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The past 27 years—which encompass the demise of the Soviet Union, the September 11 attacks, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of competing nations, and a powerful surge in instances of non state terrorism—have had a profound effect on the way the United States reflects upon, views, and articulates its reasoning for its nuclear capabilities. U.S. nuclear policy today is not the U.S. nuclear policy of the Cold War; neither is it the nuclear policy of 15 or even 10 years ago. Without an understanding of the global security threat sunder which t hose policy decisions were made, and without the broader circumstances in which certain words were said, any analysis of the narrative surrounding U.S. nuclear weapons would be incomplete. The threats and the words are inextricably linked.

This report therefore analyzes the evolving historical nuclear narrative while simultaneously juxtaposing it against an overview of the international security environment that has provided the backdrop for, and directly influenced, the statements and decisions made about the arsenal between 1989 and the present. (See Appendix D for the full timelines.) Who said what, and when? What was happening in the world at the time, and did these statements represent a shift in nuclear policy at the time? Though far from a complete recounting of history, the timelines do seek to highlight and provide a better sense of the global threats facing the United States, the evolution of nuclear capabilities elsewhere in the world, and the notable incidents that affected the organization and efficacy of the nuclear enterprise.


This study divides the years between 1989 and the present into three eras,the first spanning from 1989 to September 11, 2001; the second from September 11, 2001 to the end of 2010; and the third from 2011 through the present. These divisions were chosen along defining moments in the international security environment. The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, as the iconic image symbolizing the end of the Cold War, and the al-Qaeda-sponsored terror attacks of September 11 provided natural book ends for marking the first and second eras. The beginning of the third era proved more difficult to pinpoint. It seems, however, that with the launch of the Prague Agenda (to move toward a world without nuclear weapons) and the Nuclear Security Summit process (to deter nuclear terrorism around the globe), as well as the signing and ratification of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), 2010 ended as a high-water mark for nuclear optimism. By 2011, the Arab Spring was taking hold in the Middle East, prompting North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya. Relations with Russia had begun to deteriorate significantly, ultimately leading to Moscow’s decision to terminate cooperative nuclear projects with the United States and intervene militarily in Ukraine and Syria. In Asia, China’s more aggressive posturing, North Korea’s provocative behavior, and new revelations about Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities suggested a nuclear security environment that appeared more complex, chaotic, and risky than it had been in the preceding years.

Era 1: Decline and Dissolution of the Soviet Union (1989–2001)

The first era saw an immense shift on the international stage when the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse relieved the United States of its primary strategic threat. By 1991, the Cold War was over, and it had left the United States as the singular superpower, with tens of thousands of weapons in its nuclear stockpile. While the preceding decades had been defined by constant anxiety and present dangers, this period instead simmered with a buildup of emerging powers in pursuit of nuclear and other non conventional capabilities that threatened to destabilize the new international system.

As the Soviet Union’s central government failed, so too did its infrastructure for securing its expansive nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons stockpiles collapse—leading to increased risk that the chaos of the new political system would give opportunity to third parties seeking to acquire such arms. U.S. observers at the time feared that weakened control mechanisms over Soviet tactical nuclear weapons, deterioration of nuclear facilities, and unemployment of nuclear scientists might leave materials and knowledge vulnerable to exploitation, theft, or misuse. Of additional concern were the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, as well as components of other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), left by the former Soviet regime in the newly in dependent republics. Though Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine signed the Lisbon Protocol in May 1992, actual implementation of the agreement proved thorny, with Ukraine in particular requiring compensation and extensive security assurances from Russia and the United States before it would relinquish what was then the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world.1In response to both of these proliferation risks, the United States established the Nunn Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program to assist Russia in safe guarding and eliminating these weapons of mass destruction.2Simultaneously, the United States also led in cooperative international initiatives to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons: after signing START I and II treaties with Russia in 1991 and 1993 to initiate bilateral draw downs of the two nations’ respective nuclear forces, the United States also pushed for the renewal of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.

