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Clark Murdock
Rebecca K.C. Hersman

Rebecca K.C. Hersman
Clark Murdock
Shanelle Van

Editor’s Note: These excerpts are republished from the titled report dated October 2016 with permission of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, 20036.

Executive Summary

Managing and operating the nation’s nuclear weapons, forces, and delivery systems is an enormous responsibility and among the most demanding of military missions. The men and women responsible for executing that mission—for acting as the custodians of the nuclear arsenal of the United States—must perform difficult and sometimes tedious tasks in highly challenging environments and under demanding expectations. They do so amid a changing nuclear land scape that has, since the end of the Cold War, seen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy decline as the concept of deterrence has become increasingly abstract in the twenty-first century.

Over the last few years, many observers, including key Department of Defense (DoD) officials, have commented on the need for DoD to better communicate a more compelling rationale for why the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains essential to the post–Cold War strategy of the United States and to the security of the American people. Those airmen and sailors who comprise the nuclear workforce, and who are asked to dedicate their lives in service of their mission, deserve a persuasive explanation as to why their unwavering stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will matter as long as these weapons exist in the world. In the assessment of some, including this study’s authors, a coherent narrative about the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not been sufficiently stated and promulgated across the force. This is to the detriment of efforts to respond to the broader challenges facing the nuclear enterprise, as a compelling rationale contributes to a healthier, more vibrant, and better motivated nuclear workforce. Recognizing this need, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Nuclear Matters endorsed the three objectives of this study:

1.Track the changing historical narrative for U.S. nuclear weapons as it has evolved from 1989 to the present.
2.Evaluate the current narrative’s strengths and weaknesses.
3.Articulate a rationale that better meets the needs of the U.S. Air Force and Navy forces responsible for supporting and executing the U.S. nuclear mission, inclusive of the mid-level commanders, the junior officers, and the enlisted.

To be clear, this study does not make new nuclear policy. At its core, this study aims to create a dialogue with the nation’s nuclear personnel about the rationales for the U.S. nuclear arsenal that already exists—some of which have been stated at the highest levels of leadership—to ask what the nuclear forces actually hear, what works and what does not, and what motivates them on a daily basis. Over the course of the research effort, however, it also became evident that, while the message matters, the individuals who deliver the rationale, the means by which it is communicated, and the context in which it is received are also important.


To assess the evolving historical narrative for U.S. nuclear weapons, this study juxtaposes an overview of the international security environment with the statements and decisions made about the arsenal between 1989 and the present. 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? For the purposes of this study, this period between 1989 and the present is divided into three eras:

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

The Soviet Union’s sudden collapse relieved the United States of its primary strategic threat and caused an immense shift on the international stage.

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

In the wake of 9/11, the United States embarked on a Global War on Terror and plunged into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, as it fought to subdue a new generation of extremists and state sponsors of terrorism.

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

Although the beginning of the third era is harder to determine, relations with Russia and, to a lesser extent, China began to deteriorate even as the threat posed by non-state enemies metastasized and grew in severity.

Tracing how the U.S. nuclear policy narrative has evolved through these three periods reveals more consistency than change, even though the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union have seen a range of turbulent international events. Moreover, despite the highly polarized political climate of recent decades, the shifts and differences in the arc of the nation’s nuclear narrative do not correspond to predictable partisan patterns. The most fundamental articulations of U.S. nuclear weapons’ role, function, posture, and priority—the four key characteristics of the U.S. nuclear arsenal identified and defined in this study—have remained more or less the same through Republican and Democratic administrations; namely:

  • The role and salience of U.S. nuclear weapons is declining, even as they remain critical to deterring the most dangerous current and imagined nuclear threats.
  • As long as these weapons exist in the world, the United States must retain its arsenal safely, securely, and effectively.

These top line messages are also accompanied by other prominent narrative themes and countervailing narratives that, in some cases, reflect a shifting degree of consensus across the nuclear and national security communities:

  • While deterrence remains important, the arsenal serves mostly as a hedge against future threats that may arise.
  • As a greater number of current threats can be met with conventional capabilities, a greater share of the deterrence burden will be placed on conventional capabilities.
  • Nuclear weapons do not necessarily deter twenty-first-century threats, such as non-state actors or rogue states.
  • The U.S. nuclear arsenal requires attention and investment, even as reductions take place.
    • The United States must lead in reduction efforts if it wants nonproliferation to succeed.


As the research progressed, it became clear that the effectiveness of the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons has only partially to do with the words used to articulate it. Feedback from operational personnel overwhelmingly points to the significant influence of other factors in determining whether the rationale reaches the forces clearly and precisely, with a real impact. The message matters, but the individuals who deliver the rationale, the means by which it is communicated, and the context in which it is received are also important. As such, taking the historical nuclear narrative as its starting point, this study came to ask four questions:

1.Is the existing rationale the right one?
2.Is the rationale tailored to specific audiences with appropriate detail and specificity?
3.Is the rationale suitable but being improperly communicated?
4.Is the rationale communicated effectively within the mission but undermined outside of the mission?

