What is the biggest threat from nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created. Both in the magnitude of the devastation they cause, and in their unique, persistent, spreading and genetically damaging radioactive fallout, they are unlike any other weapon. A single nuclear bomb detonated over a big city could kill millions of people. The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear bombs would alter the global climate and cause widespread famine.

Check your email for more information about your request. Nuclear Policy The Threats That U.S. UU. Nuclear weapons policy must address the stance of nuclear force and nuclear command, control and communications first, unlike when the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945, today the adversary will also possess nuclear weapons in any conflict in which the United States would use them, 2 In other words, the risks involved in the use of nuclear weapons by the United States, whether in a first or second attack, are greater.

These risks may lead to greater caution among all parties, including the United States, but they add to the challenge of protecting the United States,. Allies and partners in possible regional scenarios where Russia, China or North Korea could threaten them. Consequently, since nuclear war would carry a clear risk of catastrophic destruction for the United States and probably its allies or partners, U.S. leaders should only contemplate its use when the violence and destructive capacity of the aggression to be defeated is of a similar scale.

Nuclear-weapon states have been attacked and have lost wars, as did the United States and Russia, respectively, in Vietnam and Afghanistan. 3 Nuclear weapons have not allowed states to force adversaries to stop supporting terrorism, reverse illegal territorial aggrandizement, respect human rights or desist from cyber attacks. Curbing these activities is a clear national security priority for the United States, but the U.S. The nuclear arsenal cannot reasonably be expected to deter these threatening activities or force the countries involved in them to stop.

In short, nuclear weapons cannot solve most of the problems of. Russia, China and North Korea represent the few threats that the U.S. Nuclear weapons are needed to deter or, if that fails, possibly help defeat. All of these threats have precedents and reflect the dynamic of action-reaction among adversaries, including the United States.

The drivers and evolution of these threats differ depending on how far back in time you rewind history and what perspective you take to evaluate what happened before. In any case, potential Russian, Chinese and North Korean threats vary. Deterrence strategies require individual consideration of the three countries' unique military capabilities and national objectives, which, of course, are debatable. Table 2 presents estimates of the United States nuclear forces and its three immediate nuclear concerns.

Russia's competitive strategy is to weaken its adversaries through the lowest level of violence necessary (or preferably without any violence). Among other reasons, Russia seeks to avoid mobilizing the West's superior economic and military potential. 5.Actors with diverse affiliations to the Russian state have engaged in political and economic interference and non-kinetic military actions at various levels of conflict. At the same time, Russian leaders welcome the psychological deterrent shadow cast by nuclear weapons on any potential conflict with Russia.

6.The purpose of Russia's escalation management strategy is to deter direct aggression, prevent a conflict from spreading, prevent or prevent the use of highly harmful products, capabilities against the Russian homeland that could threaten the state or regime, and end hostilities under conditions acceptable to Moscow. Only strategic deterrent forces, armed with conventional capabilities (offensive attack and aerospace defense), non-strategic nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear weapons, are effective deterrents in regional and large-scale wars, 12 Similar to the ways in which an emerging generation of weapons nuclear strategists see U, S. Today's Nuclear Policy, Kofman and Fink Write: Facing These Evil Dilemmas, Russian Lawmakers Echo Their U.S. Counterparties in saying that if they first used nuclear weapons, it would be to prevent further escalation of the conflict (Russia) or restore deterrence to the lowest possible level of harm (the United States).

If there was a nuclear escalation with attacks on their strategic forces, both maintain the option of launching a retaliatory attack with warning nuclear forces before the enemy's nuclear weapons arrive. Both countries also threaten nuclear use to deter an adversary's attack, perhaps by cyber means, against critical nuclear command and control infrastructure 15.In all of this, both countries acquire and plan to use incomparably extensive and destructive nuclear and dual-use arsenals and, for the United States, perhaps missile defenses to prevent the other from dominating the imaginary escalation process. More than NPRs traditionally recognize, the United States and its allies must understand how to reassure Russia that NATO does not pose an offensive threat to Russian interests, while at the same time projecting sufficient capabilities and political determination to deter Russian armed aggression. Such peace of mind can foster stability, an overall goal of the U.S.

