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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 90, Cover design by Calvert's Press, Photo by Rebecca JohnsonDisarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 90, Spring 2009

Towards a new US Nuclear Posture

From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence:
A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris and Ivan Oelrich

Executive Summary[1]

To realize President Barack Obama's vision of "dramatic reductions" in the number of nuclear weapons, stopping development of new nuclear weapons, taking nuclear weapons off alert, and pursuing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, radical changes are needed in the four types of U.S. policies that govern nuclear weapons: declaratory, acquisition, deployment, and employment. This report largely concerns itself with employment policy, that is, how the United States actually plans for the use of nuclear weapons, and argues that there should be fundamental changes to the current war plans and the process of how these are formulated and implemented. The logic, content, and procedures of the current employment policy are relics of the Cold War and, if not changed, will hinder the hoped-for deep cuts to the nuclear stockpile and the longer term goal of elimination.

This report argues that, as long as the United States continues these nuclear missions unjustifiably held over from the Cold War, nuclear weapons will contribute more to the nation's and the world's insecurity than they contribute to their security. And without those Cold War justifications, there is only one job left for nuclear weapons: to deter the use of nuclear weapons. For much of the Cold War - at least from the early 1960s - the dominant mission for U.S. strategic weapons has been counterforce, that is, the attack of military, mostly nuclear, targets and the enemy's leadership. The requirements for the counterforce mission perpetuate the most dangerous characteristics of nuclear forces, with weapons kept at high levels of alert, ready to launch upon warning of an enemy attack, and able to preemptively attack enemy forces. This mission is no longer needed but it still exists because the current core policy guidance and directives that are issued to the combatant commanders are little different from their Cold War predecessors. General Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), recently took issue with President Obama's characterization of U.S. nuclear weapons being on "hair-trigger alert" but made our case for us by saying, "The alert postures that we are in today are appropriate, given our strategy and guidance and policy." [Emphasis added.] That is exactly right and, therefore, if President Obama wants General Chilton to do something different, he will have to provide the commander of U.S. nuclear forces with different guidance and directives.

The counterforce mission, and all that goes with it, should be explicitly and publicly abandoned and replaced with a much less ambitious and qualitatively different doctrine. A new "minimal deterrence" mission will make retaliation after nuclear attack the sole mission for nuclear weapons. We believe that adopting this doctrine is an important step on the path to nuclear abolition because nuclear retaliation is the one mission for nuclear weapons that reduces the salience of nuclear weapons; it is the self-canceling mission. With just this one mission, the United States can have far fewer nuclear forces to use against a different set of targets. Almost all of the "requirements" for nuclear weapons' performance were established during the Cold War and derive from the counterforce mission. Under a minimal deterrence doctrine, appropriate needs for reliability, accuracy, response time, and all other performance characteristics, can be reevaluated and loosened.

In this analysis, we consider in detail an attack on a representative set of targets that might be appropriate under a minimal deterrence doctrine, including power plants and oil and metal refineries. We find that, even when carefully choosing targets to avoid cities, attack with a dozen typical nuclear weapons can result in more than a million casualties, although using far less powerful weapons can substantially reduce that number. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that much smaller forces, of initially 1,000 warheads, and later a few hundred warheads, are more than adequate to serve as a deterrent against anyone unwise enough to attack the United States with nuclear weapons.

The president will need to maintain keen oversight to insure that the new guidance is being carried out faithfully. We describe the many layers of bureaucracy between the president and those who develop the nuts-and-bolts plans for nuclear weapons employment to show how easily a president's intentions can be co-opted and diffused. We finally offer examples of what a presidential directive might look like.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Whatever the utility of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, nuclear weapons today threaten the security of the United States and the world more than they enhance it. The United States should publicly announce a goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and establish a series of policies and action to achieve that goal. Current nuclear doctrine is an artifact of the Cold War that needs to be fundamentally altered. "Counterforce" targeting should be explicitly and publicly abandoned. While the ultimate goal is nuclear abolition, a minimal deterrence doctrine creates a stable resting spot that minimizes the salience and danger of remaining nuclear weapons and allows all of the world's disparate nuclear powers to come into a stable equilibrium before moving to the last step or denuclearization. Thus, minimal deterrence should be adopted as a transitional step on a path to zero nuclear weapons.

