Michael KreponNot Just Yet for No First Use

The United States is not going to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Allies who believe otherwise are attached to a fiction and a psychological crutch. But these allies have been badly spooked, first by Vladimir Putin and now by Donald Trump. Despite Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Russian salami-slicing elsewhere around its periphery, I still thought it might be possible as well as wise for President Obama to declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. Now Trump has made matters worse by suggesting means-testing for whether the United States would come to the aid of NATO allies.

Substantive arguments against the United States’ adopting a No-First-Use posture are hackneyed and weak. The only argument that has weight is one of timing.  Thanks to Putin and now Trump, jittery allies have become even more skittish about extended deterrence. After the tag-teaming act by Putin and Trump, I now reluctantly acknowledge that the timing isn’t right to adopt a No-First-Use posture.

As to substance, one argument against No First Use is that it would send allies scrambling for the Bomb. This assumption, often propounded by defenders of nuclear orthodoxy, can’t be ruled out but seems far-fetched. Despite repeated fears expressed by critics of the Iran nuclear deal, no allied or friendly government now seeks the Bomb in the Middle East. If opponents of the deal can be prevented from interfering with its implementation, proliferation will be even less likely in the Middle East. Indeed, as Sandy Spector has noted, we now live in an exceptional period when no additional state seems intent on joining the nuclear club.

Other arguments against No First Use are equally suspect. There’s no compelling evidence that the threat of first use has helped to deter war.  Supporters of nuclear orthodoxy are on stronger ground in arguing that the possession of nuclear weapons — not their possible first use in warfare — has contributed to deterrence, but even here, their reasoning is weak. Having huge nuclear arsenals has helped to deter war between Washington and Moscow, but there have still been close calls, where the first use of a weapon by accident or a breakdown in the chain of command could have opened the gates of hell.

What’s more, first-use postures have not prevented two limited wars between nuclear-armed states (the Soviet Union vs. China and Pakistan vs. India). First-use postures have not changed the outcome of these wars; nor have they prevented dangerous crises. A No-First-Use posture can help defuse crises. First-use postures makes crises more dangerous.

First-use postures are a vestige of dangerous practices during the Cold War when extreme measures were deemed necessary for credible deterrence. Back then, the United States tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and maintained continuous combat patrols of nuclear-armed bombers. These dangerous practices ended many decades ago, but first-use postures linger. Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea rely heavily on them.

The United States isn’t Russia, Pakistan, or North Korea. The first use of nuclear weapons by a U.S. president is a hypothetical, not a realistic military option. Every president will do her or his utmost to avoid crossing the nuclear threshold for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever provocation that might prompt first use would pale in comparison to retaliating with a mushroom cloud. First use is also a hypothetical construct for U.S. allies that want no part of nuclear detonations on their soil.

Nuclear deterrence works best in the abstract. It relies on ambiguity and uncertainty. The belief system built around nuclear deterrence implodes once the first mushroom cloud appears. Since one nuclear detonation is very likely to lead to the next, prospects for escalation control depend on No First Use. Nuclear first use is not the answer to localized military contingencies in the Baltics, against China, or on the Korean Peninsula, where U.S. conventional military advantages cannot quickly be brought to bear. The reason is simple, yet fundamental: Actual, as opposed to hypothetical, first use kills nuclear deterrence.

A hypothetical first use option for the United States provides comfort only to those allies willing to suspend disbelief. U.S. allies enjoy the protection of a nuclear umbrella, but the first use of a nuclear weapon isn’t protective, because escalation control would rest on a hope and a prayer.

The United States is taking practical steps to reassure allies with strategic modernization programs, new battalions for NATO and theater missile defenses. Allies who continue to think these expensive steps are insufficient, and that the first use of a nuclear weapon remains crucial, are doing more harm than good. Worse, when reliance on the psychological crutch of first use becomes an enabling device for slackers, allies who reinforce Donald Trump’s dangerous views.

It would be nice to go cold turkey on nuclear weapons, the way we are advised to deal with dangerous personal addictions. But finding release from an addiction to nuclear weapons which also underpins U.S. alliances takes time, steady effort, and conscious intent.

How, then, to deal with the timing problem?

I am most definitely not arguing to wait for the weakest-kneed U.S. ally to raise its comfort level with No First Use. Nor am I arguing to stand pat on every excessive nuclear weapon-related requirement that has been levied on U.S. taxpayers. Nuclear orthodoxy is outdated and too expensive. While the United States can’t go cold turkey, it can reduce nuclear force structure, stockpile size, and help wean allies from their dependence on the Bomb.

I am, in other words, proposing to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Obama Administration promised in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report to “work to establish conditions” that would allow allied acceptance that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. The predicates for this change are now being laid. The time to abandon a first-use posture is after Trump is defeated and while the predicates for a No-First-Use posture are moving into place.