As one threat to the U.S. interests fell into decline, others sought to fill its space. The Gulf War, the United States’ first major post–Cold War military operation, shed light on Iraq’s burgeoning chemical weapons program and illustrated the new, wider range of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats opposing the United States. Several nations—China, France, India, and Pakistan—conducted nuclear tests, and Pakistan publicly admitted that it had the ability to make a nuclear weapon. The unpredictable leadership of rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea actively sought nuclear capability, while a series of breaches at U.S. nuclear laboratories sparked worries that the nation’s nuclear secrets were vulnerable to theft, particularly by the Chinese. Additionally, non state actors came to the fore as instances of terrorism, most notably the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, demonstrated the danger that individuals or groups could pose should they acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, in spite of this rising tide of states and rogue actors, it was clear in the wake of the Cold War that the United States now possessed a nuclear arsenal, some 23,000 weapons at the start of George H. W. Bush’s presidency in 1989,4that was disproportion-ate to the existing threat. Absent the Soviet Union, the existential threat that animated the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, the U.S. arsenal’s function—to deter a nuclear attack through the retaliatory threat of unacceptable damage—seemed misaligned with a security environment that was trending in the right direction for U.S. interests.As various government officials noted in the mid-to-late 1990s, nuclear weapons had not played so small a role in U.S. security strategy “at any time since their inception.”5In 1995, then Senator Joe Biden sharply criticized those “nuclear theologians in the Pentagon and elsewhere,” with their “old-time religion,” who would instead prefer to see the status quo maintained. Even 7,000 warheads, he said, was “a level as seemingly obsolete as a statue of Lenin on a square in Saint Petersburg.”

Like Senator Biden, other policymakers largely welcomed the change and advocated for the continued decline of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. They reimagined the function of nuclear weapons (see T able 1.1), circumscribing its place within U.S.national security strategy infavor of placing more of the burden of deterrence on conventional weapons, which they deemed capable of meeting a greater number of the threats to the United States. In this emerging post–Cold War security environment, many believed that, increasingly, the United States’ conventional military capability could deter and counter most, if not all, credible threats. Retired U.S. Army Gen. Andrew J. Good paster and retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lee Butler testified to this effect before the Senate Govern-mental Affairs Committee:

Table 1.1. Narrative Themes in Era 1

Role Priority Function Posture
Era 11989–2001: Decline and Dissolution of the Soviet Union Salience of nuclear weapons at lowest point since their inception A greater number of current threats can largely be met with conventional weapons Trend that more threats can be covered by conventional capabilities seems likely to continue Reduced prominence of nuclear-relevant threats allows for cost-cutting and downsizing of nuclear enterprise Emphasis on reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons, not defining the role of the remaining weapons Deterrence still important, but arsenal mostly a hedge against future threats and reversal of positive trends Nuclear arsenal deters WMD acquisition and use by allies under nuclear umbrella as well as rogue states and dictators Assurance of allies emerging as a primary rather than secondary justification for U.S. nuclear forces United States will have nuclear weapons as long as other states do Maintenance of nuclear triad required for “hedge” to manage uncertainty“Lead but hedge”: Reduce deployed forces, but retain stockpile and non-strategic weapons as a hedge

The roles of nuclear weapons for purposes of security have been sharply narrowed in terms of the security of the United States. Now and in the future they basically provide an option to respond in kind to a nuclear threat or nuclear attack by others. In the world environment now foreseen, they are not needed against non nuclear opponents. Conventional capabilities can provide a sufficient deterrent and defense against conventional forces and incombination with defensive measures, against the threat of chemical or biological weapons. As symbols of prestige and international standing, nuclear weapons are of markedly reduced importance.

The change would allow for a commensurate down scaling of the nuclear enterprise, which would adjust accordingly with the new requirements of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. There would be, in other words, “fewer weapons, fewer types of weapons, no production of new types of weapons, an aging stockpile, a production capability in need of modernization, and no nuclear testing.”8The nuclear mission post-1992, as one former senior military official interviewee described it, seemed to DoD to be “a ‘sunset mission’ that would eventually go away.”

A range of policymakers, including Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, nonetheless kept an eye on the “uncertain future,” cognizant that positive trends in the former Soviet Union could reverse and that unanticipated crises might arise elsewhere in the world. While they believed that the posture of the arsenal could and should be adjusted to fit the changed circumstances, they did not push for the complete elimination of U.S. nuclear weapons. The United States, they determined, must “lead but hedge.” That is, it must simultaneously lead the world toward “further reductions and increased weapons safety and improved relations” and “[hedge] against the possibility of reversal of reform in Russia.”10William J. Perry, then deputy secretary of defense, noted the necessity of these precautions in 1993: “Not only do we need to maintain a deterrent in place, but we need to have some capability to reconstitute our nuclear forces above the levels which you are now driving them to in the START I and the START II, to hedge against the possibility that such an unfriendly regime might not only reassert the military power, but might begin a buildup of nuclear forces.”

