Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Rediscovering Debates on Nuclear Strategy, for the 21st Century
Rediscovering Debates on Nuclear Strategy, for the 21st Century

Rediscovering Debates on Nuclear Strategy, for the 21st Century

Original Orbis pieces: Albert Wohlstetter, “Threats and Promises of Peace: Europe and America in the New Era,” Orbis vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 1974), and William R. Van Cleave and Roger W. Barnett, “Strategic Adaptability,” Orbis vol. 28, no. 3 (Autumn 1974).

Reasons for revisiting: If we are re-entering an era of “great power competition,” then there is an unavoidable question: what role do nuclear weapons play in that competition? China is set to double its nuclear capacity while it pursues its own nuclear triad. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad L. Sbragia noted in discussing the findings of the 2020 Defense Department report, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is “obviously in pursuit of the full suite of capacities . . . to include the building out of infrastructure for a more modernized, capable and larger capacity in this area.” Meanwhile, the arms control architecture between the United States and Russia is under strain, with Russian President Vladimir Putin warning that they will cease to observe certain moratoria if treaties are not renewed or new negotiations are not undertaken. Meanwhile, efforts to create “triangularity” so as to bring China into any new U.S.-Russian agreements do not look to be successful and may be used by all three powers as a way for “dismantling the nuclear arms control system.”

If we are faced with the question of revisiting the role of nuclear weapons in great power competition, then this pair of articles, which appeared in Orbis in 1974 (along with an earlier piece by Michael May, “Some Advantages of a Counterforce Deterrent,” in Summer 1970) and helped shape the debate about the desirability of strategic arms limitation talks, the purposes of such arrangements, and the role of nuclear weapons in maintaining deterrence, need to be reconsulted. While the situations are not by any means identical, the skepticism about arms control in these articles is reflected in some of the current discussions.

Van Cleave and Barnett argued that the credibility and strength of deterrence depended on a capability “to use nuclear forces in a rational and non-apocalyptic fashion.” In other words, if the use of nuclear weapons were taken off the agenda as an option—even a last-ditch one—then the concept of the nuclear balance of terror as an effective restraint on the actions of the Soviet Union would be removed. It built on Michael May’s earlier observation that it was absolutely necessary for any attacker to be unable “from following up his attack with steps that would lead to further destruction or domination of this country and its allies.”

Wohlstetter was focusing on the question of what happened if deterrence failed—not a welcome prospect, but one which could not be addressed by simply declaring that war “would be an unlimited catastrophe.” Moreover, one could not assume that the unthinkability of war would therefore prevent its occurrence. During the 1970s, Wohlstetter looked for ways to improve the ability of the United States to engage in counterforce operations—being able to target and destroy Soviet capabilities rather than taking revenge on Soviet civilians for the loss of American civilians. Through his work in the Pentagon’s Long-Range Research and Development Program Plan, he also sought ways to improve targeting and accuracy as well as to find non-nuclear ways to destroy or disable an opponent’s military infrastructure.

These articles took the view that even if only a probability of vulnerability of U.S. forces existed, this would be a problem that had to be addressed. Their arguments would feature in debates about arms control and the U.S. strategic arsenal to the end of the Cold War. If we thought that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union ended a need for these types of discussions and conversations, events today suggest that old concepts may be getting a new lease on life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.