In doing so, the United States and its allies must demonstrate that Russian reductions in rhetoric, actions and coercive forces will lead to reductions in NATO rhetoric, action and forces, which Russia could reasonably find threatening 16 The United States and its allies should also seek greater clarity on Russia. to better understand how Russian political and military officials think operationally about first use, under what circumstances and against what objectives. This awareness can help determine how NATO could deter or deter Russia from undertaking such an escalation. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that political cohesion and, therefore, NATO's determination is vital in all this.

Along with a long-term effort to diversify and increase the survivability of its nuclear arsenal, China is seeking kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to thwart the U.S. Efforts to Help Its Allies and Taiwan in a Regional Crisis, 19 The Key Challenge for U.S. And friendly defense policymakers must counter these capabilities and related Chinese intentions to prevail in conflicts around their periphery and exercise hegemonic power in Asia. Taiwan's integrity is probably the biggest concern.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has bet his government's credibility on doing whatever it takes to prevent Taiwan from declaring and implementing independence. 20 The military challenge of conventionally defending Taiwan from a concerted Chinese attack is becoming more difficult over time, 21 The second and perhaps a more imminent challenge stems from territorial disputes between China and several United States,. To date, China has been careful to keep its efforts below the level of armed conflict. However, these disputes could stimulate intentional or accidental military confrontations that could then escalate and involve a larger number of the United States,.

Allies and partners, including Australia, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India, 22 U, S. Nuclear capabilities and policies help deter China from initiating or escalating large-scale military conflicts with the U.S. Allies and Partners and the Forces That Would Defend Them. Alliances in Asia and the diverse capabilities of allies and partners to defend themselves complicate the U.S.

The lack of a decision-making structure similar to that of NATO makes it more difficult to ensure effective political and military coordination among all governments and, ultimately, to ensure that the United States. Allies so that the United States does not involve them in a war of their own, and vice versa. China has traditionally been restricted in its deployment of nuclear forces and in its doctrine of not being the first to use (NFU) 23 According to the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lt. Robert Ashley, China has a stockpile of nuclear warheads in the “few hundred.

The Department of Defense states that China “almost certainly does not integrate warheads with peacetime launch systems, but believes that China can take steps to adopt a “high alert” stance conceptually comparable to the high alert stance held by parts of the U.S. And the Russian nuclear forces. It has deployed a series of mobile ground-based missiles that can target regional and intercontinental targets, and has developed a new generation of SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines) and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles). China has also built extensive underground facilities to protect its mobile terrestrial nuclear forces from a potential U.S.

UU. ,. Developing and testing new maneuverable hypersonic management systems to overcome the U, S. Chinese experts explain that improving China's nuclear forces, largely to make them more resilient, is driven by advances in the U.S.

And the capabilities of other states to threaten China's nuclear deterrence with new non-nuclear kinetic weapons, cyber operations and ballistic missile defenses, 30 U.S. Military leaders openly doubt that China's policies have been or will be as restricted as Beijing claims. In reference to China's NFU policy, the head of U.S. The Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) commented before the Senate that it “could drive a truck through that policy if it was not the first to use.

And allied security would be diminished with the adoption of the NFU, and that the United States should continue to seek a combination of offensive attack capabilities and missile defenses to threaten the deterrence of China's second attack, 32 However, these same U.S. Commentators then denounce any suggestions from China's own experts that their country could be better covered by the NFU to deter a potential U.S. First non-nuclear attack on China's nuclear forces. The Absence of Meaningful Sustained Dialogue Among U.S.

