"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden,
January 28, 2004
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Trump Tweet Could Signal Dangerous Nuclear Policy Shift

Today president-elect Donald Trump used his ever-active Twitter feed to say: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” As with most 140-character Trump pronouncements, deciphering its actual meaning and intent can be a difficult task. Trump’s comments today might simply be an expression of support for current U.S. efforts to maintain, upgrade, and replace U.S. nuclear forces, the price of which is likely to exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years. On the campaign trail, Trump expressed...

Mr. Trump and the Bomb

The Trump administration must discard reckless campaign rhetoric and learn how to build on his predecessor’s substantial nonproliferation record.

December 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

For decades, U.S. presidents from both parties have been confronted with a range of nuclear weapons perils. So far, despite several near misses and close calls, we have avoided catastrophe and limited the spread of nuclear weapons to nine states. But with the election of Donald Trump, the United States and the world move into uncharted and dangerous nuclear territory.

(Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)Beginning Jan. 20, the devastating power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be under the control of an impulsive and unpredictable commander-in-chief. During the 2016 campaign, Trump made a number of casual and deeply troubling statements that suggest he has a poor understanding of the unique dangers posed by nuclear weapons and may not be up to the task of managing the risks. 

When asked in January 2016 when he might consider using nuclear weapons, Trump said, “Well, it is an absolute last stance…[but] you want to be unpredictable,” implying that he might engage in dangerous nuclear brinksmanship in a crisis.

Trump said it would be acceptable if Japan or South Korea sought their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s because, he claimed, “it’s going to happen anyway.” Such an attitude contradicts decades of U.S. policy and undermines the global consensus against proliferation.

Trump also pledged to “dismantle” the 2015 agreement between six world powers and Iran, which is verifiably working to block Iran’s pathways to the bomb. If he tries even to “renegotiate” the deal, he would open the door to the rapid reconstitution of Iran’s capabilities, alienate all major U.S. allies, and trigger another disastrous war in the Middle East. If Trump or the Republican-led Congress sabotage the deal, they will own the grave geopolitical consequences.

Unlike President Barack Obama, who came into the White House with a detailed nuclear threat reduction game plan, Trump has no discernable strategy for managing today’s most daunting nuclear challenges.

The most urgent problem is North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capability. Even with tougher international sanctions, the North’s program will continue to advance, and calls for nuclear weapons in South Korea will grow. With additional nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang could have an operational arsenal of several dozen nuclear-armed, medium-range ballistic missiles by the end of Trump’s first term.

During the campaign, Trump said he would be willing to talk with North Korea’s leader, but he also suggested the problem could be outsourced to China. In reality, Beijing will not exert what influence it has without clear U.S. support for a renewed and wide-ranging dialogue with Pyongyang.

Shortly after Inauguration Day, Trump should direct a personal representative to communicate the United States’ interest in a deal leading to denuclearization and a formal end to the Korean conflict. As a first step, the parties should agree to a verifiable halt of further North Korean longer-range missile and nuclear tests and fissile material production and a temporary cessation of major U.S. military exercises in the region. This approach does not guarantee success, but maintaining the current policy assures failure.

Trump must also engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin to defuse rising tensions and head off a NATO-Russia confrontation that could lead to nuclear war. To do so, his still-to-be-named team will need to revitalize existing risk reduction and confidence-building mechanisms, ensure that Russia respects international borders, preserve the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, address Russian fears about U.S. missile interceptor capabilities, and develop rules of the road to prevent destabilizing cyberattacks.

The risk of catastrophic miscalculation remains far too high. Until 2021, each side is allowed to deploy 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, hundreds of which are primed for launch under attack. For a start, Trump and Putin should reaffirm that there can be no winner in a nuclear war and agree to a sustained dialogue on strategic stability. 

If Trump can persuade Congress not to expand costly missile interceptor programs and respects the U.S. nuclear test ban and no-new-nuclear-warhead policies, he may find Russia willing to jointly slash strategic nuclear forces by one-third below the limits of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Such a step would ease tensions and reduce fears of a new nuclear arms race, plus it would reduce the skyrocketing price of nuclear weapons. The current all-of-the-above plan to replace and upgrade the U.S. nuclear triad and supporting infrastructure is projected to cost more than half a trillion dollars over the next 20 years and is unsustainable. By reducing nuclear excess and delaying program schedules, deterrence requirements can be met while saving tens of billions of taxpayer dollars. 

The most serious test of any president is whether and how they reduce global nuclear dangers and avoid miscalculation in a nuclear crisis. To succeed or at least avoid major mistakes, the Trump administration must discard reckless campaign rhetoric and learn how to build on his predecessors' substantial efforts to strengthen the taboo against the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

The Logic of Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning

Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century.

November 2016

By Vincent A. Manzo and Aaron R. Miles

In September, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for NATO to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence. “Across the Atlantic, we’re refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, to ensure we plan and train like we’d fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO—from trying to ‘escalate to de-escalate,’ as some there call it.”1

Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher stated that the Department of Defense is “working to ensure an appropriate level of integration between nuclear and conventional planning and operations.”2 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks September 26 to troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, which is home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. (Photo credit: Sergeant Brigitte N. Brantley/Defense Department)At first glance, these statements may seem discordant with the long-standing U.S. view that nuclear weapons are distinct and apart from other military capabilities. This fundamental distinction is reflected in almost every aspect of how nuclear weapons are treated. Only the president can authorize the employment of nuclear weapons, and the United States maintains a unique declaratory policy explaining and limiting the conditions under which their use would be considered. Nuclear weapons require special operational considerations and safeguards. Personnel with access to nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials require additional screening and monitoring. The notion of conventional and nuclear weapons integration is often portrayed as threatening to weaken or break down the special status and “profound caution” afforded to nuclear weapons. 

Yet, the statements by Carter and Scher are consistent with U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and the underlying philosophy from which it stems. Much of the integration debate boils down to differing characterizations of the ends and ways of conventional and nuclear weapons integration, a question of objectives, and how to achieve them. Ensuring “an appropriate level of integration” requires a mix of maintaining and improving key aspects of integration. Doing so serves U.S. security interests, in particular, providing effective nuclear deterrence, without increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, blurring the distinction between non-nuclear and nuclear conflict, or lowering the threshold for nuclear use. 

Indeed, better integration will reduce the likelihood of an adversary’s nuclear use while maintaining the U.S. threshold at its appropriately high level. Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century. 

Fulfilling an Enduring Role 

The primary role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not changed since the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, that is, to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies and partners. Deterrence is strengthened by the arsenal’s capacity to perform its secondary role of “achieving U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails.” Neither of these roles is new, but the security environment in which U.S. nuclear posture and strategy must support these roles is changing. So too are the nuclear deterrence challenges for which the United States must prepare.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report illuminated this changing context, stating that U.S. nuclear forces communicate to “potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.”3 More than a massive surprise nuclear attack in peacetime or a suicide attack on the U.S. homeland, the QDR highlights the danger of a calibrated and limited attack amid a conventional conflict gone awry.

Developments in Russia, North Korea, and China demonstrate why this is a salient deterrence challenge. These countries may see tacit or explicit nuclear threats as a potent means of demonstrating to U.S. leaders that U.S. stakes are materially lower than their own, thereby weakening U.S. commitment to come to the aid of allies should they find themselves in a regional conflict.4 Numerous analysts have observed that Russia sees limited nuclear attack as a potential means of de-escalating a conventional conflict by demonstrating a favorable asymmetry of stakes or at least views threatening such a course of action as useful for deterring U.S. engagement at the outset. The working assumption would be that following an initial limited nuclear attack, the side with more skin in the game would be more willing to continue the fight and accept the attendant risk of further nuclear escalation. At the other end of the capability spectrum, North Korea may see the threat of limited nuclear escalation early in conflict as an effective means of deterrence and wartime coercion in the face of vastly superior U.S. and South Korean conventional forces. Finally, China has a no-first-use declaratory policy, but debates within China over what constitutes first use and whether the declaratory policy would hold in a conflict suggest some consideration for threatening or using nuclear weapons for purposes other than responding to nuclear attack. 

There is a strategic logic to these considerations of threatening nuclear use for purposes other than deterring nuclear attack. Notions of accepting and even enhancing escalation risk and of utilizing nuclear weapons to achieve a favorable outcome in conventional war have precedent in the theory of military strategy and the actual strategies of nuclear-weapon states, including the United States during the Cold War.5 

Because there is escalation risk inherent in any conflict between nuclear-armed states, it would be irresponsible to extend security commitments to U.S. allies and pledge to deter conventional aggression without taking into account how potential foes may deliberately or haphazardly bring nuclear weapons into play. Thus, when dealing with a nuclear-armed adversary, there is intrinsic and unavoidable linkage between the conventional and nuclear realms. Ignoring that fact invites peril. 

Why Integration?

