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 30, 2014 - Posted by | Current Events, H300, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Without a doubt, the question of nuclear deterrence in current strategy is timely, specifically because of recent scandals surrounding the Air Force nuclear corps. A recent NY Times piece quotes one former USAF Launch Officer who essentially says that Air Force missileers lost their focus when the attacks of 9/11 happened because they felt that nuclear deterrence was no longer the centerpiece of national security and it changed how they viewed the job, seeing that they had failed to deter the attacks and failed to keep America safe (

    While I believe that the former Launch Officer’s view is shortsighted, I do feel that US nuclear deterrence is not effective against, or even focused on, non-state actors (with the exception of limiting access to WMD material). The scope and scale of a first or retaliatory strike against non-state actors does not seem feasible or warranted, beyond what conventional ordnance and other military power is capable of should an attack occur or is determined to be eminent. However, I do believe that US nuclear strategy is still a valid, effective and necessary deterrent against state actors. I think the threat of US nuclear action is a planning factor for nations and continues to deter WMD use by rouge-states and other nations. Further, I believe that US nuclear capabilities continue to facilitate alliances and partnerships and are invaluable in limiting the number of nuclear capable nations and the amount of nuclear arms worldwide.

    The new Nuclear Triad, a triad of triads, is not the Nuclear Triad of the Cold War or even a few years ago. The triad has evolved to be a more effective modern WMD deterrent and national security strategy, evidenced by current programs and initiatives, values the triad principles and has continued to realize deployment of deterrence options throughout the world and increased non-proliferation efforts that will no doubt continue to evolve as the world landscape changes ( and I believe telltales like these, recent treaties and agreements as well as US involvement in world events may indicate that we have recently transitioned from a long period of symmetric strategy into a period of asymmetric strategy.

    Comment by LCDR Matt Krull | February 1, 2014

  2. I believe deterrence is definitely still a viable option in today’s operational environment. While it is likely playing a diminishing role in the overall national defense strategy (either deliberately or not), it is still a key aspect to the defense and security of the US. It may be hard to argue for the effectiveness of deterrence when dealing with non-state actors wielding a “suitcase” nuclear bomb, I believe it absolutely remains effective with ‘rogue states.’ I cannot even imagine how different Iran and North Korea’s actions would be if we did not have an effective and legitimate nuclear deterrent.

    Where I believe we currently fall short is how deterrence is integrated with our overall national strategy. It’s unclear to me if it is simply not a priority with our current national leadership or if it is taken for granted because it is a ‘legacy’ policy. My fear is that, as the US continues to attempt to adapt its national strategy to emerging threats and “catastrophic challenges,” we lose sight of the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrence and how it can integrate into the overall strategy. More importantly, I believe other nations will recognize this fact as well and could potentially find it as a point of weakness to manipulate.

    With regards to the third question, therein lies the problem. Because the US faces both asymmetric and symmetric threats, our current US Strategy is attempting to address both (doing neither very well). I believe it is the responsibility of our national leadership to find the right way to adjust our national strategy in such a manner that both types of threats are addressed without simply trying to ‘plug the holes’ in every direction they see a threat.

    Comment by Jeff Pickler | February 18, 2014

  3. Deterrence is no longer effective in our current environment. At least not as far as proliferation is concerned. If you wish to call sanctions and political wrangling asymmetric I guess I could buy that but it’s not working. Rather than a product of failure in our national defense I’ll say its a failure in the current political arena to effectively execute foreign policy.

    Comment by Ray Crotts | February 22, 2014

  4. To add further confusion to the US policy for nuclear deterrence, please see the following article:

    Comment by Ray Crotts | February 22, 2014

  5. Determining the viability of the US nuclear strategy requires an analysis of the strategic operational environment (OE). As the US develops its 2014 National Security Strategy (NSS), there appears to be a change in what the administration considers a threat to the country. Dr. Mathew Burros from the QDR 2014 board explains that analysts will focus their efforts on individuals instead of nonstate/state actors. The shift in focus implies that our strategic threat may not be a nuclear superpower. On the contrary, the “true” threat may be rogue individuals. If that is the case, the nuclear deterrence strategy does not work because rogue actors rarely represent large populations.

    Furthermore, the international community remains unsupportive of the use of nuclear weapons after observing the residual effects of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Therefore, the question becomes if we (the US) should continue to commit resources to developing and maintaining a robust nuclear arsenal? The simple answer appears to be no. However, without a true analysis of the strategic OE we could prematurely reduce our capability and render ourselves incapable of protecting the homeland.

    Finally, the US nuclear capability remains unmatched by the majority of countries. With the deterioration of the Soviet Union and the limited number of countries with usable nuclear capabilities, we will not see a war of symmetry for sometime.

    Ref: Preparing for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review

    Comment by Q Hunter | March 7, 2014

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