Nuclear weapons are going to be with us for a long time. Heightened nuclear-weapon fears generated by the Iran question, the North Korea issue, and the nearness of chaos caused by rapidly advancing global warming associated with climate change, as well as other issues, have made the possibility of nuclear war greater than it was 10-15 years ago. We simply must find a way to make the world a safer place. And one of the most important goals is to reduce the risk of nuclear war resulting from accidents, miscalculations, or misunderstandings. The adoption of a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons would go a long way toward this objective. With the Biden administration preparing its Nuclear Posture Review, the time may be ripe.
During World War II, the United States built the world’s first nuclear arsenal via the Manhattan Project, fearing that Nazi Germany, with its world-class nuclear physics capability, would get them first and win the war. After the war, the United States built only a few weapons before the first Soviet test in 1949, which was itself largely possible only because of Soviet espionage that involved stealing technology from the United States. In response, the United States began to build nuclear weapons at an “industrial rhythm,” as the French put it.
America also developed what was then called “The Super” — the hydrogen bomb. By the 1960s, the United States had produced more than 70,000 nuclear weapons, with approximately 31,200 fully constructed weapons in the national stockpile at one time. The Soviet high point of production was 55,000, with about 40,200 in its stockpile.
The two countries claimed they would use these devices as weapons only in a second-strike, launch-under-attack mode. But this claim was not true. Both sides had established launch-on-warning policies, which meant that a country initiates general nuclear war if its early-warning technology indicated that strategic nuclear missiles launched by the other superpower were on the way. Pursuant to U.S. early-warning technology, the United States would expect to detect Soviet strategic nuclear missiles coming over the North Pole about 20 minutes before they arrived and exploded on the territory of the United States. Pursuant to established policy, when the first warning was received, an emergency call among the senior national security advisors to the president would be initiated to discuss the situation for the first 10 minutes. If during this discussion the threat was verified and confirmed, the president would then be notified wherever he was — fishing in Idaho or soundly sleeping in his bed. The president would be briefed in person on the situation, and he would be told that he had six minutes to decide whether to launch the U.S. strategic nuclear forces and initiate general nuclear war in response to this attack.
Six Minutes to Decide
Had a president decided to use the country’s strategic nuclear forces in response to the warning, the final minutes of the 20 were to be utilized to get the launch order to U.S. missile sites. In theory, this would enable U.S. missiles to be launched before the Soviet missiles arrived and possibly destroyed the U.S. forces. It is generally believed that each time the U.S. practiced this procedure during the 45 years of the Cold War, the president always said “launch” at the end of the practice scenario. President Ronald Reagan strongly denounced this reckless practice in his memoirs. He wrote, “We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis…Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”
This, of course, created a serious risk of a nuclear war taking place by miscalculation or accident. Indeed, during the Cold War, there were at least four well-documented such incidents, two on each side. In one such incident, because of certain U.S. actions and policies, the Soviet Union became convinced in the 1983 timeframe that the United States planned a first nuclear strike to eliminate the Soviet Union if the disparity in the strength of the two forces — the strategic balance — represented a sufficient increase in the American margin of superiority. Nate Jones and Tom Blanton described this case in their 2016 book “Able Archer 1983: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise that Almost Triggered Nuclear War.” The KGB had been directed to set up a computer program to inform the Politburo should that critical point (as they estimated it) be reached. The computer system would then warn the Soviet leadership. To be more precise, the program, known by the acronym VRYAN, valued the strength of American and NATO forces at 100 at the beginning and the Soviet forces at 60. Although the Soviets would have been more comfortable if their side could have been estimated at 70, they thought 60 to be more objective and sufficient to discourage a first strike.
It was Politburo policy that, if the KGB computer estimate ever fell below 40 for the Soviet side, the Soviet Union would consider immediately launching their entire nuclear arsenal at the United States in a preemptive first strike — thus, initiating a general nuclear war. They had concluded it was their only chance to survive. At one point in the 1983 timeframe, the estimate reached 45, according to the February 1990 “Report of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) on Able Archer,” which was commissioned by Reagan in the aftermath and included in declassified form in Jones and Blanton’s book.
The PFIAB described the Soviet computer program (first installed in 1979) in this way:
Before long, VRYAN — [having initially produced optimistic reports before turning sour in 1983] — began spewing very unwelcome news with dire predictions. Initially, there was some optimism within the KGB that with technological progress, the Soviet Union would gradually improve its position vis-à-vis the U.S. However, by 1984 VRYAN calculated that Soviet power had 45 percent of that of the United States. Forty percent was viewed as a critical threshold. Below this level, the Soviet Union would be considered dangerously inferior to the United States…. The KGB and the military leadership would inform the political leadership that the security of the USSR cannot be guaranteed…. The USSR would launch a preemptive attack within a few weeks of falling below the threshold.
