No First Use and Biden's Misstep
Have you ever wondered if or when the US will use nuclear weapons?
On October 27, the Biden Administration released the declassified version of its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to the public. Since President Clinton, every administration has conducted its own NPR, communicating its approach to US nuclear weapons policy. A key part of that is US declaratory policy, which indicates the conditions under which the US is willing to use nuclear weapons against an adversary.
As vice president and a presidential candidate, Joe Biden expressed strong support for no first use and sole purpose policies. In a 2017 speech, Biden stated 'given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today's threats-it's hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary.' He further stated in 2020 that he believes 'the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring-and if necessary, retaliating against-a nuclear attack,' committing his administration to working to put that belief into practice.
In a blow to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament advocacy, however, the Biden Administration walked back from that commitment with its NPR, keeping the previous declaratory policy which states the US 'would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.' Critics argue that this is a vague statement, defining neither extreme circumstances or vital interests.
While US nuclear weapons are primarily intended to deter conventional and nuclear attacks from adversaries by threatening costly retaliation, the policy does not specifically rule out conducting preemptive first strikes. Those who oppose current US declaratory policy argue that rather than strengthening deterrence and decreasing the risk of escalating conventional conflicts, a key argument of supporters, it will do the opposite. By reserving the option of first use of nuclear weapons, the US invites retaliation and escalation.
Many experts support the US adoption of no first use (NFU), where the US commits to conducting nuclear strikes only in the event that an adversary attacks the US or its allies with nuclear weapons. Of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons, only China has an unconditional NFU. India's NFU policy has exceptions for biological and chemical weapons. The remaining nuclear powers have not committed to NFU. President Obama considered, but ultimately rejected, the proposal. Advocates also promote a sole purpose declaration, stating that US nuclear weapons are solely to deter nuclear attacks.
There are many benefits to publicly declaring that nuclear weapons will only be used in response to nuclear strikes by an adversary. NFU clearly signals to the international community are for deterrence, not war fighting, reducing ambiguities about the purpose of the US nuclear arsenal. This in turn reduces the risk of miscalculation. If the United States does not clearly communicate its intentions about when it will use nuclear weapons, opponents are left with incomplete information during a crisis, increasing the risk of escalation.
That risk is further increased due to US missile defense and concerns that the US may use cyber-attacks to disrupt an opponent's nuclear launch systems. In this scenario, an opponent fearful that the US will conduct first strikes may determine that the rational way forward is to launch their nuclear weapons first before the US can eliminate their capability to retaliate.
US weapons are kept on launch on alert status, ready to be launched within minutes of an incoming attack. When combined with a vague declaratory policy that does not limit the US to retaliatory strikes, the potential for miscalculation increases. There were many near misses during the Cold War, from Russia mistaking a Norwegian scientific rocket for an impending US attack to a US technician mistakenly loading a training simulation video indicating a large-scale Soviet attack was underway.
An NFU would also reduce the risk of misperception, which has increased with the rise of dual-use technology, where delivery systems can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads. If the US conducts a conventional strike, an adversary may be unsure as to what type of warhead is loaded on a missile, leading them to mistake a conventional for a nuclear strike, and respond accordingly. This risk increases if the strike appears to be aimed at an adversary's nuclear forces or command and control.
Finally, a clear statement on when nuclear weapons would be used also limits the president's ability to order nuclear strikes. Currently, there are few limitations in place, as the president has sole authority to initiate nuclear strikes, whether a first or retaliatory strike. This is aggravated by the addition of low-yield nuclear weapons to the US nuclear arsenal, as a president may be more likely to consider using nuclear weapons as a policy tool while remaining under the threshold of full-scale nuclear war. While congressional legislation would likely be needed to limit the president's nuclear launch authority, an NFU provides another layer of protection against a nuclear doomsday scenario.
For an NFU to be credible, the US would need to make additional changes to its force postures, such as removing weapons from high alert status, reducing its force size, and altering its force structure. Movies such as these would indicate that the US is reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, further strengthening the anti-nuclear norm and the global nuclear arms control regime. It would also help put pressure on countries like Pakistan and Russia, both of whom have policies allowing for the first use of nuclear weapons to repel a major conventional invasion.
Critics of NFU argue that the necessary corresponding reductions would degrade the credibility of the US deterrent and limit the range of policy options in response to catastrophic non-nuclear threats, such as chemical, biological, or cyberattacks. However, nuclear weapons are not needed to deter against non-nuclear threats. The US does not need to retain a first use option because its superior conventional military, economic, and alliance capabilities are sufficient to deter or defeat a non-nuclear attack.
It is time for the US to adopt a clear no first use policy. The Cold War logic behind reserving a first use option is no longer applicable. Reducing the risk of escalation, misperception, and miscalculation benefits both the US and the international community.
Holly Lindamood is the Associate Director of Daisy Alliance and a freelance writer. She has spearheaded several key projects, ranging from developing active learning simulations on international security to organizing a panel at the UN on a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone. An aspiring novelist, she spends her remaining time writing her debut novel, set in a dystopian future, in between snuggling with her three adorably ridiculous pups. You can follow Holly on the Daisy Alliance blog and on Twitter @hollylindamood.