Beating a dead horse?

ILPI Publications > Background Papers

The military utility of nuclear weapons

By Cecilie Hellestveit & Kjølv Egeland
2 October 2014

Nuclear weapons are commonly presented and perceived as political tools.  Yet, the merit of any tool ultimately hinges on its practical utility. The military doctrines of contemporary nuclear-armed states and alliances refer to nuclear weapons’ ability to deter aggressors, bolster non-proliferation, and contribute to alliance cohesion. As for practical application, it has been argued that nuclear weapons could be used as either bunker busters, neutralizers of other weapons of mass destruction, or in the defence of national territory and vital interests. Critically analysing these suggested areas of use, the authors find that the viability of using nuclear weapons for such tasks is highly limited, and generally equalled by alternative means. If appropriate uses for nuclear weapons cannot be found, states should divert the resources invested in such weapons to conventional technologies in order to increase their defensive capability.

Background Paper No 14/2015 Published: September 2014

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The end of the Cold War pushed nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction out of the public consciousness. The dramatic geopolitical upheavals caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact brought new security issues such as humanitarian intervention, international terrorism, and organized crime to the fore.  Nuclear weapons were seen as irrelevant for these purposes, so the tide turned towards denuclearization on the one hand, and smaller, ‘useable’ nuclear weapons on the other. Yet a change in the political climate would not necessarily affect the materially determined premises of the military utility of nuclear weapons. In the debate on nuclear disarmament, proponents of nuclear retention typically claim that although the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons may be bad, one should not forget the military or security dimension of nuclear weapons.[1] Evidently, some states and commentators implicitly argue that the reason why nuclear weapons have proven so difficult to get rid off is that they are in fact useful weapons. On the other hand, some have raised questions about the actual utility of nuclear weapons, arguing that ‘if you cannot use them, lose them!’[2] In the following, we explore this fundamental dispute by way of analysing the practical military viability of resorting to nuclear force: are nuclear weapons more useful than other weapons? 

In this paper, military utility is understood as the state or quality of being useful in military operations. Utility comes in degrees; a weapon can have more or less military utility, but in the context of nuclear weapons (which the international community has vowed to get rid of), the crucial point is whether such weapons are more or less useful than alternative means. Thus, the relative military utility of nuclear weapons is the added value of using nuclear rather than conventional weapons in a given situation.

A classical distinction is made between strategic and tactical (or non-strategic) nuclear weapons. While tactical nuclear weapons are intended for battlefield use and commonly have smaller yields, strategic nuclear weapons are larger weapons intended for use on large military bases and terror bombing of populated areas. Discussion about of the utility of nuclear weapons in the post Cold War era has focused on tactical weapons and strategic nuclear weapons with smaller yields (e.g. nuclear bunker busters), referred to as ‘useable’ nuclear weapons. While strategic nuclear weapons are at the heart of the argument about political deterrence (treated in sub-section 3), this papers concentrates on the presumed utility of actual military use. Given this focus, any derived utility of strategic bombing of major population centres in defence of ones own country – sometimes referred to as ‘counter value’ strategy – is largely ignored here. The inherent ability of a weapon to destroy military targets in general does not change between first, second, and third strike.

The article starts by presenting how the use of nuclear weapons is reflected in contemporary military doctrines. Then, before analysing the military utility of nuclear weapons, their political nature is briefly explored.

Military doctrines and use

The military doctrines promulgated by the major nuclear powers over the past five years reflect that the anticipated operational application of nuclear weapons has changed from the Cold War era. But they do not suggest that nuclear weapons are becoming obsolete.

In line with Obama’s 2009 Prague speech, the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review reduces the circumstances in which the United States will resort to the use of nuclear weapons. The Review emphasizes non-proliferation as a rationale for retention, and – in an attempt at dissuading potential enemies from developing nuclear weapons and incentivizing adherence to the non-proliferation regime – restricts potential targets to states that are either non-compliant or not parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Compared to previous reviews (2000s and 1990s), the doctrine goes far in renouncing the use of nuclear weapons against states contemplating developing biological or chemical weapons if the state is otherwise compliant with the NPT. Military action against such threats will supposedly be a graduated conventional response, thereby restricting the projected use of nuclear weapons for non-proliferation purposes. Nevertheless, the US continues to reserve the right of first use. NATO similarly does not have a no first use policy, and maintains that ‘as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.’[3]

A different development is discernable in the 2010 Russian doctrine.[4] In contrast to the developments in the US, Russia appears to expand the category of cases in which it will resort to nuclear force: Whether the threat is conventional or unconventional, massive attacks against Russia or her allies may occasion resort to nuclear strikes. The approach echoes an expansive aspect found in the French doctrine from 2008, which suggests that all options are on the table irrespective of the provenance or form of the initial aggression.[5] China has persistently maintained a no-first use posture.[6] However, a deliberate ambiguity in the Chinese doctrinal approach[7] has triggered speculations that China’s 2012 White Paper redirected a purely retaliatory approach to one in which China will ‘take all measures necessary to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial sovereignty’.[8]

as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.

The various doctrines share an emphasis on non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Yet, they also suggest that nuclear weapons retain a role in safeguarding national territory, with no explicit restrictions on first use. While the political discourse in recent years has been on denuclearization, contemporary military doctrines of core nuclear states continue to reflect an essential role for nuclear weapons as an instrument of military might.