Era 2: 9/11 and Terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars (2001–2010)

The second era begins with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washing-ton, and a commercial airplane in Pennsylvania, and ends with the United States’ ratification of New START in 2010. In the wake of 9/11, the United States embarked on a “Global War on Terror” and plunged into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 as it fought to subdue a new generation of extremists and state sponsors of terrorism. The two wars’ subsequently dismaying results embroiled the United States in the turmoil of the Middle East for much of the decade, though President Barack Obama’s reassessment of U.S. foreign policy sought to shift the nation’s attentions and to usher in both a rebalance to East Asia and a reset with Russia.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Within two months, coalition forces recaptured Kandahar—a victory that appeared to have marked the fall of the Taliban’s rule and the start of reconstruction. But a resurgence of the Taliban over the next several years frustrated efforts to establish a stable system of governance and scale back the American presence in Afghanistan.12In March 2003, the United States turned toward Iraq, which preoccupied national attention for the next decade. Despite the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the Iraq War continued, with a surge of troops committed in 2007, until President Obama formally ended the combat mission in 2010.13The demands of global terrorism and two grueling wars naturally diverted attention and resources away from a nuclear mission that focused on less urgent and less likely threats, even though the latter had more existential implications.

In the meantime, the nuclear ambitions of other parties challenged nonproliferation efforts. Unlike Libya, which voluntarily disclosed and began dismantlement of its WMD programs in 2003 after pressure from the United States, Iran maintained its illicit programs in the face of crippling sanctions. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Further, intelligence sources found that al Qaeda and other extremists actively plotted CBRN attacks and learned crude procedures for making chemical agents.

States elsewhere in the world also rose to the status of economic and strategic power houses. China, in particular,had become the world’s second-largest economy by the end of 201017and had adopted an aggressive stance on territorial disputes that resulted in tension with several neighbors. The Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia recognized the growing importance of this region and the need to work closely with allies to maintain security.

Most U.S. thought leaders maintained in this era that the United States could proceed in reducing its nuclear stockpile. Conventional capabilities had improved by leaps and bounds—while the still-vast U.S. nuclear arsenal “[continued] to reflect its Cold War origin.”18The September 11 attacks, for some, highlighted the question of whether the United States should rely on nuclear weapons to meet the evolving needs of the twenty-first century. Nuclear terrorism loomed large. It seemed unclear at the time, however, whether nuclear weapons would deter terrorists. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed this very doubt in 2002, saying:

Today our adversaries have changed. The terrorists who struck us on September 11 were clearly not deterred by doing so from the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal. In the twenty-first century, we need to find new ways to deter new adversaries that will most as suredly arise. That’s why President [George W.] Bush is taking a new approach to strategic deterrence, one that will combine deep reductions in offensive nuclear forces with improved conventional capabilities and the development and deployment of missile defenses capable of protecting the U.S. and our friends and forces deployed from limited missile attacks.

Table 1.2. Narrative Themes in Era 2

Role Priority Function Posture
Era 22001–2010: 9/11 and Terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars Proactive shifting of deterrence from nuclear to conventional capabilities Nuclear arsenal in need of revitalization, but “War on Terror” took precedence Increasing alarm, particularly about the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the labs, about the pernicious effects of lack of attention and investment Nuclear weapons do not deter twenty-first-century terrorist organizations and rogue states, which make illogical cost calculations Hedge even more appropriate given an increasingly complex security environment Need to reassure allies that might otherwise consider nuclear option a policy priority United States will have nuclear weapons as long as other states do Overhaul of nuclear capabilities for flexibility in addressing new threats New Triad will encompass more than offensive nuclear forces Though arsenal will shrink, it must remain safe, secure, and reliable