And Chinese defense and military officials on issues related to nuclear and missile defense policies undermine the ability of both countries to avoid conflicts or prevent any potential conflict from escalating. Chinese leaders, especially senior officials of the EPL Rocket Force (People's Liberation Army), have traditionally been reluctant to participate transparently in such a dialogue, even though they may represent Beijing's genuine strategic perspectives. Modernizing China's nuclear force could improve stability by assuring China's leaders that their second-strike nuclear forces will survive. But some warn that China will seek to become a nuclear peer of the United States and then project its power more assertively in Asia and beyond, 33 Here, the most practical concern is that China could forcibly seize disputed territory or inflict other damage on the United States.

Ally or partner and then use explicit or undeclared nuclear threats to deter the United States and its ally or partner from using all their capabilities to challenge China's action. Combined with China's political, economic and military influence, augmented by increasingly capable conventional forces, the threat of nuclear escalation can create coercive pressure on the U.S. And allied policymakers are what additional nuclear or non-nuclear capabilities would most effectively deter and, if necessary, counteract China's escalation of regional conflict. DPRK Poses Threats Most Likely to Lead to U.S.

Decision makers to use nuclear weapons first. North Korea could quickly inflict major nuclear and non-nuclear damage on Seoul and other regional targets. And the conventional weapons of the Republic of Korea alone may not be enough to destroy hardened North Korean targets, including some of its nuclear forces. And allied missile defenses could ban at least part of the relatively small number of nuclear weapons with which North Korea could retaliate after a US attack.

If North Korea were inflicting extensive damage on Seoul with conventional artillery and missile bombardments, and intelligence services indicated that the North was preparing its nuclear weapons for use, the situation could well stimulate the United States. Leadership Considerations for Launching Nuclear Weapons. Military leaders are confident that they and their allies can ultimately defeat North Korea without resorting to nuclear weapons. Forces in the region and the South Korean military force provide a conventional force stance that credibly deters a North Korean attack on South Korea.

If North Korean leaders are not rational actors, there is no reason to think that the big United States,. And South Korean forces would deter them more effectively. South Korea's military capabilities and operational thinking have come a long way in recent years. They have focused on modernizing conventional attack and missile defenses to destroy and defend against North Korea's missile threat, 35 however, some U.S.

Nuclear attacks in the DPRK could significantly reduce the level of damage that a conventional North Korean attack could inflict on South Korea and the U.S. Forces, 36 theater and national missile defense could theoretically mitigate any nuclear retaliation from the North. However, when considering such an operation, and the policies needed to make it possible, other factors should be taken into account. What would the consequences of possible U.S.

Do nuclear attacks affect South Korea, Japan and other nations in the region? What are the odds that the U.S. Would missile defenses mitigate attacks by surviving North Korean nuclear weapons? Would the ability to preemptively attack North Korean nuclear forces stimulate their leaders to deploy more nuclear weapons and adopt risky policies to improve their survival? It is important to recognize that the additional capabilities that the United States could pursue to locate and destroy North Korea's mobile nuclear forces could exacerbate the crisis and instabilities of the arms race with China and perhaps with Russia. Nuclear weapons in South Korea could improve some problems, but they would create or exacerbate others. The Arsenal deployed for the main mission of deterring Russia and China is more than adequate if the DPRK is dissuasible.

Again, if North Korean leaders are not rational or dissuasible, then there is no way to assess if and how several U.S. Nuclear postures would make all the difference and therefore little basis for suggesting changes in the current U. Prudence requires that the United States maintain an unsurpassed research and development base in order to anticipate and respond to emerging threats, including through the maintenance and development of nuclear weapons. It must also maintain advanced intelligence collection and recognition capabilities to detect threats that could require nuclear or other responses.

