The Flaws in Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear deterrence is the threat of nuclear retaliation for a proscribed behavior, generally an attack upon the threatening state. The theory of nuclear deterrence posits that such threat, if perceived as real and likely to cause sufficient devastation, will prevent an attack or other proscribed behavior from occurring.

The desire for a nuclear deterrent existed even before nuclear weapons were created. Refugee scientists from Europe, concerned about the possible development of German nuclear weapons during World War II, encouraged the United States to explore the use of uranium for building nuclear weapons. Albert Einstein was among the scientists who urged President Roosevelt to initiate a program to explore the feasibility of creating such weapons as a deterrent to the use of a German nuclear weapon, should the Germans succeed in their quest. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would consider this to be one of the great mistakes of his life.

By the time the United States succeeded in developing nuclear weapons in July 1945, Germany was already defeated. The US used its powerful new bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In doing so, it sent a nuclear deterrent message to other states, particularly the Soviet Union, that the US possessed nuclear weapons and was willing to use them. This would spur on the secret Soviet nuclear weapons program to deter future use of the US nuclear arsenal. Other states would follow suit. Britain and France developed nuclear arsenals to deter the Soviets. China developed nuclear arms to deter the US and the Soviets. Israel did so to assure its independence and deter potential interventions from the other nuclear weapon states. India developed nuclear weapons to deter China and Pakistan, and Pakistan to deter India. North Korea did so to deter the US.

One steady factor in the Nuclear Age has been the adherence of the nuclear weapon states to the theory of nuclear deterrence. Each country that has developed nuclear weapons has justified doing so by the pursuit of nuclear deterrence. The security of not only the nuclear weapon states but of civilization has rested upon the reliability of the theory of nuclear deterrence. Vast numbers of people throughout the world believe that nuclear deterrence contributes to the security of the planet and perhaps to their personal security and that of their family. But does it? What if nuclear deterrence is a badly flawed theory? What if nuclear deterrence fails? What if political and military leaders in all nuclear weapon states who have treated nuclear deterrence theory as sacrosanct and imbued it with godlike, but unrealistic, powers of protection are wrong? The future itself would stand in grave danger, for the failure of nuclear deterrence could pose an existential threat to humanity.

As a former commander of the US Strategic Command, General George Lee Butler was in charge of all US nuclear weapons. After retiring from the US Air Force, General Butler critiqued nuclear deterrence, stating that it “suspended rational thinking in the Nuclear Age about the ultimate aim of national security: to ensure the survival of the nation.” He concluded that nuclear deterrence is “a slippery intellectual construct that translates very poorly into the real world of spontaneous crises, inexplicable motivations, incomplete intelligence and fragile human relationships.”

As volcanoes often give off strong warning signals that they may erupt, so we have witnessed such signals regarding nuclear arsenals and the failure of nuclear deterrence theory over the course of the Nuclear Age. Nuclear arsenals could erupt with volcano-like force, totally overwhelming the relatively flimsy veneer of “protection” provided by nuclear deterrence theory. In the face of such dangers, we must not be complacent. Nor should we continue to be soothed by the “experts” who assure us not to worry because the weapons will keep us safe. There is, in fact, much to worry about, much more than the nuclear policy makers and theorists in each of the nuclear weapon states have led us to believe. I will examine below what I believe are ten serious flaws in nuclear deterrence theory, flaws that lead to the conclusion that the theory is unstable, unreliable and invalid.

1. It is only a theory. It is not proven and cannot be proven. A theory may posit a causal relationship, for example, if one party does something, certain results will follow. In the case of nuclear deterrence theory, it is posited that if one party threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons, the other side will not attack. That an attack has not occurred, however, does not prove that it was prevented by nuclear deterrence. That is, in logic, a false assumption of causality. In logic, one cannot prove a negative, that is, that doing something causes something else not to happen. That a nuclear attack has not happened may be a result of any number of other factors, or simply of exceptional good fortune. To attribute the absence of nuclear war to nuclear deterrence is to register a false positive, which imbues nuclear deterrence with a false sense of efficacy.

2. It requires a commitment to mass murder. Nuclear deterrence leads to policy debates about how many threatened deaths with nuclear weapons are enough to deter an adversary? Are one million deaths sufficient to deter adversary A? Is it a different number for adversary B? How many deaths are sufficient? One million? Ten million? One hundred million? More? There will always be a tendency to err on the side of more deaths, and thus the creation of more elaborate nuclear killing systems. Such calculations, in turn, drive arms races, requiring huge allocations of resources to weapons systems that must never be used. Leaders must convince their own populations that the threat of mass murder and the expenditure of resources to support this threat make them secure and is preferable to other allocations of scientific and financial resources. The result is not only a misallocation of resources, but also a diversion of effort away from cooperative solutions to global problems.

3. It requires effective communications. In effect, nuclear deterrence is a communications theory. Side A must communicate its capability and willingness to use its nuclear arsenal in retaliation for an attack by adversary B, thereby preventing adversary B from attacking. The threat to retaliate and commit mass murder must be believable to a potential attacker. Communications take place verbally in speeches by leaders and parliamentary statements, as well as news reports and even by rumors. Communications also take place non-verbally in the form of alliance formations and nuclear weapons and missile tests. In relation to nuclear deterrence, virtually everything that each side does is a deliberate or inadvertent form of communication to a potential adversary. There is much room for error and misunderstanding.

