Richard A. Clarke and Steven Andreasen

With Nuclear Weapons, We’re Getting Too Comfortable Thinking the Unthinkable

A dangerous disconnect is emerging between the horrific impacts of even the limited use of nuclear weapons, and leaders and policymakers who seem intent on threatening nuclear use in an ever-expanding range of scenarios. If this continues, the risk that a nuclear weapon will be used for the first time in more than 70 years — deliberately or otherwise — will grow. We must return to a more sober dialogue and approach to policy.

The Trump administration appears poised to expand the circumstances under which the United States might use nuclear weapons, including in response to a cyberattack. The time when leaders and policymakers in the United States, Russia and other countries had anything close to a personal connection with the effects of even a single nuclear weapon is becoming more distant. Memories of a smoldering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the stark fear generated by the Cuban missile crisis or the massive protests sparked in the early 1980s by the deployment of US and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe no longer drive or even inform policy. As former secretary of state George P. Shultz told Congress last week, “I fear people have lost that sense of dread.”

When nuclear theory or war-gaming moved from the Pentagon to the White House during the Cold War, it was more often than not met by a skeptical president and civilian leadership, who rightly recoiled from risking nuclear catastrophe. That is not the case now.

Five years ago, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board published a report equating the impact of Chinese and Russian capabilities to launch an “existential cyber attack” against the United States with the impact of a nuclear attack — and recommended that the United States be prepared to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to deter cyberattacks. When the board’s recommendation was exposed to the light of day by the two of us and others in 2013, it was publicly rebuked and, as a matter of policy, quietly discarded.

But just last month, the board’s proposal became US policy. In December, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy quietly expanded the role of nuclear weapons in US defense plans, stating they are “essential” to prevent “non-nuclear strategic attacks” — i.e., cyberattacks.

This week, the Trump administration is expected to release its “Nuclear Posture Review.” A leaked pre-decisional draft reaffirms the policy of threatening nuclear use to prevent cyberattacks, but goes even further — expanding the role of US forward-deployed nuclear weapons in NATO’s European defenses.

For decades, the United States has been moving to reduce the relevance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, and for good reason: US nuclear weapons in Europe have virtually no military utility, and their storage at bases in multiple countries presents a serious security risk. Removing them would reduce the risk of terrorism and instability, and would free up resources across NATO for other urgent defense tasks.

Moreover, as NATO has repeatedly stated, “The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic forces of the Alliance.” With three nuclearized member states — the United States, Britain and France — NATO has a robust nuclear deterrent capable of being employed anywhere in defense of NATO interests.

The Trump Nuclear Posture Review not only rejects this logic, it ties our forward-deployed forces to NATO’s strategic forces as part of the bloc’s “supreme guarantee.” So rather than move in the direction of reducing nuclear risks by removing nuclear weapons from vulnerable sites, we will instead further cement them in place — when there is ample evidence of terrorist interest in nuclear facilities and, as is presently true in Turkey, evidence that the security of US nuclear weapons reportedly stored there can change literally overnight.

Raising the profile of nuclear weapons in our defense plans comes at a time when the disastrous consequences of even limited nuclear use is becoming even more apparent. Alan Robock and his colleagues at Rutgers University — using newly updated climate models and the much greater computing power now available — have concluded that even a limited nuclear exchange (50 to 100 weapons) could create a “mini-nuclear winter” whose effects could last two to three years and create tens of millions of deaths from starvation because of the collapse of grain crops brought on by climate change.

Nuclear weapons present a unique threat of national devastation and global extinction. They are good for only one purpose: deterring nuclear attacks. Policies equating cyberthreats to nuclear threats, or raising the profile of nuclear weapons in our conventional defenses, undermine the credibility of nuclear deterrence by threatening use for lesser contingencies and makes nuclear use more likely.

The Washington Post