Should the US Deploy New Tactical Nukes?

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Should the US Deploy New Tactical Nukes?

Yes, if U.S. nuclear strategists follow the advice of a new think tank study.

Maintaining nuclear superiority over China, rough parity with Russia, and developing a new set of forward-deployable tactical nuclear weapons are the principal recommendations of a new study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The report, entitled “A Competitive Strategies Approach to Defining U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture for 2025-2050,” is the result of a forward looking,“blue-sky” review of U.S. nuclear strategy and posture by experts from three leading American national security think tanks.

The recommendations of the study, however, have exclusively been written by Clark A. Murdoch, a Washington bureaucrat and scholar, who argues that American conventional military superiority is one of the major triggers of nuclear proliferation in “the second nuclear age.”

“In ‘the second nuclear age,’ potential U.S. adversaries are thinking through how they might actually employ a nuclear weapon, both early in a conflict and in a discriminate manner, to get the United States to ‘back off’ in a conflict,” he notes, since “the prospect of a conventional-only war with the United States is a losing proposition for any state.”

According to Murdoch, the current U.S. nuclear force posture is inadequate to address security challenges in this new more volatile nuclear threat environment:

U.S. nuclear forces were designed for a global conflict involving the exchange of thousands of high-yield weapons, not limited exchanges of low-yield weapons. Since most U.S. nuclear response options are large, “dirty,” and inflict significant collateral damage, the United States might be “self-deterred” and not respond “in kind” to discriminate nuclear attacks. U.S. conventional superiority establishes escalation control for the United States at the conventional level and causes its adversaries to think about breaking the nuclear threshold. The United States needs discriminate nuclear options at all rungs of the nuclear escalation ladder to make that option unattractive as well.

Like many American defense analysts of his age with a heavy background in the D.C. government bureaucracy and tenures at military-sponsored institutions such as the National War College, Murdoch seeks wisdom from the earlier years of the Cold War, the Kennedy administration’s “flexible response” defense strategy to be precise:

The nuclear strategy being recommended here is called “Measured Response.” This is not a new strategy; it is grounded in the U.S. strategy of escalation control that evolved as the United States turned away from the “massive retaliation” strategy of the 1950s and adopted “flexible response.” It’s about ensuring that there are no gaps in U.S. nuclear response options that would prevent it from retaliating proportionately to any employment of a nuclear weapon against the United States and its allies.

What are the means to achieve this new/old nuclear strategy? First and foremost a credible extended deterrent force, “consisting of forward-based and rapidly deployable dual-capable aircraft would enable both permanent and temporary ‘coupling’ of the U.S. nuclear deterrent to host-nation security.”

The author also calls for the forward deployment of dual-capable F-35 aircraft equipped with shorter-range cruise missiles with “low-yield, special-effects warheads (low collateral, enhanced radiation, earth penetration, electromagnetic pulse, and others as technology advances) (…).”

This new tactical nuclear weapons arsenal would deter U.S. adversaries from successfully deploying their “offset” strategies to counter U.S. conventional superiority. Interestingly, however, the appendix of the study contains an analysis by Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh that comes to a very different conclusion than Murdoch’s and is worthwhile quoting in full:

Nuclear weapons do not achieve U.S. policy objectives, dominant conventional forces do. The U.S. interest lies in seeking to minimize the importance accorded to nuclear weapons by narrowing the roles they are perceived to play. U.S. doctrine, policy, forces, and diplomacy should all be configured to support this interest. The posture described in this paper achieves just that, in contrast to postures that imagine uses of nuclear weapons that have never actually been demonstrated. After 70 years of indulging fantasies of what nuclear weapons can do, it is high time to acknowledge that they do very little and adapt U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, and forces to those facts.