There is a great danger that the world could be closer to nuclear confrontation at any time since the Cold War – and perhaps even closer. According to a report from The New York Times on Wednesday, in recent weeks senior Russian military leaders had discussed the possibility of when and how Moscow could employ a tactical nuclear weapon to reverse its setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Though Russian President Vladimir Putin had not been a party to the conversations, which took place mid-October, it serves to heighten concerns that the Kremlin has increasingly seen the use of nuclear weapons to be an option if it is unable to improve the situation with conventional weapons. Those discussions also followed Putin’s warning in late September that he would consider using “all means at our disposal” to defend Russian territory, which experts have suggested could include tactical nuclear weapons.
The Kremlin currently maintains some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons with a broad range of yields, from very low to over 100 kilotons. Those weapons could be delivered by air, ship, and ground-based systems.
Would the U.S. Use Nukes?
Despite the Russian saber rattling, the fact remains that the United States is actually the only nation to have ever used a nuclear weapon against another country. Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945, and have been credited as helping convince Japan to accept surrender and end the Second World War.
Even today, as the fundamental purpose of maintaining an arsenal of nuclear weapons is to deter an enemy from attacking the U.S. with nuclear weapons, Washington would use nuclear weapons first in a crisis or a war – but, only if our vital interests were at stake. In other words, despite pressure from arms-control activists, the U.S. has not adopted a “no-first-use” policy.
“That has never been the U.S. policy,” explained Prof. Peter Kuznick, director of the American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. “China has a non-first use policy, and India seems to have such a policy, but the United States has never had a non-first strike policy. Our posture is not that different from Russia.”
However, the U.S. still adheres to the United Nation’s Article 2, paragraph 4 and Article 51. The latter, which is part of the “Action with respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression,” allows members to exercise the right self-defense; while the former calls for the maintenance of international peace and security.
Using nuclear weapons would seem to violate Article 2, paragraph 4, but the exception of Article 51 would allow it.
“We would be the potential violators of any first strike,” said Capt. Robert A. Sanders, JAG Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired), and distinguished lecturer of national security at the University of New Haven. “Unless that first strike was crafted under Article 51, even if it is hard to think of using a nuclear weapon in self-defense.”
The issue has become ever more complicated because advanced weapons, including missiles and rockets, have greatly reduced the warning that a nation may receive that an attack is coming. Hypersonic weapons, which can fly five times the speed of sound, will increase the threat.
Know When to Hold ‘Em
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the world changed. The Bush administration had to underscore the fact that it might be necessary to pre-emption, or strike an enemy before it can strike us.
It wasn’t the first time either. It has since become established that the Strategic Air Command had devised a plan to launch an all-out nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union if the U.S. intelligence community (IC) learned that Moscow was preparing to hit us. Likewise, it came out in August 2005 that President John F. Kennedy was ready to use a nuclear weapon against China if Beijing launched even a conventional attack on the United States.
“After 9/11 it became clear that you can’t wait, and if you don’t respond in a preemptive or an anticipatory manner, the hits you take could be catastrophic,” Sanders told ClearanceJobs. “But I’m hesitant to say we’re at the point where we would launch a first strike. As I teach my students, there is an equation of ‘threat equals intent plus capacity.’ An adversary has to have the capacity and the intent to follow through on it.”
The issue is still where is the last possible moment when you can stop a perceived threat from becoming reality? The intelligence failure that allowed 9/11 to occur could be even more catastrophic if it were to involve nuclear weapons.
The U.S. is never likely to adopt a “no-first-use” policy, even as some activists have laid out a good case for such a policy. They argue that it could encourage other nations to follow suit – but it is also worth noting that the same 168 nations have agreed not to use anti-personnel landmines while the U.S. has not signed on – while it could discourage nations from building up such a nuclear arsenal.
President Barack Obama even held two National Security Council meetings to consider such a policy but was eventually dissuaded. The first concern is that some adversaries – notably Russia – maintain stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, while the Pentagon does not. In this case, nuclear weapons would be the best deterrent to stop such an attack.
Moreover, the United States maintains a “nuclear umbrella” that protects our allies around the world. Thus, North Korea wouldn’t launch a nuclear attack against South Korea or Japan, while China is deterred from even threatening Taiwan with nukes. Former President Donald Trump had proposed “folding” the nuclear umbrella, which would only leave nations such as Japan forced to build their own nuclear arsenal – thus making the world less safe in the process as more countries would be so armed with the weapons.
In his last days as Vice President, Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said it would be hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. would be necessary or even make sense. That was of course before he moved into the Oval Office. Today, our allies expect the United States to maintain a “first strike policy” as that serves as a deterrent to would-be adversaries around the world.
“Obama discussed it, and Biden even advocated for it,” Kuznick told ClearanceJobs. “But he was told our allies would riot over it.”
Of course, the question is whether the U.S. would actually risk nuclear war were our allies attacked.
“During the Cold War, the Germans doubted the U.S. would sacrifice its cities if the Soviets had invaded,” Kuznick continued. “By contrast, we’ve now lowered our threshold for when we’d even use the nuclear weapons. But there remains the broad understanding that if nuclear weapons are used, we’re all gone.”