US Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear weapons have long been a cause of controversy. Many believe that nuclear weapons are catastrophic and inhumane and that their use is irresponsible. On the other hand, many believe that the creation and maintenance of nuclear weapons in itself is an essential part of national security. This is where Nuclear Deterrence Theory, and how it helps deter nuclear war, comes into play. This article will help examine and explain one of the most controversial theories in the United States today. 

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Table of contents

    Nuclear Deterrence Theory

    Nuclear Deterrence Theory is a political and psychological mechanism that emerged from the Cold War. It revolves around the prevention of nuclear weapon usage and mutually assured destruction. It theorizes that an entity will be deterred from striking with nuclear weapons first if they believe a nuclear counterstrike from the attacked nation will incur a heavy price. For this theory to work, the country or entity being considered for an attack must:

    • Be in possession of nuclear weapons
    • Have the capability of launching nuclear weapons
    • Be psychologically and politically prepared to launch a nuclear attack in retaliation.

    Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) argues that two superpowers with nuclear weapons won't strike each other due to the fear that the counterstrikes from both parties will annihilate each other, which was the concept behind the Cold War.

    Cold War

    The Cold War was a period of tension between the US and the Soviet Union following World War II through the 1980s. There were no physical battles between the superpowers. However, both were hostile to each other through proxy wars, threats, and propaganda - almost leading up to a nuclear war. Nevertheless, due to nuclear deterrence, no nuclear weapons were deployed.

    Nuclear Parity

    Nuclear parity (i.e. possessing the same amount of nuclear power) is not required for nuclear deterrence to work. This was clearly demonstrated in The Cuban Missile Crisis: the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons on Cuba if the Soviet Union did not remove its nuclear missiles. However, in fear of retaliation, the United States never struck, even though the United States was in possession of 17 times more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union.

    The United States is in a unique position of using Nuclear Deterrence because it is the only country that has used atomic bombs on other countries when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Therefore, it's common knowledge that the United States can and will use nuclear weapons based on historical facts.

    Figure 1 US Nuclear Deterrence Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Mushroom Cloud StudySmarterFigure 1. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Mushroom Cloud, Charles Levy, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons

    US Nuclear Deterrence Policy

    The United States Nuclear Deterrence Policy is ever-fluctuating. Its details may differ in every administration depending on the geopolitical climate. However, the central policy remains relatively unchanged; the United States maintains that it will only use nuclear weapons in extreme situations to defend its interests and its allies' interests, while still engaging in nuclear hedging. Additionally, throughout the years, nuclear deterrence policy has evolved from wanting to cause the maximum amount of damage possible to just trying to cause the most damage to the government or military forces of the opposing party.

    Nuclear Hedging: Maintaining or appearing to maintain the option of rapidly acquiring nuclear weapons.

    Nuclear Umbrella

    Part of US nuclear policy is to try to reduce the number of nuclear states. The US does this by providing extended deterrence, called the "nuclear umbrella," to allies within Europe, Asia, and the Pacific under NATO. In order to be under the US nuclear umbrella, the states must agree to not develop a nuclear weapon program. In return, the US provides these allied states with nuclear protection. Therefore, it is crucial for the United States to have a robust nuclear deterrence strategy to ensure that these non-nuclear states don't set out to create a nuclear program of their own.

    Nuclear Non-Proliferation

    The United States believes in an effective nuclear non-proliferation international policy.

    Nuclear Non-Proliferation: to prevent the spread of nuclear material and technology to states or groups that don't already have them.

    To combat nuclear proliferation, the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was created and signed by 191 countries, including the United States. The treaty's main goal was to prevent nuclear states from giving non-nuclear states nuclear weapons or encouraging them to develop a nuclear program. The United States has stipulated that in order for allied states to receive nuclear defense from the US, they must meet the terms set in the NPT.

    Negative Security Assurance

    In 2010, President Barack Obama issued a new policy called negative security assurance. This assurance states that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states as long as they comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This policy could change if a new administration chooses a different route.

    Launch on Warning

    Another policy the United States has in place is "launch on warning" or "launch under attack." This policy allows strategic commanders to launch a nuclear weapon if they believe an attack is currently underway. This is one of the US's most controversial policies because false warnings can and have occurred due to equipment or human errors. The US may inadvertently launch the first nuclear weapon. This policy, in turn, causes adversaries to also consider this policy and may actually launch first toward the US, creating a situation where everyone has their hand on the trigger.

    QUICK FACT

    An intercontinental missile aimed at the United States would arrive in as little as 10 - 30 minutes.

    US Nuclear Deterrence Strategy

    Like nuclear deterrence policy, the United States's strategy is constantly adjusting to meet the needs of the current geopolitical climate.

    Information Superioririty

    The world is increasingly relying on computing; this is not any different for nuclear weapons delivery systems. For example, a cyber command center could help deter a plan to hack into the US's nuclear capabilities meant to cause nuclear havoc. On the other hand, it may also present the image that the US has the ability to hack into someone else's nuclear capabilities as well. To ensure information superiority, the US uses Cyber Command and Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites.

    The Cyber command helps direct and coordinate cyberspace operations to further the nation's interests, while the DSP satellites detect heat from missiles and provide a warning for an attack.

    Active Defense Capabilities

    The United States has employed a ballistic missile defense system to strengthen its active defense capabilities. This defense system is meant to counter ballistic missiles by destroying the missiles and any warheads they may be carrying.