Political role

Before diving into the debates about how the projected use of nuclear weapons could benefit military operations, the following section outlines the most important political utilities of nuclear weapons, defined as a means of influencing behaviour short of the application of military force. Indeed, nuclear weapons are often viewed as political ‘tools’ rather than weapons of war.[9]


By conventional wisdom, the primary political function of nuclear weapons is their deterrent effect.[10] Supposedly having prevented the outbreak of war between the major powers, deterrence is in certain circles presented as a great success story.[11] According to deterrence theorists, the deterrent effect comes not from the efficient application of force, but from the exploitation of potential force:[12] If nuclear weapons actually have to be used, deterrence has failed. Nuclear weapons also contribute to what is referred to as ‘self-deterrence’ – the idea that the catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons also deters their holders from using force.[13] At a rudimentary level, there are two ways in which nuclear deterrence theoretically might contribute to peace and stability:

First, nuclear deterrence could prevent high tensions from turning violent. For example, it is commonplace to see Cold War events such as the Berlin Crisis (1961) and Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) as evidence that nuclear deterrence reliably controls the initiation of the use of force (despite claims that Kennedy did not step down when confronted with the possibility of nuclear war, and the fact that the nuclear weapons were the reason tensions were running high in the first place).[14] This game of contingent threat and counter threat grows precariously more complicated and less stable in its multipolar version with more players.[15] The basic logic nevertheless remains the same: violent intentions are cooled down by the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

Second, nuclear weapons could contain violent conflicts at a ‘reasonable’ level. In an on-going conflict involving two states or alliances possessing nuclear capabilities, launching a massive scale attack would make sense only if the precipitating threat were of a scale commensurate with the risk of nuclear war. If they do not deter violence altogether, then, nuclear weapons may deter actors from using massive force. This is believed to be a reason why aggressors in recent decades have kept the scope and scale of their attacks at a fairly low level.[16] The suggestion is that the possibility of a war turning nuclear remains a Rubicon that will prevent war between two or more states with nuclear weapons from escalating. Again, the effect comes not from the application of force, but from the inverse: mutual interest in the non-use of nuclear weapons. The underlying premise is that the real threats states face fall below the threshold that makes the use of nuclear weapons rational.

Nuclear-armed states face what is known in game theory as a ‘game of chicken’. This entails that the more assertive nuclear power can get away with almost anything with impunity, as both the attacker and the attacked want to avoid nuclear war at all costs. This logic suggests that there is much less difference between a symmetric nuclear relationship and an asymmetric one (in which supposed ‘nuclear blackmail’ would be possible) than some would have it. There is also considerable doubt as to whether nuclear weapons were in fact responsible for the ‘long peace’ of the latter half of the twentieth century.[17] Any claim that they were has to be built on difficult counterfactual arguments.

Alliance cohesion

A second political function of nuclear weapons is to maintain allied cohesion and solidarity through reassurance. This has often been suggested to be the case with NATO,[18] and several of the alliance’s strategic concepts have underlined that nuclear weapons have been instrumental to alliance solidarity.[19] Some commentators have claimed that a NATO missile defence has the potential to substitute for NATO’s nuclear burden sharing.[20] Yet others have argued that it is not nuclear weapons, but a shared set of values and interests that both have and will continue to secure the allies’ support for the mutual defence commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.[21] The problem, however, is that the cohesive effect of nuclear weapons is dependent on the allies’ perception that they are useful. It becomes obsolete in the absence of a military raison d’être for the weapons.

Non-proliferation and nuclear umbrellas

A third political effect concerns non-proliferation within military alliances. This argument has also abounded in the literature on NATO: since the US is apparently taking care of business, friendly countries are relieved of the pressure to acquire their own WMD. The 2009 Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, led by former Secretaries of Defence Perry and Schlesinger, concludes that ‘our [US] military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, underwrite US security guarantees to our allies, without which many of them would feel enormous pressures to create their own nuclear arsenals.’[22] Similar language has been adopted by the French.[23]

The underlying premise of this argument seems to be that some or even most states long for the protection offered by nuclear weaponry, but are content with assurances of protection by a nuclear-armed friend. On the other hand, there is no evidence that European states would immediately develop nuclear weapons in the absence of the US’ nuclear umbrella. To the contrary, several European leaders have claimed that they fail to see the utility of nuclear arms.[24] Furthermore, if it were indeed true that US nuclear weapons dissuade proliferation within NATO, a logical implication seems to be that the same nuclear weapons incentivizes nuclear security strategies outside NATO, for example by forcing adversaries into nuclear alliances with other nuclear-armed states such as Russia or China. In that sense, nuclear umbrellas may also promote proliferation.

several European leaders have claimed that they fail to see the utility of nuclear arms

The political utility of nuclear weapons is to a large part dependent on the weapons’ military utility. If no viable military use can be found, the rationale upon which the political utility is predicated will logically start to erode. This brings us to the core question of this article: what military utility may the use of nuclear weapons offer in a contemporary setting?

Military utility

There is a propensity in military circles to insist on experience-based thinking and operational empirical evidence. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the only examples of use, nuclear weapons offer little of the sort.[25] Theoretical projections and assumptions have therefore formed the main basis for assessing of the utility of nuclear weapons.