Managing escalation in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries is an essential element of U.S. national security strategy. Escalation management seeks to protect the vital interests of the United States and its allies while convincing an adversary to refrain from using the full military means at its disposal. Deeper integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations serves three ends of escalation management. Preparing to achieve these ends weakens the coercive nuclear strategies adversaries may develop when contemplating aggression and therefore ultimately strengthens the United States’ ability to deter a conflict from starting in the first place. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a conference at the main command center of the Russian armed forces in Moscow on June 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)The first objective of integration is to strengthen one’s ability to deter adversaries from choosing nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict. Because nuclear weapons enable a country to rapidly inflict massive levels of damage, a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state is fundamentally different from one with a non-nuclear adversary. Whatever other political objectives brought the United States into such a war, deterring first use of nuclear weapons would automatically become a central U.S. objective. 

Second, integration aims to strengthen one’s ability to achieve U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails. Presumably, the United States would enter any conventional conflict with a set of war aims tied to political objectives. Those aims and objectives are unlikely to disappear after a limited nuclear attack, although they might change somewhat in substance or priority. Integration facilitates efforts to keep conventional operations and nuclear posture aligned with the political objectives they are designed to support.

Third, integration increases the likelihood of successfully restoring deterrence following an adversary’s nuclear weapons use. If an adversary resorts to using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, the possibility that it would use them again will seem very real. Just like deterring first use of nuclear weapons would be a central U.S. objective in any conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary, deterring further nuclear use and escalation would automatically become a central objective once an adversary crossed the nuclear threshold. Scher touched on this as well, saying that “integration means being prepared to restore deterrence following adversary nuclear use, so that failure to deter first use does not translate into failure to deter subsequent nuclear use.”6 

Strengthening Integration 

There are three principal ways to improve integration consistent with the special status afforded to U.S. nuclear weapons. The first two represent areas where improvement is needed, and the third is principally a matter of ensuring that current capabilities remain viable. Together, these aspects of integration strengthen U.S. escalation management strategy by helping the United States avoid miscalculation leading to nuclear war. If deterrence fails, they help ensure that the president’s options for responding to a nuclear attack are not limited to ceding victory to the aggressor or ordering a massive nuclear counterattack. Integration enables the additional options of continuing the conventional war after adversary nuclear weapons use without responding in kind or responding in kind while continuing conventional military operations. 

Planning conventional campaigns to shape adversary escalation calculus. Deterring nuclear escalation within a conventional conflict is an important 21st century challenge. The United States must prepare to operate under the nuclear shadow while navigating through the fog of conventional war. The core principles of nuclear deterrence remain the same after the fighting starts: willingness to respond forcefully and purposefully to nuclear weapons use and willingness to show certain forms of restraint as long as the adversary does not use nuclear weapons. Yet, effectively communicating resolve and restraint—the ying and the yang of the deterrence message—amid the confusion and emotion of war may require additional measures.

The threat of response must effectively convey that the United States and its allies will not allow an adversary to escalate its way to victory, split alliances through coercive threats or nuclear attack, or achieve a favorable military situation by using nuclear weapons. At the same time, U.S. officials must sustain and communicate the promise of restraint that is inherent in every deterrence threat, the assurance that choosing to remain below the nuclear threshold will spare the adversary the threatened cost of crossing it. 

Harmonizing this deterrence strategy with U.S. conventional operations is a key point of integration. As Scher explained, “[I]ntegration means conventional operations must be planned and executed with deliberate thought as to how they shape the risk that the adversary will choose nuclear escalation.”7 The United States may need to forgo certain objectives, such as regime change, that would likely lead adversary leadership to see nuclear weapons use as its only viable option for survival. In order for the adversary to understand and believe that this restraint is contingent on it not using nuclear weapons, the United States would also need to avoid military operations the adversary is likely to perceive as a precursor to regime change or disarming strategic attacks. This would likely require withholding attacks on adversary nuclear forces, nuclear command and control, political leadership, and assets or capabilities critical to an adversary’s basic ability to defend its homeland. 

As the United States, Russia, China, and others expand their strategic postures and operational concepts to include conventional, space, cyber, and nuclear forces, integration requires looking across domains and functional capabilities to fully analyze escalation risks. Will a particular cyber- or space operation impact an adversary’s nuclear operations? How will adversary leadership interpret the intent of the operation? If an operation is intended to strip away adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, how will it impact the adversary’s ability to gauge U.S. and allied limited aims?

The twin objectives of effectively waging the conventional campaign and seamlessly executing a nuclear deterrence strategy will likely engender tension and require difficult trade-offs. For example, the United States may be at a disadvantage in executing in a conventional conflict if it does not launch conventional strikes against adversary air defenses or conventional missile systems. If these targets are located in a nuclear-armed adversary’s homeland, however, U.S. officials may be concerned that adversary leadership will perceive such actions as indicative of a drive for regime change. Integration cannot eliminate these tensions and trade-offs, but it can help illuminate critical decision points. This will help senior decision-makers weigh the benefits and escalation risks of certain courses of action. Ultimately, whether certain conventional military operations should be ruled out or curtailed in order to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation is a presidential decision. The purpose of this aspect of integration is to enable informed decisions about U.S. strategy in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries and to ensure U.S. military and diplomatic means are poised to execute that strategy as precisely as possible. 

Strengthening conventional resiliency to nuclear operations. An adversary may see nuclear escalation as an efficient means to shift the conventional military balance in a conflict, even if only for a short period of time. Strengthening the resiliency of conventional operations to adversary nuclear attack is a second way to strengthen integration. 

Conventional resiliency includes the ability to communicate, operate, and resupply in a nuclear environment. There are a variety of means for enhancing resiliency, including hardening, redundancy, and dispersing forces and points of debarkation to reduce vulnerable single points of failure.8 Yet, enhancing resiliency is also a matter of intelligence and imagination. How might an adversary employ its nuclear forces to disrupt U.S. conventional operations? What are the vulnerabilities an adversary may target? Exploring these questions will be essential as the United States enters a period of technological and operational innovation to maintain conventional deterrence against Russia and China.9

This aspect of integration contributes to managing escalation for two reasons. First, it preserves presidential flexibility in the face of limited nuclear use. Wherever possible, the president should have the option of continuing the conventional fight even after an adversary employs nuclear weapons. Furthermore, this should not be a binary strategy where conventional and nuclear options for responding to a nuclear attack are mutually exclusive. Denying presidential flexibility would essentially offer the adversary the ability to dictate the means of the conflict by choosing nuclear escalation. This would more likely favor the side that perceives itself as conventionally weaker and therefore more reliant on nuclear weapons. 

Second, conventional resiliency reduces the potential benefits of attacking U.S. forces with nuclear weapons. If a limited nuclear attack is unlikely to result in a decisive operational-military advantage, then using nuclear weapons carries high risk but scant rewards. In other words, conventional resiliency contributes to deterrence. 

For both of these reasons, ignoring conventional resiliency invites adversaries to elevate the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies. 

Providing integrated response options that are limited and credible. Possessing credible options for responding to first use of nuclear weapons reinforces all three ends of escalation management (deterring nuclear escalation and, if deterrence fails, restoring deterrence and achieving other U.S. and allied objectives). Potential adversaries may conclude they can calibrate a nuclear attack to coerce the United States into capitulating without causing sufficient destruction to provoke a large nuclear response. The ability to respond to an attack purposefully and proportionately helps convince adversaries that no such sweet spot exists. Of course, what constitutes a purposeful and proportionate response would depend on the context. As a general rule, the U.S. response would need to be integrated into the conventional campaign to avoid disrupting U.S. conventional operations. In order to deter rather than spur another nuclear attack, the response would need to be consistent with U.S. efforts to communicate its resolve and its limited war aims to the adversary. Finally, it would also need to be integrated into the broader political strategy for orchestrating an end to the conflict. 

This ability underpins the strategic message that the United States will defend the core interests of its allies even in the face of nuclear threats. Relying solely on large-scale response options may indeed be credible for deterring attacks on the U.S. homeland, but as the sole means for reacting to a limited attack overseas, it runs the risk of appearing as a hollow bluff to allies and adversaries alike. Limited options are thus an important part of extending deterrence and assuring U.S. allies. 

This is not a call for returning to nuclear artillery or using nuclear weapons for tactical military effects that could be achieved with conventional forces. Rather, the United States should retain the diversity and flexibility of its current arsenal, particularly its nuclear-capable bomber and fighter aircraft. These aircraft are key to effectively deterring and responding to limited nuclear attack because they can be used to demonstrably signal deterrence messages (they are the only component of U.S. nuclear forces that is visible and recallable), they can be forward deployed in crisis and conflict and well as in peacetime, and the weapons they can carry contribute to the range of yields in the U.S. stockpile. Under the current stockpile reduction plan, these aircraft will carry a single type of gravity bomb (the life-extended B61), and the bomber force will also carry a single type of nuclear-armed cruise missile (the air-launched cruise missile, to be replaced with the modernized long-range standoff weapon).

Owing to tremendous reductions in warhead numbers and types over the past three decades as a result of negotiated and unilateral actions, the U.S. arsenal and suite of delivery platforms have reached a minimum acceptable level of diversity and flexibility. Although some numerical reductions may still be possible, warhead and delivery platform types should not be further reduced in the near term. On the contrary, those remaining capabilities should be sustained and, where necessary to remain viable, modernized to maintain the existing range of credible and proportionate response options.