4. It requires rational decision makers. Nuclear deterrence will not be effective against a decision maker who is irrational. For example, side A may threaten nuclear retaliation for an attack by adversary B, but the leader of side B may irrationally conclude that the leader of side A will not do what he says. Or, the leader of side B may irrationally attack side A because he does not care if one million or ten million of his countrymen die as a result of side A’s nuclear retaliation. I believe two very important questions to consider are these: Do all leaders of all states behave rationally at all times, particularly under conditions of extreme stress when tensions are very high? Can we be assured that all leaders of all states will behave rationally at all times in the future? Most people believe the answer to these questions is an unqualified No.

5. It instills a false sense of confidence. Nuclear deterrence is frequently confused with nuclear “defense,” leading to the conclusion that nuclear weapons provide some form of physical protection against attack. This conclusion is simply wrong. The weapons and the threat of their use provide no physical protection. The only protection provided is psychological and once the weapons start flying it will become clear that psychological protection is not physical protection. One can believe the weapons make him safer, but this is not the same as actually being safer. Because nuclear deterrence theory provides a false sense of confidence, it could lead a possessor of the weapons to take risks that would be avoided without nuclear threats in place. Such risks could be counterproductive and actually lead to nuclear war.

6. It does not work against an accidental use. Nuclear deterrence is useful, if at all, only against the possibility of an intentional, premeditated nuclear attack. Its purpose is to make the leader who contemplates the intentional use of a nuclear weapon decide against doing so. But nuclear deterrence cannot prevent an accidental use of a nuclear weapon, such as an accidental launch. This point was made in the movie Dr. Strangelove, in which a US nuclear attack was accidentally set in motion against the Soviet Union. In the movie, bomber crews passed their “failsafe” point in a training exercise and couldn’t be recalled. The president of the United States had to get on the phone with his Soviet counterpart and try to explain that the attack on Moscow that had been set in motion was just an accident. The Americans were helpless to stop the accident from occurring, and so were the Soviets. Accidents happen! There is no such thing as a “foolproof” system, and when nuclear weapons are involved it is extremely dangerous to think there is.

7. It doesn’t work against terrorist organizations. Nuclear deterrence is based upon the threat of retaliation. Since it is not possible to retaliate against a foe that you cannot locate, the threat of retaliation is not credible under these circumstances. Further, terrorists are often suicidal (e.g., “suicide bombers”), and are willing to die to inflict death and suffering on an adversary. For these reasons, nuclear deterrence will be ineffective in preventing nuclear terrorism. The only way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to prevent the weapons themselves from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations. This will become increasingly difficult if nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials to build them proliferate to more and more countries.

8. It encourages nuclear proliferation. To the extent that the theory of nuclear deterrence is accepted as valid and its flaws overlooked or ignored, it will make nuclear weapons seem to be valuable instruments for the protection of a country. Thus, the uncritical acceptance of nuclear deterrence theory provides an incentive for nuclear proliferation. If it is believed that nuclear weapons can keep a country safe, there will be commensurate pressure to develop such weapons.

9. It is not believable. In the final analysis, it is likely that even the policy makers who promote nuclear deterrence do not truly believe in it. If policy makers did truly believe that nuclear deterrence works as they claim, they would not need to develop missile defenses. The United States alone has spent over $100 billion on developing missile defenses over the past three decades, and is continuing to spend some $10 billion annually on missile defense systems. Such attempts at physical protection against nuclear attacks are unlikely to ever be fully successful, but they demonstrate the underlying understanding of policy makers that nuclear deterrence alone is insufficient to provide protection to a country. If policy makers understand that nuclear deterrence is far from foolproof, then who is being fooled by nuclear deterrence theory? In all likelihood, the only people being fooled by the promised effectiveness of nuclear deterrence theory are the ordinary people who place their faith in their leaders, the same people who are the targets of nuclear weapons and will suffer the consequences should nuclear deterrence fail. Their political and military leaders have made them the “fools” in what is far from a “foolproof” system.

10. Its failure would be catastrophic. Nuclear deterrence theory requires the development and deployment of nuclear weapons for the threat of retaliation. These weapons can, of course, be used for initiating attacks as well as for seeking to prevent attacks by means of threatened retaliation. Should deterrence theory fail, such failure could result in consequences beyond our greatest fears. For example, scientists have found in simulations of the use of 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons in an exchange between India and Pakistan, the deaths could reach one billion individuals due to blast, fire, radiation, climate change, crop failures and resulting starvation. A larger nuclear war between the US and Russia could destroy civilization as we know it.

The flaws in nuclear deterrence theory that I have discussed cannot be waved aside. They show that the theory has inherent weaknesses that cannot be overcome. Over time, the theory will suffer more and more stress fractures and, like a poorly constructed bridge, it will fail. Rather than staying docilely on the sidelines, citizens of the nuclear weapon states must enter the arena of debate. In fact, they must create the debate by challenging the efficacy and validity of nuclear deterrence theory.

After these many years of accepting nuclear deterrence theory as valid and unimpeachable, it is time to awaken to the reality that it could fail and fail catastrophically. The answer to the risks posed by nuclear deterrence theory is not to shore up an inherently flawed theory, but to take a new path, a path leading to the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the planet. This is not an impossible dream and, in fact, the risks of taking this path are far less than maintaining nuclear arsenals justified by an unstable and unproven theory. But for this dream to be realized, citizens will have to raise their voices, challenge their leaders, and refuse to be docile in the face of the overwhelming threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity.

DAVID KRIEGER is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

David Krieger is president emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (