Reducing Nuclear Weapons is Not a Limbo Dance


By Lieutenant General (Retired) Michael Dunn, President, Air Force Association

I have been seeing “trial balloons” in the press about the Administration’s desire to go to lower numbers of nuclear warheads … beyond those listed in New START. Some of the numbers are as low as 300 warheads.

(For example see:

This should worry all of us for several reasons.

Is there a strategy change that supports further cuts?

Those that I speak with say … well … we could just target cities … and 300 is way more than we need.

I frequently remind those who support this that the Law of Armed Conflict, Geneva conventions, and other international agreements … and our own moral principles … prohibit the intentional targeting of civilian non-combatants.

And … yes, there will be innocents that die in a nuclear attack, but the fact remains that we should never plan to target and kill noncombatants.

The view of some is that “lower is better” … despite the strong evidence that we can go too low.

A very low number of nuclear weapons reduces stability; makes it more likely that a potential adversary could deliver a knock-out first strike; and gives incentives to cheating.

Further if one looks at the nuclear age and measures casualties of war world-wide, one will find this is the safest period of any 65 year period of time in the modern history of the world.

Nuclear weapons at sufficient levels as well as the assurance they have been tested and will work have made world war too horrible to consider.

The Tactical Nuclear Weapons Challenge

Most of the proposals are for further arms reduction agreements with the Russians.

However, the numbers cited are considered “strategic weapons limitations” and do not include tactical nuclear weapons – of which the Russians have many times more than we have. To exclude tactical nukes plus those strategic and tactical weapons of the Chinese and others leaves out categories of weapons that could threaten our survival as a nation, as well as our friends and allies.

Negotiations over very low numbers need to include all nuclear armed countries – and a healthy sense of skepticism about the bad behavior of a few rogue states.

The rush to go lower – at a time when North Korea is expanding its stockpile, Iran is intent on building its first weapon, and the PRC is building new launch vehicles and warheads – seems to many like unilateral disarmament.

We have not yet gotten to the numbers agreed upon in New START. We have until 2018 to reach the 1550 limit; 700 deployed missiles and bombers; and 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers.

Deterrence theory actually considers that the US will respond with force that will inflict upon an adversary more damage than he considers acceptable.

Low numbers may cause a potential adversary to judge that either the US won’t respond to an attack or it won’t have the capability to respond – thereby making our nuclear forces less credible. This makes us more vulnerable and less secure.

Every nuclear nation (save perhaps North Korea) has the capability to create more nuclear weapons per month than does the US.

This is as a result of underinvestment in our industrial base. To go to very low numbers does not provide us the margin to quickly return to higher numbers (if ever necessary) in comparison to our major adversaries.

Very low numbers of nuclear weapons also pose a significant risk if we discover a vulnerability or unforeseen technical problem with a weapon or delivery system.

Very simply, we will further reduce any hedge to protect against “unknown unknowns”.

Finally, we must realize that our nuclear stockpile provides security for many nations around the world through our bilateral and multilateral security treaties.

For example, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and the 26 members of the NATO alliance rely on US deterrence for their security.

Going too low negates some of that implied deterrence and may cause other nations to invest in and build their own nuclear weapons.

All of the above is very important … even critical to our security. Everyone who is concerned about national security should understand this.

Published with the Permission of Lt. General (Retired) Dunn

For some recent pieces on Second Line of Defense on nuclear issues please see