Commander Robert Green considers increasing mistrust and global insecurity through nuclear threats made by the US and UK against several countries; the withdrawal of the US from arms reduction treaties; and US and UK plans to modernise nuclear weapons. Such strategies are an incitement to a nuclear arms race. Renewed efforts to abolish nuclear weapons are needed to rid the world of the threat of nuclear warfare.

US Doubts about Nuclear Deterrence

George W. Bush’s inauguration as US President in January 2001 heralded a major shift in US nuclear deterrence doctrine.

In April 2001, a Washington Post article titled US Studies Developing New Nuclear Bomb, reported that the Pentagon would report to the Senate in July 2001 to find a way of destroying "hardened and deeply buried targets." The desire for such a capability was driven by the realisation, as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s senior adviser told the Washington Post, that President Saddam Hussein would not be deterred by any of the nuclear warheads in the US arsenal, "because he knows a US president would not drop a 100-kiloton bomb on Baghdad" in order to counter Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Following the first Gulf War in 1991, several leading US experts on nuclear weapons reassessed the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, especially against threats by “rogue” states with WMD-armed ballistic missiles. During that war, Israel had become the first state with nuclear weapons to be directly attacked with ballistic missiles, experiencing 39 Scud attacks, some against its second largest city, Tel Aviv. For several weeks Israel is wearing gas masks had sheltered in basements, because it was known that a chemical warhead had been developed for Iraq’s Scud missile. Saddam Hussein had demonstrated that he was not deterred by Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Later, the Western nuclear-armed coalition was further shocked to find that instead Saddam had been provoked by Israel’s clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapons – condoned by the coalition – to follow suit, despite Iraq being a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In a 1991 article in the US journal Strategic Affairs - Countering the Threat of the Well-Armed Tyrant- Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear weapon analysts Thomas Dowler and Joseph Howard II argued that the US had no proportionate response to a “rogue” dictator who uses chemical or biological weapons against US troops.1

Nine years later,the consequent risk of “self-deterrence” was also a supporting theme in an influential paper, Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century,published in June 2000 by Stephen Younger, Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Weapons at Los Alamos.2 In it, he challenged decades of military thinking by suggesting that precision-guided conventional munitions could replace nuclear warheads on most US strategic missiles. Because of improvements in accuracy, “advanced conventional weapons delivered by ballistic or cruise missiles could defeat many [military sites] that are presently targeted by nuclear weapons,” such as mobile missiles and manufacturing sites for chemical and biological weapons. However, no doubt concerned that he might be arguing away his job, he recommended that the US should consider developing a new generation of “small” nuclear weapons to handle the few military tasks for which he claimed nuclear weapons are indispensable.

President Bush, speaking at the US National Defense University on 1 May 2001, showed he was sympathetic to these ideas when he called for deep cuts in the US nuclear stockpile, along with development of a still unproven ballistic missile defence system. In some ways, this was a revived response to what Ronald Reagan had seen as the unacceptable and immoral prospect of relying forever on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) for US security. What had changed since the “Star Wars” era was that Bush had accepted the experts’ potentially heretical thesis.

He became the first US President publicly to doubt that nuclear deterrence would work against what he now saw as the greatest threat to Americans: extremists armed with WMD warheads intent on blackmailing the US. Moreover, both his Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State General Colin Powell were known to have rejected use of nuclear weapons against Iraqi forces in the first Gulf War.3In the demonology of nuclear deterrence, such perceived lack of faith in one’s own weapons means that any future US nuclear threat in a similar scenario will lack credibility.

The 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review

Responding to these challenges, after a year in office the Bush administration presented a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to Congress on 8 January 2002. This established the broad outline of Pentagon planning for US nuclear strategy, force levels and infrastructure for the next 10 years and beyond. Although the review was secret, it was leaked to defence analyst William Arkin, who assessed it in the Los Angeles Times on 10 March 2002. These excerpts from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s foreword outline the new US approach to deterrence:

“First and foremost, the Nuclear Posture Review puts the Cold War practices related to planning for strategic forces behind us. In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, planning for the employment of U.S. nuclear forces has undergone only modest revision, despite the new relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Few changes had been made to the size or composition of the strategic nuclear force beyond those required by the START Treaty. At the sametime, plans and funding for sustaining some critical elements of that force have been inadequate.

