Nuclear Strike: First or Second
AUTHOR Major Ronald A. Seyle, USAF
SUBJECT AREA - General
TITLE: NUCLEAR STRIKE: FIRST OR SECOND
I. Purpose: To show that the threat of nuclear first strike is
vital to the US and NATO policy of deterrence through "flexible-
II. Problem: Since the first use of the atomic bomb, USSR and US
nuclear arsenals have grown to devastating proportions. Both
countries have struggled in developing sound policies which guide
the employment of these arsenals. Because of the devastating
potential of these weapons, many argue against their first use,
Even though our current doctrine of "flexible-response" allows
for the first use of nuclear weapons, acceptance of this
doctrine requires a new perspective of just how this policy
strengthens US and NATO strategies of deterrence.
III. Data: The strategic doctrine of "flexible-response" has been
US policy since 1962 and NATO strategy since 1967. This policy
is the backbone of our alliance commitment and warns the enemy
that NATO's deterrence of a conventional attack is enhanced by
our ability and resolve to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to
halt aggression. This policy is misunderstood by many. In this
regard, opponents of this strategy argue that first use is
inappropriate under any circumstances. They argue that such a
threat invites rampant escalation of any conflict. Opponents
further argue for a shift to conventional buildups and believe
that alliance consensus for second use will be more easily
In reality, the threat of first use of nuclear weapons is
the only true deterrent against Warsaw Pact aggression. This
threat actually decreases the likelihood of both conventional and
nuclear war and its follow on escalation. Additionally, the
threat of first use complicates enemy strategy through uncertainty.
Conventional buildups are too expensive and have never guaranteed
to deter enemy aggression. In fact, without the threat of nuclear
deterrent weapons, conventional war would be much more likely and
would most assuredly result in unparalleled destruction.
The threat of nuclear first use has clearly gained the attention of
Soviet leaders. Recent evidence indicates a shift in Soviet nuclear
thinking. This shift speaks soundly for our current deterrent doctrine
IV. Conclusion: Even though current US and NATO nuclear deterrent
doctrines are over twenty years old, they are working. Let's not
V. Recommendation: Professional military schools at all levels
must incorporate more thorough discussions of US and NATO nuclear
deterrent strategies. This will be necessary in order that
future strategic decision makers are able to ward off first use
opponents and develop sound nuclear strategies.
NUCLEAR STRIKE: FIRST OR SECOND
Thesis statement. First use of nuclear weapons is vital to the US and
NATO policy of deterrence through flexible response.
I. Nuclear background
A. Current NATO/Warsaw arsenals warrant attention.
B. It all began July 16, 1945.
C. Evolution has been rapid.
D. Strategies and policies have developed slowly,
II. Current doctrine
A. Deterrence is the aim.
B. Flexible response is US policy.
l. Flexible response allows first use.
2. Flexible response expands President's options.
C. NATO has adopted flexible response.
III. 0pposing views
A. Argue that military balance has changed.
B. Fear "crisis escalation."
C. Promote conventional buildup.
D. Advocate second use.
IV. The case for first strike
A. It is a true deterrent threat.
B. It complicates enemy strategy.
C. It decreases the likelihood of waj.
D. It denounces conventional buildup.
l. As too costly
2. As no guarantee
V. Soviet responses
A. Brezhnev sets new principles at 1977 Tula address,
B. Gorbachev continues these principles.
NUCLEAR STRIKE: FIRST OR SECOND
By: Major R. A. Seyle, USAF
"For the United States to seek first strike
capability seems implausible."
- Robert C. Aldridge
".... of course, flexible response strategy is
supposed to keep a small war limited so as not
to unduly threaten the Sino-Soviets. But for
the life of me, I can't see why the communists
would be less eager to engage us because we
act equivocal rather than tough."
- General Curtis E. Lemay
The essence of United States' strategic doctrine is labeled
"flexible response." This approach is the key feature of our
deterrent strategy.3 Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, spel-
led out this policy in his annual report to the Congress for the
fiscal year 1990, and in doing so, he clearly emphasized the
importance of this doctrine for our national security. "While
emphasizing our resolve to respond," he noted, "flexible response
avoids specifying what our response may be."
Nuclear response has been debated for over four decades now.
The quotes cited above clearly indicate that nuclear strategies
have supporters at each end of the spectrum regardless of how the
spectrum is analyzed. Many strategist support positions
somewhere in between the extremes of the nuclear spectrum. Other
students of US nuclear strategy have even concluded that the
United States has no single, integrated strategic doctrine.
Instead, they believe it has simply amassed a contradictory
mixture of principles which has produced serious discrepancies
between government policy and military employment.4 Whatever
view is taken of nuclear strategies, I feel one aspect is often
mis-thought: the first use of nuclear weapons. The first use of
nuclear weapons is vital to US and NATO policies of deterrence
through flexible response.