    Enhancing Nuclear Security

    The Department of Energy's (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Laboratory uses the application of nuclear sciences to help enhance national security. The NNSA does this by researching, developing, and producing nuclear programs in response to the Department of Defense's requirements, including developing low-yield warheads (lower explosive power than nuclear bombs).

    Ensuring Decision Authority

    The US ensures decision authority through its Strategic Command (STRATCOM) Global Operations Center (GOC). The GOC provides global situation awareness to the STRATCOM commander, so the commander can make decisions regarding the operation of the US strategic forces. The GOC is housed in a very secure facility, ensuring that it is always in operation, even in dire circumstances. If there is ever a day in which a nuclear weapon was to be deployed by a US adversary, this facility would have the ability to remain operational due to its impregnability and provide very critical information in a time of crisis, which in turn might allow the US to counterstrike.

    Figure 2 US Nuclear Deterrence Atlas ICBM StudySmarterFigure 2. Atlas ICBM, USAF, PD US Air Force, Wikimedia Commons

    US Nuclear Deterrence System

    In order to reduce the risk of an enemy attacking and forcing the United States to use excessive measures, the US created a triad nuclear delivery system composed of sea, air, and ground-launched missiles.

    Each part of the triad has a particular function and is meant to work complementarily:

    • Sea-launched missiles are constantly patrolling and on the move, making them hard to track.
    • Air-launched missiles are flexible because of their ability to be deployed in multiple ways.
    • Ground-launched missiles are more responsive due to their placement in hundreds of silos, able to be deployed within minutes.

    The triad is controlled by a nuclear command, control, and communications system (NC3). Its function is to detect attacks, provide adaptive nuclear planning, provide decision-making conferencing, receive presidential orders about nuclear strikes, and enable the management and direction of forces. The Triad and NC3 give the United States a comprehensive and strategic nuclear deterrence system.

    US Nuclear Deterrence Forces

    The US nuclear deterrence forces are made up of strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons (this is the TRIAD); tactical nuclear delivery systems (which deliver nuclear weapons on short ranges); nuclear weapons laboratories; and a Command, control, communications, and early warning system.

    Between 2021 - 2030 it is projected that the US will spend $634 billion on nuclear deterrence forces. This comes out to $60 billion annually. On average, it would be 6 to 8 percent of the annual federal budget.

    Today, the United States has a variety of nuclear and tactical force stockpiles. Many countries guard information about the number of nuclear weapons. However, in 2021, President Joe Biden disclosed the number of nuclear weapons in the United States arsenal, sharing that the United States has 6,185 nuclear warheads in its inventory (as of 2020).

    QUICK FACT

    90% of all nuclear warheads in the world are owned by the United States and Russia.

    Figure 3 US Nuclear Deterrence Inspection of B53 Nuclear Bomb StudySmarterFigure 3. Inspection of B53 Nuclear Bomb, National Nuclear Security Administration, PD US DOE, WikimediaCommons

    Challenges to US Nuclear Deterrence Strategy

    The government faces some critical challenges regarding its nuclear deterrence strategy.

    Geopolitical Environment

    Today there are more nuclear powers than ever, and the number is still growing, making it hard to understand what drives each of them and what their goals are (unlike during the Cold War, when the US was focused exclusively on Russia). Today, there is less predictability on what these players are doing or are going to do.

    FUN FACT

    The states with nuclear weapons (that are publicly known) are called the Big Five, and they are the US, Russia, China, the UK, and France.

    Aging Nuclear Forces

    The US has lacked in modernizing its nuclear programs compared to China and Russia. Many nuclear weapons are aging and deteriorating. The NC3 system is unable to meet the demands of current threats due to its aging components. Many weapons and delivery systems have a service life and need to be replaced.

    QUICK FACT

    By 2030, the Minuteman III ICBM will have been in use for 60 years, making it the oldest strategic missile in the world.

    According to many, the US would have to quickly modernize its nuclear forces to keep up with the current geopolitical climate and have the ability to respond adequately.

    US Nuclear Deterrence - Key takeaways

    • Nuclear Deterrence theorizes that an entity will be deterred from striking with nuclear weapons first if they believe a nuclear counterstrike from the attacked nation will incur a heavy price.
    • As part of the United States Nuclear Deterrence policy, the US provides a "nuclear umbrella" to allies within Europe, Asia, and the Pacific under NATO.
    • The US has a triad nuclear deterrence system consisting of sea, air, and ground-launched missiles.
    • Some challenges to the US Nuclear Deterrence policy are the geopolitical climate and aging nuclear forces.
    Frequently Asked Questions about US Nuclear Deterrence

    What is nuclear deterrence policy?  

    Nuclear deterrence policy outlines when nuclear weapons should be used. 

    What is nuclear deterrence theory? 


    Nuclear deterrence theorizes that an entity will be deterred from striking with nuclear weapons first if they believe a nuclear counterstrike from the attacked nation will incur a heavy price 

    Does the US have nuclear deterrence?  

    Yes, the US does have nuclear deterrence.

    How much money does the US spend on nuclear deterrence?  

    Between 2021 - 2030 it is projected that the US will spend $634 billion on nuclear deterrence forces. 

    Does the US have a nuclear deterrent? 

    Yes, the US does have a nuclear deterrent. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Mutually assured destruction occurs when two nuclear powers refuse to strike each other for fear of annihilation. 

    Nuclear Parity is required for nuclear deterrence to work. 

    US Nuclear Deterrence Strategy relies on: 

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