The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H301 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 9, 2016 - Posted by | H300, military history, Uncategorized | , , , ,


  1. Deterrence alone might not be a viable strategy against nuclear threats in today’s operating environment. Deterrence works if it is targeted at a rational actor who weighs the costs and benefits of his actions. However, this assumption of a rational actor might not be true in today’s operating environment. For example, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, might not operate with the same cost-benefit calculus as the US military assumes. A political crisis in North Korea with possibility of regime change might trigger North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons because staying in power is the most fundamental need of the regime and deterrence might not be effective in such a scenario.

    In addition, while terrorists currently do not have access to nuclear weapons, such a possibility cannot be precluded. In such a scenario, deterrence might not be effective, especially if the terrorist is radicalized by ideological beliefs. For example, if a terrorist is prepared to conduct suicide bombing, it might not be possible to exact a higher cost and deterrence would not be effective.

    Comment by Luke Goh, SG 19B | February 10, 2016

  2. Deterrence in the modern paradigm is challenging as two distinct groups fall under the purview of deterrence in the current operational environment. The first group is the conventional nation state actors and the second group is hybrid, non-state actors. Against the first group, the United States must preserve the deterrence approach and message utilized since the fall of the Soviet Union wherein the nuclear triad and non-proliferation actions taken by the United States attempts to prevent new nations from acquiring nuclear weapons while the threat of nuclear action attempts to deter conventional conflict. Against the second group, the traditional deterrence threat does not work and a new approach to dealing with hybrid threats is needed.

    Current American nuclear strategy is asymmetric in nature and likely needs modernization against the emerging capabilities of state actors such as Iran and North Korea. While I cannot prescribe what this future policy should be, the past actions attempting to deter these nations did not work and attempting to achieve different results in the future with the same policy is illogical.

    In the future, the United States must prudently utilize nuclear power and deterrence to strategically employ this capability instead of allowing our nation’s adversaries to gain the initiative on this front.

    Comment by Matt Wunderlich, 19A | February 11, 2016

  3. The use of deterrence as a viable strategy against nuclear threats is only a valid strategy if those countries the United States is trying to deter actually believe that we would use such weapons if pushed to that extent. Over the past decade, the United States has not been in a conflict against a traditional nation state but instead an enemy that does not fight conventionally. The enemy forces that are being fought now cannot be identified based off of generic uniforms and doctrinal tactics. These forces are mobile and cover areas that span numerous countries and continents. In this case, deterrence is not a viable strategy due to the known fact that an attack of that magnitude by the United States is not strategically sound.

    When it comes to the traditional nation states, the strategy of deterrence cannot be displayed just through the actual possession of nuclear weapons. It requires leadership at all levels, both military and civilian, to portray to our advisories that if needed, the United States will utilize these assets if it meant protecting the freedom of our country.

    However, it is my opinion that over the past couple of years, the United States and other countries throughout the world with nuclear weapons have not portrayed to the rest of the world their determination to use nuclear weapons if threatened. Iran and North Korea continue to build their nuclear program and it is only a matter of time before they possess the requisite capabilities to convert them into weapons. The world turns to UN sanctions and expects these sanctions to hinder Iran and Korea in meeting their desired endstate.

    Comment by Brian Plover | February 19, 2016

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