Confidence in detecting and combating emerging threats would be even greater if arms control and other international security regimes existed to promote transparency, assist in the early recognition of hostile intent, limit military forces designed for rapid attacks against targets of national importance, establishing standards against weapons of mass destruction, etc. The combination of research and development, cutting-edge intelligence collection and analysis, and durable arms control measures offers the most cost-effective and stabilizing way to manage the risks of unforeseen existential threats (and perhaps prevent those threats from materializing). Given that the United States will retain a nuclear arsenal scaled to that of its largest nuclear competitor, it is difficult to see circumstances in which additional nuclear capabilities must be preserved or developed as a cover against future invisible threats. Preventing and managing escalation is critical to all of the threats or challenges we just discussed.

Escalation can occur inadvertently or intentionally. It can transform conventional war into nuclear war, and limited nuclear war into all-out nuclear war. Involuntary escalation is not a new problem in the Atomic Age. It was extensively analyzed in the 1980s, 38 However, risks may have increased significantly in recent decades as nuclear-weapon states have developed and deployed advanced non-nuclear weapons technologies that could attack both nuclear and conventional forces and their systems of associated command and control.

Nuclear forces and the capabilities of command, control and communication (NC) systems are increasingly entangled with those used to manage conventional military operations. The components include space-based and ground-based early warning and reconnaissance systems that Russia or China would be interested in disabling in a conventional or nuclear conflict. Similarly, Russian and Chinese missiles and their command and control systems can employ nuclear or conventional warheads. In some cases, missiles with nuclear weapons and with conventional weapons are located in the same location.

These three countries also assume that adversaries are increasing cyber capabilities to attack their command and control systems. Even before the attacks, the activities of US, Russian or Chinese units known to operate both conventional and nuclear weapons missiles could be perceived as preparations for nuclear attacks. After known dual-capacity missiles were fired, the target state might not be able to determine whether released weapons carry nuclear or conventional warheads. Therefore, the leaders of states facing such attacks would have to choose between launching their own nuclear weapons with the possibly incorrect belief that the adversary is initiating or intensifying nuclear war, or maintaining fire even in the face of a real nuclear attack.

The first would run the risk of creating a nuclear war out of a situation in which none of the. The second would run the risk of being wrong and then be limped in a staggered competition. The second option is obviously the most sensible, especially for large states such as the United States, Russia and China, but this situation would be unprecedented. Ideally, this cautious thinking could strengthen deterrence.

If the military and civilian leaders of the United States, Russia and China understand the risks of involuntary escalation, they may be more inclined to cushion crises, prevent the start of armed conflict, or decrease the scale before nuclear weapons are unleashed. It is more difficult to assess North Korea's intentions and thinking in this regard. Relevant actors from multiple agencies and departments in the United States, Russia and China must first fully understand the problem and then create spaces for bilateral or trilateral dialogue on it. Such a dialogue, if more sustained and detailed than has been the case so far between the United States and Russia, and especially the United States and China, could help clarify whether alternative positions of force, procurement decisions and confidence-building measures could mitigate the dangers of involuntary escalation.

Intentional escalation is more likely to occur when a state fails to achieve its objectives in a conventional war. It could then conclude that it must use nuclear weapons to force the adversary to turn back. The same escalation dynamic can occur after nuclear weapons have been used, when one or both (or more) adversaries decide to increase nuclear attacks to force the other to desist from continuing the war. For example, if Russia or North Korea lost a conventional conflict with the United States and its allies, the leaders in Moscow or Pyongyang would at least contemplate using nuclear weapons to reverse the United States,.

Advantage or at least to deter the United States from going ahead to inflict greater losses. If Russia or North Korea unleashed nuclear weapons in the U.S. Policymakers would face the unbearable judgment of whether nuclear retaliation would be necessary and likely to reverse the escalation dynamic. Such scenarios with China are more difficult to predict to the extent that Beijing insists that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons and, to date, has not deployed adequate nuclear forces to involve the United States in limited nuclear war.