As a result of this review, the U.S. will no longer plan, size or sustain its forces as though Russia presented merely a smaller version of the threat posed by the former Soviet Union. Following the direction laid down for U.S. defense planning in the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Nuclear Posture Review shifts planning for America's strategic forces from the threat-based approach of the Cold War to acapabilities-based approach. This new approach should provide, over the coming decades, a credible deterrent at the lowest level of nuclear weapons consistent with U.S. and allied security.

We have concluded that a strategic posture that relies solely on offensive nuclear forces is inappropriate for deterring the potential adversaries we will face in the 21st century. Terrorists or rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction will likely test America's security commitments to its allies and friends. In response, we will need a range of capabilities to assure friend and foe alike of U.S. resolve. A broader array of capability is needed to dissuade states from undertaking political, military, or technical courses of action that would threaten U.S. and allied security. U.S. forces must pose a credible deterrent to potential adversaries who have access to modern military technology, including NBC weapons and the means to deliver them over long distances...”

The “old” Triad comprised apurely nuclear-armed combination of three delivery systems: land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), air-launched cruise missiles and free-fall bombs, and a relatively invulnerable second-strike capability with submarine-launched ICBMs.

By “the addition of defenses,” Rumsfeld meant reviving Reagan’s flawed dream of a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system in both its national and “theatre” (regional)forms. To permit this, on 13 June 2002, the Bush administration withdrew the US unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which had underpinned MAD by severely limiting BMD systems to one each around a single key target.

Targeting countries with nuclear weapons

The review cited seven countries that by implication are now targeted with US nuclear weapons:

North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya are among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies. All have long-standing hostility toward the United States and its security partners; North Korea and Iraq in particular have been chronic military concerns. All sponsor or harbor terrorists, and all have active WMD and missile programs. Due to the combination of China's still developing strategic objectives and its ongoing modernization of its nuclear and non- nuclear forces, China is a country that could be involved in an immediate orpotential contingency.

Russia maintains the most formidable nuclear forces, aside from the United States, and substantial, if less impressive, conventional capabilities. There now are, however, no ideological sources of conflict with Moscow, as there were during the Cold War. The United States seeks amore cooperative relationship with Russia and a move away from the balance-of-terror policy framework, which by definition is an expression of mutual distrust and hostility. As a result, a nuclear strike contingency involving Russia, while plausible, is not expected. Adjusting U.S. immediate nuclear force requirements inrecognition of the changed relationship with Russia is a critical step away from the Cold War policy of mutual vulnerability and toward more cooperative relations. Russia’s nuclear forces and programs, nevertheless, remain a concern. Russia faces many strategic problems around its periphery and its future course cannot be charted with certainty. U.S. planning must take this into account. In the event that U.S. relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the U.S. may need to revise its nuclear force levels and posture.

Raising the threshold for strategic nuclear weapons use

Through combining ballistic missile defence with augmented conventional strike systems, the Bush administration hoped to strengthen conventional deterrence and raise the threshold for use of strategic nuclear weapons. This initially appeared to be apositive development, what with Bush and Putin signing the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) and the inauguration of a new NATO-Russia Council in May 2002.

Unfortunately, Bush’s piecemeal approach with Russia excludes China, the only other nuclear-armed state with superpower potential. There are no plans for a NATO-China Council, or for sharing BMD technology with China. On the contrary, China correctly perceives current US collaboration with both Japan and Taiwan to develop theatre ballistic missile defence systems as undermining MAD by threatening its land-based nuclear-armed ICBMs. It is believed to currently have less than 20. As it modernises its arsenal of only about 400 nuclear warheads, China will be able to use US theatre BMD plans to justify expanding its nuclear capability. This will inevitably ratchet up India’s, and Pakistan will feel pressured to respond. Thus one long-term consequence of deploying BMD will be to stifle further progress in nuclear disarmament, because the US will argue that it can make no more reductions in light of these developments. Russia will feel forced to follow suit.

