The Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: New Doctrine Falls Short of Bush Pledge

By Kristensen, Hans M. | Arms Control Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: New Doctrine Falls Short of Bush Pledge


Kristensen, Hans M., Arms Control Today


A nuclear draft doctrine written by the Pentagon calls for maintaining an aggressive nuclear posture with weapons on high alert to strike adversaries armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), pre-emptively if necessary.

The doctrine, the first formal update since the Bush administration took office, is entitled "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations"1 and has been strongly influenced by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and other directives published by the Bush administration since 2001. A final version is expected later this fall.

The draft doctrine and editing comments were freely available on the Internet until recently, providing a rare glimpse into the secret world of nuclear planning in the post-Cold War era.

Foremost among the doctrine's new features are the incorporation of pre-emption into U.S. nuclear doctrine and the integration of conventional weapons and missile defenses into strategic planning. The Bush administration claims that it is significantly reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the updated doctrine falls far short of fulfilling the administration's claim. Instead of reducing the role of nuclear weapons, the new doctrine reaffirms an aggressive nuclear posture of modernized nuclear weapons maintained on high alert. Conventional forces and missile defenses merely complement-instead of replace-nuclear weapons.

The new doctrine continues the thinking of the previous version from 1995 in its reaffirmation of nuclear deterrence. It differs in three other key elements: the threshold for nuclear use, nuclear targeting and international law, and the role of conventional and defensive forces.

What's New?

The importance of the new doctrine is less about what it directs the military to do, and more about what it shows U.S. nuclear policy has become. It has changed considerably from the 1995 version. A new chapter has been added on theater nuclear operations, a discussion of the role of conventional and defensive forces, and an expanded discussion on nuclear operations.

The addition of a chapter on theater nuclear operations reflects the post-Cold War preoccupation of U.S. nuclear planners on finding ways of deterring regional aggressors (i.e., rogue states) armed with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It also reflects a decade-old rivalry between the regional combatant commanders and U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) over who "owns" regional nuclear-strike planning.

Yet, the new doctrine's approach grants regional nuclear-strike planning an increasingly expeditionary aura that threatens to make nuclear weapons just another tool in the toolbox. The result is nuclear pre-emption, which the new doctrine enshrines into official U.S. joint nuclear doctrine for the first time, where the objective no longer is deterrence through threatened retaliation but battlefield destruction of targets.

Another highly visible change is the incorporation of a discussion of the role of conventional weapons and defensive forces into the sections describing the purpose, planning, and employment of nuclear forces. What is most striking is the extent to which conventional and defensive capabilities are woven into the fabric of nuclear planning.

Reaffirmation of Deterrence

In the foreword to the 2001 NPR report, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that the review "puts in motion a major change in our approach to the role of nuclear offensive forces in our deterrent strategy." In Rumsfeld's testimony to Congress and numerous statements made by other officials, the Bush administration portrayed the NPR as reducing the role of nuclear weapons, lowering the readiness requirement for the nuclear forces, and increasing the role of non-nuclear and missile defense capabilities.

Yet, the "major change" in the role of nuclear weapons is difficult to find in the new doctrine. Instead, the new nuclear doctrine presents an emphatic defense for nuclear deterrence with sustaining and modernizing nuclear forces maintained on high alert.

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