Nuclear Superiority or Mutually Assured Deterrence

By McDonough, David S. | International Journal, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Superiority or Mutually Assured Deterrence


McDonough, David S., International Journal


The nuclear strategy of the United States originated in the uncertain and dangerous twilight period between the end of World War II and the start of what was later coined the Cold War. It was at this point that Washington began to formulate a coherent strategy, a lengthy and controversial endeavour due to the particular-some would say revolutionary-characteristics of such weapons. Despite the debates in the 19403 and 19505 on the usable nature of such weapons, a doctrinal consensus eventually emerged, based on the idea that the sheer destructive power of these weapons made their use problematic in all but the most extreme situations.

These developments provide an important historical context to the current debate on the Bush administration's nuclear strategy. This administration advocates a "new triad" strategic concept, with a strong emphasis on tactical nuclear capabilities, counterproliferation missions, and active defences. Many see this as a radical departure from the Cold War emphasis on deterrence and the policy of maintaining secure second-strike forces and countervalue nuclear capabilities. Instead of deterrence, the current administration seems to be advocating a "war-fighting" posture, based on conventional and nuclear counterforce and damage limitation capabilities (e.g. earth penetration, agent defeat weapons, adaptive planning, and active defences).

But as will be shown below, the Cold War deterrence consensus was neither monolithic nor radically different from post-Cold War nuclear strategy. In the 1940s and 1950s, the US was able to define deterrence as a strategy based on US "nuclear superiority," and to consider a variety of options in dealing with the Soviet threat. It was only after the Soviet attainment of a "minimum nuclear deterrent" that the US began defining deterrence as mutual deterrence based on assured destruction. However, some continued to argue that MAD was merely a doctrine that should be challenged. In the 19705 and 19805, the United States attempted to escape from the implications of nuclear parity, to transform the definition of deterrence into escalation dominance, and to allow for some degree of superiority. The post-Cold War period may have witnessed a renewed focus on the purported rogue state threat and it may have altered what specific counterforce capabilities were required, but it did not alter the ultimate goal of "nuclear superiority" against all potential adversaries.

NUCLEAR MONOPOLY AND AMBIGUITY

The Truman administration, despite placing a strong emphasis on the Soviet threat, was ambiguous on the utility of nuclear weapons. These weapons were viewed as distinct from conventional weapons, as weapons of terror rather than part of the conventional military arsenal. While many have hailed this period as one defined by the US nuclear monopoly, the scarcity of atom bombs and the limited range of the delivery vehicle (the B-29 bombers) made the utility of nuclear weapons unfeasible.

Despite such hesitancy, it was during this period that the framework for subsequent US nuclear strategy was formulated. In 1952, following recommendations approved in NSC-30 (United States policy on atomic weapons), nuclear war planning was institutionalized: the joint strategic capabilities plan governed wartime operations for the fiscal year; the joint strategic objectives plan (JSOP) governed force requirements for the next three to five years; and the joint long range strategic estimate governed R&D requirements past the five year JSOP plan. These plans were to form the basis of the single integrated operations plan (SIOP) in the 1960s.

Many of these decisions stemmed from the perceived inevitability of a Soviet nuclear arsenal. As NSC-68 notes, "it is estimated that, within four years, the USSR will attain the capability of seriously damaging vital centers of the United States." The year of "maximum danger" was considered to be 1954, when it was estimated that the Soviet Union would have 200 nuclear bombs. …

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