Judging from literature and the existing doctrines of the major nuclear powers, there are notably three scenarios in which nuclear weapons supposedly offer a military advantage compared to other weapons. The first is their ability to destroy facilities buried deep into the ground on hostile territory, for example WMD stockpiles. The second is their ability to burn chemical and/or biological agents before the enemy can deploy them. The third is the last resort of destroying an invading foreign force with tactical nuclear weapons.

Bunker-buster: Destroying hard or deeply buried targets

When the Cold War ended and great power war no longer appeared as threatening, nuclear retentionists stumbled over a new argument. By putting old technology to new use, a new era for nuclear weapons dawned: it was the advent of the nuclear bunker-buster.[26]

Numerous countries and possibly non-state actors have dug deep, large, and seemingly impregnable caves underground. More than 70 countries are believed to be pursuing defence related activities in such underground facilities.[27] Bunkers may be used as operational centres essential to maintaining the war-effort, sheltering leadership centres, command, control and communication centres, and serving as storage and deployment facilities for weapons of mass destruction. Some of these ‘hard and deeply buried targets’ (HDBT)[28] are located up to 700 meters underground (about 2300 feet). Estimates put the number of subterranean WMD bunker and command centres at around 1400.[29]

After 2001, the Bush administration indicated that the United States would seek to develop the capabilities to destroy these types of facilities.[30] The prevailing argument was that earth-penetrating nuclear weapons (‘nuclear bunker busters’) provided the best option. A nuclear earth penetrator could supposedly effectively reach the desired HDBT without undue surface effects that would otherwise inhibit such an attack. A useable nuclear weapon? The idea was intensely discussed.[31]

Development of nuclear earth penetrating technology dates back to (at least) the 1950s.[32] However, such weapons are not believed able to destroy a hardened target deeper than 70 meter under the earth surface.[33] A study from 2005 by the US National Academy of Sciences suggested that even the best design available would have only limited penetration ability into solid earth.[34] Studies have furthermore shown that subterranean nuclear explosions as far down as 100 meters cause substantial damage on the surface.[35] According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, nuclear earth penetrators could actually produce more fallout than nuclear explosions on the surface, as a greater volume of earth could be thrown up into the air.[36] Consequently, the supposedly more benign consequences of the nuclear bunker buster are highly questionable. There are also problems with the accuracy of such attacks. Lastly, while earth-penetrating weapons-technology may be improving, so may technologies for digging deeper bunkers. Just as it is easier to extend a ladder than to build a higher wall, being able to penetrate deeper would simply incentivize moving the bunkers further down.

Conventional weapon systems with the same capability as nuclear earth penetrating technology are currently being developed. For example, the BLU-118B, developed to carry thermo baric explosives with extreme sustained heat, may be an equally effective alternative – but with much less dire long-term effects.[37]

Use of nuclear weapons to neutralize biological or chemical weapons

According to some commentators, nuclear weapons offer military advantages in countering WMD threats. Disquieting reports about clandestine inventories of unconventional arms, or facilities for their production, in various rogue and failed states have continuously surfaced over the past decades. Some estimates suggest that a dozen countries may secretly possess nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.[38]

While attempting to destroy an adversary’s WMD capabilities with conventional weapons may in fact compromise the containers of biological or chemical substances – releasing deadly chemical and biological agents into the atmosphere – it has been suggested that nuclear weapons could neutralize this threat by instantly incinerating biological and chemical agents with its extreme, germicidal heat.[39]

Serious doubt has been raised, however, about whether the heat produced by a nuclear explosion is sufficient for this purpose. The immense heat of a nuclear explosion is instant, but destroying chemical agents normally requires sustained high temperatures. The current method used for destroying chemical weapons is to cook them at 1400°C for 50 minutes, a method criticized by some for being too short.[40]  More disturbingly still, if the heat does not succeed in destroying the biological or chemical material, the shock wave and debris caused by the nuclear explosion could become the perfect platform for spreading hazardous substances over vast distances.[41] Moreover, attacking biological and chemical weapons deposits would require an extreme amount of precision and intelligence, because missing by only some meters could have devastating effects.

Owing to these fundamental difficulties related to employing nuclear weapons to destroy chemical or biological agents, such use has largely been dismissed.[42] It is also believed that current nuclear inventories are not configured for such tasks.[43] In most cases, the immediate and prolonged effects of a nuclear explosion would far outlast that of chemical and biological agents.[44] It can reasonably be argued that alternative means would be more appropriate for the task, such as thermo baric or fuel explosives producing more persisting heat.[45]

Defending the home base: Life on the edge of the umbrella

An element consistently expressed in military doctrines is the ability of nuclear weapons to protect against an invading army.[46] As weapons with the potential to inflict damage on an almost unimaginable scale, they offer their users the option of halting entire divisions of tanks and armoured infantry. In this section, we discuss how the North Atlantic Area might be defended using nuclear weapons.

As early as 1954, NATO’s Military Committee concluded in a ministerial session that the Alliance would be ‘unable to prevent the rapid overrunning of Europe unless NATO immediately employed these [nuclear] weapons.’[47] In effect, this was the doctrinal birth of the nuclear umbrella. At a summit in Paris a few years later, a group of member states agreed to stockpile US tactical nuclear weapons on their soil, largely in response to the Soviets developing the Sputnik missile, which had demonstrated the latter’s dexterity with long-range missile technology.[48] Operationally deployed US nuclear weapons remain in stockpile in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey to this day.[49]

Operationally deployed US nuclear weapons remain in stockpile in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey to this day

Two observations about NATO’s nuclear policy is particularly interesting in this context, both of them relating to the way in which the nuclear umbrella distributes risk: First, for the countries that are located in the buffer zone on the geographical edge of the umbrella, the utility of using nuclear weapons to halt an invading army looks very different from how it might look from a safer position. Second, the facilities in which the US nuclear weapons are hosted provide obvious targets in a nuclear exchange involving NATO.

Since the early Cold War, the American nuclear umbrella (or ‘extended deterrence’) has supposedly protected the non-nuclear North Atlantic Area from Soviet, Russian, or any other aggression. Should the Russians attack; their invading forces would have to consider a barrage of tactical nuclear weapons. The utility of nuclear weapons in this case would be to effectively and directly destroy the adversary’s military capability.[50] If the credibility of deterrence was truly tested, and NATO felt compelled to bolster it by resorting to nuclear force, how would the weapons be used? If Russia attacked northern Norway, for example, how would Norway’s NATO ally the United Kingdom use its nuclear weapons to actually protect this area? Nuclear umbrellas allegedly offer security benefits both to the one holding the umbrella and to the ones scrambling for a dry spot on its edge. Yet as anyone prone to forgetting her umbrella will know, its better to stand in the centre.

The Buffer Zone Effect

Europe is protected by the Atlantic Ocean in the west. In the east, Scandinavia, Eastern, and Southern Europe act as a buffer zone stretching into the vast Eurasian landmass. Logically, this is where the tactical nuclear weapons would be used if NATO were forced to repel an invading army. If Russia decided to invade a NATO member state (which should be viewed as very unlikely), both sides would face strong pressures to escalate the situation until the associated costs clearly cancelled out its perceived or expected benefits. The temptation to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons would surely arise.

In the event that NATO did use nuclear weapons in an attempt at destroying an invading Russian force rolling into the North Atlantic Area, nuclear weapons would be dropped on the territories of the European states in the buffer zone. To stop an advancing Russian army from taking Bucharest, it would have to be halted in Galați or Iași. To stop it from taking Berlin, it would have to be halted in Warsaw or Vilnius. Using nuclear weapons to halt an invading army or to destroy the enemy’s military capability would most likely break the nuclear taboo, and open Pandora’s box. Russia would probably respond with strategic strikes against NATO bases – particularly the nuclear stockpiles in France, the UK, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands – and any amassed NATO forces at the frontline would become targets of Russian tactical strikes. The Russian retaliation would likely be far more injurious to the attacked state than the expected outcome of the initial threat. The humanitarian consequences would most likely be immense, and radiation would hamper efforts at reconstruction and development. The main brunt of the hostilities would, in other words, be felt the hardest in the NATO state one was attempting to defend in the first place.

To stop an advancing Russian army from taking Bucharest, it would have to be halted in Galati or Iași. To stop it from taking Berlin, it would have to be halted in Warsaw or Vilnius.

The obvious unevenness in the military utility of nuclear weapons for buffer states and non-buffer states (it would place buffer states at risk of nuclear devastation but probably serve to protect non-buffer states) is used as an argument why ‘it is difficult to imagine the twenty-eight democracies of NATO agreeing to initiate the use of nuclear weapons.’[51] Indeed, the Swedish and Polish Foreign Ministers[52] noted in 2010 that ‘[w]hile the strategic nuclear weapons are seen as a mutual threat by the United States and Russia, nations like ours – Sweden and Poland – could have stronger reason to be concerned with the large number of these tactical nuclear weapons’, as they appear to be deployed ‘in theoretical preparation for conflict in our part of the world.’[53] Similarly, many Germans have questioned how the nuclear weapons in Europe could possibly hit targets beyond friendly nations, given the maximum range of strike fighters currently available.[54]

Russia rejected Obamas Prague Agenda as a ‘clever American plot’

In a world without nuclear weapons, Russian aggression would have to be deterred or defeated by conventional means and methods. As Russia does not enjoy conventional superiority (as many believed it to do during much of the Cold War), NATO should be confident that over time it could muster conventional forces to compel Russia to withdraw or else face defeat. This fact is one suggested explanation for why Russia rejected Obamas Prague Agenda as a ‘clever American plot’.[55]

The Stockpile Effect

Since the early Cold War, American nuclear weapons have been stockpiled in a number of European countries.[56] This is by many seen as bolstering the deterrence posture of NATO as a whole, and from the United States’ side, it is also argued that ‘maintaining a nuclear capability in Europe could prevent an aggressor in a confrontation with the US from seeking out Europe as a “second-best” target.’[57] But the inverse argument – hinted at in the paragraph above – appears equally reasonable; that the presence of nuclear weapons in fact increases the likelihood of an attack against certain European states.[58]

Once deterrence fails, the US nuclear weapons stockpiles in Europe would constitute obvious targets for Russian nuclear attack. Since retaliatory strikes would be of great concern, any attack against a nuclear facility would likely be massive, aiming to destroy as much as possible of NATO’s nuclear capabilities.[59] The German push for withdrawal of the American nuclear weapons from their country may be seen in light of both the ‘stockpiler effect’ and the ‘buffer zone effect’, as Germany was arguably the most important buffer state during most of the Cold War. The Germans’ cooling stance on nuclear weapons is met with the argument that the burden would simply shift to other allies; the US and the other European host nations would ‘do the hard work of explaining the logic of nuclear deterrence to their own publics, so that Germany may enjoy the benefits.’[60] Yet if the actual benefits of nuclear weapons prove as elusive as they seem, the argument for retention becomes much more difficult.

