Of all the exhibits of horror in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum—twisted bicycles, melted eyeglasses, burned rubble—one stopped me in my tracks. It was a small section of wall and steps. On it, a dark half-oval is burned into the stone, with vertical shading on the steps. It is the silhouette of a human being, vaporized by the atomic explosion on August 6, 1945.
At 8:15 a.m., most of downtown Hiroshima disappeared in a searing flash of light and a crushing blast of superheated air. At least 70,000 Japanese (including around 20,000 soldiers) were killed by the firestorm that incinerated the city’s wooden houses and buildings. Three days later, on August 9, the city of Nagasaki was similarly destroyed, this time with the immediate death of around 40,000 civilians. Tens of thousands more would die in coming weeks and years from burns and radiation sickness.
For 70 years since those August mornings, the world has been spared another nuclear bombing. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union built enormous stockpiles of nuclear warheads, reaching a maximum combined total of 64,500 in 1986, neither they nor the other official nuclear powers ever detonated a nuclear weapon during a conflict. Since the end of the Cold War, in particular, the threat of nuclear war has appeared to recede, and the massive nuclear arsenals relegated in importance to the backwaters of national strategy.
Today, though, a quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are back, proliferation is increasing, and the world faces a new and unsettling nuclear future. To prepare for the return of a nuclear world, the United States above all must revitalize its once-dominant nuclear culture, relearn the language of deterrence, and reincorporate nuclear strategy into all levels of security policymaking.
Just six years ago, in an April 2009 visit to Prague, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama declared “America’s commitment to . . . a world without nuclear weapons.” Asserting a “reset” of relations with Russia and a strategic relationship with China, Obama based the first years of his presidency on the assumption that great power cooperation would be the new norm. As for Iran, good-faith American efforts to negotiate, such as by fully joining the P5+1 process, would prevent Tehran from getting the bomb. North Korea, a perennial rogue outlier from global diplomacy, was a more difficult, but manageable, problem. In short, an America that would soon be disengaging from both Iraq and Afghanistan was signaling its benign intentions around the globe. In that scenario, the ultimate weapon would have a smaller role than ever before.
Obama’s Prague speech gave enormous impetus to the “global zero” movement to abolish all nuclear weapons. Indeed, the president’s rhetoric helped delegitimize the very idea of nuclear weapons as a useful tool of national security. Instead, they were the “most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” as he put it in Prague. Indeed, simply maintaining a nuclear arsenal was immoral. Exactly two years later, Obama attempted the first steps to making his dream a reality by signing the “New START” treaty with then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Among the multitude of goals in the agreement, one stood out: both sides would cut their stock of operationally deployed warheads to 1,550, a reduction of two-thirds from the original START treaty signed in 1991 by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. While not going nearly far enough for the nuclear abolitionists, New START seemed to be the first step to a nuclear-free world.
Within just a few years, nearly every assumption made by the Obama administration has been turned on its head. Above all, Russia has reemerged as potentially the greatest strategic threat to American interests, at least according to the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, and Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James, among others. Vladimir Putin’s numerous nuclear threats—against Denmark, the Baltic states, and the West in general—have revived a style of nuclear coercion not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Putin’s threats don’t come from thin air; they are tied directly to his geopolitical ambitions and designed to provide support to his invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Even more notably, in the years since Prague, every nuclear power has committed to modernizing and/or expanding its nuclear force. Russia is investing billions in modernizing its missiles, bombers, and submarines. China, which refuses any type of serious nuclear discussions with the United States, is introducing new multiple warhead missiles (MIRVs), as well as increasing its number of nuclear ballistic missile submarines to five (close to a third of the U.S. number) and improving its bomber force, while also pursuing hypersonic missile capability. Both India and Pakistan, the countries many experts believe are the most likely to engage in a nuclear exchange, have tested new nuclear missiles. Shedding some of his Prague utopianism, President Obama, as well, has committed the United States to a ten-year, $350 billion modernization and upkeep of America’s nuclear enterprise, including new SSBNs, ICBMS, and bombers.
