Pentagon Sees “Increased Potential” for Nuclear Conflict

07.06.21 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The possibility that nuclear weapons could be used in regional or global conflicts is growing, said a newly disclosed Pentagon doctrinal publication on nuclear war fighting that was updated last year.

“Despite concerted US efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs and to negotiate reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, since 2010 no potential adversary has reduced either the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy or the number of nuclear weapons it fields. Rather, they have moved decidedly in the opposite direction,” the Department of Defense document said.

“As a result, there is an increased potential for regional conflicts involving nuclear-armed adversaries in several parts of the world and the potential for adversary nuclear escalation in crisis or conflict.”

The publication presents an overview of U.S. nuclear strategy, force structure, targeting and operations. See Joint Nuclear Operations, JP 3-72, April 2020.

The document replaces a 2019 edition titled Nuclear Operations that was briefly disclosed and then withdrawn from a DoD website. (See “DoD Doctrine on Nuclear Operations Published, Taken Offline,” Secrecy News, June 19, 2019.)

The current document no longer includes some of the more unfiltered and enthusiastic language about achieving “decisive results” through nuclear strikes and “prevail[ing] in conflict” that appeared in the 2019 version. The statement that “The President authorizes the use of nuclear weapons” was changed to a more restrained declaration that “Only the President can authorize the use of nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, new material has been added, including an assessment that the threat from potential adversaries has grown even as the US nuclear posture is said to have been moderated:

“While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenal, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior.”

“Russia’s strategic nuclear modernization has increased, and will continue to increase, its warhead delivery capability, which provides Russia with the ability to rapidly expand its deployed warhead numbers.”

“China continues to increase the number, capabilities, and protection of its nuclear forces.”

“North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities poses the most immediate and dire proliferation threat to international security and stability.”

“Iran’s development of increasingly long-range ballistic missile capabilities, and its aggressive strategy and activities to destabilize neighboring governments, raises questions about its long-term commitment to forgoing nuclear weapons capability.”

Given the mounting threat, DoD said, “Flexible and limited US nuclear response options can play an important role in restoring deterrence following limited adversary nuclear escalation.”

The updated document gives expanded attention to the role of intelligence in potential nuclear conflict including “knowledge of an adversary decision maker’s perceptions of benefits, costs, and consequences of restraint” and “information about adversary assets, capabilities, and vulnerabilities.” Intelligence is also needed for post-strike damage assessments.

Strategic messaging is key to deterring conflict, DoD said, though this often seems to involve the threat of force. “The ability to communicate US intent, resolve, and associated military capabilities in ways that are understood by adversary decision makers is vital. Direct military means include: forward presence, force projection, active and passive defense, strategic communications/messaging, and nuclear forces.”

DoD asserts that its system of nuclear command and control is “ready, reliable, and effective at meeting today’s strategic deterrence requirements. There are no gaps or seams that adversaries could exploit.” Maybe so.

“Possibly the greatest challenge confronting the joint force in a nuclear conflict is how to operate in a post-NUDET [nuclear detonation] radiological environment,” DoD said. “By design, nuclear weapons are highly destructive and have harmful  effects that conventional weapons do not have. Commanders must plan for and implement protective measures to mitigate these effects and continue operations.”

Joint Nuclear Operations is not available in DoD’s online public library of Joint Publications. But a copy of the April 2020 document was released to the Federation of American Scientists last week under the Freedom of Information Act.

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The Biden Administration adopted a somewhat conciliatory tone concerning nuclear weapons policy in its March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance:

“As we re-engage the international system, we will address the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control. That is why we moved quickly to extend the New START Treaty with Russia. Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements. We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

But even some simple changes from past practice remain to be accomplished. For now, at least, the Biden Administration is still adhering to the Trump policy of classifying the size of the US nuclear stockpile rather than following the Obama policy of disclosing it.