In concert with U.S. land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, this suite of capabilities is minimally sufficient for enabling integrated, limited options for achieving U.S. objectives after a limited attack when the president judges that non-nuclear responses alone are insufficient. For example, after a limited nuclear attack on U.S. forces fighting abroad, the president may judge that the United States needs to demonstrate its willingness to respond with nuclear weapons. A conventional response, even if capable of destroying the same target on a comparable timescale, would not have the same psychological impact as a response in kind and risks inviting a follow-on nuclear strike or fracturing an alliance. A larger nuclear response could be disproportionately destructive, triggering physical and operational effects that provoke rather than deter further escalation. 

Under these conditions, a limited nuclear response might succeed in restoring nuclear deterrence and sustaining the alliance. Success would not be guaranteed, but the risks of alternative options would likewise be severe. 

Addressing Counterarguments

Some contend that the objectives of U.S. escalation management strategy, including deterring an adversary from escalating across the nuclear threshold and restoring deterrence if ever it fails, would be better served by reducing nuclear integration rather than by maintaining or increasing it. These critiques typically reduce integration to just its third element—limited response options—and advance one or more of three basic arguments. 

U.S. Army Col. Phil Brooks observes a live-fire demonstration as two High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets are fired during Anakonda 2016, the Polish-led exercise held in June that involved about 31,000 participants from more than 20 NATO and partner countries. (Photo credit: SFC John Fries/DVIDS)First, some believe efforts to ensure nuclear and conventional integration lower the nuclear threshold by making it easier for the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. These claims are often tied to the supposed pursuit of new nuclear weapons with lower yields that make them more “usable” than those in the existing arsenal. Neither this general claim nor its supporting elements are consistent with the scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization plans or the defense strategy it supports. Low-yield weapons have been a part of the U.S. stockpile for half a century, and Pentagon officials have stated unequivocally that current plans, including the life extension of the B61 gravity bomb, do not entail expanding the range of yields already available.10 More generally, despite the deliberate ambiguity inherent in U.S. declaratory policy, the notion of U.S. first use for tactical advantage or for de-escalating a conventional conflict is far removed from U.S. nuclear strategy, which focuses on credible options for responding to and therefore deterring nuclear attack. 

Second, some would claim that forgoing the ability to respond in a limited way would strengthen deterrence because it would imply the threat of massive nuclear retaliation in response to even a limited attack. Eliminating limited options would thus decrease the likelihood of adversary first use. Although automatic large-scale retaliation would indeed negate any rational gains an adversary may hope to achieve through a limited attack, the threat to do so only works if the adversary believes it. The United States cannot responsibly count on all adversaries concluding that the threat of massive retaliation is always credible. It is difficult to imagine that, in the immediate aftermath of a limited nuclear attack against a U.S. ally, even critics of limited response options would advise the president to order a massive strike on the grounds that credibility demands it or that total escalation is inevitable. Removing limited options would weaken deterrence if adversaries believe available U.S. nuclear responses are far less likely to produce an acceptable outcome for the United States and its allies, let alone a desirable one. Similarly, sole reliance on large-scale nuclear response options would do a poor job of dissuading allies from seeking independent deterrent capabilities.

Given the costs of capitulating to nuclear coercion and the risks of a strategy based on threatening massive response, what would the United States gain by removing the option of a limited nuclear response? Some contend that a conventional response to limited nuclear use is the better course under any circumstances. They believe that limited options are undesirable because they make it more likely a president will unnecessarily choose a nuclear response and because pursuing them drives requirements for types of nuclear weapons that do not increase U.S. security. A purely conventional response might indeed be the best way to limit further nuclear escalation and achieve U.S. and ally war aims in some cases, but it is unreasonable to assume a priori that this will always be the case. 

Contrary to the objectives of escalation management strategy, solely continuing the conventional fight might encourage further nuclear attacks aimed at finding the U.S. and allied pain threshold or measuring the relative stakes and resolve of the two sides. This is especially likely if the adversary’s goal is to stop the conventional campaign and its initial nuclear attack fails to achieve this goal but does not elicit the type of U.S. response it most fears. Furthermore, a strategy of continuing the conventional campaign toward victory after adversary limited nuclear use would likely provide the enemy with ample time and incentive to employ additional nuclear attacks. Ultimately and in anticipation of or in response to further nuclear attacks, holding to the conventional-only response might create pressure for negotiating a cessation to hostilities at all costs, implying U.S. capitulation and an adversary’s successful implementation of its nuclear coercion strategy. 

Moreover, credible options for deterring subsequent nuclear strikes provide an essential underpinning of a conventional-only response to nuclear attack. In order to restore deterrence, the United States would need to convince the adversary that any further nuclear use would result in costs that outweigh potential gains. For example, an adversary may believe that a limited nuclear attack or even a demonstration shot will compel the United States to capitulate. If that strategy fails and the United States continues fighting, adversary leadership might resort to a nuclear strike on U.S. military forces in the theater to raise the stakes and blunt the ongoing campaign. The fact that deterrence already failed once would no doubt raise questions about U.S. defense strategy, but the likelihood of a U.S. nuclear response in this case might be perceived as higher than the chance the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons in response to a first attack that inflicted little or no damage. 

The threat of a large-scale response might succeed in deterring follow-on attacks, but it might not be perceived as credible, particularly if the adversary has a survivable arsenal. A large-scale response may also be incompatible with the U.S. political objectives associated with the conventional fight. Thus, we find it difficult to imagine a U.S. president sustaining conventional operations after an initial nuclear attack if massive retaliation is the only nuclear option for responding to a second limited attack. 

The better course is neither to prejudge presidential decisions nor surrender the option most likely to be credible and aligned with political objectives. Some fear that calls for greater integration imply a dangerous level of confidence in U.S. escalation-control strategy. Yet, effective deterrence requires an approach to escalation risk that avoids absolutism of either extreme. Confidence in one’s ability to deliberately start a limited nuclear war between major nuclear powers and control subsequent escalation would be the ultimate miscalculation, but inherent uncertainty about one’s ability to control escalation should not translate into certainty that any nuclear use would automatically lead to uncontrolled escalation up to global annihilation. 

The point about uncertainty is that no one can know for certain what the eventual outcome would be. Virtually everyone would want the president at least to try to limit escalation following an adversary attack. Consequently, it makes no sense to voluntarily relinquish the kind of credible response options below the level of massive retaliation that every president has required since the Soviet Union first acquired the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States. 

Nuclear weapons are unique in their ability to inflict and deter violence and should never be treated as more powerful analogues to conventional munitions. Ensuring and strengthening integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations is consistent with this long-standing principle. It is also critical to maintaining an appropriately balanced approach to escalation management and meeting the most salient of contemporary deterrence challenges.


1.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” September 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/956079/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-minot-air-force-base-north-dakota.

2.   Robert Scher, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, February 9, 2016, p. 3, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Scher_02-09-16.pdf (hereinafter Scher statement).

3.   Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review,” p. 14, March 2014, http://archive.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf.

4.   Nikolai N. Sokov, “Why Russia Calls a Limited Nuclear Strike De-Escalation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 13, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/why-russia-calls-limited-nuclear-strike-de-escalation; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “Coercive Nuclear Campaigns in the 21st Century: Understanding Adversary Incentives and Options for Nuclear Escalation,” PASCC Report, No. 2013-001 (March 2013); U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf. See Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).  

5.   David S. Yost, “The History of NATO Theater Nuclear Force Policy: Key Findings From the Sandia Conference,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (June 1992): 228-261. 

6.   Scher statement, p. 3.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Joint Defense Science Board/Threat Reduction Advisory Committee Task Force, “The Nuclear Weapons Effects Enterprise,” U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, June 2010, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ADA523661.pdf

9.   For more information, see Bob Work, speech on the Third Offset Strategy at the Reagan Defense Forum, November 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/628246/reagan-defense-forum-the-third-offset-strategy

10.   Scher statement.

Vincent A. Manzo is a fellow in the Defense and National Security Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Aaron R. Miles is a fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views are those of the authors.

Vote to Begin Treaty Negotiations to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons a Step Forward



Statement by Arms Control Association's Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball, on the adoption of a resolution by the United Nation's First Committee to begin treaty negotiations on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.


Statement from Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

For Immediate Release: October 27, 2016

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 105; and Zia Mian, member of the board of directors & co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, and co-author of Unmaking the Bomb, 609-258-5468.

(Washington, D.C.)—Today, members of the United Nations' disarmament and international security committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to launch formal negotiations in 2017 on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” 

Acting on recommendations of its First Committee in December 2012, the General Assembly adopted 58 texts related to disarmament. (Photo: UN/Paulo FilgueirasSponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, the resolution (A/C.1/71/L.41) was approved by a vote of 123 to 38 with 16 abstentions. The United States and other nuclear-armed states voted against the resolution. The proposal will be considered and likely approved by the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

The resolution follows three international conferences in 2013 and 2014 to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and discussions by an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2016.