Inciting a nuclear arms race

Another US response has made nuclear weapon use more likely. The nuclear review recommends using low-yield nuclear weapons against hardened or deeply buried non-nuclear WMD targets or bunkers where conventional weapons could be ineffective. This might be driven by the perceived need to restore US credibility in light of the Cheney/Powell decision to rule out use of nuclear weapons in the 1991 Gulf War. However, the nuclear review is an incitement to nuclear proliferation, as it would gut US assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear NPT signatory states, including the “axis of evil” trio of Iran, Iraq and North Korea plus Libya and Syria. After this became clear, the UK government echoed its “master’s voice” by warning that it too was prepared to use nuclear weapons if its forces, not just national territory, were subjected to attacks with weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, the proposed US-Russian cuts in nuclear warheads in SORT were not what they seemed or should be. The reductions to between 1,700-2,200 on each side by 2012 were no advance on the third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III), guidelines for which were agreed in 1997 by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin to cut numbers to 2,000-2,500 by 2007. Progress on negotiating START III had been stymied by NATO’s attack on Kosovo in 1999 followed by enlargement eastwards, and then by US plans for reviving BMD. SORT has now effectively killed START III.

Having pulled out of the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration is now threatening to do the same with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was the major sweetener for getting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty indefinitely extended in 1995. Thus, the question is raised: with Bush having also withdrawn the US from the International Criminal Court on 6 May 2002, lengthening his unprecedented track record of rejecting international treaties, can Russia trust the US to honourthe Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty?

An indicator of Russia’s understandable response was a report on 20 August 2002 announcing a radical planto overhaul 144 of its most powerful nuclear-armed Satan ICBMs destined for dismantling under START II. Instead of being dismantled by 2007, they will be kept fully operational until 2014 - two years after SORT is due to expire. This is despite ratification of START II by both the US and Russia. START II appears to have become the next casualty of US “rogue” behaviour over treaties.

When Bush and Putin signed SORT no mention was made about standing down the 2,000 nuclear warheads on each side still held atminutes’ launch notice, an enduring legacy of the dogma of nuclear deterrence. This was despite Bush’s alleged determination to transform the US relationship with Russia and to “replace Mutual Assured Destruction with Mutual Cooperation,” and Russia’s degraded early warning system following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military action

On 11 September 2001, hijacked airliners were flown into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Partly as a response to these terror attacks directed against the heart of US economic and military power, President Bush submitted to Congress a new National Security Strategy just over a year later on 20 September 2002. This is based on a controversial doctrine of “pre-emptive” military action to counter proven, emerging or potential threats to US national securityin an age of international terrorism that might involve weapons of mass destruction.

The justification for such a belligerent stance, euphemistically described by US administration officials as “anticipatory self-defence,” was driven by the recognition that nuclear deterrence is irrelevant against such a threat:

“Traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents; whose so-called soldiers seek martyrdom in death and whose mostpotent protection is statelessness.”

Setting the new nuclear agenda

Vice President Dick Cheney had provided his own rationale in a speech on 10 June 2002: “During the Cold War we were able to manage the threats with arms control agreements and a policy of deterrence... We [now] have enemies with nothing to defend. A group like al Qaeda cannot be deterred…” Linked to plans by the Bush administration to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons for use against hardened or deeply buried targets, this Bush doctrine of pre-emption may have sounded the death-knell of nuclear deterrence.

In an effort to shore up its nuclear posture in relation to Iraq, the Bush administration released last December a six-page National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.4It set out the practical ramifications of both the new US nuclear posture and national security strategy. It broke with 50 years of US counter-proliferation policy by authorising pre-emptive strikes on states and terrorist groups close to acquiring WMD or their long-range delivery systems.

Reserving the “right” to use nuclear weapons

The statement deliberately implied the possible use of nuclear weapons: “The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force - including through resort to all of our options - to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies".This signalled to the world that the US was increasing its reliance on nuclear weapons, while at the same time urging other countries to give up or forego them. This undercut the Non-Proliferation Treaty to the point of inciting nuclear proliferation – which has been understood by Iraq, North Korea and Iran ever since Bush singled them out as the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address in January 2002.

