U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture For the Second Nuclear Age

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U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture For the Second Nuclear Age
By: Angela Weaver

The United States has left the era of the Cold War behind, entering what author Paul Bracken calls a “Second Nuclear Age.” We have moved from a world of nuclear bipolarity to nuclear multipolarity. Regional rivalries and sectarian conflicts are now taking place in a nuclear context. While stated U.S. policy is to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, some nations are increasing their reliance. How well positioned is the United States to address the challenges posed by this new environment?

The CSIS Defense and National Security Group, led by Dr. Clark Murdock, explore this question in a forthcoming report entitled “Project Atom: A Competitive Strategies Approach to Defining U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture for 2025– 2050.” In this zero-based, “blue sky” review of U.S. nuclear strategy and force posture, teams from three independent think tanks in Washington came together over the course of several months to debate, discuss, and ultimately identify what the U.S. nuclear strategy for 2025–2050 should look like and what U.S. nuclear posture would be needed to support it. While agreement was not always achieved, aspects of the future security environment became clear.

Today, the threats posed by nuclear terrorism and further nuclear proliferation— both to additional states and nonstate actors—are viewed as greater threats than those posed by established nuclear-armed states. Due to the limited utility offered by nuclear weapons in deterring and combating these types of threats, the nuclear mission has been neglected and reliance on nuclear weapons reduced as a matter of policy. The diminished role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy has damaged the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence among allies and ignores the possible strategic effects nuclear weapons can provide during a crisis or conflict, such as the ability of an adversary to escalate their way out of a conflict.

U.S nuclear strategy going into the 2025–2050 timeframe will need to address these credibility issues. Concrete actions, such as forward-deploying U.S. nuclear weapons, may need to be taken. Relying on the strength of U.S. conventional power ignores the reason potential adversaries rely on their own nuclear capabilities. The United States must possess the ability to prevent or answer potential escalation at every level, including limited, discriminate nuclear use. Employable nuclear options at various levels make the option of nuclear escalation unattractive to those who compensate for conventional weakness through nuclear weapons use.

The Project Atom report explores these issues and many others that play into building a nuclear strategy for the future. The report is expected to be released in mid-March 2015.

Angela Weaver is the research assistant and program coordinator for the Defense and National Security Group at CSIS. Other posts by .


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