The following is a statement from Executive Director Daryl Kimball, on the initiative:

“Today’s vote marks a new phase in the decades-long struggle to eliminate the threats posed by nuclear weapons. In order to attain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally-binding norm to prohibit such weapons. As such, the pursuit of a treaty banning the development, production, possession and use of nuclear weapons is a key step along the way.

Although the world’s nuclear-armed states will likely boycott the negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban, this unprecedented new process could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use—a worthy goal.

The strong support for negotiations on a ban treaty needs to be understood as a logical international response to the growing risks and catastrophic consequences of a conflict between nuclear-armed states, the accelerating global technological nuclear arms race, and underwhelming pace of progress by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states on nuclear disarmament in recent years.

The coming ban treaty negotiations are not a substitute for necessary, progressive steps on nuclear disarmament, but they do have the potential to strengthen the taboo against the further development and use of nuclear weapons. In the coming months and years, the non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-armed states—particularly the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan—can and should do more to overcome old obstacles and animosities to advance disarmament and nuclear risk reduction measures, which are essential if we are to avoid nuclear conflict.”

Additional background resources: 

An Insider’s View of Nuclear Weapons Modernization

The total destructive power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is shrinking faster than simply the declining number of weapons, and it is important that the arms control community understand this and discusses the details...

October 2016

By Don Cook

Although the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is safe and secure today, technological advances from the research and development portion of the Stockpile Stewardship Program have shown that improvements in safety and security can be achieved by incorporating more advanced technologies than those available during weapons manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The necessity to ensure reliability as systems age is clear. Automobiles with a comparable average age as the weapons in the stockpile (29 years) have lower reliability today than when they were produced, if they are even still on the road. Rubber and plastic degrade and become brittle, metal corrodes, and connections that were once tight become loose. In undertaking weapons life extension programs (LEPs), often referenced as weapons modernization,1 the emphasis is on returning the weapons to their original level of reliability, which, although classified, was very high. 

The last B53 thermonuclear bomb was dismantled at the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas, in 2011. The nine-megaton weapon, 600 times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was carried aboard U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers on alert during the 1960s and remained in active service until 1997. (Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration)When nuclear testing ended in 1992, the United States had recently completed production of many new nuclear weapons during the Reagan modernization of the 1980s. The warheads that remain in the current stockpile were young, with an average age of six years. Today, however, the United States has the oldest stockpile it has ever had and the smallest stockpile since the Eisenhower administration, reduced by more than 85 percent from the Cold War peak. The intent of the LEPs is not to introduce new weapons; the programs are focused on extending the life of current U.S. nuclear weapons while improving safety and security and maintaining reliability. 

Formulation of the LEP strategy was guided by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Congressionally-mandated comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy, and force posture for the next five to 10 years. The 2010 NPR Report said, “By pursuing a sound Stockpile Management Program for extending the life of U.S. nuclear weapons, we can ensure a safe, secure, and effective deterrent without the development of new nuclear warheads or further nuclear testing.” Further, it states, LEPs “will only use nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”2

Intensive study from 2011 to 2014 by the government’s Nuclear Weapons Council and its constituent elements representing the military commands, elements of the Department of Defense, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) resulted in broad agreement on a national strategy for comprehensive extension of the life of U.S. nuclear warheads. This is labeled the “3+2 strategy.”3

In accordance with the NPR and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, the United States will consolidate the number of nuclear weapon types and reduce the overall size of its stockpile. The 3+2 strategy lays out a path for reducing the number of nuclear weapon types from 12 to five. Of the five types, two will be air-delivered weapons (one bomb type and one cruise missile type), and three will be interoperable warheads that can be deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This strategy will take 30-plus years to implement fully. 

Implementing the Strategy

The first implementation element of the 3+2 strategy is the B61-12 LEP. The B61-12, now in its fifth year of full-scale engineering development, will consolidate four variants of the B-61 bomb and will improve the safety and security of the oldest weapons system in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The LEP is centered on the strategic bomb capability, balancing greater accuracy provided by a modern tail kit with a substantial reduction in yield, with no overall change in military requirements or characteristics. The NNSA is accountable for the nuclear ordnance (the bomb body) while the Air Force is accountable for the integrated tail kit.

The B61-12 was recently approved to move into the production engineering phase and is currently planned for a first production unit in fiscal year 2020, consistent with the conclusion of the LEP for the W76-1 SLBM warhead at the Pantex assembly plant in Texas in fiscal year 2019. The B61 remains a key element of the air-delivered leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and is a key weapons system in the extended nuclear deterrent covering U.S. allies. Once the B61-12 LEP is completed over roughly a four-year period and confidence is gained with B61-12 weapons in service, the B83—the last megaton-class weapon in the arsenal—will be retired. The result is (1) a reduction of the number of bombs by a factor of two, (2) the removal of a megaton-class weapons system, (3) a reduction in enriched uranium and plutonium of more than 80 percent in the bomb portion of the air leg, and (4) a reduction in overall destructive power by the same amount (80 percent).

The 3+2 strategy calls for a replacement of the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Nuclear Weapons Council has narrowed options under consideration for the nuclear package. Given the investment in development of modern non-nuclear components for the B61-12 LEP, it makes economic sense to reuse and reapply as much of that component set as possible to the ALCM replacement. Current schedules within the nuclear security enterprise would allow movement of a life-extended cruise missile warhead to follow the B61-12 in manufacturing and assembly at Pantex, with a first production unit in the fiscal year 2025-2027 time frame. 

Consolidation of the four present ballistic systems into three interoperable systems will enable an eventual reduction in the number of weapons retained as a hedge against technical failure. In today’s stockpile, if the United States experiences a technical problem in a bomb, cruise missile warhead, or ballistic missile warhead type, there can be a period of time when one of two elements in one leg of the deterrent triad is “out of commission” while the problem is solved. In the future, with two or three types of warheads available for insertion into ICBM or SLBM aeroshells, intraleg technical hedging will be possible. This capability has been shown to remove the need for a significant part of the technical hedge, but only when fully implemented.

The NPR Report recommended initiating a “study of LEP options for the W-78 ICBM warhead, including the possibility of using the resulting warhead also on SLBMs to reduce the number of warhead types.”4 In 2011 a concept study was initiated, focusing on the use of common components, adaptable architectures, and interoperability between ICBM and SLBM platforms.

A budgetary decision made in 2014, supported by a technical assessment from the stockpile surveillance program, deferred further work on the interoperable weapons for five years. In the interim, increased emphasis was given to a new arming, fusing, and firing unit for the W88 warhead. That effort was already in full-scale engineering development in 2014 and was expanded to include replacement of the conventional high explosive component in order to extend the weapon’s lifetime by an additional 10 to 15 years. The W88 Alt 370 will form the basis of the arming, fusing, and firing unit for the current W88 and W87 systems and for the first interoperable warhead, currently designated as the W78/88-1. 

The issue of conventional high explosives (CHE) versus insensitive high explosives (IHE) in nuclear weapons is a factor in life extension efforts. The latter type are powerful explosives that have improved safety characteristics because they are remarkably insensitive to high temperatures, shock, and impact. It has been an objective to move from CHE to IHE in the course of weapons life extensions. All of the air leg is already based on IHE, but progress remains to be made in ballistic systems. Why is this important? Fundamentally, there is no single greater improvement in weapons safety than moving to IHE. Because the energy content per unit of mass of IHE is just 70 percent that of CHE, however, the IHE takes up more space, and IHE-based weapons must have lower yields than CHE-based weapons in order to fit into existing aeroshells. U.S. Strategic Command and the other entities within the Nuclear Weapons Council made the decision at the outset of the work on interoperable weapons to accept a reduction in weapons yield in order to get the safety advantage. 

Recent Actions to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Yield

Reduction of nuclear weapons yield, made possible by improvements in accuracy or method of delivery, has been a decades-long trend for nuclear weapons planners. Although several reductions have been made in the context of arms control agreements, some have been made unilaterally by the United States in the context of changing security considerations. All of these final actions occurred during the Obama administration.

• The decision to remove multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) from the Minuteman III missiles was made in 2010. This action reduced the number of weapons on each missile, within a fixed set of missiles, by up to a factor of three. More recently, the decision on force structure reduced the number of armed Minuteman III missiles from 450 to 400.

• The last W62 warhead unit was dismantled at the Pantex plant in 2010. When the decision to retire the MX missile was made in 2004, the W62 warheads mounted on the Minuteman III missile were replaced by fewer W87 warheads, which had been mounted on the MX, reducing the explosive power carried on each missile. This was seen as a step forward in safety because the W87 uses insensitive high explosives, whereas the W62 used the more volatile conventional high explosives.

• The last B53 unit was dismantled at Pantex in 2011. The replacement of the B53 gravity bomb by the B61-11 earth penetrator bomb in 1998 removed a now unclassified nine-megaton weapon and replaced it with a much smaller yield weapon, which allowed similar targets to be held at risk because of its earth-penetrating capability.

• The last W80-0 unit was dismantled at Pantex in 2013, removing an entire weapons system and not replacing it with anything else.