Some policymakers believed that the United States could actively shift away from dependence on nuclear weapons for deterrence (see Table 1.2). Rather than argue for such a reduced dependence, however, the Bush administration emphasized the need to adapt the U.S. deterrence posture to new threats. Yet the initiatives laid out in the congressionally mandated202002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—which included a design of a reliable replacement warhead (RRW), as well as a New Triad that encompassed the ability “to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets (HDBT), to find and attack mobile and relocatable targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage”21—eventually petered out. The 2002 NPR was a classified review with no unclassified companion document, which sharply limited coherent public discourse on the emerging policy and yet fueled opposition among an already-skeptical audience of stakeholders. Many of the review’s key proposals, which quickly leaked to Bush administration opponents, w ere met with skepticism and criticism from some corners. The country as a whole was preoccupied with the wars in the Middle East. The appetite for investing in nuclear weapons, especially in the middle of this era, was at an all-time low. One former senior civilian official interviewed for this report reflected on the absence of attention to and consensus on nuclear weapons during this era, saying, “In 2004/5 to 2008, I was in the depth[s] of despair.”

A number of public Air Force incidents, most notably the 2007 accidental transportation of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base (AFB) in Minot, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, illustrated the growing management and organizational challenges gripping the nuclear enterprise, even as the United States would continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. The concern that the enterprise was then, as one former senior civilian official interviewee put it, “on the ragged edge of being unable to provide a ‘safe, secure, and effective’ nuclear force” led to a public review of the DoD’s role in nuclear weapons management. The 2008 Schlesinger Report observed a “loss of attention and focus, downgrading, dilution, and dispersal of officers and personnel” in DoD’s approach to the nuclear mission, and attributed this to a “failure to appreciate the larger role of deterrence—as opposed to warfighting capability.”23At the same time, the deterrence function received less emphasis while the assurance of allies, now a policy priority, was described as “[playing] an irreplaceable role in reducing proliferation.”As long as other states had nuclear weapons, so too would the United States.

Toward the end of this era, discussions on the role of U.S. nuclear weapons increasingly focused on reducing the dangers of nuclear terrorism and proliferation, both of which were seen to pose a higher risk to U.S. national security than a direct nuclear attack. President Obama’s focus on nuclear security and four successive nuclear summits greatly raised awareness of nuclear security and terrorism challenges and increased the available capabilities to deal with these issues. In 2010, the continued perceived decline in strategic nuclear threats, even amid the rising concerns about nuclear terrorism by non state and rogue actors, made further reductions possible. President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons captured the world’s attention and raised expectations in much of the international community that such a day could be near at hand. In hindsight, ratifying New START with Russia in 2010 represented the high-water mark for nuclear optimism. When George W. Bush began his presidency in 2001, the United States possessed over 10,500 weapons in its nuclear stockpile; at the end of 2010, 5,066 remained.

Era 3: Growing Great-Power Competition in an Era of Rising Disorder (2011–Present)

This third and final era starts with the United States’ ratification of New START at the end of 2010and continues through the present. It has been an era of unpredictable threats. As offensive military operations in Iraq wound down, non state enemies such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) confounded expectations by rapidly ascending to power through astonishing acts of violence, and old adversaries—namely Russia, China, and North Korea—employed novel, effective methods to challenge the United States and regional partners through both military and nonmilitary means.

The upheaval and unrest foreshadowed by the December 2010 protests in Tunisia erupted as a wave of revolutions swept through the Middle East in 2011, toppling several rulers in the region65and inciting the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The fighting within Syria has divided the country into warring factions, with parts of the territory held by the Syrian government, the Islamic State, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Hezbollah, and other insurgencies.27Despite a U.S. warning in 2012 that use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad would cross a “red line,” the United States declined to respond with military force after 1,400 civilians were killed in a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government in August 2013—opting instead for a U.S.-Russian framework for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Since 2014, the United States has led coalition forces in airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, while also calling for President Assad’s resignation.

