Nuclear strategy - Between deterrence and operational doctrine

Since 8 August 1945, the day of the destruction of Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, codenamed 'Little Boy', no other nuclear weapon has been deployed in any other war. This taboo has not been broken for more than 65 years. There are two answers to the question why this has lasted for so long: One is that the shock about what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led to such a high psychological barrier against any use of nuclear weapons that such a weapon has never been deployed. The other is that nuclear deterrence with its mutual threat of annihilation has worked and has prevented any further use of nuclear weapons.

Those who give the second answer assign two very different roles to nuclear weapons. Some say that the deterrence was successful, above all, because the existence of nuclear weapons made the potential conflict partners realize that the likelihood of a nuclear war annihilating humankind was greater than surviving or even winning it. In this context, the role of nuclear weapons was predominantly a political one. They are the last means, and it is their purpose not to be deployed. Others say that the deterrence was successful because the conflict partners were able to attach credibility to their threat of being able to lead a nuclear war once it had started. Others even believe that the ability to win a nuclear war was particularly off-putting. This way of thinking gave nuclear weapons an operative role in a conflict. Only when this role is credible can deterrence be credible, too. Current nuclear–strategic approaches swing between these two poles.

For a long time, China, for instance, has been pursuing a strategy of minimum nuclear deterrence. It only possesses a few nuclear weapons. These, however, are sufficient to threaten any potential enemy (Russia, India or the United States, for instance) that a limited nuclear response will cause serious damage. China's declared nuclear policy can, therefore, do without the option of a nuclear first use and does not need to assign its nuclear weapons a special role during warfare. On the contrary, the United States developed various strategies for a politically deterring role of its nuclear weapons over the years and very detailed models for a deterrent during a war. A nuclear weapon has never been deployed against any of these two countries. Does that mean that deterrence works notwithstanding the role attached to the nuclear weapons? Was it really about nuclear deterrence? There is no definite proof whether one of these answers is right and the other is wrong. There is no proof that or how nuclear deterrence works. Which answer one considers believable is ultimately a 'matter of faith'.

The development of the superpowers’ nuclear strategy

The best way of understanding the development of nuclear–strategic thinking is to take the United States as an example. In the beginning, the idea was to further develop the concept of strategic bombing of cities during World War II. Rotterdam and London, Hamburg and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bomb promised to destroy large cities by deploying only a few instead of many thousands of bombers and to swiftly break the enemy’s will to wage war through the devastating effects of the new weapons. In 1945, the United States planned for "Operation Totality" in which they would drop up to 30 nuclear weapons on about 20 cities in the USSR in the case of an attack by the Soviet Union; three years later, they were already planning with 133 nuclear weapons.

When in 1949, the USSR broke the nuclear weapons monopoly of the United States, the nuclear dominance of the United States still initially remained. Washington had the means to attack cities in the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union did not. The USSR did not possess any delivery systems with sufficient range and, contrary to the United States with its military bases in Europe, were not able to position their nuclear weapons close enough to attack targets in the United States.

This nuclear superiority gave the United States in Europe the opportunity to threaten the Soviet Union with a nuclear escalation of the war in the event of an attack without having to fear that the USSR would be able to retaliate with nuclear weapons against targets in the United States. Since 1954, The United States repeatedly stressed the option of 'massive retaliation' with nuclear weapons in the event of a major conventional attack. The development of Soviet long-range missiles (Sputnik crisis 1957) and the attempt by Moscow to position nuclear medium-range missiles in Cuba (Cuban missile crisis, 1962) clearly showed that the territory of the United States would soon no longer be a sanctuary. The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated how easily a conflict of nuclear powers could escalate. At the time, out of sheer luck, a major nuclear confrontation was prevented.

From that time on, the new strategy had to be credible considering that both superpowers possessed similar nuclear capabilities and would be able to threaten each other with mutual assured destruction. Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, drew lessons from this. Under his aegis, first talks with the USSR began on mechanisms for a nuclear crisis management and first limitations of the nuclear arms race. McNamara demanded sizeable conventional capabilities for defending Europe to reduce dependence from a nuclear weapons use and the threat of a global nuclear war.

The new defence strategy of 'flexible response' (NATO strategy since 1967/1968) was based on a seemingly reduced escalation continuum that had various options for responding to a crisis, be it a direct conventional response, a voluntary, not forced escalation through the use of nuclear battlefield weapons and, finally, a general strategic deployment of nuclear weapons. The decision which level of escalation would be chosen and when was deliberately left open. The enemy was not to be given any opportunity to predict the action of the West. This strategy also left open the option of a first use of nuclear weapons by NATO and hence created many ways of interpreting it.