Weapons Numbers

Reductions in deployed nuclear weapons and delivery platforms are being made bilaterally under the New START. Two significant decisions made in presidential approval of the NPR were the retirement of the W80-0 warheads for submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) and the de-MIRVing of the ICBM fleet, that is, eliminating multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles from each missile. These decisions reduced the number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal and the overall destructive power of the U.S. deterrent by a substantial amount.

One argument advanced against the current LEP plan is that the number of weapons of a specific type should be reduced first, then the remaining weapons should be life extended. In theory, this would work, but it does not work in practice. The reason is that there is insufficient reliability in weapons as they age, and a larger number of “technical hedge” weapons must be retained, just for having the parts to cannibalize to rebuild other weapons. An example is that, in 2000, just 12 years after the W88 weapons system (the most modern one) had entered service, more than 90 percent of the parts were no longer available. For that reason, weapons programs execute a “life of program” procurement, typically sufficient to supply parts from the strategic reserve for up to 25 years. Now, the average age of weapons is 29 years, and replacement parts are not available.

It is only once that an LEP has been completed and field implementation has demonstrated reliability in service, typically two to four years, that there is sufficient confidence to permit retirement and disassembly of the units that the life-extended ones replace. In other words, reduction in weapons numbers comes as a direct result of the LEPs, not instead of them. 

In addition, as the engineering design and production phases of the LEPs progress, the number of weapons that actually go through the process is reduced substantially. Although this depends most heavily on military planning requirements and arms control agreements, the record is clear: By the time the W76-1 LEP is completed at the end of 2019, the number of W76 units in the stockpile, although classified, will have been reduced by a substantial amount. Because the yield of the units was not changed, the overall system yield (that is, the total yield of all weapons of that type) will have been reduced by the same amount. Furthermore, by the time the B61-12 LEP is completed, near the end of 2025, fewer than half of the number of B61 gravity bombs will be in the stockpile. That alone would reduce the overall system yield by half. Yet, because the B61-12 delivery accuracy will be better than that of the current systems, the yield of the B61-12 units will be reduced, preserving the military effectiveness but reducing the amount of special nuclear material needed to produce the required yield. 

Also, as confidence in the B61-12 system was increased in the early phases of the LEP, the decision was made that the earlier planned LEP for the B83 weapon was not needed and that system would be retired as life-extended B61 units entered service and proved their reliability in service deployment. That decision will remove the last of the “megaton-class” weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Collectively, these decisions reduce the amount of special nuclear material in the bomb leg of the deterrent by more than 80 percent, and the overall destructive power of the bomb leg will be reduced by the same amount. Counting numbers of weapons alone is inadequate to depict the reduction in the overall destructive power of the U.S. stockpile.

Sandia Labs mechanical engineer Ryan Schultz adjusts a microphone for an acoustic test on a B61-12 bomb system on October 30, 2014. The unit is surrounded by banks of speakers that expose it to sound pressure at 131 decibels, similar to a jet engine. (Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs)

Numbers Versus Yield

The arms control community understandably has been focused on the reduction in weapons numbers, but less attention has been paid to the associated reduction in weapons yield, or overall destructive power of the stockpile. This has become an issue of debate, particularly over concerns expressed by some in the arms control community that lower yields, coupled with advances in delivery systems improving precision, speed, and stealth, would have the undesired effect of making nuclear weapons more “usable”5 and, further, that if a weapon is more useable, it is more likely to be used. Yet, I believe, a lower-yield, more accurate U.S. weapon constitutes a better deterrent specifically because it will be regarded by an adversary as more usable and that the likelihood of weapons use is, therefore, lower, not higher. This has certainly been a hotly debated issue for the B61-12 LEP.6 

Given the facts that following the W76-1 and B61-12 LEPs, the number of warheads of each type will have been reduced by more than a factor of two and that the B61-12 LEP will have enabled the B83 retirement and reduced the overall destructive power of the air leg by 80 percent, why has the arms control community not been encouraged by the programs? Why focus only on the numbers, rather than the numbers and the yield? The Obama administration and the president have received insufficient credit by the arms control community for the important decisions made. 

Moreover, why is the arms control community not taking credit for having urged the administration to go in this direction? My experience is that points made by the arms control community have usually been good ones and ones to which I paid attention. It has been argued that President Barack Obama has reduced the stockpile by smaller amounts than prior, Republican presidents. Yet, it is always easier for a Republican president to make arms reductions because the Democrats will cross party lines to support that. 

Another fact, articulated in the 2010 NPR Report completed by the Obama administration, is the de-MIRVing of the ICBM fleet. That single decision reduced the yield of the sum of the weapons carried by each of the 450 missiles (400 after New START force structure implementation) by a factor of up to three. That reduction is to be completed by February 2018.

In the aggregate, the total destructive power of the U.S. arsenal is shrinking faster than simply the number of nuclear weapons. It is important that the arms control community understand this and discuss the details. The arms control community can be most helpful in taking the next steps in arms control with regard to nuclear weapons in three areas.

1. Pay attention to weapons yields along with numbers of weapons, and advocate a reduction in yields and a reduction in the overall destructive power of the stockpiles of the United States, Russia, and China rather than advocating against lower weapons yields.

2. Recognize and support the U.S. direction of “getting out of the megaton business” and advocate that Russia and China take similar steps.

3. Advocate an extension of the New START that includes all nuclear weapons, both strategic and nonstrategic, and that permits Russia and the United States to make their own decisions on the relative balance between the two types, within the same fixed ceiling on weapons numbers.

A continuing emphasis on weapon dismantlements and component disassemblies is needed. During the Obama administration, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons have been dismantled, and Congress approved the president’s fiscal 2016 budget request to accelerate the dismantlement rate by 20 percent. As the arms control community knows, weapons plans always can change but disassemblies are irreversible.


1.   Kingston Rief, “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” Arms Control Association, September 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USNuclearModernization.

2.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, pp. 7, 39, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf (hereinafter NPR Report).

3.   National Nuclear Security Administration, “Fiscal Year 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” March 2015, pp. 1-7, 1-8, https://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/FY16SSMP_FINAL 3_16_2015_reducedsize.pdf.

4.   NPR Report, p. 39.

5.   William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy,” The New York Times, January 11, 2016.

6.   Hans Kristensen, “The B61 Life-Extension Program: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes,” Federation of American Scientists, June 2011, https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/publications1/IssueBrief_B61-12.pdf.

Don Cook served in the Obama administration as deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration from June 2010 through July 2015. He was managing director and CEO of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom from 2006 through 2009 following work at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 through 2005.

Price Tag Rising for Planned ICBMs

The growing cost for the Minuteman III replacements comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to pay modernizing for U.S. nuclear forces. 

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

The projected $85 billion cost to design and build a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, the figure set by the Defense Department’s top acquisition official in advancing the program, is at the low end of an independent Pentagon estimate that found the price tag could exceed $100 billion, an informed source told Arms Control Today.

The Air Force last year published an initial cost estimate of $62.3 billion for the replacement program. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base California on May 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Senior Airman Lael Huss/U.S. Air Force)The growing price of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, as it is known, comes as the Obama administration continues to grapple with how to pay for current plans to modernize U.S. nuclear forces and has raised questions about whether there are cheaper alternatives to sustain the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad. 

The estimate of $85 billion to more than $100 billion was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in support of the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapons system. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved the milestone A decision on Aug. 23, the Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release.

CAPE provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs. The estimate, in then-year dollars, includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program.

The approved $85 billion program cost baseline is contained in a document written by Kendall known as an acquisition decision memorandum and includes the cost to purchase 666 new missiles and rebuild the existing missile infrastructure, the source said. The higher $100 billion-plus CAPE figure is not included in the memo, the source added.

The projected cost to operate and sustain the weapons system over its expected 50-year service life is roughly $150 billion, putting the total cost of the GBSD program at $238 billion, according to the source. 

Bloomberg News was the first to report on the $85 billion estimate set by Kendall. 

Cost Estimates Uncertain

Kendall’s approval of the milestone A decision was reportedly delayed due to the large gap between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and the more recent independent estimate prepared by CAPE. (See ACT, September 2016.)

According to the Bloomberg report, Kendall wrote in the acquisition memo that “there is significant uncertainty about program costs” because “the historical data is limited and there has been a long gap since the last” time the U.S. government built an ICBM. 

In remarks at an event on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, Jamie Morin, the director of CAPE, said that there were “nontrivial” differences in how the CAPE and Air Force cost estimates were built, including contrasting inputs on the missile portion of the replacement program and assessments of the program’s overall “complexity.” 

According to Morin, CAPE based its cost calculations on historical data that could be culled from previous ICBM procurement efforts, such as the Minuteman and Peacekeeper programs, as well as data from the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy’s Trident missile program. 

Like Kendall, Morin emphasized the uncertainty of the cost estimate at this early stage of the acquisition process and noted that it is rare for CAPE to publish low- and high-end estimates for a major program. 

Questions Raised 

The projected cost of the GBSD program could add to worries about the affordability challenges posed by U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans. (See ACT, May 2016.)

In remarks June 6 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said President Barack Obama would continue to evaluate plans that envision ramping up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and would decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, June 2016.)