As Syria crumbled into civil war, other world events w ere likewise shifting the nuclear landscape. The power vacuum created by the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, precipitated by his rejection of a political and economic treaty with the European Union in exchange for closerties with Russia, allowed Russia to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Russian president Vladimir Put in followed the invasion with “nuclear saber rattling,” plainly “reminding” the West that “it’s best not to mess with [Russia]” given its status as “one of the leading nuclear powers”; declaring the addition of 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to Russia’s nuclear arsenal; and beginning a multibillion-dollar nuclear modernization program. A year later, over U.S. objections, Russia also injected itself into the Syrian conflict, conducting airstrikes and directing cruise missiles against the rebel groups challenging Assad. Russian aggression and its demonstrated willingness to abrogate state sovereignty have prompted NATO to announce that it would be reevaluating its nuclear weapons posture. NorthKorea also made troubling progress in developing its nuclear weapons program and declared in January 2016 that it had tested a hydrogen bomb (despite evidence to the contrary). Further, Pakistan adopted a new doctrine, called “Full Spectrum Deterrence,” for its nuclear posture, which envisions a range of nuclear responses to conventional attacks by India.

Table 1.3. Narrative Themes in Era 3

Role Priority Function Posture
Era 32011–Present: Growing Great-Power Competition in an Era of Rising Disorder United States will keep nuclear weapons as a deterrent against nuclear attack, but long-term policy is to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons As long as U.S. nuclear weapons exist, they must be safe, secure, and effective United States will fund modernization despite bud get cutbacks Severe lapses in nuclear enterprise demonstrate consequences of previous low prioritization United States must lead in reduction efforts if it wants nonproliferation to succeed Communicates that enemies cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression U.S. nuclear arsenal primarily exists to prevent war and reassure allies The function of nuclear weapons within deterrence still shrinking as the definition of deterrence strategy expands As long as any other state has nuclear weapons, it will be necessary for the United States to retain nuclear weapons Triad deters future foreign leadership from seeking nuclear advantage Reductions and modernization each independently important

These increased nuclear and other unconventional threats in the international security environment, combined with the recognition that the nuclear enterprise had suffered the consequences of past low prioritization, have instigated a slow but steady change in the conversation surrounding U.S. nuclear weapons. The exigencies of the present era, particularly the recent downturn in U.S.-Russia relations, have led to greater acknowledgment of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. Many of the most familiar narrative themes from the preceding eras have carried through to this period. Per President Obama’s direction, the long-term policy of the United States is to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, though the United States will retain a nuclear deterrent against nuclear attack and keep its weapons safe, secure, and effective as long as any other nation has an arsenal as well (see Table 1.3).

At the same time, another round of scandals across the nuclear enterprise in 2013 drove the morale and image of the operational nuclear force into yet another trough, suggesting that lessons observed in the prior era had not translated into lessons learned, and prompting extensive review and rethinking among those responsible for the nuclear weapons complex.

In 2015, the Obama administration has remained committed to leading in nuclear reduction efforts to promote nonproliferation around the world, while seeking to temper disarmament expectations absent Russian cooperation, and has pledged strong support for modernizing an aging nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, with a modernization bow wave fast approaching even as the government seeks to reduce the overall cost of defense under the pressures of the bud get caps,33thereis increased scrutiny on the future of the arsenal. Plans remain for the United States to modernize its weapons, which, at the end of 2013, numbered some 4,804.34In 2014, Chuck Hagel, then secretary of defense, firmly stated the Department’s commitment to the nuclear enterprise: “Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in ensuring U.S. national security, and it’s DoD’s highest priority mission. No other capability we have is more important…. Consistent with President Obama’s guidance, our policy is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our nation’s security strategy and to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”35Numerous officials have, over the years, further restated the assertion that the arsenal not only reassures the United States’ allies but communicates “to potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.”

The narrative of this present era continues to take shape as the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and the broader defense establishment reflect, with greater interest than has been evident in quite some time, upon why U.S. nuclear weapons matter. The same former senior civilian official who commented that he was previously in the “depth of despair” agreed that there has been tangible change: “The consensus today on the role and value of nuclear weapons is as good as it has been in years…. In 2009, I never thought we would be where we are in 2015…. The state of the enterprise is the best I’ve seen in 15 years.” Junior and mid-level officers interviewed in the study also tend to speak positively about the uptick in attention and express hope that the progress continues. Whether the narrative proves to be more effective than the forms that preceded it has yet to be seen, but analysis of the historical narrative across time shows that even these early developments—especially when placed within the context of the past quarter century—are greatly encouraging.


A Compelling Rationale for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century

An effective rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons must answer five essential questions.

