likely require a non-state actor to gain state-sponsored support, I don’t know how long that reality will continue to exist. Second, trying to predict the end of proliferation is a difficult task. To assume another nation wouldn’t use nuclear weapons because they fear the risk of retaliation (and its destruction of their governed people) would be to assume all other governments follow the same line of logic and interests as ours.

    To the second question, I would answer yes. I do think deterrence is a viable strategy in today’s reality. I just think the method for deterring other nations from using nuclear weapons is changed. I think we currently have an asymmetric strategy designed to do just that…whether through economic, political, or asymmetric military means.

    Comment by Maj Randy Oakland | February 22, 2009

  11. I feel that the theory of deterrence was viable when the only countries that contained nuclear weapons were the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. Even after countries like Pakistan and India gained them, I believe it to be viable. However, as mention above in other posts, today, rogue regimes and terrorist groups are looking to gain this weapon. What then? The U.S. obviously can not retaliate against a group, when the populace of a country (who may not be involved) will suffer. Our response could then be the trigger for another response from somewhere else. In the case of Iran, I honestly see the leadership looking to have the capabilities so that they may come to the table and be heard in a legitimate forum. The U.S. currently has Iran sandwiched, and the relations with Israel are, well, not there. I see Iran wanting to have nuclear weapons so that it too can have the threat, and have some leverage in the Middle East.
    The devastation that the atomic bombs had on Japan in WWII, I believe, are forgotten today. I do not think that the leaders around the world understand what a nuclear war would do to the planet. The discussion about “tactical” nuclear weapons is an oxymoron in that a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. Limited war, in the historical sense, means that it is small scale and pits military upon military. Today, militaries are tied to population centers. In order to achieve true victory, limited war is not an option today, if nuclear weapons are introduced.

    Comment by MAJ Jason Bavlnka | February 24, 2009

  12. Deterrence as a strategy against possible nuclear threats has stalled for time while developing more advanced weapons to include more adversaries. Using it as a strategy today is a continuation from years ago when it was symmetrical. The problem is that the weapons have much more devastating effects. However it is a last means and calls for military action without the use of nuclear warfare first. The additional adversaries not of a super power status have created the asymmetrical threat. The U.S. strategy is flexible, so it is asymmetric.

    Comment by Brad Burns | February 24, 2009

  13. Is deterrence a viable strategy against the nuclear threats in today’s operating environment? Yes! Nuclear weapons serve as an unprecedented deterrence to warfare that actually forces opposing governments into stabilizing diplomacy. Unlike conventional bombing, there is no surefire counter technique for nuclear war other than nuclear war itself. The end state is total war resulting in mutual devastation, elimination of both parties, and complete destruction. The memories and psychological impact of the total annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always serve as a major deterrence for future nuclear war. Nation-states display a unique unwillingness to accept the results of nuclear strikes for fear of total destruction, which in all actuality provides the owner enormous first strike capabilities. With such a limited counter capability, it truly forced the world into limited warfare with countries not willing to embark on a nuclear campaign that would essentially lead to mutual devastation and elimination.

    Comment by Richard Myers | February 27, 2009

  14. I would tend to side with MAJ Wolf on this issue. Deterrence seems to be a meaningless concept when discussing super empowered individuals or terrorist organizations with aim to destroy the Western infidel. Deterrence is, however, part of the equation. As part of the global order we negotiate nuclear arms limitations agreements with nations and monitor/discourage proliferation in rogue states like North Korea and Iran. We continue to develop our missile defense system, though with an ever shifting focus (Reagan’s Star Wars Initiative to Bush’s Ground Base Mid-Course Defense) which is definitely deterrence. I think the “suitcase” nuclear terror attack will be the challenge of our time. It will require using all elements of power, with a large informational component.
    For those who enjoy reading, I recommend a book by Walter Miller called “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. It’s a science fiction novel about post-nuclear holocaust and how mankind would ultimately re-build only to repeat its mistakes. It offers an interesting take on human nature and our destructive tendencies.

    Comment by MAJ Chad Weddell | February 9, 2010

  15. With the end of the cold war and the creation of zones that are designated as nuclear free, it is difficult to determine if deterrence is a viable strategy against the nuclear threats in today’s operating environment. Russia and the U.S. got rid of many of their nuclear weapons after the Cold War. Since deterrence relies much on the use of nuclear weapons as the primary deterrent, scaling back on the number of weapons and weapon delivery systems degrades a nation’s ability to deter another. There were only two primary opponents during the cold war, Russia and the United States. Today, there are many more countries developing nuclear weapons (e.g. Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, etc) and the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the possession of terrorists or terrorist organizations rises. As a result of having an increase in the number of countries that are developing nuclear capability, I feel that it is important to maintain a military that is ready to fight a pan symmetric war…one that is capable of fighting a traditional and symmetric battle, as well as an non-traditional asymmetric fight.

    Comment by MAJ John Palazzolo, SG17A | February 9, 2010

  16. MAJ Wolf hit the nail on the head. Deterence only works on a non-belligerent government. Deterevce has no effect on terrorist and countries that have no interest in accomplishing anything but demonstrating that they can produce a cheap shot on superpower. Religious radicals would have no problem with helping their entire population into martyrs. As we seen with North Korea, we can give them a ton of money. But when they have enough greenbacks, they re-establish their credibility by reinvigorating their program.

    Comment by MAJ Michael Roe | March 10, 2010

  17. Is deterrence against WMD integrated sufficiently with the overall national strategy?
    No, I do not believe the US NDS adequately addresses the issue of integrating WMD deterrence. Our current focus is on trying to prevent or intercept the acquisition of WMD by the enemy. I believe the US has not and will not adequately address this issue until it is too late (WMD in the hands of the enemy). It is only then when we will actually address this issue and resource a strategy to try and prevent the use of these weapons by the enemy. This strategy will then focus on prevention or interception in order to deny the enemy’s ability to employ or attain the desired effects they wish to have. Additionally, I doubt the US Gov’t/People possess the will power to actually use WMD against enemy targets once we are attacked or in order to prevent the employment of a WMD by the enemy once they obtain them. Therefore, no, I do not believe deterrence is sufficiently integrated into the NDS nor do I believe that it will be the way we proceed once the enemy obtains WMD.

    Comment by MAJ James Lucowitz | March 24, 2011

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