In fact, Beijing has strengthened a set of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to deny the United States and its allies and partners the possibility of defeating it in a conventional regional conflict. In any case, to avoid situations of nuclear escalation, a realistic and prudent nuclear policy requires serious planning of diplomatic signage and non-nuclear military options to seek the end of the war. 42 If nuclear weapons are exchanged, even in limited quantities, none of the belligerents you would be likely to achieve your favorite result. For the belligerents, as well as for the rest of the world, avoiding further nuclear escalation would be better than the alternative, 43 The most difficult scenario would arise if Russia or China gained significant territorial or other advantages at the beginning of a conventional conflict with the United States and its allies.

If these potential adversaries succeeded in denying U, S. And allied conventional capabilities to reverse such losses, the United States would consider first using nuclear energy to force them to stop the fight (and more quixostically return to the status quo ante). In fact, some theorists believe that the threat from the U.S. The first use in these scenarios as a critical component of deterrence, 44 This is why the deployment of capabilities and operational plans to conduct limited nuclear war has become central to the U.S.

And political leaders (Russians) in recent years, even if serious doubts persist that nuclear escalation is controllable. Clearly, there is a big difference between the dangers implied in the third and fourth questions. With North Korea alone, escalating dominance with nuclear dimensions still theoretically has a chance of succeeding on tolerable terms, given the limited nature of North Korea's nuclear capabilities to date and the overwhelming U.S. UU., S.

And the allied military advantages Pyongyang faces. The United States and China have so far avoided such contests for escalation dominance, but they may be on the verge of one. The United States is increasingly concerned that the geography of the Western Pacific may align with China in potential regional conflicts. Exchanging attacks on the other's homeland with large quantities of nuclear weapons would be suicidal and, therefore, would not be credible as a deterrent.

However, either could be tempted to deploy lower performance and shorter range weapon sets that would possibly cause the adversary to stop fighting (i.e., slow down) before mutual suicide is achieved. This temptation to find nuclear solutions to the overall challenge will grow, even if such solutions may be pyrrhic. Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented here are those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff or its trustees. The World Unpacked is a biweekly foreign policy podcast that analyzes today's hottest global issues with experts, journalists and legislators who can explain what's happening, why it's important and where we're going from now on.

In a complex, changing and increasingly contested world, the Carnegie Foundation generates strategic ideas and independent analysis, supports diplomacy and trains the next generation of international academics and professionals to help countries and institutions confront the most difficult global problems and safeguard peace. By using this website, you accept our cookie policy. You are leaving the website of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website of another of Carnegie's global centers. First, unlike when the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945, today the adversary will also possess nuclear weapons in any conflict in which the United States would possibly use them.

And in any scenario where there is a conventional war in Europe and there is a nuclear weapon, the president of the states speaks of nuclear weapons in this way. The thousands of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and Russia could cause a nuclear winter, destroying the essential ecosystems on which all life depends. Some analysts and officials immediately conclude that nuclear weapons of newer types or greater numbers will be needed to deter or defeat these potential new threats. Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power and because of the threat they pose to the environment and human survival.

Nuclear deterrence is relevant only for those threats involving large-scale armed conflicts, such as a war between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Combined with China's political, economic and military influence augmented by increasingly capable conventional forces, the threat of nuclear escalation can create coercive pressure on U. The State Department document on the low-performance option of the W76-2 says: “There is no such thing as safe nuclear war or low-risk nuclear attack, regardless of its magnitude. ICRC Director General Yves Daccord spoke in April last year about the increased risk of nuclear weapons being used and the need to abolish them, at the Symposium on the Risks of Nuclear Weapons organized by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

Many years ago, there were discussions within Russian nuclear doctrine about the possibility of using a nuclear weapon quite early in the conflict to prevent the situation from worsening further. Both countries also threaten nuclear use to deter an adversary's attack, perhaps by cyber means, against critical nuclear command and control infrastructure. . .

Bradford Tutwiler
Bradford Tutwiler

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