Once deterrence fails, the US nuclear weapons stockpiles in Europe would constitute obvious targets for Russian nuclear attack

In the event of an attack upon an ally, the US would have a duty to respond. In the resulting conflict, all sides would recognize that the initial stakes involved would not justify the consequences of nuclear war. But would the antagonists be willing to step down? Contemplating such a scenario now raises important questions about the balance of risks and benefits that come with nuclear arsenals.

A dead horse?

The former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson recently asserted that  ‘the nuclear arsenal in Europe serves to put the US homeland at risk to nuclear attack if NATO is forced to resort to using Europe-based nuclear bombs to defend its borders.’[61] For him, however, this was not necessarily a bad thing. As so many others, Robertson failed to take into account the realities upon which deterrence rests, claiming that this ‘in turn signals to any potential aggressor that the risk of an attack against NATO far outweighs any possible gains.’[62] But the credibility of deterrence depends upon the utility of the weapon, and as demonstrated in this paper, it is difficult to see any. Having nuclear weapons carries the inherent risk of ‘nuclear escalation’, serving not only as a deterrent on the enemy, but arguably also on the use of force by the Alliance itself. In the paradoxical logic of nuclear deterrence, escalation risks may actually be desirable for aggressors. After all, the risk that things might spiral out of control could facilitate low-level, ‘bit-by bit’ violations of territorial integrity.[63]

Any use of nuclear weapons includes a signal. If a mighty military power resorts to use of nuclear force, it signals that it is short on conventional weapons to perform the task. For less powerful military actors, nuclear weapons provide an effective way of being taken seriously in international affairs. Nuclear weapons will presumably bring a state to the table – and remove it from the menu. Having nuclear weapons may therefore indicate comparative strength. Using nuclear weapons however, like any terror tactic, are the means of the desperate.Similarly, any withdrawal of the US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe would most likely be politically irreversible, even in the lead-up to a crisis. An attempt to signal resolve by reinstalling the European weapons could prove to be a dramatically risky escalatory step.[64] The symbolic significance of nuclear weapons makes them highly inflexible weapons.[65]

Nuclear weapons are expensive to develop and maintain. They also rely on platforms that must be up to date. One example is the UK Chevaline project, where the expenses threatened to undermine conventional capabilities.[66] Retaining nuclear weapons logically ties up resources that could be invested in conventional capabilities, and if a use for them cannot be found, weaken the military capability of a state or alliance. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests that ‘[t]he moral hazard in Europe today is not in taking useless tactical nuclear weapons out, it is in pretending that they can protect Allies from twenty-first century threats and doing too little in the meantime to develop capabilities and diplomatic strategies to deny those threats.’[67]

Conventional technology with strategic value similar to that of nuclear weapons is under development.[68] However, a suggested implication is that in a transition period, replacing nuclear weapons with useable conventional technology may substantially increase the risks of the use of nuclear weapons. When the Bush-II administration in 2006 announced plans to take the nuclear warheads off some Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles and replace them with conventional munitions, Congress rejected funding the project with the express reasoning that Russia might mistake the launch of a conventional Trident missile for its nuclear-armed sibling and retaliate in kind.[69] In 2010, the Pentagon hinted that boost-glide weapons could be used to suppress Beijing’s defences, presumably by targeting its missiles directly or destroying their command-and-control system.[70] In response, an argument has been made that this could prompt Beijing to rely on their nuclear capability.[71] The irony is that efforts to gradually rid the world of nuclear weapons increase the risks that they will be used.

The suggestion that a deteriorating security environment does not allow for dismantlement is hardly convincing. Increased international tension between nuclear powers does not increase the military utility of nuclear arms. To the contrary, it heightens the risk of exposing their military futility in a very costly manner.


The recasting of the case for a military utility of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War setting proves far from convincing. While the political utilities of deterrence, non-proliferation, and alliance cohesion are largely hypotheticals, the military value of the projected use of nuclear weapons in contemporary military doctrines is difficult to identify.

Nuclear weapons do not seem to be appropriate tools either for bunker busting or as neutralizers of other WMD. Their ability to destroy facilities buried deep in the ground on hostile territory is dependent on quite modest earth penetrating technology, and the risk of fallout remains. Any utility of nuclear weapons in this scenario is equalled by less risky and less costly alternatives. Similarly, the ability of nuclear weapons to burn chemical or biological agents before the enemy can deploy them is questionable, and bypassed by safer and less devastating technologies. Finally, nuclear weapons do not appear particularly viable to halt an invading army – certainly not from the perspective of buffer states on the edge of the nuclear umbrella, or to states stockpiling nuclear arms. The military utility of nuclear weapons appears limited at the very best.

In order to fulfil their obligations under Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and improve their actual military strength relative to potential enemies, NATO’s member states should contemplate effective measures for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in favour of more practically viable conventional weapons. NATO’s superior conventional forces would ensure the safety of the North Atlantic area better than nuclear weapons currently do.



