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?


March 28, 2011 - Posted by | Current Events, H300, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The nuclear threats in today’s operating environment pose many challenges to the United States and I am of the opinion that the United States must maintain a viable strategy against such threats. It must continue to be cognizant of these threats and must strive to curtail them through methods such as nonproliferation and strategic dialogue with countries (whether good or bad) that have nuclear capabilities.
    Deterrence against WMD is integrated sufficiently with the overall national strategy. Various departments within our government (i.e., Department of Energy and Department of Defense to name a few) play an integral role in deterrence through their interactions in nuclear nonproliferation, countering terrorism and responding to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. Such departments provide technology, analysis, and expertise to aid the United States government in preventing the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction.
    It is my belief that U.S. strategy is asymmetric and we still hold the preponderance of this “power.” In addition, I firmly believe we must maintain this preponderance in order to deter nations from the application and employment of such threats.

    Comment by Pia Romero | March 28, 2011

  2. I agree with MAJ Romero that deterrence is an important aspect of the United States’ nuclear strategy. However, I do not believe that deterrence will be effective against the “small scale ‘suitcase’ nuclear terror attack” mentioned above. The U.S. may not be able to identify the origin of the attacker, so MAD would go out the window. Even if the attacker was identified, unless it was a nation-state whose legitimate government authorized the attack, terrorists know that the U.S would not respond in kind.

    Comment by Rachel Wienke, 17D | April 1, 2011

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