Now the world faces the proliferators. North Korea remains committed to weaponizing its nuclear capability, and U.S. military officials believe they are an operational threat, with new, road-mobile ICBMs. Above all, Iran has seemingly negotiated an agreement with the Obama administration that will allow it to build a nuclear weapon at the end of the ten-year timeframe of the treaty, though scholars like Graham Allison argue that Tehran already possesses the capability to make a bomb. A once dreamed of nuclear-free future has turned into a nightmare of nuclear proliferation and a growing threat.
In our new nuclear future, reduction and abolition are increasingly pipedreams, as is the idea of nonproliferation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is disintegrating, and would-be proliferators are finding that the stockpiles of plutonium are growing globally and their ability to enrich uranium is unobstructed. For the foreseeable future, the United States must return—and return quickly—to its successful Cold War strategy. Our silent arsenals must become tools first and foremost of credible deterrence.
A few months ago, I climbed into the cockpit of perhaps the most iconic symbol of deterrence of all, the venerable B-52. I was the guest of Air Force Global Strike Command, which shares Barksdale Air Force Base, outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, with the 2nd Bomb Wing, one of five nuclear-capable bomb wings operated by the U.S. Air Force. There are 76 B-52s that can carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles or bombs, and the newest of those planes is now 50 years old. Two years before Dr. Strangelove hit the nation’s movie theaters in 1964, the last B-52H Stratofortress rolled off the assembly line and has been in service ever since.
The B-52 cockpit is cramped even for someone of ordinary height, and I needed to step onto the pilot’s seat to sit down. I expected digital displays and touchscreens. Instead, most of the dials and levers hadn’t been replaced since the plane was new. I asked my escort if this was an actual working plane, and he told me it’d been fueled and was ready to go. Outside the narrow windows, I watched its sister bombers take to the skies with a deafening roar.
Later that day, I got a chance to “fly” the B-52 in the same simulator its pilots use for training. It exactly mimics the experience of flying the behemoth plane, and I was surprised by the amount of strength it took to work the rudder pedals and control the yoke. The computer-generated imagery outside the cockpit was startlingly realistic, and I got vertigo as we banked and zoomed over fields and towns. By the end, I was dripping in sweat, far more appreciative of the demands made on those who conduct “nuclear deterrence operations” (NDOs).
America’s nuclear arsenal has shrunk by over 80 percent since its height in 1967, but there are still 7,100 total U.S. nuclear warheads, of which 2,080 are currently deployed. They are carried not only on the B-52 I sat in, but by 18 stealthy B-2 bombers, on 450 Minuteman III ICBMs scattered throughout America’s Midwest and controlled by nine missile squadrons, and inside 14 Ohio-class SSBNs holding 240 missiles. No longer does the military deploy tactical nuclear weapons (known as “non-strategic nuclear forces”) or the Tomahawk sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles. The oldest bomb in the U.S. nuclear inventory is the B-61, built in the 1960s, and slated to be reconfigured as a guided-gravity bomb.
These forces are not merely the ultimate weapons, they are the ultimate deterrent. They have been operated, guarded, and maintained by hundreds of thousands of sailors, airmen, and civilians for seven decades. They have become perhaps the most complex technological endeavor ever undertaken, as their support systems include the most advanced nuclear submarines and bombers. Their command and control system is backstopped by satellites, powerful computers, and even the hundreds of tons of rock that shield NORAD’s backup control center inside Cheyenne Mountain, in Colorado.
This entire nuclear enterprise will be modernized and updated over the next decades. The B-2s and Ohio-class SSBNs will be retired, and next-generation platforms will be deployed. Yet no modernization will be sufficient if America doesn’t have a nuclear strategy appropriate to the new threats we face. Increasingly, crafting such a strategy requires rediscovering the nuclear culture we abandoned at the end of the Cold War.
Popular culture’s view of the absurdist world of nuclear strategy reached its apotheosis in Stanley Kubrick’s biting satire Dr. Strangelove, and most perfectly in General “Buck” Turgidson. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed,” says Turgidson, played by George C. Scott. “But I do say no more than ten-to-twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” The public portrayal of nuclear thinkers like Herman Kahn, General Curtis LeMay, or Henry Kissinger created an image of cold-blooded, possibly insane technocrats who were willing to destroy all life on earth. In a history of the early days of nuclear strategy, the writer Fred Kaplan called them the “wizards of Armageddon.”
