The Future of US Nuclear Policy

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Mohandass Kalaichelvan's picture

The US stands on the threshold of nuclear primacy in today’s world and it seems highly unlikely that any other nation will come close to matching the US in terms of nuclear capabilities in the near future. In the Cold War, the US had a singular foe; today, it faces the possibility of nuclear escalation from actors all over the globe. Hence, deterrence in the 21st century will be more difficult and the US must acquire the right weapons to deal with global challenges. I argue that the US should develop highly accurate delivery systems for its low-yield nuclear warheads because it ensures credibility, transitioning capability between peacetime and wartime missions, complements US conventional military strategy and ensures proportionality with the size of adversaries’ nuclear arsenals.


First, accurate low-yield nuclear warheads will prove to be a credible deterrent. With high-yield nukes, the US would be left with terrible retaliatory options if an adversary attacked a US ally or overseas bases1. One of those options would be to destroy enemy cities. High-yield warheads lack the credibility since these are essentially empty threats as the US has always strived to avoid mass civilian casualties in recent times. Moreover, a retaliatory strike on an enemy city will achieve little in terms of military objectives since the aim would be to destroy the enemy’s nuclear arsenal. If the only option was to kill millions of civilians as a response, US leaders would lack a credible option and this will have nasty implications for deterrence.  Hence, accurate low-yield nukes will provide a counterforce option that is flexible, decisive and credible.

Second, accurate low-yield nukes serve the purpose of versatile “transitionable” weapons. A “transitionable” weapon can be effectively used as a credible deterrent during both peacetime and wartime missions. Many proponents of nuclear arms reduction believe that a few high-yield nuclear options might be sufficient for deterrence during peacetime operations. However, peacetime deterrence is not the proper yardstick for measuring the adequacy of US nuclear forces1. The gold standard for deterrent qualities must be tested in the harshest environment: when the US is engaging in a conventional war with a nuclear-armed enemy that is fighting for its life. Only highly accurate low-yield nukes pass the test of providing credible threats in both peacetime and wartime periods since they can be utilized to disarm the enemy completely while preventing millions of civilian casualties.

Third, highly accurate low-yield nukes complement the strategy that the US military generally employs to overcome its adversaries in a conventional battle. The 21st century American war strategy involves launching simultaneous air and ground attack to annihilate the enemy1. Although this approach would be highly desirable in a conventional battle, the uncertainty is not conducive against a conventionally inferior nuclear-armed adversary who will most likely pull the trigger on its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, history indicates that the outcomes were not rosy for enemy leaders such as Saddam and Qaddafi who had lost conventional wars to the US. Hence, it can be certain that the enemy leader will “use every weapon at their disposal to stave off total defeat”1. However, when the US launches a conventional war in tandem with highly accurate low-yield nukes to destroy the enemy’s nuclear arsenal, potentially destructive enemy responses can be averted with much certainty.

Fourth, highly accurate delivery systems will make low-yield nukes the weapon of choice today due to the size of adversaries’ arsenals. During the Cold War, the nuclear stockpiles of the US and the Soviet Union were too large to be destroyed in a single strike due to the inaccuracy of the delivery systems. Today, the arsenals of nuclear countries such as China, Iran and North Korea are much smaller. Also, the accuracy revolution has allowed the US delivery systems to be vastly more reliable. Quality, not quantity should be the overriding virtue of a 21st century nuclear arsenal.

However, the success of highly accurate low-yield nukes depends on obliterating enemy nuclear arsenals in a first strike. Since adversaries of the US would fear such a crippling strike, they might engage in a first move that would result in a “hair-trigger” nuclear escalation. However, I believe that the US, through the use of accurate low-yield nukes, will be signaling that it is targeting nuclear disarmament, not regime change. Such an approach will not force enemy leaders into a corner. Critics also argue that conventional weapons will suffice since accurate low-yield nukes will not be able to destroy mobile missile launchers any better. However, I believe that conventional weapons are even more ill-equipped to deal with the problem since they would require near-perfect accuracy to destroy road-mobile nukes; an accurate low-yield nuke of 5 kilotons will have a blast radius of about half a mile that significantly reduces targeting problems2.

Hence, it is pertinent that the US develops highly accurate delivery systems for its low-yield nukes to maintain credibility, possess a flexible retaliatory response and complement its conventional war strategy.


1) The Nukes We Need. (2009, November 1). Foreign Affairs. Retrieved November 20, 2013, from
2) Second Strike. (2010, March 1). Foreign Affairs. Retrieved November 20, 2013, from