The US Nuclear Superpower

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  • by Anup Shah
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Even since mid-2000, while there had been talk of reducing nuclear weapons, the US has been in favor of developing a new low-yield nuclear weapon with earth-penetrating capability. This would appear not to be for the purpose of defense, but more for attack.

Since originally writing the above, George Bush announced an abrogation of the ABM treaty, mid-December 2001. The tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America and the resulting War on Terror was a significant factor for this. However, March 2002 saw Pentagon Nuclear Posture documents describing nuclear options at named countries. As a result, fears about nuclear weapons being turned from deterrents to possible weapons increased further. The New York Times captured some of this quite well:

In its Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon cites the need for new nuclear arms that could have a lower yield and produce less nuclear fallout. The weapons, the Pentagon said, could be designed to destroy underground complexes, including stores of chemical and biological arms. The targets might be situated in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya or North Korea, a reorientation away from cold war scenarios involving Russia.

Throughout the nuclear age, the fundamental goal has been to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, said Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution. Now the policy has been turned upside down. It is to keep nuclear weapons as a tool of war-fighting rather than a tool of deterrence. If military planners are now to consider the nuclear option any time they confront a surprising military development, the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons fades away.

… Mr. Bush’s Pentagon has also pushed for new and more usable nuclear weapons.

Michael R. Gordon, Nuclear Arms for Deterrence or Fighting?, New York Times, March 11, 2002 (Emphasis Added)

As expected, various nations have reacted quite angrily or at least concerned at the U.S. posture.

On this page:

  1. US backs out of nuclear inspections treaty
  2. Option of Nuclear Weapons against Iraq
  3. US Moves Closer to Pre-Emptive Nuclear First Strike Option
  4. Self-fulfilling Prophecy?
  5. Moving from MAD to NUTS?

US backs out of nuclear inspections treaty

As reported by papers such as Washington Post (July 31, 2004) and Sydney Morning Herald (August 2, 2004), the Bush Administration announced that it would back out of a nuclear inspections treaty by opposing provisions for inspections and verification as part of an international treaty to ban production of nuclear weapons materials.

This announcement came at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament on a discussion about a treaty designed to reinforce the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The US and others have pushed for such a treaty for many years, as one of many mechanisms to help prevent proliferation, especially by nations termed as rogue states, and by terrorists.

However, the US said it would support the treaty, but without a way to verify compliance.

As the above-mentioned article also noted, in the recent past, various US officials have demonstrated skepticism about the effectiveness of international weapons inspections. In addition, they said they opposed the treaty because:

  • It would cost too much;
  • Require overly intrusive inspections;
  • Would not guarantee compliance with the treaty;

However, they declined to explain in detail how they believed US security would be undermined by creating a plan to monitor the treaty.

Maybe cost could be a factor, but so much of the world already spends staggering amounts of money on their militaries, sometimes in relation to nuclear weapons.

In addition, intrusive inspections are surely what would be needed as was indirectly argued for against Iraq. Although, there would indeed be concerns that national security and thus national interests could be compromised, as the US themselves pointed out.

While countries may indeed try to hide information to avoid compliance, these inspections are just part of various mechanisms. Furthermore,

  • As the above article notes itself, Arms control specialists said the change in the US position would greatly weaken any treaty and make it harder to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. They said the US move virtually killed a 10-year international effort to persuade countries such as India, Israel and Pakistan to accept some oversight of their nuclear production programs.
  • Charges of US hypocrisy will abound from this, especially considering this announcement came several months after President George Bush declared it a top priority to prevent the production and trafficking in nuclear materials. As the Washington Post also noted, despite that declaration, the administration has opposed other arms-control treaties that rely on inspection regimes. Cited examples included:
    • In 2001, the Bush Administration opposed attempts to create an inspections regime for the Biological Weapons Convention;
    • It signed an arms-reduction deal with Russia that doesn’t include new verification mechanisms; and
    • In its first year in office, the Bush administration pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
  • Also significantly, this will further increase the criticism that the US are really doing this so they can pursue their own nuclear options with less scrutiny, as has been considered recently.

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Option of Nuclear Weapons against Iraq

Before the Iraq invasion in 2003, nuclear weapons were considered as an option. While eventually they were not used against, the fact that they were considered, and how they were considered is what is of issue here.

