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Report November 30, 2023

Deliberate nuclear use in a war over Taiwan: Scenarios and considerations for the United States

By Matthew Kroenig



The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense program is delighted to share our latest report: Deliberate Nuclear Use in a War over Taiwan: Scenarios and Considerations for the United States. This report by Matthew Kroenig, the Atlantic Council’s vice president and senior director for the Scowcroft Center for Security and Strategy, aims to foster a deeper understanding of the prospects for nuclear use in the context of a potential invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China.

The report examines the potential deterrent, coercive, and warfighting roles of nuclear weapons for the United States and China in such a contingency, evaluating possible targets, employment logics, and implications. The report examines potential scenarios in which China might use nuclear weapons to deter US and allied intervention in support of Taiwan, to coerce a halt to US and allied support to Taiwan, and to defeat Taiwanese and US forces. It also evaluates how the United States could use nuclear weapons for deterrent, coercive, and warfighting roles. The report assesses various possible targets for each side’s possible nuclear employment and assesses the implications of such actions on security globally and in the greater Indo-Pacific.

Other scholars have recognized the risk of a US-China war over Taiwan inadvertently escalating to nuclear use, but few have thought through each party’s rational incentives to deliberately employ nuclear weapons and how a nuclear exchange might play out.

Matthew Kroenig

Main arguments

  • China might use its nuclear forces to support an invasion of Taiwan and deter a US response. If China used nuclear weapons against the United States, it would need to respond with nuclear forces. Several targets could be chosen for a US nuclear response, including People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels, militarized islands in the South China Sea, PLA beachheads in Taiwan, and various mainland targets. The selection of these targets could have varying impacts on the conflict and different levels of risks escalation.
  • The United States should consider nuclear first use if conventional forces cannot stop a Chinese invasion force from reaching Taiwan.
  • The United States needs strategic clarity toward Taiwan, including an explicit pledge to defend Taiwan from an unprovoked Chinese invasion and possibly the extension of a US nuclear umbrella over Taiwan.


The report recommends policy shifts, diplomacy, military preparation, and investments to deter conventional and nuclear war over Taiwan.

  • Deterrence of conventional war: The first step towards avoiding nuclear war is to prevent a conventional war that could escalate. The United States should work closely with its allies and Taiwan to create an effective deterrent to Chinese aggression.
  • Strategic clarity and nuclear umbrella: The United States should pledge to defend Taiwan from an unprovoked Chinese invasion and consider extending its nuclear umbrella over Taiwan. This could discourage Chinese nuclear use by creating a credible threat of a powerful US response.
  • Dialogue with Taiwan: Ongoing dialogue with Taiwan is essential to understand the risks of nuclear escalation, plan for possible US nuclear use, and help prepare Taiwan to operate effectively after a nuclear detonation.
  • Communication with China: The United States should convey to China that its mainland will not be immune from nuclear retaliation if China employs nuclear weapons against US or allied forces.
  • Hardening and dispersal of US facilities: US military installations in the region should be protected against attacks through strategies such as dispersion and hardening.
  • Improvements to US nuclear forces: The United States should modernize its strategic nuclear forces and consider additional theater nuclear options, including developing capabilities to target moving naval vessels.
  • Broadening of homeland missile defense plans: Given the potential for limited nuclear use, US missile defense should also be scoped to include limited nuclear attacks from China (or Russia), not just from rogue states.

About the author

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: The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Maine (SSBN 741) departs from Naval Base Guam, April 18. It is a launch platform for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, providing the United States with its most survivable leg of the nuclear triad. Photo by US Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Darek Leary