Warrior Maven

Nuclear Deterrence as a Bluff

Senior Fellow
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shake hands after delivering a joint statement in Moscow, on March 21, 2023. (Mikhail Tereshchenko/AFP via Getty Images)

Nuclear Ethics

Nearly four decades ago, Joseph Nye of Harvard wrote “Nuclear Ethics” to try and answer that question, putting together a checklist of ten key objectives the US should seek to achieve in putting together the nation’s deterrent strategy.

To update the debate, Scott Sagan of Stanford asked Nye to look at the issue again, and invited Joan Rohlfing of the Nuclear Threat Initiative to join him in so doing. According to Scott Sagan, nuclear weapons should not be used in retaliation if: (1) a conventional weapon would do the same job; (2) civilian damage would be widespread; and (3) it was not proportional.

Nye largely accepted these boundaries in his update, and he correctly emphasized that nuclear deterrence was necessary given little chance that global zero or the elimination of nuclear weapons could be achieved. He did support further deep reductions and arms control, while also noting that further limiting the role of nuclear weapons was the right path to pursue.

One could agree with all three of these criteria, but there is a danger that our adversaries will see some proposed nuclear deterrent restrictions or guidelines as the US coming close to adopting a bluff strategy with the result that the potential use of nuclear weapons or the threat of such use will actually become more likely.

While any exchange of nuclear weapons would be ghastly, there is a serious problem to conclude as Joan Rohlfing does that there is no deterrent role for nuclear weapons use at all. Rohlfing assumes the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons makes any use immoral, and that any exchange would most likely lead to catastrophic global nuclear war, nuclear winter and the loss of billions of lives.

The same argument was used by the late 

Carl Sagan in the 1980s but he warned that even a very limited use of nuclear weapons which he accused the Reagan administration of planning, would still cause nuclear winter and global famine.

Scott Sagan and Joseph Nye appear to accept the need to have a nuclear deterrent and the requirement to hold at risk the leadership and military assets of our adversaries and not target cities.

Unfortunately, global zero advocates often characterize nuclear weapons as necessary for deterrence but not if deterrence breaks down. How that works is unclear—if you are not willing to use such weapons in retaliation, what good is a deterrent threat to do so which one is unwilling to actually undertake? If any use of nuclear weapons is described as “warfighting” and that is out of bounds, then nuclear deterrence is indeed only bluff.

In summary, Nye tries to corral the conditions under which nuclear weapons should be used, Sagan wants to go farther and severely limit any use, while Rohlfing thinks any use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is not credible nor moral.

China and Russia

None of them, however, address the difficult issue which is that America’s enemies, especially China and Russia, believe that the use of nuclear weapons for military and political purposes is a credible strategy. In fact, both see using nuclear weapons not as a deterrent to prevent war, but as a means of making war a more feasible tool to achieve their hegemonic ambitions. Ukraine demonstrates that.

The United States thus cannot ignore this strategic reality and must close any window of vulnerability that China and Russia see that would prompt them to use a limited nuclear strike against the US or its allies. Just as the US was successful closing the gap created by the pre-emptive strike capability of the USSR’s heavy ICBMs at the height of the Cold War.

Decades ago, at the beginning of the nuclear age, the US adopted a strategy often called “massive retaliation” in that any Soviet invasion of western Europe would trigger a US conventional and nuclear response that indeed would be “massive” and designed to destroy both the invading military forces but also much of the Soviet homeland’s population and industry.

Starting with the Kennedy administration, however, the US strategy gradually shifted over time to retaliating against Soviet leadership, the security infrastructure that kept them in power, Soviet military forces and industry, as well as communications links. These were the critical assets the Soviet leadership valued and without which they could not effectively use military force.

US policy determined that holding populations at risk was immoral especially given these people had no role in the decision of the Soviet leadership to make war. Further, the Soviet leadership killed some 40 million of its own people to stay in power, hardly an indication that losing millions more would deter them from further aggression.