[1]        See e.g. the statements by Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia to the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, in Nayarit, Mexico, 13–14 February 2014. Available at:

[2]       See e.g. ‘To Neither Use Them nor Lose Them: NATO and Nuclear Weapons since the Cold War’, Contemporary Security Policy 25, no. 3 (December 2004).

[3]       NATO, ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’, Adopted by Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon 19–20 November 2010.

[4]       In the extension of the turmoil in Ukraine, Putin has appaently been rattling the nuclear sabre. On 14 August 2014, the Russian President told factions of the state Duma that he would soon ‘surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons ’. See Jeffrey Tayler, ‘Putin’s Nuclear Option’, Foreign Policy, 4 September 2014, (accessed 10 September 2014).

[5]       Le Livre Blanc: Défense et sécurité nationale, 2008, Odile Jacob/La documentation francaise, p 169.

[6]      Expressed in Mao’s dictum ‘We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counter attack if attacked’.

[7]       Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘Prospects for Chinese Nuclear Force Modernization: Limited Deterrence Versus Multilateral Arms Control’, The China Quarterly, June 1996, pp. 552-553

[8]       Timothy Heath ’China’s Defense White Paper: A New Conceptual Framework for Security Publication’: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 9, April 25, 2013

[9]       See for example Scott D. Sagan, ‘Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?’, International Security vol. 21, no. 3 (1997). The euphemisms should be obvious to anyone.

[10]      NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept suggests that conventional military forces alone cannot be counted on to ensure credible deterrence to protect peace as well as prevent war and any kind of aggression. See § 46.

[11]       Centre for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS European trilateral nuclear dialogue: 2013 consensus statement, Washington DC, (2014), p. 2: ‘The deterrence and assurance provided by P3 nuclear capabilities has contributed to the prevention of major power war and has arguably been the most successful non-proliferation mechanism of all time’, 0.pdf.

[12]      Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1980), p. 5; Kenneth Waltz, ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, American Political Science Review, vol. 84, no. 3 (1990), pp. 731–6.

[13]      Sloan Stanley, ‘The United States and the Use of the Force in the Post-Cold War World: Toward Self-Deterrence?’, Congressional Research Service Report for the US. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs (August 1994); Stansfield, Turner, Caging the Genies: A Workable Solution for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons, Boulder, CO: Westview (1999), Chapter 3, ‘Points of Self-Deterrence’; David A. Koplow, Death by Moderation, Cambridge University Press (2010), pp. 28–54.

[14]      Frank Miller, ‘Disarmament and Deterrence: A Practitioner’s View’ in George Perkovich and James M. Acton (eds), Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2009), Ward Wilson (2014: 38) argues that nuclear war was averted not by the efficient functioning of nuclear deterrence, but by chance, and that the ‘failure rate’ of nuclear deterrence is likely to be higher than its proponents have thus far admitted. He suggests that recent research indicates that ‘we have been far luckier, and have run far greater risks, than we imagined.’ (p. 39); See also Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, New York: Vintage Books (2008). See also Graham T. Allison’s seminal study on foreign policy decision-making, in which the idea of rational state actors is largely refuted. ‘Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis’, American Political Science Review 63 (3), 1969, pp. 689–718.

[15]      David A. Koplow, Death by Moderation Cambridge University Press (2010), p.37.

[16]      George Perkovich, ‘Nuclear Zero After Crimea’, National Interest (5 April 2014).

[17]      See e.g. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (London: Penguin, 2011), Chapter 5.

[18]      US Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe: A Fundamental NATO Debate, Rapporteur Raynomd Knops, Report to the Sub-Committee on Future Security and Defense Capabilitites, 2010 NATO Annual Session, 212 DSCFC 10 E: Rev. 1. 2010. (NATO PA) para 26. In the 1990 London Declaration, the Allies declared that, ‘[…] in the transformed Europe, they will be able to adopt a new NATO strategy making nuclear forces truly weapons of last resort.’  NATO’s 1991 Strategic Concept described the potential for the use of nuclear weapons as ‘even more remote’ than it had been during the Cold War, while underlining that non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) continued to provide ‘an essential link with strategic nuclear forces, reinforcing the trans-Atlantic link.’ These points were largely reiterated in the 1999 version of the Concept, which stated that NSNWs in Europe guaranteed ‘[a] credible Alliance nuclear posture […,] the demonstration of Alliance solidarity’, and the ‘common commitment to war prevention’.  The 1999 Concept also states that the NSNWs will maintain adequate sub-strategic forces at the minimum level sufficient to preserve peace and stability.
NATO’s nuclear policy also featured in commitments made to the Russian Federation in 1996 to allay Moscow’s concerns over NATO’s enlargement: The North Atlantic Council announced that the Alliance had ‘no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, nor any need to change any aspect of NATO’s nuclear posture or nuclear policy’.

[19]      This view was echoed by a high-level US Task Force reporting to the Secretary of Defence in December 2008, stating that ‘[t]he presence of US nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO remains an essential political and military link between the European and North American members of the Alliance.’ See Report of the Secretary of Defence Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management: Phase II: Review of the DoD Nuclear Mission’ (2008). Martin A. Smith from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst points out that the main reasons for keeping NSNWs in Europe after the end of the Cold War was ‘a reluctance to damage allied cohesion and solidarity and a need for residual nuclear reassurance’. Martin A. Smith, ‘In a Box in a Corner’? Nato’s Theatre Nuclear Weapons, 1989-1999’, Journal of Strategic Studies 25, no. 1 (2002).