In 1983, the United States and NATO were conducting a huge war-game simulation of an all-out nuclear weapon attack on the Soviet Union. It began in August as part of the annual Autumn Forge exercise, which lasted several months, with the Able Archer ’83 command post exercise coming at the end during several days in November. Autumn Forge involved many thousands of NATO troops and a dozen NATO countries. It simulated a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and preparations for a graduated response from conventional to nuclear resistance. According to Jones and Blanton, it featured a momentous “show of resolve” in the face of Soviet aggression. The cumulating NATO command post exercise Able Archer ’83 involved over 40,000 troops of five NATO countries and featured a transition from conventional to chemical to nuclear operations. Able Archer ’83 ended with a massive nuclear attack against an entity named Orange — the exercise name for the USSR and its allies, Jones and Blanton wrote. These exercises were all picked up on Soviet radar defense systems, driving the Soviets to higher and higher alert status.
These maneuvers unfolded against the backdrop of psychological operations, or PSYOPs, that the United States had designed in the late 1970s to keep the Soviets jittery. By the early 1980s, this program was highly developed. In April and May of 1983 three large aircraft carrier battle groups and up to 40 ships harassed the Soviet Union’s Asian coastlines. Sometimes the carriers would launch their bombers at the Soviet coast, veering off at the last moment; fighter bombers on occasion flew up to 20 miles into Soviet-claimed territory in the Kuril Islands, where they would linger for a time before withdrawing. At other times, fighter bombers would probe Soviet territory in Europe, thereby testing their air defenses. And U.S. strategic bombers would fly over the North Pole and turn on their target acquisition radar. These PSYOPs drove the Soviets to an extreme not seen before the Cold War, according to Jones and Blanton. And apparently only one U.S. official thought that the Soviets would see hostile action in all this: Ronald Reagan.
Shortly before the height of this crisis in November, on the night of Sept. 27, 1983, a Soviet early-warning station received reports around midnight from a newly installed Soviet satellite-based missile-launch detection system. It first reported the launch of one U.S. strategic nuclear missile, then five more, headed toward the Soviet Union. The senior officer at the station, Colonel Petrov, saw the first report flash on the screen. He looked at reports from his other instruments; there was nothing. He didn’t trust the satellites because they were new and, as a result, he didn’t believe the satellite report. Directly contrary to his orders (he was supposed to simply report everything and send no comments), he reported it to the headquarters of the General Staff as a “false alarm.” After the first strategic missile launch report, while Petrov was on the phone, the second report of five more missiles came in. He hesitated for a moment — no time to check anything else — and then repeated “false alarm.” The duty officer replied, “got it,” according to Jones and Blanton as well as David Hoffman in his 2009 book “The Dead Hand.” If the senior officer had not violated his orders, given the anxieties of the times, general nuclear war would almost certainly have followed. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was the subject of a movie, “The Man Who Saved the World,” and he did.
Nuclear crises are not just a Cold War problem. Another of the four nuclear-weapon near misses took place after the Cold War, in 1996. President Boris Yeltsin (for the only time in the Nuclear Age) activated the nuclear keys and came within 2-3 minutes of launching Russian nuclear forces at the United States, as the result of a faulty radar report.
Crises lie ahead as well. We can’t always be sure that the right man or woman will be in the right place at the right time. Nor can we be sure that no government will ever repeat the Soviet error of 1983 and be seized by fears of nuclear attack from some quarter or create some bizarre use of a computer or other technology for strategic guidance. The situation is too dangerous. We simply cannot have any more incidents even remotely like these.
One very significant way we can improve the situation would be for the United States to formally declare in a major public statement that it will not ever use nuclear weapons first in a conflict or at any other time. The other recognized nuclear-weapon States could be asked to join the United States in a joint pledge to follow this policy.
The first-use issue has a long history. NATO reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first rather than spend the money to build conventional forces to match those of the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact in Europe. U.S. officials expanded the reservation of first use or “calculated ambiguity” (as it was called) to buttress the nuclear umbrella for our allies in Europe and Asia. But whatever its effect in the early years, Germany and Japan now deny the necessity of this doctrine and support the U.S. adoption of a no-first-use policy, along with retaining full confidence in their alliance with the United States. Our allies understand that using nuclear weapons to deter biological, chemical, or cyber attacks is unnecessary, unwise, misguided, and dangerous, as the ultimate outcome of such policies could be stumbling into nuclear war. No country expects the United States to ever use nuclear weapons except in response to an actual nuclear attack. In today’s world, clarity, not ambiguity, is needed. The U.S. adoption of a no-first-use policy would bring an element of order and clarity to the control of nuclear weapons and strengthen peace, security, and non-proliferation.
Perhaps the most influential of all analyses of the issues surrounding a no-first-use policy was written about 40 years ago. In 1982, an article entitled “Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance” was published in Foreign Affairs magazine. It was co-authored by four highly experienced former officials: McGeorge Bundy, a former national security advisor; George F. Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union (and author of the famous 1947 Foreign Affairs article signed “X,” which introduced “containment” as a policy approach in the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union); Robert S. McNamara, a former secretary of defense; and Gerard Smith, the negotiator of the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty with the Soviet Union, known as SALT I.
The Fantasy of Limited Nuclear War
The authors point out that, since the beginning of the Cold War, NATO had used nuclear weapons — tactical nuclear weapons — to offset the preponderant forces of conventional arms possessed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The nuclear weapons marshalled by NATO and the Warsaw Pact were not unrelated to the strategic weapons possessed by the two superpowers that, if ever used, could destroy the world many times over. In their article, the authors state:
It is time to recognize that no one has ever succeeded in advancing any persuasive reason to believe that any use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest scale, could reliably be expected to remain limited. Every serious analysis and every military exercise, over 25 years, has demonstrated that even the most restrained battlefield use would be enormously destructive to civilian life and property. There is no way for anyone to have any confidence that such a nuclear action will not lead to further and more devastating exchanges. Any use of nuclear weapons in Europe, by the alliance or against it, carries with it a high and inescapable risk of escalation into general nuclear war which would bring ruin to all and victory to none… So it seems timely to consider the possibilities, the requirements, the difficulties, and the advantages of a policy of no-first-use.
Nothing is different today. The situation is just as dangerous with the events of recent years, not only in Europe but around the world. And for those who question the efficacy of commitments on the use of weapons, editors Frank Blackaby, Jozef Goldblat, and Sverre Lodgaard, in their introductory article to the 1984 (reprinted 2021) Routledge volume on no-first-use policy which contained the above-mentioned article by the four authors, point to the Geneva Protocol. The editors note that the Geneva Protocol of 1926 began when it was signed as an agreement on no first use of chemical and biological weapons, but eventually led to a legally binding treaty in 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention and, in 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned such weapons.
Beginning with the United States, a formal pledge — perhaps deposited with the United Nations Secretary-General — would reduce the chances of nuclear-weapon miscalculation by assuring allies and potential adversaries that the chances of a U.S. preemptive first strike with nuclear weapons would be so extremely low as to be virtually non-existent — which, in fact, it is. Additionally, a no-first-use policy, if worldwide, would reduce the political value of a first-use reservation and help establish an international norm of behavior against first use. Possessing nuclear weapons would come to be seen as valuable largely in deterring other nuclear weapons, nothing more — that is, not for prestige, nor for deterring other types of weapons already deployed or in the pipeline, whether they be chemical, biological, cyber, conventional, or any other.
A no-first-use policy in the United States may be doable at the present time. China has had such a policy since the days of Mao. And President Joe Biden supported such a policy during the campaign. At a campaign event in New Hampshire on June 4, 2019, he affirmed his commitment to a no-first use policy and decreasing the number of nuclear weapons. As president, he must make a decision in the coming months in the formulation of his Nuclear Posture Review to be submitted to Congress, as required by law. While nothing is sure in life, declaring a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons would be a significant step toward peace and stability. President Barack Obama came close to such a policy in his review in 2009, while President Donald Trump in his 2017 Nuclear Posture Review reserved first use to respond to chemical, biological, and probably cyber weapons. Biden will sign his Nuclear Posture Review as part of his National Defense Strategy to be released early next year. A policy of no first use of nuclear weapons should be included. The recent removal of a Biden appointee at the Pentagon who challenged the nuclear-weapon status quo raised concerns among disarmament advocates that the potential for adopting a no-first-use policy had diminished. But that is not necessarily the case, given the president’s long-declared view on this subject.
Nuclear disarmament remains a long way off. Even small reductions are unlikely in the current international political climate. But a policy of no first use — important to peace, security, nuclear weapon disarmament, and nuclear non-proliferation — can be adopted now.