Unfortunately, when nuclear weapons are discussed, emotions
tend to cloud the process. This is even more true when first use
is advocated. When analyzing nuclear strategies, placing ones
head in the sand and hoping the nuclear arsenals and dilemmas
will go away is not an option. Those responsible for our
national security must respect the arsenals of both the Warsaw
Pact and the NATO alliance. Both have amassed tremendous nuclear
capabilities. In just over forty years, these nuclear arsenals
have developed so quickly that both the USSR and the US have had
trouble keeping pace in developing sound nuclear strategies.
The summer issue of Defense `88 points out just how vast
these rapidly developing arsenals are. The NATO alliance and the
Warsaw Pact total over 8,000 aircraft capable of nuclear
delivery. In addition, both groups possess approximately 12,000
nuclear artillery pieces/launchers.5 In 1984, the USSR and the
US possessed over 4,400 bombers or missiles capable of delivering
over 20,000 nuclear warheads.6 In the same year, the US alone
had thirty-three ballistic missile launching submarines.7 The
Soviet Union has countered by placing the first of a new class of
Typhoon submarine into operation. This class sub is larger and
heavier than the United States' Trident submarine. It also has
the capability to operate beneath the Artic ice and then break
through as it surfaces to launch its missiles.8 The tremendous
capabilities and numbers of these weapons cannot be ignored.
This weapons race began on July 16, 1945, when Dr. Robert
Oppenheimer, director of the research program which led to the
development of the atomic bomb, observed the first atomic test:
explosion. He had created the nuclear age. Three weeks later
history's second atomic blast ripped through the Japanese city of
Hiroshima.9 Only three days after that, the nuclear specter
struck again as Nagasaki disappeared in a fiery massacre.10
Forty years later, nuclear arsenals continue to grow at record
shattering paces. How to best employ these arsenals is still a
perplexing problem. Analysis of this problem may best be begun
by reviewing the evolution of nuclear weapons.
For several years after the discovery of nuclear fission,
the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons.11
Gradually, as the Soviet union perfected and increased its
development of nuclear weapons, the United States lost its
strategic edge. A period of decisive superiority in nuclear
weapons followed. Beginning in 1970, this superiority had eroded
into nuclear parity which exists today.12 During the periods of
monopoly and superiority, the US advocated its ability to start
and win a nuclear war.13 Nuclear strategies were not much more
complicated than that. However, with the advent of nuclear
parity, there is now a definite need for those responsible to
pull their heads out of the sand and critically analyze our
nuclear strategies. Due to this parity, many feel - I do not -
the incentive for nuclear first use has diminished. First use of
nuclear weapons is still a critical element of our nuclear
Over the past forty years, there has really only been one
significant change in this nuclear doctrine - the shift during the
Kennedy administration from massive retaliation to flexible
response.14 This shift is tremendously significant in that it
openly supports first use of nuclear weapons. The old doctrine
of massive retaliation sought to deter any form of Soviet
aggression through the threat of immediate, large scale nuclear
attacks against military, leadership, and urban industrial
targets in the Soviet Union. This policy was too inflexible,
providing the president with only two options in the event of
Soviet aggression: do nothing or launch a massive attack against
the Soviet Union.15 As the Soviets acquired a stronger nuclear
capability, including the ability to strike targets in the US,
the credibility of a deterrent force based solely upon massive
The change to a new flexible response doctrine improved US
deterrent credibility by increasing the number of options
available to the president. This doctrine provided the
capability to respond to Soviet aggression at the level at which
it was initiated or to escalate the conflict to a higher level.
Flexible response confronts the Soviet attack planners with the
possibility that we may respond to a conventional attack with
conventional forces. Or, if that fails, we may respond with non-
strategic nuclear weapons or limited or massive use of US
strategic nuclear weapons against targets in the Soviet homeland.
Flexible response has enhanced deterrent credibility, multiplying
the uncertainties confronting Soviet leadership and confronting
him with a threat with costs that would outweigh any gains that
might be achieved through aggression.17
The doctrine of flexible response was first adopted by the
US in 1962.18 In 1980, President Carter signed Presidential
Directive No. 59 (PD-59) which reaffirmed US support for this
doctrine.19 NATO followed in 1967 by approving MC 14/3, the NATO
document which explains this strategy.20 This doctrine advocates
employing nuclear weapons at two levels.
On one level, US non-strategic weapons - both land and sea-
based - are incorporated into US and NATO planning. These
weapons could be employed to degrade Soviet military operations
in a particular theatre and to induce Soviet leadership to cease
its aggression through the threat of further escalation.