In the Los Angeles Times of 26 January 2003, veteran nuclear analyst William Arkin revealed that leaked Pentagon documents showed plans for the possible use of nuclear weapons in Iraq. One implication was that an Iraqi attack with crude chemical weapons that killed, say, about 100 US troops could expect nuclear retaliation. This would kill or maim hundreds of thousands of non-combatants and make a vast area uninhabitable for years. The other scenario involved attacking Saddam Hussein’s deepest and hardest command bunkers. Many of these were in highly populated urban areas. The double standards involved are staggering: not least, that part of the US strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction is to use its own ones. This plan provides an example to undeterrable opponents to use their’s too.

The history of the nuclear arms race demonstrates that, as long as some states insist on nuclear weapons for their security and prestige while trying to deny them to others, those others will follow. The UK, as the first medium-sized state with delusions of grandeur, was the overt role model for Saddam Hussein – though Israel’s covert,condoned acquisition of over 200 nuclear weapons provided the regional pretext. In South Asia, bitter rivals India and Pakistan naively attempted to apply nuclear deterrence dogma to their security problems. They were also motivated by the former colonial power’s example.

Reject state-sponsored nuclearterrorism

The reality is that nuclear deterrence is about threatening the most indiscriminate violence possible,unrestrained by morality or the law. It is therefore the antithesis of maintaining international peace and security. This is why state-sponsored nuclear terrorism must be rejected and outlawed.

The nuclear apartheid system enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)is imperilled by explicit US threats - parroted by the UK - to use nuclear weapons, even pre-emptively, against non-nuclear signatory states like Iraq, North Korea and Iran. Such threats incite proliferation, and are ultimately self-defeating. At the same time, the IAEA inspectors in Iraq had found no evidence of a revived nuclear weapon capability when they left before US, UK and Australian armed forces invaded on 20 March 2003. Moreover, the Bulletin ofthe Atomic Scientists reported that the North Korean nuclear threat, especially regarding delivery vehicles, was exaggerated.5

Meanwhile, the recognised nuclear states clearly have no intention of honouring their unequivocal undertaking at the 2000 NPT Review Conference to destroy their arsenals. In addition to US plans, the UK Ministry of Defence is investing more than £2bn in a project to enable Britain to produce anew generation of nuclear weapons. A huge modernisation plan for the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, Berkshire, will provide scientists with the capability to design and produce “mini-nukes” or nuclear warheads for cruise missiles.6

A Silver Lining?

With both obstructions to the emergence of a global prohibition on nuclear weapons at risk – namely, nuclear deterrence and the NPT – there could be a silver lining to the current dark cloud of new nuclear threats. Following the World Court’s advisory opinion in 1996 confirming that any threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be unlawful, a model Nuclear Weapons Convention was drafted by an international team of lawyers, scientists and disarmament experts, and circulated as a UN discussion document (see It offers a plan to eliminate nuclear weapons in a series of graduated, verifiable steps on the same lines as the widely-acclaimed Chemical Weapons Convention. All that is missing is political will.

There is an interesting historical parallel, with slavery. When the campaign to abolish slavery began in Britain in 1785, slavery was accepted in much the same way as nuclear weapons now are – by the establishment of a small group of predominantly Western/Northern states and their allies. Three of the leading slaving states are now the leading guardians of nuclear deterrence dogma: the US, UK and France.

Pro-nuclear advocates argue that nuclear weapons are a “necessary evil,” “cost-effective,” “not against the law,” and anyway“ there is no alternative.” These were the slavers’ arguments. They were out-manoeuvred by a small group of committed campaigners, who surprisingly focused on the illegality of slavery – not just its cruelty. For the first time, the law and public opinion were harnessed on a human rights issue. This forced British politicians to vote against a system which underpinned their wealth.

Can we channel the massive upsurge of anti-war feeling in the world into a new abolition campaign, to free humankind and the planet from the terror of threatened nuclear annihilation?


1 See Robert W. Nelson, “Low-Yield Earth –Penetrating Nuclear Weapons”, The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, January/February 2001, Volume 54, Number 1,

2 Walter Pincus, “Nuclear Expert Challenges U.S. Thinking on Warheads”, Washington Post, 24 October 2000.

3 Colin Powell, A Soldier’s Way (Hutchinson, London, 1995), p324.

4 See

5 “North Korea: Less Than Meets The Eye”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists March/April 2003, pp38-39.

6 Richard Norton-Taylor, “MoD plans £2bn nuclear expansion”, The Guardian, 18 June 2002.