Military analyst for the Los Angeles Times reported (January 26, 2003) on The Nuclear Option in Iraq; The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon.

Arkin highlights that the Bush administration's decision to actively plan for possible preemptive use of such weapons, especially as so-called bunker busters, against Iraq represents a significant lowering of the nuclear threshold. It rewrites the ground rules of nuclear combat in the name of fighting terrorism. (Emphasis is original)

  • Nuclear weapons have long been considered to be used as either a matter of immediate national survival, or in retaliation to a nuclear strike.
  • But now, to raise the possibility of using these weapons in a preemptive strike sends a hypocritical message to the rest of the world, especially other nuclear powers, or states considering their nuclear options, who could conceivably choose to lower their own thresholds for nuclear use.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would also both be breached.

Arkin adds another concern that the decision-making of nuclear use options is being more and more concentrated, thus making dissent harder to hear:

At the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha and inside planning cells of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, target lists are being scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of preemption.

... [T]here are dangers in concentrating the revision of nuclear policy within a single military command, STRATCOM, which until now has been focused strictly on strategic -- not policy -- issues of nuclear combat. Command staff members have unrivaled expertise in the usage and effects of nuclear weapons, but their expertise does not extend to the whys of weapons usage.

Entrusting major policy reviews to tightly controlled, secret organizations inside the Pentagon is a hallmark of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's tenure. Doing so streamlines decision-making and encourages new thinking, advocates say.

But it also bypasses dissenters, many of whom are those in the armed services with the most knowledge and the deepest experience with the issues. The Bush inner circle is known to be a tight bunch, prone to group think about Iraq and uninterested in having its assumptions challenged. But there are opinions they need to hear. While most military officers seem to consider the likelihood of our using nuclear weapons in Iraq to be low, they worry about the increased importance placed on them and about the contradictions inherent in contemplating the use of nuclear weapons for the purpose of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

William Arkin, The Nuclear Option in Iraq; The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2003 [Link is to reposted version at] (Emphasis Added)

Furthermore, options are being considered to use nuclear weapons in the event that chemical and biological weapons are used:

Defense secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] sent Bush a memorandum asking for authority to place Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., the STRATCOM commander, in charge of the full range of strategic warfare options to combat terrorist states and organizations.

The memo, obtained by The Times, recommended assigning all responsibilities for dealing with foreign weapons of mass destruction, including global strike; integrated missile defense; [and] information operations to STRATCOM. That innocuous-seeming description of responsibilities covers enormous ground, bringing everything from the use of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear strikes to covert and special operations to cyber warfare and strategic deception under the purview of nuclear warriors.

Earlier this month, Bush approved Rumsfeld's proposal. On the surface, these new assignments give the command a broader set of tools to avoid nuclear escalation. In reality, they open the door much wider to contemplating American use of nuclear weapons. The use of biological or chemical weapons against the U.S. military could be seen as worthy of the same response as a Russian nuclear attack. If Iraq were to use biological or chemical weapons during a war with the United States, it could have tragic consequences, but it would not alter the war's outcome. Our use of nuclear weapons to defeat Hussein, on the other hand, has the potential to create a political and global disaster, one that would forever pit the Arab and Islamic world against us.

William Arkin, The Nuclear Option in Iraq; The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2003 [Link is to reposted version at] (Emphasis Added)

The BBC also revealed a report from the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament organization, that a leaked document suggests that Washington is beginning detailed planning for a new generation of smaller nuclear weapons. This has raised further concerns of double standards; that Iraq is not allowed to have such weapons, while the U.S. can, and also breach the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in the process.

In an interview with the BBC (see the previous BBC page for a link to a Real Audio of the interview), Dan Plesch of the Royal United Services Institute, an organization that studies defence and international security, said that the U.S. position amounted to a policy which is do as we say, not as we do, when it comes to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. We have nuclear weapons; other people can't have it.

For additional information see

  • An interview with William Arkin for additional discussions, by Democracy Now! radio, January 30, 2003, archived online).
  • US 'plans new nuclear weapons', BBC, February 19, 2003
  • Nuclear Weapons Conference, February 14, 2003 from the nuclear watchdog, Los Alamos Study Group, which released a leaked Pentagon document (from January 10, 2003) detailing the planning process for developing and building new nuclear weapons for small strikes.
  • This site’s section on the Iraq crisis for further background and issues relating to the sanctions, build up for war, etc.