This strategy was referred to “counterforce” by the United States and was very much becoming US policy by the end of the Ford administration, particularly due to the work of Defense Secretary James Schlesinger.

Now the counter-force strategy was also often referenced as “war fighting” by its critics who often assumed any such US capability to strike against the military forces of the Soviet Union could be viewed by Moscow as part of a planned disarming pre-emptive (not retaliatory) strike by the United States to try and take the USSR out off the nuclear business.

Such a strike would require the use of thousands of US warheads. And a lot of multiple warhead missiles on alert. However, under arms control and as part of deliberate US strategy, Washington configured its strategic ICBM forces to single warhead. missiles, put two-thirds of its fast-flying long-range missiles at sea, with some one-third to one-half on patrol, and held in reserve bombers capable of strikes only after multiple hours of flight, hardly a pre-emptive disarming strike force.

To take down the pre-emptive strike capability of the USSR, what was referred to as a “window of vulnerability,” the cumulative START arms control process--reducing Soviet and United States strategic (long-range) nuclear arsenals from 12-13,000 allowable warheads to the current New START official level of 1550—was not just a major reduction of close to 90% but it largely took off the table the threat from Moscow of a disarming pre-emptive first strike.

With such reductions, the US ensured its submarines at sea and even the land-based missiles spread over five states, were largely survivable. With 800-1000 highly accurate Russian warheads required to take out the US ICBM force of 400 warheads, it was assumed strategic stability was assured. Why would Russia use a very high percent of its most accurate missiles to end up with a remaining strategic imbalance and a probable US retaliatory strike capable of taking out most Russian military force?

China, Russia & North Korea

But now we have an emerging China with upwards of 1500 warheads by 2035, a tripling of their nuclear forces over the next decade, giving rise to concern in Washington that the New START deployment level of US nuclear weapons was not sufficient to deter both Russia and China, simultaneously. If that was the case, then more nuclear weapons might be needed in the US deployed arsenal. As senior US military leaders have noted, the US post 2026, would be for the first time since 1972 operating without any joint arms control with Russian.

On top of which, the US would need to hold at risk new Chinese targets numbering nearly four hundred ICBM silos and associated launch control centers, significantly adding to US warhead requirements if the US wished to continue to hold at risk key Chinese and Russian military assets.

But if as Joan Rohlfing asserts, any use of nuclear weapons is likely to generate an all-out global nuclear exchange and lacking any discriminatory capability between military targets and the surrounding civilian population, nuclear weapons use is simply immoral and does not begin to meet the ethical standards laid out by the work of Professor Joseph Nye.

The US cannot adopt Rohlfing’s alternative strategy, as our entire nuclear deterrent would be seen as a bluff. And while the US government might accept her reasoning, Russia and China, and 

North Korea do not. That then puts the US in a serious quandary. While the US might believe any use of nuclear weapons is suicidal, our enemies may not.

It is true that advances in technology now give us conventional weapons accurate enough to take out many targets that were reserved for nuclear strikes. But there is a question of how long it would take for conventional weapons to do the job that nuclear weapons can do, especially when time may be of the essence, as well as how many such weapons would be required. There is no possibility the US military believes that conventional forces alone can do the job. Every tabletop exercise or wargames the United States undertakes reveals that once nuclear weapons are introduced into a battle, the success of US conventional capabilities is vitiated. The US strategy is to avoid any use of nuclear weapons so we can prevail conventionally. That requires a very robust nuclear deterrent.

What about the three nuclear priorities they all reference--seeking more deep reductions though arms control, taking our missiles off of what is described as “hair trigger” or “high alert” and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy? Do these solve our problem?

Well, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy may be difficult in that our adversaries are moving in the other direction. Russia, 

China, North Korea, and possibly Iran, are increasing the role of nuclear weapons in their respective security policies and are putting into the field nuclear armed systems designed to achieve their geostrategic ambitions.