[20]     Steven Andreasen, Malcolm Chalmers, and Isabelle Williams, ‘NATO and Nuclear Weapons: Is a New Consensus Available?’, Royal United Services Institute, Occasional Paper, p. 20.

[21]      See Egeland and Hugo, International Law and Policy Institute, forthcoming 2014; Wallace Thies, Why NATO Endures, Cambridge University Press (2009).

[22]      United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Press, ‘America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States’ (2009).

[23]     See Livre Blanc Défense et Sécurité Nationale 2013, p 62.

[24]      Guido Westerwelle, ‘Speech at the 46th Munich Security Conference’ (2010). This was subsequently echoed by decision makers from several NATO nations, see Amy F. Wolf, ‘Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons’, Congressional Research Service (2014). .

[25]      The ban on testing following the Limited Test Ban Treaty has increased reliance on theoretical calculations even more. See C. Paul Robinson, ‘Maintaining a Viable Nuclear Weapons Program in a Test Ban Environment: A Strong Technical Foundation in the Laboratories’. Presented at the Nuclear Security Decisionmakers Forum, Albuquerque, NM (28 March 2000). ‘Strategic’ terror bombings of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki mould fall beyond the scope of this paper, which is to analyse the viability of using nuclear weapons to destroy military targets.

[26]     US NPR 2001 p-12-13 [US Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review [Excerpts], Sumbitted to Congress on 31 December 2001, pp. 24–5, ‘Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapons facilities.’

[27]      The Soviet Union, North-Korea, Vietnam, and more recently, China and Iran have such centres. see David A. Koplow, Death by Moderation Cambridge University Press (2010) p. 110.

[28]      See Secretary of Defence in conjunction with Secretary of Energy, ‘Report to the US Congress on the Defeat of Hard and Deeply Buried Targets’ (July 2001), p. 8.

[29]      Ibid.

[30]     Amy F. Wolf, ‘Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons’, Congressional Research Service (3 January 2014).Increased research into Earth Penetrating Weapons (EPW) to counter the increased use by potential adversaries of hardened and deeply buried facilities’, pp. 34–5.

[31]      Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, and Robert Nelson, ‘Global Security Backgrounder: Earth Penetrating Weapons’, (May 2005); Garyl G Kimball, ‘Nuclear Bunker Buster (As We Know It) Is Dead’, Arms Control Association Analysis (26 October 2005); Robert W. Nelson ‘Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons’, Science and Global Security, no. 1 (2002) p. 1; Thomas Ricks, ‘Tender Bombs? US Military Mulls Weapons That Disable Bunkers, Save People’, Wall Street Journal (1 July 1999); Eric M. Sepp, ‘Deeply Buried Facilitates: Implications for Military Operations’, Occasional Paper no. 14, Centre for Strategy and Technology, Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base (May 2000); Peter Wilk et al., ‘Projected Casualties among US Military and Civilian Populations from the Use of Nuclear Weapons Against Hard and Deeply Buried Targets’, Physicians for Social Responsibility (May 2005); Jonathan Medalia, ‘Nuclear Weapons Initiatives, Low-Yield R&D, Advanced Concepts, Earth Penetrators, Test Readiness’, Congressional Research Service Report, RL32130 (28 October 2003); Jonathan Medalia, ‘“Bunker Busters” Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator Issues’, FY2005- FY2007, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, RL32347, February 21 (2006).

[32]      Greg Mellom, ‘New Bomb, No Mission’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May/June 1997), p. 28.

[33]      David A. Koplow, Death by Moderation Cambridge University Press (2010), p.117.

[34]      National Research Council, ‘Effects of Nuclear Earth-Penetrator and Other Weapons’, National Academics Press (2005).

[35]      Ibid, p. S2. Sidney Drell and James Goodby, ‘What are Nuclear Weapons For? Recommendations for Restructuring US Nuclear Strategic Forces’, Arms Control Association (April 2005), p. 15; Linton Brooks before the US Congress in 2005 suggested that ‘the laws of physics’ will never allow for a bomb to penetrate in a way that will trap all the fallout Peter Wilk et al ‘Projected Casualties among US Military Personnel and Civilian Personnel from the Use of Nuclear Weapons Against Hard and Deeply Burried Targets’, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2005 at p 5.

[36]      Natural Resources Defense Council, ‘The Bush Administration’s Misguided Quest for Low-Yield Nuclear Bunker Busters’, (accessed 25 August 2014).

[37]      See Gronlund et al, supra note 31. Amy Butler and Douglas Barrie, ‘Dig for Victory, Aviation Week and Space Technology’ (11 September 2006), p. 52.

[38]      Joseph Cirincione et al., ‘Deadly Arsenals, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2nd ed. (2005).

[39]     US Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review [Excerpts], Sumbitted to Congress on 31 December 2001, p. 48: ‘Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear weapons (for example […] bio-weapon facilities)’.

[40]    David A. Koplow, Death by ModerationThe U.S Military’s Quest for Useable Weapons, Cambridge University Press (2010) p.120; Michael May and Zachary Hadelman, ‘Effectiveness of Nuclear Weapons against Buried Biological Agents’, 12 Science and Global Security No. 1-2, 2004 p. 91.