  • What are the most important challenges and problems that both drive and constrain the role and importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security?
  • Given these challenges, what is the fundamental purpose or role of U.S.nuclear weapons in its twenty-first-century national security strategy?
  • How does the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its associated infrastructure and delivery systems fulfill this role?
  • What capabilities and attributes must the U.S. nuclear force possess to perform these functions with confidence?
  • When faced with difficult trade-offs, how willing are policymakers to make difficult choices necessary to demonstrate commitment through the allocation of time, attention, and resources?

In answering these questions, this rationale must be consistent, clear, declarative, and simply stated in terms that resonate outside of the confines of the nuclear policy community. Round table discussions with young officers and stakeholders across the nuclear enterprise make clear that such a rationale would be more readily absorbed across the force and allow young officers and enlisted personnel to re-communicate this narrative to peers, subordinates, family members, and communities much more effectively. This approach marks a departure from some of the language, concepts, and vocabulary of prior statements and will require patience and flexibility from the nuclear policy elite.

The following proposed rationale for U.S. nuclear forces reflects the authors’ effort to capture the themes that resonated most strongly with the target audience. In developing it, the authors have sought to adhere to the following dos and don’ts that emerged from our research:


  • Develop a rationale that is affirmatively, rather than negatively, framed
  • Use language that is clear and direct and does not require a sophisticated understanding of nuclear policy
  • Use top line messages that can be employed consistently with a wide range of audiences (the public, the Congress, the armed forces) but can also be tailored to various audiences through additional specificity
  • Look to the future, not the past, as the source of challenge and opportunity
  • Remember that words accompanied by meaningful and appropriate actions are always the most effective message


  • Use jargonistic or theoretical language
  • Appear nostalgic about the Cold War or suggest the future lies in a return to the past
  • Criticize the audience in terms of knowledge, education, or interest


The following narrative articulates the essential elements of a compelling rationale for the U.S. nuclear arsenal using the themes and concepts (highlighted in bold) that resonated most strongly with round table participants:

Today, the United States faces a nuclear landscape of complexity, uncertainty, and risk. While nuclear dangers have certainly receded from the high-water mark of the Cold War, the nuclear optimism of the post–Cold War era has declined as well. Today, the United States no longer faces a single primary adversary from one region of the globe, but rather a diverse set of nuclear dangers spanning at least three geographic regions and potentially with global reach. These dangers include:

  • Nuclear attack by a nuclear-armed state—which while relatively unlikely, remains the primary existential threat to the United States and our way of life.
  • Growing nuclear intimidation and coercion by regional powers that hope to use their own nuclear capabilities to reshape their regions to their advantage and limit the ability of the United States to exercise power and influence in those regions.
  • Renewed and potentially expanded nuclear competi-tion among great powers—namely, China and Russia—as they seek to expand and improve their nuclear capabilities and increase the relative role and importance of nuclear weapons in their own national strategies, despite our efforts to do the opposite.
  • Risk of nuclear intimidation and use by non-state actors and extremists who continue to seek nuclear capabili-ties and may show little (if any) restraint in using such weapons to further their violent agendas.
  • Growing frustration regarding global disarmamentand efficacy of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)from in-creasing numbers of nonnuclear armed states that view the great powers,including the United States, not as nuclear protectorsbut rather as sources of nuclear danger.
  • Continued strategic uncertainty that leaves open the prospect that the future could take an even more dangerous turn and for which we could be ill-prepared torespond quickly and effectively.

In a world with nuclear weapons, U.S. nuclear forces provide a critical foundation for U.S. powerand influence. Faced with such a world, U.S. nuclear weapons serve as a powerful insurance policyby ensuring that, no matter how the threats or enemies change in an uncertain world, the United States has the freedom of action to defend itself and respond. Our nuclear arsenal underwrites the United States’ national survivability against its greatest threats, providing the onlyexisting credible defense against nuclear destruction and ensuring that no enemy can see benefit in attacking or holding hostage the U.S. homeland. The United States’ nuclear forces therefore act as a backstop to U.S. conventional power, allowing their conventional brethren to carry out their responsibilities overseas without worry that the country will go unprotected. Nuclear weapons provide awesome, world-altering, destructive power and bring with them awesome responsibilities. As long as nuclear weapons exist in the world, the U.S. will shoulder these responsibilities and serve as the nuclear counterweight to those with malicious intentions. Failure to do so would leave the world a far more dangerous place.

U.S. nuclear weapons perform these essential roles by forcing any adversary to consider that the benefits of attacking the United States are far outweighed by the costs.The U.S. arsenal provides an assured nuclear retaliatory force against any enemy state, ensuring that, should an adversary seek to disarm the United States through nuclear first strike, the United States will always have the option of responding in kind. The possibility of such a devastating response factors into every adversary state’s calculus in deciding whether launching a militaryattack on the United States. It raises the bar for that state, creating risks and costsso much greater than any gains to be achievedthat restraint becomes a better option than aggression.

The United States’ extension of its nuclear protection to its allies strengthens those ties and forms the basis of the under lying security relationships, making the United States an essential provider of global security and stability in the world. U.S. nuclear weapons help bind the United States together with its closest allies based on shared interests and values as well as risks and threats. It provides those friendly states that might otherwise feel compelled to acquire their own nuclear weapons the option to instead trust in the United States’ nuclear guarantees, empowering them to go without nuclear capabilities while also feeling secure and supported. The U.S. nuclear arsenal thus enables the U.S. alliance system, allowing it to serve as a cornerstone in the overall nonproliferation framework.

Finally, the United States holds itself to the highest possible standard for responsible nuclear stewardship. U.S. nuclear weapons are entirely defensive in character, designed to prevent attacks, not to initiate them. The United States will never brandish its nuclear weapons,use them as a source of coercion or intimidation, or seek to further regional aggression through their use. The United States maintains the highest expectationsfor the safety, security, and command and control of its nuclear weapons and seeks at every step to demonstrate what it means to be a responsible nuclear power. The United States sets an example by leading in international efforts to establish and enforce norms in protecting nuclear materials and working to reduce the dangers that existing nuclear arsenals pose to the world.

The value and reliability of nuclear weapons in shaping the decisions of potential adversaries depends on their perception that the capability is credible and their use in response to a threat is plausible. Similarly, U.S. decisionmakers must feel confident that nuclear weapons provide the President with a range of suitable options that meet the needs of the situation and discourage, rather than encourage, continued aggression. Our nuclear weapons must inspire confidence in our leaders and allies and fear in our adversaries. To do this, U.S. nuclear forces must, in aggregate, possess a number of essential attributes. The U.S. nuclear force must possess the necessary capabilities to be credible(i.e., inspire confidence that theseweapons can and will be used if necessary), flexible(i.e., able to produce a variety of plausible options and alternative responses appropriate to and commensurate with the threat at hand), and survivable(i.e., fully capable against the full spectrum offirst-strike attacks so that no adversary can believe a disarming strike is possible). In addition, the U.S. nuclear arsenal must be permanent and persistentso thatno adversary believes that windows of opportunity to attack the United States will open.These capabilities must also be visible and demonstrableso that when a potential adversary questions U.S. intentions in defending itself and its allies, the United States can signal its resolve and remind potential adversaries of the risks involved. Finally, these capabilities must be responsive. They must able to adapt and adjust to new threats, emerging technological surprises, or potential opportunities in ways that cannot be fully anticipated today.

The United States has given our nuclear forces profound responsibilities and in turn has set the highest possible expecta-tions. These responsibilities and expectations cannot be met on the cheap. Our forces cannot perform their mission without the investment of time, resources, and attention by leadership at all levels. At times, this calls for difficult trade-offs and sacrifice to ensure that the nuclear enterprise receives the priority it needs to succeed. Facing long-delayed modernization requirements across the force, the United States today faces justsuch a challenge of trade-off and sacrifice. But these sacrifices can and will be made when the nation’s fundamental security hangs in the balance. Modernization and recapitalization of our nuclear infrastructure and delivery systems is essential but insufficient for building the nuclear force of the future. The nuclear force of thefuturedepends fundamentally on our commitment to and investment in thehuman capital of the enterprise—the men and women who develop, maintain, operate, and support our nuclear arsenal. Sustaining a highly motivated and highly skilled workforce requires meaningful dialogue; appropriate training, education, and exercising across the force; sufficient opportunity for career and professional development; and a climate that fosterspersonal responsibility, accountability, and innovation. This is our commitment to our force and our pact with the American people. We can do no less.

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