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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nuclear Weapons in U.S. National Security Policy: Past, Present, and Prospects

Amy F. Woolf
Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy

The Bush Administration outlined a strategy of "tailored deterrence" to define the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. national security policy. There has been little discussion of this concept, either in Congress or in the public at large. This leaves unanswered questions about how this strategy differs from U.S. nuclear strategy during the Cold War and how it might advise decisions about the size and structure of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

Throughout the Cold War, the United States relied on nuclear weapons to deter an attack by the Soviet Union and its allies and to forestall the outbreak of a global war between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the broad Cold War-era agreement about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy began to dissolve during the 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union. Further, in response to emerging threats to U.S. national security, the Bush Administration argued that the United States must alter its deterrence strategy "from 'one size fits all' deterrence to tailored deterrence for rogue powers, terrorist networks, and near-peer competitors." 

During the Cold War, the United States often modified, or tailored, its nuclear targeting doctrine, its nuclear weapons employment policy, and its nuclear force structure to enhance or maintain the credibility of its nuclear deterrent posture. In some ways, the Bush Administration's concept of tailored deterrence follows the same pattern, using assessments of an adversary's society and values to identify a range of targets that might be threatened, and adjusting U.S. war plans and force structure to enhance the credibility of U.S. threats to destroy these targets. However, tailored deterrence differs from Cold War deterrence in that it explicitly notes that U.S. nuclear weapons could be used in attacks against a number of nations that might have developed and deployed chemical and biological weapons, even if they did not possess nuclear weapons. Hence, the new policy seems more of a change in "who" we will deter than it is a change in "how" we will deter. 

Congress may review the concept of tailored deterrence, either as a part of its oversight of nuclear weapons policies and programs, or as a part of a broader debate about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy. Issues that might come up in such a review are questions about how much U.S. nuclear strategy and weapons employment policy have changed in recent years; questions about whether the new capabilities and war plans will enhance the credibility of U.S. deterrent threats, or, conversely, make the use of nuclear weapons more likely; questions about whether the United States must develop new weapons capabilities to meet the demands of tailored deterrence, or whether it must retain a force structure with thousands of deployed warheads if it no longer uses "the Russian threat" as the metric for sizing the U.S. force; and questions about whether the new concepts and war plans expand or restrict the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. 

The Obama Administration is also likely to review and revise this concept as it conducts its nuclear posture review. It may revise the rationale for why the United States retains nuclear weapons, in accordance with the President's pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. It may also address questions about U.S. declaratory policy, and the role that other policy options may play in efforts to deter or defend against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. 

This report will not be updated again; it will be replaced by a new report on U.S. nuclear doctrine after the Obama Administration completes, and reports on, its nuclear posture review.


Date of Report: January 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL34226
Price: $29.95

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