[41]      Robert W. Nelson, ‘Nuclear ’Bunker Busters’ Would More Likely Disperse than Destroy Buried Stockpiles of Biological and Chemical Agents’, Science & Global Security 12, no. 1–2 (2004).

[42]      Michael May and Zachary Haldeman, ‘Effectiveness of Nuclear Weapons against Buried Biological Agents’, Science and Global Security, no 1–2 (2004), p.  91; Robert W. Nelson, ‘Nuclear ’Bunker Busters’ Would More Likely Disperse than Destroy Buried Stockpiles of Biological and Chemical Agents’, Science & Global Security 12, no. 1–2 (2004). p. 69; Michael Levi, ‘Fire in the Hole, Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Options for Counter Proliferation’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Global Policy Program, Working Paper no31 (November 2002).

[43]      Secretary of Defence in conjunction with Secretary of Energy, ‘Report to the US Congress on the Defeat of Hard and Deeply Buried Targets’ (July 2001), p 19.

[44]      See Peter Wilk et al., ‘Projected Casualties among US Military and Civilian Populations from the Use of Nuclear Weapons Against Hard and Deeply Buried Targets’, Physicians for Social Responsibility (May 2005).

[45]      David A. Koplow, Death by ModerationThe U.S Military’s Quest for Useable Weapons, Cambridge University Press (2010).

[46]      See notably the Russian and French doctrines.

[47]      NATO, ‘MC 48: The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years’, North Atlantic Military Committee, 22 November 1954.

[48]      Denmark and Norway were notable exceptions. Norway’s Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen upset his allies by proclaiming that Norway would not host nuclear weapons in peacetime. See Finn Olstad, Einar Gerhardsen (Oslo University Press, 1999), pp. 348–9.

[49]      Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, ’US Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe, 2011’, 67 Bulletin of hte Atomic Scientists 2011, p. 66.

[50]     Other perceived effects in buffer states may be containment of the outbreak of conflicts (Cuba), or a containing effect on the manner in which such buffer zone conflicts develop (India-Pakistan).

[51]      George Perkovich, ‘Nuclear Zero After Crimea’.

[52]     Sweden is not formally a member of NATO, but cooperates with the alliance on a number of crucial issues including emergency planning, security, and defence and security reform.

[53]     Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, ‘Next, the Tactical Nukes’, The New York Times (1 February 2010).

[54]     Schmidt. Oliver, ‘The Utility of U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in NATO: A European Perspective’. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Proliferation Analysis (27 April 2010).

[55]      George Perkovich, ‘Nuclear Zero After Crimea’.

[56]      And Canada until 1984. Nuclear sharing was seen as a way of appeasing European leaders hungry for their own nuclear arms, in addition to offering NATO the opportunity to strike at the Soviet heartland.

[57]      US Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe: A Fundamental NATO Debate, Rapporteur Raynomd Knops, Report to the Sub-Committee on Future Security and Defense Capabilitites, 2010 NATO Annual Session, 212 DSCFC 10 E: Rev. 1. 2010, Para. 43.

[58]      Lucacz Kulesa, ‘Reduce US Nukes in Europe to Zero, and Keep NATO Strong (and Nuclear): A View from Poland,’ PISM Strategic Files, no. 7 (2009).

[59]      Seemingly topical in Turkey. The editors of Hürriyet, a newspaper traditionally close to views of the military establishment, recently expressed their hope that the US Nuclear Posture Review would include a ‘commitment that no nuclear weapons be stockpiled at Incirlik, the NATO base in Adana’. Hürriyet, ‘From the Bosphorus Straight – Integrating the Nuclear Past and Present’ (22 February 2010).

[60]     Franklin Miller, Lord Robertson, and Kori Schake, ‘Germany Opens Pandora’s Box’, Centre for European Reform (2010).

[61]      Ibid.

[62]      Ibid.

[63]     James Acton, ‘Target:?’ Foreign Policy Magazine, 6 May 2014

[64]      At the Spring Session, Teodor-Viorel Melescanu of Romania argued that withdrawal of US NSNWs from Europe would be a gamble; a sober assessment of the current security environment calls for caution.

[65]      Often expressed in the infamous nuclear strategic dilemma – use them or lose them, NATO can do neither, see ‘To Neither Use Them nor Lose Them: NATO and Nuclear Weapons since the Cold War’, Contemporary Security Policy 25, no. 3, (December 2004).

[66]      David Owen, Nuclear Papers, Liverpool University Press, 2009, pp. 8 et seq.

[67]      George Perkovich, ‘Nuclear Weapons in Germany: Broaden and Deepen the Debate’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Outlook no. 54  (2010).

[68]      In a February 2010 conference, US Under-Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher said that ‘while nuclear weapons have a clear role, our deterrent extends beyond nuclear weapons […] Our improving conventional capabilities make it possible to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons for some targets and missions. As our conventional weapons have become more precise, we do not have to cling to nuclear weapons to accomplish our objectives.’  See Elaine M. Grossman, ‘Debate Heats Up Over Conventional, Nuclear Deterrence Trade-offs’, Global Security Newswire (19 March 2010).

[69]      James Acton, ‘Target:?’

[70]     US Departement of Defense, ‘Quadrennial Defense Review Report, Feb 2010’.

[71]     James Acton, ‘Target:?’