In Russia’s case, it was a 1999 decree by President Yeltsin that ordered the Russian aerospace industry to build an arsenal of low-yield, very accurate regional nuclear weapons, which could be integrated with conventional weapons. Mr. Putin has been building just such an arsenal, along with a fully modernized strategic nuclear force. The Russian strategy is to use such nuclear forces in a limited matter, designed to guarantee victory over an adversary even if the Russian conventional forces alone are not up to the task.

It is thus difficult to envision how the US would respond to the limited use of nuclear force by the Russians by refusing to respond ourselves with nuclear forces. After all, a very small number of nuclear weapons could effectively destroy key US and allied Navy, Army and Air Force conventional military capabilities given the awful power of even a single kiloton nuclear warhead.

More arms talks for more deep reductions could be undertaken, but no such new treaty could secure the two-thirds support in the US Senate unless both Russia and China were signatories and treaty contained caps on overall weapons deployments and stockpiles, particularly theater or short-range nuclear forces which are not now subject to any arms limits.

As for US missiles on “hair trigger” or “high alert” which Sagan and Rohlfing reference, there is no such thing. A US nuclear armed cruise missile on a bomber, a land-based ICBM or sea-based ballistic missile can only be launched by a Presidential decision and only after a launch or threat council has met.

For the nearly eight decades of the nuclear age, no such launch order has ever been given by the President, despite crises over Cuba, Berlin and the Middle East. And no such prompt launch is even necessary. The US has the retaliatory capability able to hold at risk the important military and leadership assets of our adversaries.

The central point missed is an unwillingness to recognize evil. Xi and Putin believe nuclear weapons are useable. Proportionality is not the rule of the day among the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. Russia and China combined killed 100 million of their own people to stay in power.

These are totalitarian even evil leaders who continue the communist tradition of killing their own people as well as going after others in El Salvador, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Columbia, or even the United States where some 107,000 Americans are killed annually from drugs, much of which is exported to the Mexican cartels as fentanyl in what the CCP describes as a “reverse opium war.” As Ambassador Max Kampelman once told me, how else but evil do you describe governments that put their political enemies in psychiatric hospitals?

One can sympathize with efforts to reduce the potential use of nuclear weapons and ensure no accidental or inadvertent use of such weapons. And Nye obviously has that goal high on his agenda in his very useful ethics update.

Missile Defense

One additional but important point. Missing from the various ethics assessments discussed here is any understanding that while technology has indeed changed and become more dangerous, missile defense--which is largely dismissed by Rohlfing and Sagan—is now also capable of shooting down thousands of short-range missiles and rockets, as has been demonstrated by the Israelis.

But even more important, as former MDA Director USAF General (Ret) Trey Obering has detailed, the technology now available for a space-based system can implement much of President Reagan’s vision of protection of the United States and actually seriously degrade the blackmail mode of Putin’s “escalate to win” strategy. This means a space-based system can be deployed in a relatively short time and for a very reasonable cost, and as such significantly change the value of the limited coercive use of nuclear force.

Without being able to use limited nuclear force under an escalation to win strategy, only an all-out pre-emptive type of attack would remain as an option that could be contemplated by Russia and China. But given the secure retaliatory capability of the US nuclear deterrent, such an option is simply more and more remote.

However, the US has a severely limited theater nuclear capability, consisting primarily of a few hundred gravity bombs dropped by American tactical airplanes based in Europe. The US could develop a stronger deterrent such as a Navy cruise missile that is nuclear capable such as the old Tomahawk missile. And if coupled with the Navy’s long range prompt conventional strike capability, would give the United States a hedge to deter Russia and China over the next few decades.

The capability to deter is also the capability to credibly use such nuclear weapons. Nye and Sagan understand this. Rohlfing however thinks all such nuclear use is suicidal, and thus she would render the US nuclear deterrence strategy all bluff. If so, does the United a really want to live in a world where we have no nuclear weapons we are willing to use, but our enemies have growing nuclear arsenals they are all too willing to use, especially against a nuclear virtually disarmed United States?  

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