Nuclear Deterrence, Then and Now

By Goure, Daniel | Policy Review, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Deterrence, Then and Now


Goure, Daniel, Policy Review


THE COLD WAR CONSENSUS on the role of nuclear arms in American national security has dissolved, a casualty of the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet empire itself. In place of a threat posed by an adversary commanding superior conventional forces, the United States now faces the prospect of multiple potential opponents with variable motives, shifting sources of conflict, and evolving alliance relationships.

In this environment, even assuming sharply lower levels of nuclear warheads, the U.S. needs a more flexible nuclear doctrine, based on approaches that simultaneously assure friends of a steadfast U.S security commitment, prevent prospective enemies from pursuing weapons of mass destruction, deter direct threats against America's interests and allies, and promise the defeat of any attack. These new realities dictate a more nuanced role for nuclear weapons, both in terms of the capabilities we pursue and the scenarios governing their use, even as we retain an unmistakably robust, diversified, balanced, and flexible nuclear force structure.

The end of Cold War deterrence

FOR MORE THAN 40 years, the U.S. defense community held a shared view regarding the purposes for which this country maintained strategic nuclear forces. The overriding purpose of the forces was to deter war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This had to be accomplished in the face of an overwhelming Soviet conventional capability and under conditions dictated by the presence of vulnerable allies close to Soviet territory. As a result, U.S. forces had to be positioned forward to defend those allies, a situation that made them vulnerable to a Soviet offensive. Because it was difficult to have confidence in Western conventional defenses, it was necessary to threaten the Soviet Union with the possible use by the United States (and later by Great Britain and France) of nuclear weapons, including escalation up to a massive strike on the Soviet homeland.

American nuclear forces needed to be of sufficient size and robust character such as to impose on the Soviet leadership the unassailable fact that no conflict with the United States could end with anything less than unacceptable damage to the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons, it was also necessary to convince Moscow that it could not hope to gain an advantage by their use. American retaliation had to be assured, even in the face of a "bolt-out-of-the blue" attack by the Soviet Union. For this reason the United States invested in the now familiar triad of strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, along with the early warning and command, control, and communications (c3) that guarded against surprise attack. In addition, the United States developed and deployed an array of tactical and theater nuclear weapons. The purpose of these was to ensure that at any point in the conflict, the United States had a credible escalatory optio n.

Over the past decade, the strategic rationale that guided the development of U.S. nuclear forces throughout the Cold War has been slowly eroding. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union ended the conventional threat to America's European and Asian allies. No longer did the United States need a stout ladder of escalation based on directly linking conventional defenses to the massive U.S. strategic nuclear capability. Without the threat of conventional conflict and first-use of nuclear weapons by the United States to avoid a conventional defeat, there was also a reduced concern regarding the possibility of a Soviet preemptive strike against the U.S. homeland.

As a result, it was possible for the United States to consider altering the size and posture of American nuclear forces. The first Bush administration began the process -- in cooperation with President Boris Yeltsin's regime in Russia -- by detargeting U.

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