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes added. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to adjust the modernization plans and, if so, when he would announce it.

Meanwhile, some analysts are questioning whether the GBSD program is the most cost-effective way to maintain the ICBM leg of the triad.

Prior to the cost analysis conducted by CAPE, the Air Force had been arguing that the price to build a new missile system would be roughly the same as the cost to sustain the Minuteman III over the next 50 years and would not provide desired capability upgrades. (See ACT, April 2016.

But a 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The report said continuing to maintain the Minuteman III through life-extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

In a Sept. 22 interview with Arms Control Today, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did not see a technical reason why the life of the Minuteman III could not be extended for a period of time beyond 2030 if the missile’s solid fuel propellant was replaced and the Pentagon forwent capability upgrades.

Another life extension of the Minuteman III would allow the Air Force to defer a decision on whether to build a replacement system, thereby easing some of the pressure current nuclear and conventional weapons spending plans will put on the defense budget over the next 15 years, Harrison added.

New Price Tag for Los Alamos Cleanup

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

October 2016

By Terry Atlas

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Although the report made public on Sept. 15 said that funding would complete the cleanup at the 40-square-mile site, Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the government is underestimating the cost to deal fully with the lab’s accumulated waste.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Waste Disposal Area G is seen from a helicopter June 29, 2011. (Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)Nuclear Watch, a research and advocacy group, criticized the estimate as being based on what the report calls “realistic expectations of annual funding” and as failing to adequately deal with the lab’s largest waste site. The group said that 150,000 cubic meters of “poorly characterized radioactive and toxic wastes” at the Area G site are to be capped and covered rather than treated and removed. That would create a permanent nuclear waste dump above the regional groundwater aquifer and three miles uphill from the Rio Grande river, the group said in a statement Sept. 21.

The report by the Energy Department’s environmental management office is the most comprehensive view of the cleanup work remaining after 26 years of efforts to deal with the waste at the lab, a hub of nuclear weapons research and development since the Manhattan Project in 1943. 

So far, 1,168 potential release sites have been “investigated and cleaned up where required,” while 955 potential release sites are covered by the new cost estimate, the report said. In contrast to the figure used by Nuclear Watch, the Energy Department said that “an estimated 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remains, of which approximately 2,400 [cubic meters] is retrievably stored below ground.”

The Energy Department committed to expediting the cleanup under a June 2016 consent order with the New Mexico Environment Department, which supersedes a 2005 consent order, under which many deadlines were missed. The new accord reflects concerns expressed by state officials and Nuclear Watch that cleanup funding has declined from a high of $225 million in fiscal 2014 to $189 million for the current fiscal year, even as funding for the lab’s nuclear weapons programs has increased.

Law of War Considerations In Fielding Nuclear Forces

Many participants in debates on the legality of nuclear weapons discuss them as different and separate from other types of weapons, focusing on their destructive power. Yet, these weapons...

September 2016

By Justin Anderson

The status of nuclear weapons within international law was a subject of intense debate during last fall’s UN General Assembly First Committee session. State supporters of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons pressed for resolutions asserting the illegality of nuclear weapons and sought to build support for the near-term negotiation of a global ban on nuclear arsenals.

They were strongly opposed by the five states permitted to possess nuclear weapons under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).1

At Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, U.S. Navy Admiral. Cecil D. Haney (right), U.S. Strategic Command commander, and other command members monitor a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20, 2015. [Photo credit: Jim Lamar/U.S. Strategic Command]Such clashes are likely to continue and prove intractable, shedding more heat than light on the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces. The five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) will continue to view nuclear deterrence as vital to the security of themselves and key allies for the foreseeable future. Inconclusive debates in international forums over the general legality of nuclear weapons obscure a more important question at a time when the NPT nuclear-weapon states are overhauling their nuclear forces and, in the cases of Russia and China, upgrading and diversifying: for those states permitted to possess nuclear weapons, how does the law of war apply to their development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces? 

This article will discuss how core principles of the law of war,2 which represents the specific body of law that is lex specialis to the conduct of armed conflict, including the means and methods used to wage war, can apply to or be integrated with the decision-making processes of these five states with regard to their development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces.3 It provides guidelines and suggestions rather than specific “rulings” or prescriptions because the application and implementation of the law of war is best carried out through a series of assessments that evaluate weapons, their delivery means, and the rationale for their potential employment.4 It is informed by legal interpretations and policy positions associated with the United States but offered in hopes of catalyzing a broader discussion on how the law of war, which is intended to reduce the suffering and destruction of all types of conflicts and to facilitate the “restoration of peace,”5 applies to all states that elect to field nuclear forces.

Law of War Principles

Many participants in debates on the legality of nuclear weapons have discussed them as different and separate from other types of weapons, focusing on their destructive power. Yet for the NPT nuclear-weapon states, these weapons and the forces that operate them are not separate from international law, including the law of war. The “Department of Defense Law of War Manual” states this succinctly and directly: “The law of war governs the use of nuclear weapons, just as it governs the use of conventional weapons.”6

As such, the core principles of the law of war apply to the development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces. The manual identifies three “interdependent” core principles within the law of war: military necessity, humanity, and honor. Humanity itself encompasses three key principles: distinction, proportionality, and the prohibition against unnecessary suffering. This article seeks to address several of these principles as they relate to leadership decision-making on nuclear strategy, posture, and potential employment of nuclear weapons, to the development of nuclear delivery systems and weapons, and to the military assessment process known as weaponeering. 

The principle of military necessity states that, in times of war, the use of force is acceptable and justified in order to defeat an opponent. It qualifies, however, that the use of force is not unlimited; the manner in which it is employed should seek to bring about the end of a conflict as quickly as possible and with the least amount of destruction necessary. Francis Lieber, whose 1863 law of war instructions to the Union Army became the foundational document for many later writings and guidance documents on the topic, described the principle: “Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war…. [Yet,] military necessity does not admit of cruelty…. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way, nor of the wanton devastation of a district…and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.”7

In weighing the legitimate use of force in wartime and the imperative of winning “quickly and efficiently” against the imperative of fighting in a manner that is not “cruel” or “wanton” or makes a future peace impossible, military necessity is often linked with the principle of proportionality.8 The latter principle asserts that the use of military force should not be “unreasonable or excessive.”9 In terms of application, proportionality asks leaders and war-fighters to consider the first- and second-order effects, including the potential effects on civilians, of proposed military actions. If these outweigh the benefits of the suggested action—they do little to advance the cause of victory and could result in significant civilian casualties and damage to civilian property—they should be rejected. 

One way to think about the relationship between the principles of military necessity and proportionality is to consider the example of an adversary military base that is important to their continued operations against you or that houses forces that can cause you grievous harm. This base is a legitimate target and can be totally destroyed, but proportionality considerations may mitigate or change how a leader or commander plans to destroy this facility and what means or methods are used. If a range of means are available, proportionality considerations will lead to the election of an option that is less likely to cause collateral damage. 

Military necessity and proportionality are critically important principles for decision-making by national leaders and their military advisers, as they survey the entirety of a conflict and promulgate the strategies and orders whereby all elements of national power are brought to bear on an adversary. The two principles require leaders to make decisions weighing the imperative of winning the war and directing the campaigns or major operations required to do so against the risks of causing collateral damage and prolonging conflict. The difficulty of obtaining, processing, and communicating accurate information due to the “fog of war” is an acknowledged limitation to effectively integrating consideration of these principles into decision-making processes at the highest levels.10

Acknowledging and attempting to address the tension between military necessity and proportionality are important for all potential uses of force, but they are particularly critical when it comes to the possible employment of nuclear force. What types of information and processes can ensure a measured evaluation of courses of action that includes consideration of these law of war principles? 

First, an assessment factoring in military necessity and proportionality should not begin during a nuclear crisis or conflict. The stress of the situation will likely result in a focus on quickly addressing the most immediate or pressing threats at hand, with little to no time or attention available to consider the potential second-order effects or broader implications of decisions made in the breach. Regardless of how an NPT nuclear-weapon state chooses to integrate law of war considerations into its national leadership decision-making calculus, this is an argument in favor of undertaking this integration in peacetime, well before any situation arises where nuclear employment may need to be considered. 

Second, when taken together, the principles of military necessity and proportionality frame a limited, discrete space for considering potential nuclear weapons employment. In a geopolitical environment where the NPT nuclear-weapon states face significant threats, including those from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is possible to envisage scenarios where the circumstances are dire and the demands of military necessity could lead to the consideration of employing nuclear force to destroy rapidly and totally, if necessary, these threats. Yet, the principle’s dual requirement to consider whether the means employed make the return to peace difficult or impossible, buttressed by the admonishment to minimize collateral damage to the extent possible, raise the bar for nuclear employment very high. 

Informed Choices

Determining the parameters of this space and the height of this bar is not a single, stand-alone assessment. It requires a series of nested, interrelated assessments that provide information allowing decision-makers to make informed choices that take into account military necessity and proportionality. These assessments should be undertaken shortly after a new leader begins their term in office, should draw on the experience and expertise of the state’s national security community, and should be supplied to the leader and their most senior advisers. 