Why go to this bother when it will cause consternation in some allied capitals? Because the defense of allies is too important to rest on a fictional construct. And because it is a good idea to curtail dangerous belief systems about the utility of nuclear weapons. A reality-based common defense calls for jettisoning the first-use option — but not just yet.


  1. SQ (History)

    “Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

    • Krepon (History)

      Been a while since I’ve been chaste.
      Lots of entropy out there. The pursuit of purity can make matters worse. What % of Bernie purists won’t vote for Hillary?

  2. SQ (History)

    Purism would be disarmament, perhaps. If NFU is a good idea, then there’s no time like the present!

  3. Ruhul Amin (History)

    In context of South Asia, Pakistan and India possess nukes. Pakistan follows first use policy and India follows no first use. When it comes to a weaker state with less economic options to fight a war, in that case , weaker power for sure will go for nuclear option. There is huge asymmetry between India and Pakistan in defense structure. In order to avoid military confrontation with a much bigger army, Pakistan opts nuclear first use as a deterring tactic.

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The only thing wrong with announcing no first use now is that Obama waited until he is a lame-duck President in an election year. At best, he can speak for himself for the next 6 months. The next President will accept or reject or modify what he says now.

    No first use rests upon the logic of survival. Nuclear war would be far worse than any conventional war defeat. This logic is correct for all countries, U.S., Russia, India, Pakistan, or whomever.

    The opposite logic is for the police to threaten to blow up the town, if anyone dares to rob the bank. Perhaps the robbers will be scared, if they believe the threat, but the towns people should be even more scared. Perhaps the bank manager feels “reassured” by the deterrent threat to blow up the town, but let’s get real, the police need more refined options that make more sense.

  5. Rabia (History)

    The debate on nuclear First Use (FU) and No First Use (NFU) is as old as the Bomb itself. It formally started when the United States adopted the policy of FU from the onset of the Cold War, especially in the early 1950s. First Use policy is adopted by a state to make its deterrence more credible, keeping in mind the prevailing challenges to the national security of a state in the strategic environment as well as one’s relevant superiority or inferiority in this context. The case of Pakistan’s reliance on a FU option is no different. Pakistan’s nuclear program aims at thwarting adversaries’ (mostly India’s) conventional and potential nuclear attacks. Owing to its conventional inferiority in comparison to India, Pakistan’s decision to retain nuclear FU makes its deterrence credible, a dynamic that helps to avoid any adventurism by the aggressor. In this vein, in order to comprehend Pakistan’s rationale of nuclear FU effectively, it is essential to skim through the historical background of the doctrine, and especially the debate between the ‘Gang of Four’ and ‘Four Horsemen.’

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Here’s the thing: Pakistan’s decision maker has to talk himself into nuclear first use, and convince his inner circle into going first for the first time since 1945. In a dark crisis that begins (at least as the rest of the world sees it) as Pakistan’s fault.
      And as much as Pakistan’s leader (and nuclear enclave) convinces themselves of first use as an option, it will be extremely hard to pull the trigger under these circumstances.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Wednesday August 3, 2016 – United Nations security experts have lent Brazil some of their top detection gear to help intercept terrorist communications amid concerns that ISIS is planning to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” at the Olympics.

    The Sun reports that top Olympic security officials have also borrowed The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) state-of-the-art radiation monitors, including personal detectors and portable scanners.

    Read more: http://www.caribbean360.com/news/un-atomic-agency-helps-rio-amid-fears-isis-dirty-bomb-olympics#ixzz4GKfE10RL

  7. John (History)

    “The time to abandon a first-use posture is after Trump is defeated….”

    That sounds like a strange anti-Trump hyperbole.

    If Hillary wins the Nov. election, is she more likely to adopt NFU doctrine?
    That is quite unlikely since she has been a strong believer of nuclear deterrence doctrine
    and MD system in the past.

    She also advocated “massive retaliation” against Iran if Israel
    was attacked by Iran. The words “massive retaliation” may refer to use of nukes.

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    In 1959, the Army Corps of Engineers set up Camp Century — a network of tunnels underneath Greenland’s frozen surface. By 1962, the site was a full-time hub for Project Iceworm, a plan to establish a “subsurface railway” servicing 600 buried ballistic missiles. At any given time, between 85 and 200 soldiers lived and worked in the Arctic base. A nuclear reactor powered the site.

    When the army abandoned Camp Century in 1967, it left behind a lot of waste, some of it radioactive, beneath the ice. Assuming that barren northwestern Greenland would lie frozen forever, it didn’t seem worth the effort and expense to haul it all away.

    A new paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that was not the wisest decision.


    To use a line from the movie “Scent of a Woman,” by Al Pacino: “I’m just getting warmed up!”


  9. Michael Krepon (History)

    Bridge Colby’s argument to place greater emphasis on first use is worth reading: