Friday, 23 September 2011

Nuclear Strategy and "A World without Nuclear Weapon"?

President Barrack Obama gave a press release at the Nuclear Security Summit 2012 in Seoul, South Korea.  In Prague in 2009, he promised to have "a world withouth nuclear weapon".

Trident Missile 

Cold war between United States (US) and the former Soviet Union has gone but the some critical problems have been left unsolved. Huge stockpile of nuclear weapons held by both sides is one of the major problems left by Cold War and arm race. Not like conventional weapon, if just one of those nuclear warheads is used, it would take millions of life. More or less, we can say the world is facing the nightmare of nuclear weapons. However, nuclear arm reduction efforts has taken place since the mid of Cold War to save the world from being plunged endlessly into nuclear arm race. Now, not only the five nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France) in the UN Security Council, who possess these Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), but India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, and North Korea are now also trying to get into the nuclear club.

The proliferation of nuclear weapon, promotion of anti-proliferation regimes, and possibility of conventional wars with the ultimate use of nuclear weapon are under hot debate in the world. Interestingly, the US is facing with new nuclear-armed adversaries, such as China, Iran, and North Korea. So, it is dealing two difficult tasks at the same time. The US is pursuing strategic nuclear arm reduction with Russia while it has to maintain deterrence against old and new adversaries. In this connection, Lieber and Press (2009) has conducted an aggressive research on development of US’s nuclear strategy which prompt many criticisms on their provocative recommendation for the US to maintain its deterrence through the use of low-yield nuclear weapons with accurate precision.

There are two different views on how the US should deal with the nuclear threat caused by new and old adversaries. The first view is suggesting the US to preserve mix of capabilities, especially low-yield nuclear weapon, to deter its adversaries. The second view is focusing on devaluation of nuclear weapon through diplomacy and negotiation, and promotion of nuclear control regime.

For the first view, Lieber and Press (2009) argue that the US should maintain deterrence through the capability and credibility to carry out threat. In the new security environment, the US is facing conventional wars with the nuclear-armed adversaries. They suggest the US to develop low-yield weapon with high-accuracy delivery system as the backbone of its nuclear deterrent. Such weapon has high probability of destroying any mobile nuclear missile or even missile silos without causing high casualties. Simulation study has been conducted by the two authors, using Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability (HPAC) to estimate the consequence of a US’s nuclear attack. They find that the high-yield warhead would take million of lives through widespread fallout. This would give US’s President no acceptable choice. So, the deterrence should be credible by using low-yield nuclear warhead which only takes small loss of lives. They argue that “it needs a force that gives US leaders retaliatory options they might actually employ.” In short, their idea is to strengthen counterforce capabilities with credible use of low-yield warhead as the new deterrence policy for the US.

On the second view, Lodal, Acton, Kristensen et al (2010), support for the devaluation of nuclear weapon through diplomacy and negotiation, and promotion of nuclear control regime. They strongly criticize Lieber and Press’s Article for provocative study and suggestions (preemptive nuclear attacks against explicit nuclear threats), which are deemed unacceptable and useless in the current nuclear disarmament efforts of “A World without Nuclear Weapon” announced by President Barrack Obama in 2009. In contrast, they recommend that the US nuclear policy should focus on convincing all states to abandon their nuclear weapon program through peaceful means and creating a worldwide nuclear control regime to stop proliferation.

As far as it concerns, Lieber and Press are right in pointing out that we should not take deterrence for granted. US’s deterrence capability and credibility should be strengthened to prevent its adversaries from being opted to use nuclear weapon. Now, given the US’s superiority in term of military power, conventional warfare could escalate into the threat of using nuclear weapons by US’s adversaries like North Korea or Iran or even China to make deterrence and to sustain their regime. This is a new security environment that US’s adversaries may be now ready for nuclear warheads and try to pursue the “delicate balance of terror” as argued by Albert Wohlstetter. He states that balance is a product of sustained intelligence efforts and hard choices. In line with this, Lieber and Press suggest that US’s President should be provided with acceptable retaliatory option (using low-yield nuclear weapon) during nuclear escalation. To do this, the US has to maintain mix capability of its nuclear force, especially the low-yield. So, Lieber and Press argue for the strengthening of US’s deterrence capability. In fact, it is true that if US’s leader take deterrence for granted, the adversaries would doubt US’s threat. Taking into account the increasing importance of human right issue, US’s adversaries may be convinced that US would never use the high-yield nuclear warhead on their nuclear arsenals or mobile missiles since the high-yield one would take millions of civilian lives.

Pursuing the policy of deterrence by the super powers has saved the world until today. So, there is no point to stop this policy. The fact that we have a “long peace” is contributed by the policy of deterrence or mutual assured destruction implemented by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. To put it simple, the concept on nuclear weapon has been changed from an offensive weapon into a deterrence weapon due to fear of mutual destruction. However, Albert Wohlstetter warns us that the delicate balance of terror is so dangerous because of accidental outbreak of war. To cope with this problem, we need sufficient resources, timely intelligence, and correct decision by state leaders, especially the US, to deal with the challenging crisis which might develop into nuclear confrontation. President John F. Kennedy had done so well in dealing with Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to save the US, and of course the world, which was on the edge of nuclear war.

In short, it does not mean that President Obama’s speech of “a World without Nuclear Weapon” is nonsense or useless. However, it officially conveys the goodwill of the US in contributing to nuclear arm reduction efforts. However, at the same time, the US already pursues the policy of strengthening its deterrence through use of low-yield nuclear warhead with accurate precision technology. Given the new security and human rights challenges, the nukes that the US really need are likely the low-yield nuclear warheads.



Lieber, A. K. and Press, G.D. (2009). The nukes we need: Preserving the American Deterrent. In Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol 88(6). p. 39-51

Lodal, J., Acton, M.J., Kristtensen, M.H. et al (2010). Second strike: Is the U.S. nuclear arsenal outmoded? In Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol 89(2). p. 145-152

Wohlstetter, A. (1958). The Delicate balance of terror. Retrieved on April 23, 2010, from

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