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US Moves Closer to Pre-Emptive Nuclear First Strike Option

On September 11, 2005, the Washington Post reported that,

The Pentagon has drafted a revised doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons that envisions commanders requesting presidential approval to use them to preempt an attack by a nation or a terrorist group using weapons of mass destruction. The draft also includes the option of using nuclear arms to destroy known enemy stockpiles of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. (Emphasis Added)

The first example for potential nuclear weapon use listed in the draft is against an enemy that is using or intending to use WMD against U.S. or allied, multinational military forces or civilian populations.

Another scenario for a possible nuclear preemptive strike is in case of an imminent attack from adversary biological weapons that only effects from nuclear weapons can safely destroy.

That and other provisions in the document appear to refer to nuclear initiatives proposed by the administration that Congress has thus far declined to fully support.

The draft says that to deter a potential adversary from using such weapons, that adversary’s leadership must believe the United States has both the ability and will to pre-empt or retaliate promptly with responses that are credible and effective. The draft also notes that U.S. policy in the past has repeatedly rejected calls for adoption of no first use policy of nuclear weapons since this policy could undermine deterrence.

Walter Pincus, Pentagon Revises Nuclear Strike Plan, Washington Post, September 11, 2005

The significance of this draft is that the Pentagon would like to use nuclear weapons if they suspect another nation is going to use them. What is of concern is that during the build up to the Iraq crisis, the US and its allied were convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq, and yet, they did not exist. How can the US be confident next time of using a nuclear weapon?

For the moment the US has canceled one of its controversial nuclear programs: the mini-nuke or bunker busting nuclear warhead, a small nuclear weapon designed to penetrate deep bunkers. The concern at this stage was the ability to contain any fall-out. Other nuclear options remain.

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Self-fulfilling Prophecy?

The Pentagon can make an understandable point about other nations possibly developing weapons of mass destruction. However, there is an increasing risk that the U.S. rhetoric could also become a self full-filling prophecy.

  • That is, (using an over-simplified scenario, for sake of explanation), if the U.S. claims the need to create more nuclear weapons or to pursue more nuclear options for attack purposes on the grounds that others might develop and use them, then other countries might become more concerned at the advantage the U.S. military will have, and may feel threatened by such a formidable nuclear superpower.
  • Hence, it is very possible that these nations might spend more on military to increase their abilities
  • As a result, we would have a scenario where the U.S. seemed right to pursue such policies, but it was instead a self full-filling prophecy.

For a while now, even before September 11 and its aftermath, it has been argued that an arms race and large military build ups by the more powerful nations in general can be detrimental to global security because of the insecurity it may cause to smaller nations who might feel that they need to arm themselves even more so. (See for example, this site’s page on foreign policy.)

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Moving from MAD to NUTS?

From Mutually Assured Destruction, we are moving to a Nuclear Use Theory.

In addition to the New York Times citation above, the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, while commenting on the build up for possible war with Iraq at the end of 2002, highlights well the potentially dangerous changes in the nuclear policy and doctrines:

The UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq represent an even more dodgy new interpretation. This time the act of self-defence will be carried out years before the attacked assesses that he could, perhaps, be hit, i.e. pre-emptively. Unfortunately for the UN, international law holds no provisions for such pre-emptive policies or wars. They are found only in recent strategic documents from the Bush regime. Even worse, they contain a philosophical demolition of the principles of deterrence that enables the United States to use weapons of mass-destruction against countries that are not known to possess such weapons but are judged to be able to possess them some time into the future.

In short, instead of moving towards general and complete disarmament world-wide, or the abolition of all WMD (Weapons of Mass-Destruction) we are moving from MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to the fundamentally immoral and destabilising NUTs (Nuclear Use Theories).

Jorgen Johansen and Jan Oberg, A UN mandate does not make war on Iraq right!, Press Info #168, Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF), December 28, 2002

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
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Document revision history

US moves closer to pre-emptive nuclear strike option
Added a subsection on how US backs out of nuclear inspections treaty.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.