Missileers train in the missile procedures trainer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles on January 21, 2008. It is one of three U.S. Air Force bases that maintain and operate Minuteman III ICBMs. [Photo credit: John Turner/U.S. Air Force]These assessments would contribute to the development of a nuclear strategy, and their purpose would be wider than the law of war. They would also, however, provide information vital to an evaluation weighing the demands of military necessity against the limitations of proportionality. One set of assessments would focus on the military threats, such as weapons of mass destruction, which might justify consideration of nuclear strikes. This analysis would provide critical context with regard to military necessity. In a geopolitical environment where the NPT nuclear-weapon states face these types of threats, it is possible to envisage scenarios in which circumstances could lead to the consideration of employing nuclear strikes to destroy an adversary’s WMD-equipped forces (or associated command and control infrastructure) in order to prevent or halt a devastating attack against themselves or their allies. Yet, the parameters of these major threats—How immediate might they be employed? How potentially lethal?—should be assessed in detail.

Another set of assessments should focus on the first- and second-order effects of each nuclear weapon within the arsenal and offer a comparison of these effects against those of the state’s most powerful conventional weapons. Detailed descriptions of the effects of nuclear detonations against different types of targets will likely impress on decision-makers the weighty importance of all decisions involving potential nuclear employment (histories and memoirs, for example, demonstrate this to be the case with regard to U.S. presidents who received briefings on nuclear war plans during the Cold War).11

It is important to emphasize, however, that these assessments will also reveal the enormous difference, in orders of magnitude, between megaton, kiloton, and subkiloton weapons. They will also reveal an enormous difference between “small” nuclear weapons and whatever weapon represents the arsenal’s largest conventional munition. An additional, related set of assessments should focus on when and where the weapon detonates, such as the height of burst of a potential nuclear strike and the impact of shifting the aimpoint, i.e., whether hitting the center or the corner of an adversary’s military base. Here too, the assessments will demonstrate that the effects of strikes will vary dramatically depending on variables such as whether a weapon is detonated on the ground, a short distance from the earth, or high in the atmosphere. Similarly, effects will differ based on where a target is hit. 

These various types of effects assessment are important to informing considerations of proportionality, communicating the incredible power of nuclear munitions and the various effects of nuclear detonations such as heat, blast, and radiation. Yet, they will also demonstrate that the range of these effects is radically different based on the size and type of nuclear weapon employed and when and where it is detonated. In addition, they will elucidate the massive gap between the destructive power of nuclear and conventional munitions. These differences could figure significantly within the cost-benefit comparison between military necessity and proportionality should a target or targets be identified that must be destroyed in order to secure victory, prevent a devastating attack, or both.12

Furthermore, these assessments should consider how the adversary may react, addressing important questions regarding conflict escalation and war termination. These assessments will grapple with human psychology, strategic culture, and other issues that differ from the physics and engineering calculations behind assessments of the effects of nuclear detonations. In addition to being critical to nuclear strategy development, consideration of these factors is important to fully addressing the requirements of military necessity, which allows the use of force against legitimate strategic or tactical objectives but does not permit “any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.” 

These considerations could serve to illustrate that the law of war does not always provide definitive answers with regard to strategic dilemmas. A national military or nuclear command headquarters, for example, may be a legitimate target in wartime, but would destroying it actually result in conflict escalation, up to and including nuclear employment, either because an adversary is now bent on revenge, loses command and control over its own forces, or both? The necessary tension inherent to the principle of military necessity is meant to prompt leaders and commanders wherever possible to thoroughly assess their options and consider likely outcomes. Its evaluative criteria, however, may help define decisions regarding nuclear forces—where the requirements of defending your population or forces may be paramount at the same time that uncertainty regarding adversary intentions and capacity for escalation may be acute—without facilitating them, even if the desire to adhere to the law is sincere. 

The law of war permits the use of force, including massive force, to achieve victory, but also emphasizes that attempting to achieve victory at any cost, with no thought for the consequences to civilians, is unlawful and harms the prospects of achieving a lasting peace. Yet, the challenge in correctly calibrating the use of force, particularly when confronted with adversaries capable of causing massive harm, is significant, acute, and sometimes unappreciated by advocates and analysts of international law. 

The assessments described above are important to a government’s development of its nuclear posture and its declaratory policy—that is, when, where, and how it will employ nuclear force. In addition to addressing questions of strategy and policy, they provide information that allows leaders to integrate law of war considerations into critical decisions and guidance documents. 

Principle of Distinction

The principle of distinction requires that the use of force be directed against military targets and not civilians or civilian objects, such as civilian buildings; as described by Lieber, “the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor as much as the exigencies of war will admit.”13 As a general rule, the more powerful and destructive the weapon, the greater the care and caution in ensuring that its design and form of employment permit it to be employed in accordance with this principle. 

Some activists and commentators assert that nuclear weapons can never be employed in a manner that does not violate the principle of discrimination, often pointing to radioactive fallout as an uncontrollable effect of nuclear detonations that will sicken and kill civilians far from the original target. These assertions often appear to assume that all nuclear weapons and detonations are alike in terms of their effects. As discussed above, however, how a weapon is employed can significantly change its effects. So too does its design and the design of its delivery means. This places significant weight across the spectrum of decisions associated with the development, fielding, and deployment of a nuclear force, with questions regarding discrimination first applied during the initial research and design stage of delivery systems and munitions.

A critical decision relevant to a weapon’s design is its yield. In its commission and design of nuclear munitions, an NPT nuclear-weapon state should carefully assess how many high-yield weapons it requires because a larger weapon is more likely to raise issues with regard to proportionality. This is also the point in time to consider whether to invest in weapons that have a variable yield, sometimes colloquially referenced as “dial-a-yield,” in order to provide greater flexibility in the event of actual employment. In short, with regard to the weapon itself, an important means of calibrating its effects can begin with design decisions.

Discrimination of effects is only possible if the delivery of the munition is itself discriminate. So, it is critically important for an NPT nuclear-weapon state to invest in the technologies—some organic to the delivery system, some resident within supporting systems—to ensure that a delivery system directly strikes its intended aimpoint and does not go astray. In the contemporary era, this almost certainly demands secure and accurate navigational guidance provided by space systems, for example. The degree of fidelity required to ensure that a nuclear-capable delivery system is discriminate is greater than that required for less destructive conventional systems. 

The above factors can help an NPT nuclear-weapon state field delivery systems and bombs or warheads that have the potential to be discriminate.14 Just as important, however, is how these delivery systems are used and how these weapons might be employed in a potential armed conflict. This should lead to law of war considerations being integrated into a state’s weaponeering processes. Weaponeering is defined by the U.S. Air Force as “the process of determining the quantity of a specific type of lethal or nonlethal means required to create a desired effect on a given target.”15 It refers to the integration of a series of evaluations by specially trained military personnel that considers factors such as the effects of different types of weapons and various types of strikes, including the question of how many weapons are necessary, whether delivered singly, in groups, or in sequence, to neutralize or destroy a target. 

The assessments discussed in the preceding section with regard to the size of a weapon’s yield and the location of the detonation are also included as part of weaponeering. Other topics taken into account include weather, terrain, and a target’s passive defenses, such as whether it is hardened and deeply buried. All of the above can have a significant impact on the effects of any type of weapon, including nuclear weapons. Weaponeering is a process and a skill set, requiring time and investment in order to ensure it is effective and can fully integrate law of war considerations.16

A Sandia National Laboratories engineer prepares for an impact test of hardware in the nose assembly of a mock B61-12 nuclear bomb on January 28, 2015 in New Mexico. The new guided version of the B61 gravity bomb, scheduled for production between 2020 to 2024, is intended to strike targets more accurately and is reported to have a variable explosive yield that could reduce the radioactive fallout. [Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories]Weapons design and weaponeering are highly technical and specialized fields. Particularly during a period of time when an arsenal is being overhauled, upgraded, and perhaps expanded, ensuring that these processes integrate law of war considerations is critically important. They also require a robust interaction or feedback loop with the assessments that inform decision-makers discussed above; the degree to which a weapons designer can make a weapons system accurate, for example, should impact decision-maker views on whether these systems can be used in a discriminate and proportional way. 

In turn, decision-makers should provide guidance for how investments are made that, in addition to strategic considerations, result in the development of an arsenal that can implement and adhere to the law of war. A weapon may appear to fail tests of discrimination and proportionality, for example, until it can be matched with a delivery system whose accuracy improves on its predecessors (a high degree of certainty in reaching a target, for example, can also lead to the use of a smaller munition). In addition, weapons may be redesigned, replaced, or retired because their yield or other aspects of their design may raise discrimination and proportionality issues in light of changes to a potential adversary’s force that alter calculations of military necessity. Moreover, as noted above, a significant gulf exists between the destructive power of conventional and nuclear weapons; greater investment in high-end conventional capabilities may allow future non-nuclear munitions to fulfill roles and missions currently assigned to nuclear forces. 

Again, these points do not necessarily rule out the potential employment of nuclear weapons because the need to have a type of force capable of rapidly and totally destroying existential threats may be high. They are arguments, however, in favor of taking steps to integrate law of war considerations into the research, development, and acquisition phases for nuclear-capable delivery systems and nuclear weapons and into the education, training, and processes required to develop effective weaponeering cells within the military services. 

