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Issue Brief September 23, 2021

The special role of US nuclear weapons

By Matthew Kroenig



This issue brief is based on Dr. Matthew Kroenig’s written testimony at a hearing on “Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Strategy” before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate, conducted on June 16, 2021.

US nuclear weapons play a special role in underpinning international peace, global security, and the US-led, rules-based international system. The nuclear threat to the United States and its democratic allies is growing: nuclear-armed, revisionist, autocratic powers (Russia, China, and North Korea) are relying more on nuclear weapons in their strategies, and they are modernizing and expanding their arsenals. In this new issue brief, the Scowcroft Center’s Matthew Kroenig explains why the United States needs to retain a robust, flexible, and modernized nuclear force to meet its national security objectives.

US nuclear weapons are special for three reasons

US nuclear weapons are unique for three reasons. First, the United States extends nuclear deterrence to more than thirty formal treaty allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, a central pillar of US alliances and the rules-based international system. Second, US counterforce targeting keeps the United States in compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict and potentially allows the United States to limit the damage from nuclear war and save millions of lives. Finally, the United States has enjoyed the economic capacity to field a robust nuclear force at a reasonable cost. In sum, the United States demands more of its nuclear weapons than other countries and requires a more robust force.

The international security environment is deteriorating

The United States’ three nuclear-armed adversaries—Russia, China, and North Korea—are all modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals while consistently relying more on nuclear weapons in their defense strategies. Even as it complies with the letter of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the Kremlin is building new, exotic and battlefield weapons not covered in the Treaty’s text. China’s rise has paved the way for its assertive and revisionist foreign policy, which poses the greatest threat to US national security and the US-led, rules-based international system. China’s nuclear forces may double within the next decade, or even triple or quadruple. North Korea has become the third US adversary with the ability to hold the US homeland at risk with the threat of nuclear war.

US nuclear posture and capabilities

To address these threats, the United States needs to maintain a robust, flexible, and modernized nuclear deterrent. That means that United States needs to continue with nuclear modernization, reject a no first use (NFU) policy, and examine further nuclear capabilities.

The United States should continue with the bipartisan nuclear-modernization plan started by President Obama and continued by President Trump. The Biden administration announced an intention to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons.” But shedding needed US nuclear capabilities would not produce much in the way of meaningful benefits. Such actions would, however, weaken the US nuclear deterrent, could be interpreted as a lack of resolve by US adversaries, and may even cause US allies to doubt whether Washington intends to live up to its alliance commitments.

The United States should reject an NFU policy. In practice, adopting an NFU would assure autocratic and revisionist adversaries that they can engage in nonnuclear aggression against the United States and its allies without fear of a US nuclear response.

Given the deteriorating security environment, the United States must consider whether additional steps are needed to strengthen the US nuclear deterrent. Congress should require the Department of Defense to assess whether it can still cover relevant enemy targets with 1,550 strategic deployed nuclear warheads or whether a quantitative increase might be necessary.

Arms control and nuclear nonproliferation

The United States should also seek to address the threats posed by adversary nuclear programs through arms control and nonproliferation. It will be difficult to reach new, binding arms-control agreements in the near term, so the United States should begin with smaller steps, such as strategic security dialogues. The United States should continue to pursue nonproliferation policies to denuclearize North Korea and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

[S]o long as the United States wants to continue to play its traditional international leadership role, comply with the Law of Armed Conflict, and defend its allies and the rules-based international system, it will continue to require a robust nuclear deterrent.

Matthew Kroenig

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Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

Image: A Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 in a training exercise. US nuclear weapons are capable of being delivered from dual-capable aircraft like the F-16 operated by NATO allies like the Netherlands. US Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen.