Warrior Maven

It Is Not Imperative to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

Can the US and its allies get to abolition from where the world is today—which is a world of multiple nuclear armed peer adversaries? No, for at least four reasons.

An atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the United States at Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands, on 1 November 1952.
An atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the United States at Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands, on November 1, 1952. (US Government Photo)

Can the US and its allies get to abolition from where the world is today—which is a world of multiple nuclear armed peer adversaries?

No, for at least four reasons.

First, though deterrence has risks, it demonstrably has prevented nuclear war. Even as the number of conflicts over the past seven decades has risen appreciably.

Second, nuclear deterrence has worked to such an extent that average war deaths were 14,000 a day from 1911-1945 but average daily war deaths since have plummeted to 900.

Third, countries go to war most commonly as folks fail to understand the extent to which nations will fight. And here we are in danger of not understanding why China and Russia will fight.

As Keith Payne writes:

“The more significant new condition is that the leaderships of Russia and China have worldviews that conflict sharply with that of the United States. Their quasi-alliance against the United States is designed to realize their goal of overturning the classical liberal world order. Both Russia and China show their willingness to exploit conventional and nuclear forces to pursue their expansionist goals and are challenging long-standing defensive U.S. deterrence redlines. What we now confront is the threatened use of nuclear weapons for revanchist purposes. We are accustomed to thinking of deterrence as serving defensive purposes. But Russia’s and China’s coercive nuclear first-use threats are here and now. (Any move toward abolition must factor this in.)

This is not the Cold War deterrence concept with which we are familiar. It is, however, unprecedented. This new deterrence dynamic is a real challenge because we have generally convinced ourselves that only irrational leaderships could consider the first use of nuclear weapons for expansionist purposes. References now to Putin as being ‘unhinged’ follow the enduring U.S. tradition of labeling opponents who behave in shocking, disturbing ways as irrational. Such comments reflect only our lack of understanding of how differently opponents can define what is rational behavior—that they do not buy into our enlightened interpretation of rational. There is great comfort in projecting onto opponents, Western notions of what is rational: it means that Putin’s current nuclear threats must be a bluff, because actual nuclear employment would be irrational. Yet, Russia’s and China’s revanchist goals require violating U.S. redlines, and their nuclear first-use threats now demand that we rethink how best to deter in contemporary conditions. The priority deterrence question that now follows from this discussion is new; How do we simultaneously deter two revanchist great powers that are driven by the common belief that their goals are of existential importance, and that limited nuclear threats or use are the way to defeat defensive U.S. deterrence policies?”

My fourth point: while the nuclear firebreak has not been broken since 1945, war is certainly not going to disappear which makes stronger deterrence more not less imperative. Especially with revanchist powers that are convinced nuclear weapons are the sole means to defeat US conventional power.

War is unfortunately the natural condition of humankind. The real accomplishment is to create the rhythms of relative peace, what the post WWII architecture singularly achieved but which Moscow and Peking want to wreck.

The argument we have heard for the alternative—abolition—is that nuclear weapons are worthless because they not only have not stopped war, that cannot be tactically used in war, and thus there is no reason to hang on to them. And one has to be an idealist to think nuclear deterrence will always hold, because if it doesn’t hold, we could all be dead.

But if you can’t get to abolition from where we are today, we have no choice but to keep deterrence, because without nuclear deterrence, we might very well be dead!

Let’s do some history

The US deliberately took South Korea out of the scope of US protection, in short removing the nuclear umbrella from our ROK allies. The Soviets and the DPRK thought we gave them a green light to invade the ROK. But still Stalin hid the Soviet role as he feared Truman would retaliate with nuclear weapons. In short, the US took nuclear deterrence off the table in 1949 and the DPRK invaded in 1950. Conversely, Eisenhower put deterrence back on the table in 1953, and 6 months later the war ended.

The Quest for Abolition

With the 1991 end of Cold War, it was assumed liberal international rules would widely prevail. War would be rare and certainly nuclear weapons were not needed. In 1991 & 1993, the US and Russia agreed on 90% reductions in strategic systems. By 1997, the US stopped production of the entire Reagan era nuclear modernization—the Ohio class submarine, the PK missile and the B2 bomber.

The US restraint was remarkable. The Reagan nuclear build was 502 SNDVs—we have 260 left plus 400 1970s MMIII missiles and 40 1960s B52 bombers for the 700 SNDVs allowed by New START. And when modernized by 2042, the deterrent will on average be 47 years old, a nearly five-decade long holiday from nuclear modernization, triple the time between previous modernizations.

Not Getting the Message

Despite the US restraint, by 1999, Putin planned to put some 22 new strategic nuclear systems from ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers, submarines and cruise missiles into the field by 2020. He is now 89% toward that goal. The Chinese comparative plan is also 22. By comparison, the US adopted six new systems in 2010. (Having so many open production lines gives Russia a major breakout and build-up capability even though their arms control limits are the same.)

Why after the end of the Cold War and numerous efforts at reset and assuming China’s peaceful rise was such a Russian and Chinese buildup planned?

The former JCS Vice Chair General Hyten told us: Putin adopted a new Russian nuclear strategy called “escalate to win.”

Throughout the early Cold War, deterrence strategy assumed Russia accepted mutual vulnerability—mutual assured destruction.

The Kennedy administration moved to a more flexible response. Subsequent administrations moved to a counterforce strategy, destroying in retaliation the remaining military capability of the USSR so Moscow could not achieve their hegemonic objectives.

The US continued a modified counter force strategy after the end of the Cold War but as nuclear warheads levels declined through arms control, arms control enthusiasts came to think about abolition. Kissinger, Scowcroft, Perry and Nunn—they urged nuclear powers to climb toward the abolition summit but admitted no one would get there anytime soon, even in our lifetime.

But what would be the first steps?

One popular idea was for the US to unilaterally eliminate its 400 ICBMs. Why?

Here is the scenario

A Colonel in the SRF approaches his commander one bright morning and says, “Comrade General, I have a great plan.” “And what is that Tovarich?” “Well, we attack the USA with 1000 nuclear warheads aimed at ICBM missile bases containing 450 silos and 45 launch control centers. So, they can’t go first. But don’t worry, America will not feel compelled to retaliate. Casualties will be minimal.”

The US is allowed under New START 700 what are called SNDVs. That translates into some 500 discrete nuclear assets. Killing MMIII would leave the US not with the current 500 assets but 12. Two submarine and three bomber bases, both easily destroyed, with between six-eight of our 12 submarines at sea or in transit, which are now invisible.

But an ASW breakthrough by the Russians could change that and lead to the attrition of our submarines at sea over time. Thus, every administration has always rejected the idea of eliminating our ICBMs as the House reaffirmed this summer by a vote of 318-106.

What then would be the first step toward abolition?

Well apparently, the first step toward abolition is in fact, well, abolition! Like the UN resolution this summer to declare all nuclear weapons illegal.

Our nuclear armed adversaries, however, don’t share the twin assumptions of abolition: (1) that nukes are too messy to actually use in combat and (2) since war is going to happen eventually, keeping nukes around risks nuclear Armageddon. Further reductions are possible but not if Russia and China are opposed.

In 1985, senior Russian officials affirmed nuclear weapons they had were simply not useable. Russian Marshall Ogarkov rejected “even the possibility of waging war at all with the use of nuclear weapons.” The First Minister of Atomic Energy Mikhaylov, said nuclear weapons were so terrible that no one dared to use them. He described the [Russian] nuclear shield, as a “useless, burdensome pile of metal” •

This is precisely why in 1999 Moscow designed a new nuclear strategy—an escalate to win strategy. Including building new very low yield, high accuracy nuclear weapons, which avoids a potential Russian defeat on the conventional battlefield by threatening to use a limited number of nuclear weapons to force the US and its allies to withdraw from the fight.

Yeltsin’s presidential decree of April 29, 1999, “…develop qualitative new nuclear weapon capabilities that have political/military utility …make the threat realistic…provide useable military force” and “make nuclear weapons an instrument of policy.”

Deterrence does NOT require the US to go up the nuclear escalation ladder and thus “win” a nuclear conflict. The goal is to deny any benefit to Moscow from the employment of nuclear weapons so we maintain what Michael Krepon called “no use” of nuclear weapons.

Proposals to render to second-tier status all nuclear modernization, but instead strengthen conventional forces, does not increase the chances that the US would prevail in a conventional fight.

Russian threats to use nuclear weapons early in a conventional conflict are precisely because Russia fears America’s conventional superiority. Compounding that Russian insecurity makes Russian use of nukes more likely.

And remember, our prevailing military conventional strategy assumes we win but only if there is NO use of nuclear weapons. Putin knows that. His strategy is precisely to mess that up.

Putin has beefed up his theater nuclear capability precisely because he sees a gap in US nuclear capability which he can exploit— our current theater capability is too limited.


In October 1962 Castro wanted to launch Soviet missiles at Washington from Cuba and urged Khrushchev to do so. Khrushchev told Castro such a launch would result in Cuba being destroyed. Castro replied he didn’t care: Cuba might be incinerated but “socialism wins” because the center of “capitalism” would be destroyed.

The year previously, at the 1961 Vienna summit, the Soviets threatened to kick the US military out of Berlin. Kennedy told Khrushchev that would mean nuclear war.

Late in 1982, Kennedy visited LLNL and declared the small warhead on top of the Polaris missile and the parallel development of the MM missiles, allowed the US to stare down the Soviets over Berlin and Cuba. The Soviet military stayed in garrison. And the ships turned back.

Kenndy remarked “Minuteman was my ace in the hole” 14 such missiles went on alert the very October 14th day that the US discovered the Soviet missiles in Cuba. MM was solid fueled, ready to launch, and invulnerable to Soviet missiles. Two new technologies—MM and Polaris—kept the Soviets deterred.

So where are we today some 60 years later?

The guts of the problem with abolition is that China, Russia, North Korea and Iran all believe nuclear weapons are tools of aggression and terror—not tools to deter war but as instruments that make war possible. They are definitely not abolitionists.

To conclude:

I. War is real and not abolished. It is not the end of history. Here Ward and I agree.

II. Some nuclear states believe nuclear weapons are instruments of warfighting. The US does not.

III. No nuclear armed state has agreed to adopt a strategy that eventually gets us to abolition.

IV. While yes, the NPT calls for eventual disarmament, there is nothing “imperative” about “eventually.”

V. To get to abolition, one requires transparency—how do you verify that weapons have been eliminated if you cannot count how many weapons a nuclear power has in the first place? Trust but verify.

VI. Deterrence may indeed break down, but the strongest deterrent is conventional, nuclear, missile, cyber and space defenses—especially against the small, highly accurate, limited strike options Putin now seeks.

VII. If you assume nuclear deterrence cannot work for the long term, because no nuclear weapon is useable, and any exchange will create nuclear winter and billions dead, then deterrence is a bluff—the logical thing to do is for the US unilaterally get rid of all our nuclear weapons.

VIII. Assume we are back to July 1945. It is a nuclear free world. Abolition prevails. No atomic bomb has been tested. There is no Manhattan project.

IX. Knowing what actually occurred from 1945-2022, would you back in 1945 forgo our nuclear shield and trust our enemies to do the same?