In the second half of the 1970s, technical advances opened up further options. The development of multiple independently targetable warheads for land- and (later) sea-based long-range ballistic missiles with each capable of striking its target more accurately than before permitted the United States to plan the destruction of Soviet missile silos and bunkered command posts using strategic nuclear weapons. Besides the nuclear battlefield weapons, strategic nuclear weapons were now allocated a specific military purpose in warfare.

These new options raised great fears in Moscow. Would they lose the chance of a nuclear second strike and would time run out on the concept of 'mutual assured destruction'? Was the purpose of the then US President Ronald Reagan advocated missile defence system (SDI) to restore the invulnerability of the United States?

In the second term of President Reagan (1984 to 1988) and after the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the leaders met frequently. Both politicians made a new, constructive attempt of nuclear arms control and disarmament. As a result of this attempt, nuclear weapons considered to be particularly destabilizing were reduced. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 eliminated all land-based nuclear and conventional medium-range missiles. Talks on strategic weapons led to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991 on the gradual reduction and limitation of strategic offensive nuclear arms and their delivery systems.

New questions after the end of the Cold War

With the end of the Cold War, novel answers had to be found for some old fundamental questions, such as the role nuclear deterrence was going to play in the future. Initially, the reduction of Cold War nuclear arsenals was high on the agenda. These were overflowing on both sides; the safety situation was not good, and the targets for short-range nuclear battlefield weapons had simply vanished. In autumn of 1991, both the United States and the Soviet Union took an unusual initiative: They declared that they were prepared to unilaterally remove the majority of their nuclear battlefield weapons from Europe and to decommission them. Moscow had already moved most of these arms to Russia; the United States also moved thousands of weapons from Europe. The United States gradually reduced the number of its remaining atomic bombs in the following years. For the first time, if only temporarily, NATO declared its nuclear weapons as a last resort.

Beyond the START treaty, attitudes regarding strategic nuclear weapons changed, too. Instead of allocating nuclear weapons a set number of targets (particularly in Russia), the United States introduced a more flexible, 'adaptive' target planning. Russia was no longer the constant main target of thousands of nuclear weapons. Instead, the United States found potential targets for nuclear weapons in countries that were attributed to strive for weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, such as Iraq or North Korea. This development benefited from the fact that the Administration under President Bill Clinton was trying to give more political weight to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by enforcing diplomatic and military efforts, so-called ‘counterproliferation’. By the time his successor, George W. Bush came into power, the use of nuclear weapons was also considered in these military efforts, intended to serve as a deterrent not only to enemies possessing nuclear weapons but to all enemies possessing weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration thought of a new triad of deterrence consisting of the US-American conventional and nuclear strategic weapons and its missile defence capabilities, and industrial infrastructure capable of building these weapons.

Again, the United States developed a global plan for deterrence geared towards six potential enemies: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria and a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction. It elaborated four different scenarios for conducting war with these enemies that also included a limited role of nuclear weapons. Plans for a large-scale nuclear attack, however, were no longer part of these scenarios. The categories of potential targets for the use of nuclear weapons, however, largely remained: nuclear and conventional armed forces, the political and military leadership, economic infrastructure essential for conducting a war and, finally, infrastructure for weapons of mass destruction.

Today, in declaratory politics, the political role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is considered to be paramount. US President Barack Obama has stressed this various times and has announced a further reduction of the role of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons potentials of the United States and Russia are markedly smaller now than at the time of the Cold War due to progress made in nuclear disarmament (START, SORT, NEW START treaties). Still, the military function of nuclear weapons and their importance for the conduct of war remains vital when looking at nuclear operations and target planning as well as plans for the future modernization of the nuclear weapons holdings (more accurate warheads with less explosive force. This is only likely to change when nuclear disarmament agreements have reduced the number of nuclear weapons to such a degree that global or limited military operations have become impossible with the remaining weapons. Only then is it likely that the role of nuclear weapons is limited to their political function of a deterrent.

Sources and further information:

Buchhandlungen bangen um die Buchpreisbindung

Data tables

For some select map layers, the information portal ‘War and Peace’ provides the user with all used data sets as tables.

More ...
Magnifying Glass in front of a Boston map

Country portraits

In the country reports, data and information are collected by country and put into tables that are used in the modules as a basis for maps and illustrations.

More ...
Compass with Mirror

Navigation and operation

The information and data of each module are primarily made available as selectable map layers and are complemented by texts and graphs. The map layers can be found on the right hand side and are listed according to themes and sub-themes.

More ...