In July, I spoke at the annual conference of wizards, U.S. Strategic Command’s Deterrence Symposium. Held just outside Offutt AFB, in Omaha, the conference featured two-dozen speakers and nearly 600 participants from the U.S. and foreign militaries, the defense industry, academia, and the media. Given how little the policy community in Washington, D.C., talks about the growing nuclear threat, it was like being inside a bubble. It was also a bit like stepping back in time, to the 1980s or earlier. I was surprised that one topic above all dominated the conference: Russia. Speaker after speaker focused on Moscow’s existential threat to the United States, Putin’s saber-rattling and his nuclear modernization plan, and their belief that a balance of terror was reemerging. By comparison, North Korea and Iran received almost no attention at all, while China was referred to only sparingly (mostly at my panel).
This mono-focus should be of concern to policymakers. We cannot go back to the future. If we simply dust-off our Cold War templates for nuclear competition, we will find ourselves unprepared for the full range of threats. Above all, the strategic environment has changed, and for the worse.
During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington were largely status-quo nuclear superpowers that created a mostly stable dyadic nuclear environment. The new nuclear environment we are entering will be multipolar, and therefore inherently more unstable. Worse, it will be populated by revanchist regimes like Russia and China, millennial ones like Iran, and utterly unpredictable ones like North Korea (let alone terrorist groups, an entirely different type of threat). We can’t simply bring in Cold War thinking and expect to be able to come up with a deterrence strategy that covers the diversity of the new nuclear threat.
We must accept that our holiday from nukes is over, and that we once again will be living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. To ignore the threat may be suicidal, but even if Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei never intend to use their nuclear weapons, they will change their very environments by having them. For example, some at the STRATCOM symposium suggested putting tactical nuclear warheads back into Europe. I raised the question about whether a stagnating China might depart from its cautious nuclear policy, so as to protect its gains in the South China Sea. These are questions either never before asked or which have been sleeping for decades.
We must once again understand how nuclear coercion and saber rattling will be a tool of statecraft. We must then become sophisticated enough to distinguish real threats from mere bluster, and understand which crises may become nuclear. After 25 years, we have lost that ability. Retrieving it is of paramount importance. It will require developing a new generation of nuclear thinkers, one not tied to Cold War experiences or overly dependent on liberal internationalist beliefs, which may serve to enmesh the U.S. in endless negotiations while not adequately preparing us for the threat.
The U.S. Air Force has begun this process of reviving our nuclear culture by establishing a new School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence, essentially a master’s degree program in nuclear warfighting and deterrence. In addition, Christopher Yeaw, the former chief scientist of Air Force Global Strike Command, has started the Center for Assurance, Deterrence, Escalation, and Nonproliferation Science and Education (CADENSE) at the Louisiana Tech Research Institute. More think tanks and universities will need to incorporate nuclear strategy programs, and Washington should ensure that nuclear thinking percolates throughout the national security community, not just among the nuclear operators.
Above all, though, these new intellectual efforts must not be derailed by wishful thinking about how to restore the nonproliferation regime or cooperation. We are in a world of nuclear uncertainty because new and traditional actors see nuclear weapons as viable tools of statecraft. They wish us ill, and they believe that Washington is too risk-averse to try and counter their growing nuclear programs. Our new thinking must be tied to the twin concepts of deterrence and warfighting.
All that must then translate into clear and unambiguous policy. Relearning concepts such as “escalation dominance” and “off-ramps” become more important the more players involved. Having country experts who understand the political cultures of our nuclear competitors is vital for successful nuclear strategy. Our political and military leaders must level with the public on the nature of the emerging threats and not hesitate to engage in serious discussions of what U.S. nuclear policy must be.
Ultimately, the American public must reembrace their nuclear culture. That does not mean a return to “duck-and-cover” or civil defense exercises. But it means understanding that the coming decades may see cascading nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and possibly Asia, that our leaders will be threatened with a nuclear response to American military activity abroad, and that smaller nations will make increasing demands on our extended deterrence assurances.
It is unpleasant to contemplate all this, but it is not a world of our choosing. Yet how the nuclear threat evolves is very much dependent on our response from today forward. Becoming fluent again in nuclear thinking may become the most important survival skill for America in the twenty-first century.