American Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Minimal-Deterrence Policy


Robert Gard, Greg Terryn

Military Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, United States

“The United States’ overstocked nuclear arsenal addresses a threat that no longer exists, and instead results in elevated risks with no added value.”

Critics of minimal deterrence, such as Keith Payne in a recent article in the Washington Times, accuse advocates of reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, irresponsibly following ideological perceptions at the expense of American security. These charges represent true irony; few policies are more tainted with ideology than the advocacy of an outdated nuclear strategy with an excessive, ill-maintained arsenal of weapons.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states: “[t]he fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, [its] allies, and partners.” Because of the vast and indiscriminate destructive power of nuclear weapons, there is a general consensus that their sole legitimate purpose is to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction by potential enemies; and that their use in war should be initiated only as a last resort to prevent the military defeat of the nation or an ally. These weapons clearly are irrelevant to current international security challenges such as nonstate terrorist expansion in Iraq and Syria, the Ebola virus in Africa or even Russian aggression in Ukraine.

But how many nuclear weapons are necessary for an effective, reliable deterrent?

The United States currently has an arsenal of about 4,800 nuclear warheads, enough for an estimated 1,400-megaton cumulative yield of destructive power. That is 87,500 times the blast power of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima and equal to the blast yield of 1,400,000,000 tons of TNT. Put another way, it would only take one tenth of the 1,400 megatons we possess to decimate the fifty most-populated cities in the United States.[1] How much deliverable nuclear explosive power and destruction does it take to deter potential enemies? Obviously, under any conceivable scenario, the United States does not need a nuclear arsenal nearly this large.

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