Principle of Honor

The principle of honor is a foundational concept that binds together all individuals who take up the profession of arms. As the Law of War Manual notes, “Opposing military forces should respect one another outside of the fighting because they share a profession and they fight one another on behalf of their respective States and not out of personal hostility.”17

This respect influences the treatment of wounded or captured combatants and, more broadly, the conduct of war, whereby military personnel do not demonize their opponents, viewing and treating them as professionals. This concept of honor extends to all warfighters, including those tasked with operating nuclear-capable systems and carrying out nuclear missions. 

This suggests that one way in which to “thicken” the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces is to encourage professional interaction between those members of the uniformed militaries of the NPT nuclear-weapon states that are tasked with the unique and weighty responsibility of maintaining nuclear forces and preparing to employ them if called to do so in a future war. Aside from the scientists and engineers that develop nuclear weapons, no other class of professional is so well aware of the effects of different types of nuclear weapons employment and, in turn, is deeply wary of the costs and consequences of any conflict between two nuclear-armed states. 

Increased communication and interaction between these highly specialized forces is not a law of war requirement, but it could bolster the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces by cementing respectful, professional relationships between these warfighters. The NPT nuclear-weapon states have held an annual conference since 2009 to discuss issues of mutual concern; future conferences could include semiformal sidebar meetings bringing together officers from these five states who have experience in commanding or serving as part of the crew of nuclear-capable delivery systems. 

Litmus Test

Many contemporary commentaries on nuclear weapons and the law of war discuss these weapons within a vacuum absent of any context regarding their development, fielding, or deployment. This can lead to abstract or erroneous analyses that contribute little to understanding or implementation of the law. For the NPT nuclear-weapon states, nuclear weapons are legitimate tools of self-defense and will remain so until such time as all states-parties to the treaty can negotiate a comprehensive disarmament treaty. This does not mean that these weapons or military operations involving these weapons are somehow unregulated. Nuclear weapons and the forces that are “organized, trained and equipped,” in U.S. parlance, to operate them are fully subject to the law of war. This article has offered some thoughts on what this means for these five states with regard to implementation of this body of law. It suggests that this implementation requires integrating consideration of key law of war principles within the broader decision-making processes that develop, establish, and sustain a state’s nuclear strategy, posture, and arsenal, including narrowing and restricting what these forces target and how they might be employed. 

How the NPT nuclear-weapon states conduct this integration with regard to their current nuclear forces and ensure it plays an important role in ongoing processes to upgrade their arsenals may differ, but it represents an important obligation for all five. Moreover, it serves as a litmus test for this body of law as a whole, providing these states with an opportunity to demonstrate that all weapons, including the most powerful, are subject to the law of war. 


1.   July 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion on the “legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” which continues to reflect these debates in a number of ways. Although the court expressed skepticism that nuclear weapons could be employed in a way that did not violate the laws of war, it concluded that it could not rule these weapons illegal in every circumstance and stated that the court “cannot lose sight of the fundamental right of every State to survival,” reflecting nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty nuclear-weapon states’ arguments that the existential threat posed by other state’s nuclear weapons justifies fielding their own nuclear forces for the purposes of deterrence. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, pp. 40-41, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7495.pdf.  

2.  The law of war is often referenced as the law of armed conflict or international humanitarian law. The latter body of law is not identical to the law of war. As noted by Christopher Greenwood, ICJ judge, “International humanitarian law thus includes most of what used to be known as the laws of war, although strictly speaking some parts of those laws, such as the law of neutrality, are not included since their primary purpose is not humanitarian.” Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Law of War Manual,” June 2015, p. 8, http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/images/law_war_manual15.pdf (hereinafter Law of War Manual).

3.  For a discussion of the law of war as lex specialis, see the Law of War Manual’s section 1.3.2. on “The Law of War’s Relationship to Other Bodies of Law.” Ibid.

4.  The term “employment” refers to nuclear forces conducting an operation that concludes with a nuclear detonation. In general, the U.S. armed forces tasked with nuclear deterrence responsibilities, including patrols and other operations that are not nuclear strike operations, will often utilize the term “use” to broadly encompass these and other non-kinetic activities. 

5.  Ibid., p. 15.

6.  Ibid., p. 393.

7.  Avalon Project, “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” 2008, arts. 15-16, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp.

8.  Law of War Manual, p. 52.

9.  Ibid., p. 60.

10.  Ibid., p. 56.

11.  David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp. 39-40.

12.  Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Taming Shiva: Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations,” The Air Force Law Review 42 (1997): 161-162.

13.  Avalon Project, “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” art. 22.

14.  The U.S. statement on the 1996 ICJ case considering the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons addressed a number of law of war issues, including the principle of distinction: “It has been argued that nuclear weapons are unlawful because they cannot be directed at a military objective. This argument ignores the ability of modern delivery systems to target specific military objectives with nuclear weapons, and the ability of modern weapon designers to tailor the effects of a nuclear weapon to deal with various types of military objectives.” U.S. Department of State, “Letter Dated 20 June 1995 From the Acting Legal Adviser to the Department of State, Together With Written Statement of the Government of the United States of America,” June 20, 1995, pp. 22-23, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/8700.pdf.

15.  Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, “Annex 3-60 Targeting: Weaponeering and Allocation,” January 10, 2014, https://doctrine.af.mil/download.jsp?filename=3-60-D26-Target-Wpn-Allocate.pdf.

16.  Law of war considerations are included within U.S. Air Force weaponeering. “The output of weaponeering is a recommendation of [what is] needed to achieve desired effects while avoiding unacceptable collateral damage…. According to [the law of war], incidental damage to civilian objects must not be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage to be gained. Collateral damage criteria were established on this foundational principle.” Ibid.

17.  Law of War Manual, pp. 66-67.

Dr. Justin Anderson is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Reinforcing the Taboo on Nuclear Testing is in the United States' National Security Interests



In response to a report in The Washington Post, Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball made the following comments.


For Immediate Release: August 4, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—In response to a column written by Josh Rogin in The Washington Post, Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball issued the following comments:

President Obama addresses the Security Council on nuclear non-proliferation and resolution 1887 (2009), expressing the Security Council's resolve to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. (Photo credit: UN)We applaud President Obama’s consideration of a politically-binding UN Security Council resolution this fall that would reinforce the global norm against nuclear weapon test explosions and strongly dispute the allegation made by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that such an effort would "cede the Senate’s constitutional role” on advice and consent of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
It is our understanding that the initiative being pursued by the administration would, as other UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have already done several times before, exhort those states that have not yet ratified the CTBT to do so and call upon all states to refrain from further nuclear testing and to support ongoing efforts to maintain the monitoring system established to detect and deter clandestine nuclear testing.

With President Bill Clinton’s signature of the CTBT in 1996, the United States ended the practice of nuclear testing and today all but one state—North Korea—respects the de facto moratorium on nuclear testing. 
More than two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test in 1992, the United States' nuclear weapons labs are in a better position to maintain the reliability of the U.S. arsenal than during the era of nuclear weapons test explosions.
Clearly, in order for the United States to ratify the CTBT and the treaty to enter into force, the U.S. Senate would have to reconsider the treaty and provide its advice and consent to ratification. 
In the meantime, it is clearly in the interests of the United States to seek ways to reinforce the de facto global nuclear testing moratorium and make it more difficult for states, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, from conducting nuclear test explosions.
We would hope that Sen. Corker and other members of Congress would not attempt to sabotage efforts to increase the political barriers against nuclear testing by other states and to reinforce the existing, but fragile, legal norm against testing that already exists.
As President Bill Clinton said upon his signature of the CTBT in September 1996: “The signature of the world’s declared nuclear powers… along with the vast majority of its other nations will immediately create an international norm against nuclear testing, even before the treaty enters into force.”

The most effective way to verifiably end nuclear testing is to bring the treaty into force. To succeed, U.S. leadership is essential.

Bringing the CTBT back to the Senate for another vote requires a lengthy, intensive educational and outreach campaign to present the new information, answer detailed questions, and dispel old myths and misconceptions.

It was through such a process that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was approved in 2010. Unfortunately, in recent years, the Senate has shown it is not prepared for a serious discussion of the CTBT. 

The Obama administration has made it clear in congressional hearings, including on December 1, 2015 and July 14, 2016, that it is not pursuing "a prohibition of nuclear testing through a U.N. Security Council resolution.” 

The initiative that the administration is seeking, while not legally binding, would have tremendous political value in reinforcing the global norm against testing and reduce the risk that other nations might use nuclear testing to improve or develop nuclear weapons capabilities that threaten U.S. and global security.

Finally, any efforts by Congress to withhold the U.S. contribution for the global test monitoring system could undermine long-term U.S. security by eroding our ability to detect and deter clandestine nuclear test explosions by countries such as Russia and Iran.

No, Nuclear Modernization Doesn’t Cost Less Than You Think

Modernization proponents argue that the costs will only impose a small financial burden relative to the overall military budget. Are they right?


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