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?

March 16, 2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I believe nuclear deterrence is not a viable in today’s operating environment. Yes, during the cold war when it was large nation states building capabilities it was viable. However, we are in an environment where most threats aren’t conventional. They are not necessarily going to be scared of “Big Bad” America because they may not have a land for us to attack. Or worse, there are cases where we don’t understand the enemy. Some enemies may not respond. This ties into the idea of the Trinity by Clausewitz. I believe a nuclear deterrent works in environments where there is a solid link between the people, the military, and the political arm. If there is an area where the people have little meaning to the political arm then the nuclear deterrent means nothing.

    Comment by Jeffery Hoover | March 16, 2017

  2. I agree with Jeff, deterrence may not be a viable strategy in today’s operating environment. But it still may be necessary so long as nuclear weapons exist. In a perfect world, there would be no need for nuclear weapons and the U.S. could set an example by declaring that it would dispose of all its nukes. But, as well know, we do not live in a perfect world. It would be foolish for the U.S. to proclaim that it is disposing of its nuclear arsenal because there is no way to guarantee that other nations would do the same thing. For this and many other reasons nuclear weapons would have to be maintained as a deterrent. There are those that might also say, we can always hope that our example would compel the rest of the world to follow suit, but the reality is hope is not a strategy and we cannot leave ourselves unprotected against symmetric and asymmetric threats. Therefore, in my opinion, the U.S. has little choice but to maintain its nuclear arsenal in order to ensure deterrence.

    Comment by Justin Reddick | March 16, 2017

  3. As Jeff and Justin stated, nuclear deterrence does not seem to be a viable strategy in today’s operating environment. The world has changed significantly since the implementation of Eisenhower’s “New Look,” which focused on the exploitation of technical advantage of nuclear weapons during the early stages of the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, dismantling of the Berlin wall, the independence of multiple former Eastern Bloc nations and the uprising of rogue “entities/nation-states” has led to isolated regional pockets of nuclear threat. In recent years, the world view towards war has changed the battlefield in which we operate. No longer strictly a force on force scenario, we have to account for more than just a military aspect of using nuclear weapons. While the employment of nuclear weapons as a first strike would severely impact an adversary’s military, it could have second and third order global effects that we cannot foresee.
    Today’s battlefield is asymmetric; therefore, our current U.S. strategy must continue to develop in asymmetric means. The strategy must be flexible enough to adjust to different threat levels, verifying significant threats in dealing with them swiftly. The question I pose on this matter is: when does our talk and policy become action to neutralize, defeat, or destroy the threat to the homeland?

    Comment by William H Edmonds | March 16, 2017

  4. Nuclear Deterrence in the early stages of the Cold War seemed to assume rational actors on the geopolitical stage. With the emergence of non-state actors in recent times, that assumption may no longer be valid as some of the most powerful terrorist actors have articulated very real “doomsday” ideologies that don’t necessarily display the same concern for mutually assured destruction (MAD) as actors in the past. This is why “non- proliferation” of nuclear weapons has seemingly become the focus of strategy with respect to WMD. One way that the national strategy seems to couch/integrate its strategic goals with respect to nuclear strategy seems to be how it refers to modern threats: either existential or non-existential. Existential threats seem to imply nuclear state adversaries who could put an end to America’s existence with WMD; non-existential threats seems to imply those non-state actors who wish to acquire WMDs, but currently are only capable of disrupting American security through terrorist acts. These terms only imply the strategic implications of WMD/nuclear deterrence with strategy. More direct language might be needed. As a reflection of the turmoil currently/possibly surrounding the role/integration of nuclear deterrence today, the counter-proliferation mission set has recently shifted from STRATCOM to SOCOM- perhaps reflecting a shift in priorities or a strategic desire to employ more capabilities against this problem set.

    Comment by Scott Harr | March 17, 2017

  5. While deterrence between two states (MAD) was a liable option during the Cold War, the reality of today’s operational environment disapproves this as strategy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S, represented nations with strong political agendas ensuring their survival. The nuclear option was nothing more than a tool that served as a part to their national security strategy. In today’s operational environment nations such as Iran and Korea are a threat to the world due to their inconsistencies in their international policy. Iran’s bilateral dealings are sometimes confusing and contradictory. In one hand, there would like to normalize relation to enhance their economic development. On the other hand, they would like to incite an Islamic revolution. Both options would lead to not only destabilization of the middle east but also to secure power in the region. Their nuclear program therefore serves as the means to secure their borders, spread the caliphate, and stand up to the U.S. as an equal military entity. This is worrisome since this nation has proven to be very volatile in their foreign policy due to their deep religious roots. Korea is also problematic in their desperate research and development of a delivery vehicle capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Kim Jong-un unorthodox leadership makes challenging the US policies in that region. Korea is troubled by a very conservative economic growth and an increasing population based on a communist model that has remain mostly unchanged for the past six decades. After the collapse of the Eastern block, North Korea has tried to create a financial reform by increasing trade deals with other partners. However, they see their quest for nuclear equality as the way to compete in the world and become an equal power to the U.S. These two countries demonstrate that the operational environment is more asymmetric than in the past as many more tangents into the same equation can change the outcome in a world with WMD proliferation. Therefore, deterrence is not enough when focusing only on the military capacity. Here the U.S. most apply equal pressure to other elements of national power to change/mitigate a rouge behavior.

    Comment by Diego Alvarado | March 25, 2017

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