Nuclear Orthodoxy After Trump

The Real Requirements of Deterrence

A police officer attends the opening ceremony of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism conference in Miami, Florida, June 11, 2007. Carlos Barria / Reuters

Nuclear deterrence makes the most sense at the most basic level: nuclear weapons deter use by an adversary for fear of retaliation in kind. Deterrence, therefore, requires survivable nuclear capabilities. From this fundamental requirement, there are now approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Most of them are in the United States and Russia. The explanation for why there are so many lies in the layers of nuclear orthodoxy and doctrinal complexity that have accumulated like sediment atop the foundation of nuclear deterrence.

One gets to thousands of nuclear weapons by subscribing to requirements for extreme redundancy—not just a nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles, but also air- and sea-launched cruise missiles to accompany them. Some missiles and all bombers carry more than one warhead. Massive targeting lists are needed to make sense of large numbers of warheads. Add to this the requirement to launch within minutes of learning about a nuclear attack. Add also short-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons. Then add the option of using nuclear weapons first as well as in retaliation.

It is this superstructure of beliefs about nuclear deterrence that leads to high warhead numbers. Few explain such beliefs in detail because they sound so Strangelovian, and most take them on faith since the United States managed to survive the Cold War without nuclear warfare. We choose not to think about the close calls, and we assume that our national leaders will recognize the craziness of the nuclear war-fighting plans. But add in the prospect of a person with deeply suspect personality traits becoming president and the expansive belief system atop nuclear deterrence seems quite worrisome.

An anti-nuclear demonstrator protests in Parliament Square in London March 14, 2007.
An anti-nuclear demonstrator protests in Parliament Square in London March 14, 2007. Stephen Hird / Reuters
During and after the Cold War, the United States looked to treaties to alleviate its concerns about nuclear weapons. Now treaties are unraveling, and nuclear orthodoxy has made a comeback, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and U.S. and Russian strategic modernization programs. The tab for recapitalizing the U.S. triad, plus cruise missiles, plus life cycle

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