Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Strategy

  • Published

Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Strategy by David W. Kearn, Jr. Cambria Press, 2019, 211 pp.

For over 75 years, nuclear weapons have been a key part of the US arsenal. They also came to play a significant factor in shaping US national security strategy and policy. Nuclear weapons and the strategy developed around those weapons drove much of America’s actions in the Cold War. However, in the aftermath of the Cold War, nuclear weapons and strategy faded into the background as other priorities took hold. Today, with the international security environment evolving yet again with the reemergence of strategic power competition with peer and near-peer adversaries, the US is facing a new reckoning with its nuclear arsenal and strategy.

To help decipher the new challenges to a classic US national security issue, David W. Kearn offers his concise but informative Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Strategy. This work is published by Cambria Press as part of its Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security Studies series. The intent is to educate policy makers about key issues and pose options and recommendations for resolving them. Such is the case with this work on US nuclear strategy.

Divided into three sections, this work offers the historical background of the issue, a series of policy recommendations/actions, and a conclusion recommending a course of action for policy makers. The first part of the work reviews a history of nuclear weapons and previous strategies/actions associated with those weapons. It covers the original development of those weapons, how previous administrations developed strategies and plans accounting for their use and impact, and the evolution of the weapons and strategies in the seven decades nuclear weapons have been a part of the US arsenal.

Additionally, Kearn looks at those adversaries—particularly Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—as the key nation-state actors likely to drive future US nuclear strategy. It is also interesting to note how Kearn incorporates various new acquisitional priorities for the nuclear enterprise, emphasizing the new weapons systems, such as the B-21 bomber to replace the B-52 and B-2 bombers, the long-range standoff (LRSO) option to replace the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), and the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) to replace the current US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities. These programs drive much of the discussion on future costs and requirements for US nuclear strategy.   

The option part looks at three ways ahead for current and future US nuclear strategy. Option 1, nuclear primacy, increases the current US nuclear stockpile, looking to maintain overwhelming nuclear superiority and advantage against the main peer and near-peer rivals that can threaten US interests and possibly national existence. Option 2, robust deterrent strategy, calls for a middle ground, looking to emphasize modernizing current nuclear weapon stockpiles without a significant ramping up or major decrease of current nuclear stockpiles. Option 3, minimal deterrence, looks at the significant reduction of the current nuclear weapon stockpile, cutting it down to a far lower level that allows the US to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent without the current budgetary expenditures.

The three options, constituting the second part of the book, build on the information presented in the first part and offer the reader the ways ahead. Perhaps the titles of each of the three sections, as opposed to Nuclear Primacy, Robust Strategic Deterrent, and Minimal Deterrent, could be the academic version of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear from the classic fairy tale. Yet Kearn offers fact-based analysis of the three courses of action, noting that there are various factions within the US government and national security apparatus that advocate for these positions. Some want to increase US nuclear weapons capabilities and adopt a more aggressive US nuclear strategy. Others want to dial back the current stockpiles to try to achieve the dream of a zero-nuke world while acknowledging that some nuclear weapons are still required for deterrence purposes. And those in the middle ground want a more modern nuclear force that does not significantly increase or decrease the number of weapons or posture of their use. 

The author ultimately goes with the robust deterrent strategy in a sort of “Goldilocks” call of the “just right” nuclear weapons stockpile and strategy to best leverage those destructive capabilities. The desire to ramp up nuclear weapon production as required in the nuclear primacy option is seen as too costly financially and dangerous for global stability. The minimum deterrent option, while reducing costs, also present a significant deterrent to the current nuclear posture, especially when it comes to the US nuclear umbrella, which has played a major role in keeping other states from developing their own nuclear stockpiles and increasing the likelihood of their use in future conflicts.

This book is primarily designed for those policy makers with little prior experience in dealing with nuclear matters. The background information in the first part of the book offers just enough history, technical details, current situation assessment, and future projections to make readers somewhat knowledgeable. It will not make them certified experts, but it does enable them to have more than a passing knowledge of why things are the way they are with current US nuclear strategy and what the current plans and projections are for US nuclear strategy. For those with experience in the nuclear enterprise, this book will not offer much new in the way of facts or options. It might be a useful review primer and offer some insights into aspects someone may not deal with in the nuclear enterprise. Aside from that, this book is best left to those who have little to no experience in nuclear strategy or any other aspect of the enterprise.

Lt Col Scott Martin, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."