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?


January 24, 2013 - Posted by | Current Events, H300, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Deterrence is a viable strategy against nuclear threats in today’s operating environment in regards to nuclear nations. In the two nuclear scenarios of a nuclear armed Korea and Iran I believe that no matter how crazy we believe another nation is the fear of retaliation will keep order among us all. The threat in today’s operating environment that deterrence is not a viable strategy is in non-state actors. If a non-state actor acquires nuclear capability and uses it, who do we retaliate against? What is the “fear” that keeps them from conducting a nuclear attack? This is the issue that is not integrated sufficiently in our symmetric strategy. Although there is hinted asymmetric challenges that could exist, there is no answer to these challenges.

    Comment by Doug Serie, 11B | January 25, 2013

  2. Deterrence is a viable strategy only if the other side believes we will use it. I think that after 60+ years of nuclear threats it doesn’t have the same meaning as it did in the past. This also depends on the messenger. If the President is not credible at selling the threat it will not be credible as a deterrent. The second threat to deterrence is who do you threaten if a non state actor gets or uses nukes. This threat is increasingly worse as the chances of a terrorist group getting weapons increases. I believe this is why Iran and Korea having/getting nukes is a problem. It may be true that these nations may remain rational in there use, but they may “allow” non state actors to have material or technology to be used against us.

    Jabba, 11A

    Comment by Thomas Hutton, 11A | February 4, 2013

  3. The current U.S. strategy is slowly transitioning from asymmetric to symmetric, after coming out from over a two decades of nation building and counter insurgency warfare. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, United States’ policy toward nuclear deterrence took a back seat because the “Cold War” was over. This resulted in years of nuclear neglect in favor of asymmetric strategy. Fortunately, many in the nuclear triad realized the “Cold War” wasn’t really over. The same threats still existed, even if the ideologies behind the threats changed. Therefore, the nuclear triad continued to deter peer adversaries from gaining the initiative.

    The U.S. didn’t build the nuclear triad to defeat WMD. It built the triad to deter peer national governments from using nuclear weapons as a first strike capability. The triad continues to accomplish that mission today. Today’s nuclear capable peer nations realize the dangers of initiating a nuclear strike against the U.S. The smaller nations working toward nuclear weapons also realize the threat to their existence if they decide to use nuclear weapons, not only from the U.S., but the entire international community. This deterrent threat only exists if the U.S. keeps its nuclear triad and includes it in the national strategy to counter all threats in today’s operating environment. Without the nuclear umbrella provide by the triad, the U.S. could not act on the international stage like the sole superpower it is.

    Comment by Bryan J Dutcher | February 7, 2013

  4. As we transition from asymmetric to symmetric warfare, and from all we’ve learned from our previous nuclear action, the U.S. has gained morale awareness that nuclear ought to be our last resort. The important point is to remember that nuclear actions gained their deterrent effect not through a capacity to hurt but to gain the initiate. Its adoption has influenced an adversary after hostilities had begun. The threat would be most credible if either it was not matched by a counter threat (which is unlikely) today, or if it would implement automatically by the adversary’s misbehavior, although neither side is unlikely to put itself in such a position if not obtained. The nuclear triad could be exposed as a bluff by some, especially if it had already not been implemented following an adversary’s aggression. I believe this is our N. Korea and China’s threats are constant in today’s media lines.

    Comment by Dee Mosby | March 14, 2013

  5. Deterrence as the primary strategy is no longer viable against the potential nuclear threats in today’s operating environment. A rogue country with immature yet aggressive leaders, such as N. Korea, will be only too anxious to employ a nuclear weapon to prove its legitimacy as a military powerhouse regardless of the consequences. Deterrence is especially ineffective as a strategy against non-state actors. Extremist groups actively seek opportunities to inflict mass death and destruction as part of their modus operandi. A nuclear weapon is perfect for this purpose. A non-state actor will not morally differentiate between flying planes into buildings or employing a nuclear weapon, both are equally effective in achieving the fear that non-state actors crave. The US must adopt a strategy much stronger than deterrence in order to protect its population from non-state actors that secure nuclear weapons.

    Comment by Nicole Fischer | April 23, 2013

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