In answering these questions, the study team identified a number of disconnects and challenges not only in the rationale for nuclear weapons over time, but in the way that narrative is perceived, internalized, and remembered over time by various audiences. These challenges naturally fall into six basic categories:


Is the message clear, persuasive, and consistent?

  • In many cases, U.S. nuclear weapons policy is described in highly sophisticated strategic logic that is not very accessible to the general public or the junior nuclear personnel. It is both rife with concepts and jargon that are not routinely defined and explained—for example, deterrence, hedge, strategic stability, escalation—and heavily caveated.
  • The rationale tends to focus on what nuclear weapons will not do and is dominated by descriptions of decline, reduction, and diminishment.
  • This review found few examples of an affirmative case for the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security across the time period from 1989 to the present. The only affirmative rationale that emerged during this time frame was the important role the U.S. arsenal plays in assuring partners and allies. Too little effort has been made to state the critical, albeit more limited, role of nuclear deterrence.
  • These issues of complexity, caveating, and negative framing are remarkably consistent across all three eras. While some interviewees hold strongly to the notion that such narrative scan be attributed to certain leaders, administrations, or time frames, the review of the historical record found no such correlation. The challenges are bipartisan.


Who comprises the audience for the rationale? Is the message tailored to them?

  • The rationale must reach diverse communities throughout and beyond the operational forces. A compelling rationale must reach and resonate across the total force, not just the nuclear operational community.
  • The audience for the rationale is both vast and comprised of numerous communities with varying levels of interest in and familiarity with nuclear weapons. It includes those in the services who execute the nuclear mission: the mid-level commanders, the junior officers, and the enlisted. It also encompasses their conventional counterparts, their families and friends, other members of the general public, the scientific community and the broader nuclear enterprise, and Congress.
  • Junior and mid-grade officers are linchpin communicators—required to understand and recommunicate a compel-ling rationale—in speaking to these various audiences.


Who is speaking this narrative and, just as important, who is not? Is the communicator clear, persuasive, and disciplined?

  • Clear statements from the highest possible echelons of policy making—the president, the secretary of defense, the secretaries of state and energy—carry a weight all their own, especially in terms of priority and strategic vision. What senior leadership says matters, but what they do not say also matters. Silence can be deafening.
  • Those closest to the nuclear personnel in the chain of command are most responsible and thus accountable for communicating the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons. The message will not get through to them if someone in the chain of command just one or two levels above in seniority decides the personnel do not need to hear it. They are the ones who must make good on the words from senior leadership.
  • Junior officers, who begin as message receivers, quickly become messengers themselves in training the next generation of nuclear personnel. Junior and mid-grade officers, who are charged with distilling complex policy statements and translating them into a sense of purpose and mission for their subordinates, need targeted and refined messages coupled with resources, materials, training, and support. The success of current efforts will depend on whether they are properly equipped to execute their role as re-messengers


Is the message communicated effectively and appropriately through appropriate tools and forums that ensure that the message reaches its intended audience intact?

  • Speeches, congressional testimony, media statements, and official documents, strategies, and reviews are the traditional mechanisms for establishing and communicating the nuclear narrative and for helping the inside the beltway policy elites, congressional members and staff, and high-level media and international audiences communicate with each other. But the detailed and caveated rationales to explain the role of nuclear weapons, the trade-offs between competing priorities, the complexities of deterrence in the post–Cold War era, or even the priority that military services put on the nuclear mission are a high-risk gamble to translate through trickle-down methods.
  • The initial messengers at the beginning of the chain have yet to adapt their methods to new forms of communication that speak to audiences in highly personalized ways, such as blogs, personalized news alerts or feeds, and social media. Key messages are reaching the operational forces third-or fourth-hand at best, via communicators who may not be highly knowledgeable on the issues.

Volume and Dissonance

What is the volume of the message and how much noise must it overcome to be heard? Are competing voices and narratives crowding out the narrative?

  • The problems with the mechanisms by which the ra-tionale is conveyed to the nuclear forces are compounded by an oversaturated information landscape.
  • It is crucial to not talk inside a nuclear silowithout listening to what is being said or is left unsaid by and to the rest of the force. Synergies can and should be found across virtually every geographic region.
  • Countervailing narratives can also contest and undermine the topline rationale. The nuclear policy community, both within the United States and internationally, is di-verse and divided. Competing narratives, even within the nuclear mission space, can lead to a crowded message board.


What is the context or environment in which the message is communicated? Does it reinforce or undermine the message?

