With the possible exception of the early years of American atomic capabilities (from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s), we became not only the most sophisticated nuclear power in the history of the world, but also the one country I was completely convinced would never respond with nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats. There was some flirtation with a first-strike policy, especially during the days of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” moment, but even such horrible flirtations were imagined only in the context of substantial nuclear threats by a comparable nuclear power (the Soviet Union).
So, today I was astonished to learn from the pages of the New York Times ("Pentagon suggests countering devastating cyberattacks with nuclear arms", January 16, 2017) that the Pentagon has formally recommended to the White House the use of nuclear weapons in response to a range of threats that are not nuclear threats to the United States. These would include “large” scale cyberattacks.
This is not the first time the Pentagon has proposed use of nuclear weapons under “extreme circumstances”; it did so as well under the Obama Administration. But what has changed here is a broadening of what is considered extreme, to include cyberattacks as well.
I can understand the concern. A well-coordinated cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure would cause havoc with our economy, with society in general, and perhaps have a dramatic impact on the Pentagon’s command and control operations. It would be “huge”.
But does it warrant the first-strike use of nuclear weapons? Is it possible that we would plan to use nuclear weapons against countries that don’t have nuclear capabilities? Is it possible that a military that consumes over $600 billion annually does not have in its arsenal responses that would not require the first-use of nuclear weapons? The strategy envisions the manufacture and deployment of a new generation of “small, low-yield” nuclear weapons to be used in these “extreme” circumstances.
What for? We really don’t have enough punching power in our incredibly large, technologically impressive arsenal and so we are willing to seriously entertain nuclear usage in this type of confrontation?
Apart from the expense (approximately $2 trillion to upgrade our nuclear arsenal) and the horror of nuclear use, there is awful lot here that requires further examination and questioning. Historically, the heavy investment in nuclear capabilities was primarily justified in terms of deterrence against the Soviet Union. As long as the Kremlin understood that any nuclear first strike attempt on their part would guarantee a retaliation that would destroy the Soviet Union completely, the policy assured that Moscow’s leadership would commit suicide by starting this type of war, and therefore would not do so.
And at some level, deterrence worked. In fact, it worked so well that no nation with nuclear capabilities (apart from our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II) has ever used its nuclear weapons against another, even when its opponent had no capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons. It is a threshold that no nation wanted to cross.
Now, what has changed? Possibly this is another deterrence strategy, warning cyberbullies that they face the threat of nuclear weapons should they engage in a serious cyberattack on the United States. Unfortunately, history has taught us that deterrence attempts on the part of a nuclear power against a nation without nuclear weapons does not work.
No one can put the nuclear genie back into the bottle. But until now, the world has done a pretty good job in not letting it out all the way. That could soon change. It is not a legacy I am willing to leave to my children.
Before we go much further down this road, we should rethink where we are going. A first-use doctrine of this sort invites fear and mimicking on the part of those nations who can also build such weapons and could soon deploy them.
That would make for a far more dangerous world than the Pentagon’s assessment of how troubled the world actually seems at the moment.
Tom Volgy is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona and the former Executive Director of the International Studies Association.