The president must be continuously engaged in this transformation with specific and direct instructions to the national security bureaucracies. Once formulated, the president should publicly announce the changed role for nuclear weapons and the new types of targets. Under American leadership, the process should lead to engagement with the other nuclear powers towards a global goal of negotiating verifiable nuclear abolition, which will enhance the security of the United States. The new strategy can be carried out with weapons in the current arsenal. No new weapons need be built.

A Draft Presidential Policy Directive (PPD)

To change military planning from counterforce to minimal deterrence, President Obama will have to sign a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) that clearly articulates the altered role of nuclear weapons in overall security policy and discuss details such as targeting, force size, and the circumstances under which nuclear weapons might be used. After signing, the PDD would go through a series of stages to be implemented. Taking direction from the PPD, the Secretary of Defense would draft the Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF). The GEF provides more detail about how nuclear weapons are to be employed and instructs the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on guidelines on how to create the Nuclear Supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP-N), the document that assigns the nuclear forces to commanders of unified commands.

Below is a draft PPD that uses the kind of language that will be necessary to reorient the U.S. nuclear posture in the direction of dramatic reductions and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.


[1] This executive summary, conclusions and the associated draft Presidential Policy Directive are reproduced verbatim with the permission of the authors (with spelling, punctuation and emphases as in the original).

Presidential Policy Directive X

To: Secretary of Defense
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Secretary of State
Director National Intelligence

Subject: Presidential Guidance for Planning the Employment of Nuclear Weapons

Based upon a vastly altered geopolitical situation, in which the United States no longer faces thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons, I have reached a series of decisions about United States nuclear weapons employment policy. The decisions depart from current policy in major ways: by limiting the role of nuclear weapons in our security policy, by going to smaller and smaller numbers through a series of stages, and by truly supporting our pledge to honor Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

This PPD provides the criteria for how U.S. nuclear weapons would be employed, and establishes the process by which to implement the changes.

The Reason for Possessing Nuclear Weapons

The sole reason for possessing nuclear weapons, I have determined, is to deter the use of a nuclear weapon against the United States and our allies thus keeping intact prior security commitments. In years past much more expansive reasons were given for the utility of nuclear weapons. Their many roles led to enormous stockpiles and elaborate war plans. The new plans I am ordering to be implemented will focus on ensuring that there are assured retaliation options available to the president if anyone were so unwise as to attack the United States with nuclear weapons.

Abandoning Counterforce Nuclear Targeting

The most dramatic shift that I intend to implement is to abandon "counterforce," the ruling paradigm for U.S. war plans and forces for more than four decades. We are no longer going to demand that, "U.S. nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post- war world" as the former administration stated in 2004. The purpose of nuclear strike planning is no longer to achieve an advantage over an adversary's nuclear forces or limit damage to the United States, but entirely to provide a secure retaliatory strike capability to deter nuclear attack. Dramatic reductions of the stockpile, limiting the role of nuclear weapons, and relaxing the requirements for weapon cannot take place unless the current targeting policy changes. The essential steps are to withdraw target coverage of an adversary's nuclear forces and relax the alert rates that currently keep U.S. forces poised to strike.

New Targets for Minimal Deterrence

The shift I am ordering is not from counterforce to "countervalue" (the targeting of population centers) but rather to a new set of targets we characterize as "infrastructure" targets. Infrastructure targets are facilities such as oil refineries, iron and steel works, aluminum plants, nickel plants, thermal electric power plants, and transportation hubs that can be destroyed while minimizing collateral civilian casualties. In short they are the essential components that constitute the sinews of modern societies. Their destruction would decimate the economic and industrial foundation of any country. Knowing that the attack on infrastructure would follow if any nation were unwise enough to attack the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons should be enough of a deterrent - to the extent anything is - to prevent an attack in the first place.

Upon signing I will make this Directive public to ensure that our declaratory and employment policies are in concert and to warn anyone harboring any thoughts of attack to understand what would happen.

Next Steps and Reviews

Based upon this PPD, the Secretary of Defense shall prepare the Guidance for the Employment of the Force to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their preparation of the Nuclear Supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. I am to be kept informed of the preparation of these documents through my National Security Adviser and must approve the final versions.

[signed President Barack H. Obama], April 2009

This executive summary, conclusions and the associated draft PDD is reproduced verbatim from the Report From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons, published in April 2009 by the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The full report is available from the authors' and publishers' websites: and

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