  • The importance of how well the context in which a message is received fitsthe message itself cannot be overstated. No matter how rightthe words or the means of delivery may be, they will only be received and internalized in a positive environment—one of sufficiently supportive command leadership, educational opportunities and training support, and investment of time and resources—that encourages such strategic thinking.
  • The nuclear workforce looks closely at the alignment of words and deeds to determine if the narrative is credible, sustainable, and persuasive. The say-dogap creates the im-pression that the words are hollow, which undermines the credibility of the narrative and fosters cynicism and low morale. Again and again, interviewees pointed to the gap between words (rationale) and deeds (funding, leadership attention, and personnel practices) as a fundamental problem with the rationale for nuclear weapons.
  • A deeper dive into the various communities that comprise the nuclear forces shows that they each have their own deeds that carry the most impact andmeaning depending on their service culture, deployment location, and operational activity.
  • There is a say-do-believe gap. Overcoming perceptions that the message is not reflected in actions will take patience: it will require creating an affirmative context for the rationale,undoing and remedying the various pieces of the say-do gap, and doing so in a continuous, sustained effort that conveys to the nuclear workforce that this commitment is lasting.


The proposed rationale for U.S. nuclear forces set forth in this study 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:Do:

  • 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 futurelies in a return to the past
  • Criticize the audience in terms of knowledge, education, or interest

Overview of the Rationale

Today, the United States faces a nuclear landscape of com-plexity, 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
  • Growing nuclear intimidation and coercion by regional powers
  • Renewed and potentially expanded nuclear competitionamonggreat powers
  • Risk of nuclear intimidation and use by nonstate actors and extremists
  • Growing frustration regarding global disarmament
  • Continued strategic uncertainty

The full proposed rationale appearing in Chapter 4 of this study seeks to articulate the role, function, posture, and priority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in addressing the important challenges and problems that drive and constrain its place in U.S. national security strategy. To emphasize that the U.S. nuclear arsenal confers both powerand immense responsibilities on the United States, the rationale builds on each of these elements and themes:

Our nuclear forces provide a critical foundation for U.S. power and influence in the world and serve as the only existing credible defense against nuclear destruction, ensuring that the U.S. homeland will remain protected when the nation’s conventional forces carry out their responsibilities overseas.

U.S. nuclear weapons force our adversaries to consider that the benefits of attacking the United States or our allies are far outweighed by the risks and costs, so that restraint becomes a better option than aggression. As such, our nuclear forces offer our allies the option to trust in the United States’ nuclear protection rather than acquire their own nuclear weapons.

An effective U.S. nuclear arsenal must be credible, flexible, survivable, responsive, and reliable. The value of U.S. nuclear weapons relies on their being permanent andpersistent, as well as visible and demonstrable, so that they signal the United States’ resolve to not only discourage aggression, but to also defend itself and its allies as necessary.

The United States respects the awesome responsibilities that accompany the custodianship of nuclear weapons, holding itself to the highest possible standard for responsible nuclear stewardship. As long as nuclear weapons exist in the world, the United States will shoulder these responsibilities and serve as the nuclear counterweight to those with malicious intentions.

The United States has given our nuclear forces profound responsibilities and in turn has set the highest possible expecta-tions. Our forces require the investment of time, resources, and attention by leadership at all levels, as well as commitment to a climate that fosters personal responsibility, accountability, and innovation.


Interviews and roundtables repeatedly stressed the need for not only a new nuclear narrative, but also a detailed strategy to improve how leaders and policymakers talk about nuclear weapons, communicate their importance, and create a context in which such a compelling rationale can be heard, understood, shared, and believed. This study recommends the following next steps:

1.Develop and communicate an affirmative and compel-ling rationale for the U.S. nuclear arsenal that articu-lates the role, function, posture, and priority of U.S. nu-clear weapons in U.S. national security.

2.Set the tone from the top. A new nuclear narrative can-not be compelling if not fully and formally owned and communicated by the president and the president’s most senior national security advisers. Give the mes-sage authority, and have it come from the highest au-thorities.

3.Direct the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons to the whole force, not just the nuclear operators.

4.Create an education-based context for communicating a compelling rationale, not just a public affairs plan.

5.Cultivate and encourage strategic and policy knowledge through opportunities for education and training earlierin the officer development process and beyond the nuclear force alone.

6.Focus on the re-communicators: the junior and mid-grade officers.

7.Close the gap between messenger and audience.

8.Distribute the rationale widely and via diverse commu-nication modes that are short and easily accessed.

9.Make better use of operational exercises across the nuclear force to engage senior leaders, build stronger connections between operators and support elements, and demonstrate priority. These are huge missed opportunities.

10.Match words with meaningful actions.

The recommendations generated by this study are intended to be practical and implementable, but they will not be sim-ple. They will require sustained efforts—not only to find the rightwords, but also to create andfoster a proper context in whichthose words can take root—at every level of leader-ship. Only a meaningful realignment of words with concrete actions will form a compelling rationale for the continued role and value of U.S. nuclear weapons. The airmen andsailors whocarry out the nuclear mission every day on be-half of the American people deserve no less.

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