Strategic nuclear weapons systems are also included in planning
on this level. These systems are planned to be used for limited
nuclear options (LNOs) to provide a capability to retaliate
against military installations deeper in Eastern Europe or the
Soviet Union.21 The incorporation of US non-strategic and
strategic systems into the NATO plans provides the president with
many more options.22
On the second level, strategic nuclear systems are
incorporated into US nuclear war planning. These devastating
weapons provide the president with a series of large- scale,
alternative responses to a massive Soviet nuclear attack. These
systems also provide the backbone for our alliance commitments
under what is commonly referred to as the "nuclear umbrella."
Since the inception of flexible response, planning for large-
scale, retaliatory options has emphasized the capability to
strike at Soviet military targets separately or congruently with
attacks on Soviet leadership installations and industrial bases.
The intent of these attacks is to deny the Soviet Union the
ability to achieve its war aims. By providing these credible
responses at both levels to potential Soviet threats, these
flexible response options strongly fortify deterrence.23
A key component of this strategy of flexible response is the
capability to use nuclear weapons as appropriate in the event of
a conventional attack that threatens to defeat NATO defenses.24
Another indispensable characteristic of any successful deterrent
posture is credibility. We seek to instill this in our
potential adversaries with a measure of uncertainty. We must
seek to deter potential adversaries by the uncertainty that
arises when we avoid specifying the exact means, location,
timing, and scope of our response to any aggression.25 The fact
that no nuclear weapon has been used in aggression in for over
forty years speaks soundly for the deteral value of our flexible
response doctrine. I see no need to alter a doctrine which has
produced such satisfying results - nuclear parity or not.
Those who support changing this doctrine's approach propose
that NATO and US abandon the option of nuclear first use.26 The
basis for their case is that the military balance is quite
different now than when this doctrine was initiated over twenty
years ago. Some critics of flexible response point out that the
Soviets have achieved not only strategic nuclear parity but
theatre nuclear superiority. These developments, the critics
claim, have invalidated the current strategy. These critics
further claim that reliance on flexible response, with its first
strike threat, for deterrence might prompt Soviet leaders under
crisis to deduce that the gains from aggression outweigh the
costs.27 Under such a crisis situation, this group claims that
no one can have confidence that any use of nuclear weapons, even
on the smallest scale, would not lead to to further and more
devastating exchanges. This no first use group believes that
such exchanges would assuredly lead to rampart escalation and
total destruction. Furthermore, this group claims that
deterrence would be enhanced by not embracing the threat of
nuclear first use. They reason that we already have the
capability for appropriate retaliation to any kind of Soviet
nuclear attack, leaving the USSR no doubt it should adhere to its
own no first use policy.
This group further argues that a policy of no first use
would also reduce the risk of conventional aggression because
our conventional forces could be improved with a shift in
emphasis from nuclear effort to a conventional buildup. A shift
such as this, the group feels, would increase our credibility
since it would be easier to establish an alliance consensus for
second use of nuclear forces should the Warsaw Pact employ its
In my opinion, the only way to increase our credibility is
to embrace the only true deterrent to Warsaw Pact aggression -
the threat of nuclear first strike. This threat includes the
possibility of continuing the nuclear exchange to annihilate the
Soviet homeland: a threat with teeth. It is true that the
nuclear balance has shifted over the last twenty years, but
military objectives have not. Our objective is still to prevent
the enemy from fighting. Failing this, our objective is to
defeat him. This philosophy has not changed over the years. Nor.
should twenty years of nuclear development change this thinking.
I also refute the the theory of escalation. In reality, a no
first use policy would increase, not decrease the likelihood of
both conventional and nuclear war and its follow on escalation.
It would remove the key source of NATO's deterrence - the threat
of possible nuclear retaliation to any kind of enemy aggression.
In addition, a no first use policy sends the wrong signal to the
Soviet Union, making it appear that NATO would rather accept
conventional defeat than resort to any form of nuclear strike.29
The most likely way to correct this erroneous signal is
through a credible first use policy. Deterrence of war is better
enhanced by our threat of nuclear first use. Such a potent
threat complicates enemy strategy. The critical question for
Soviet leaders under this threat is not the capability of NATO or
US forces, but the will of the allied forces to use the total
spectrum of their arsenals and to do so early. Potential
aggressors can never be quite sure when or how NATO might use its
nuclear capability to respond. Such uncertainty is a central
factor in NATO and US deterrent formulas. Any predetermined
reaction to aggression, such as a guarantee of no first use of
nuclear weapons, would undermine these formulas. Halting a
conventional attack with the early use of nuclear weapons is the
only true deterrent to Warsaw Pact aggression.30
Conventional buildup to counter the risks of enemy
conventional aggression is virtually impossible to achieve given
the budgetary constraints in the alliance nations - especially in
the US.31 Even if such buildups were to take place, in no way
would they assure the success of a non-nuclear defense. If
nuclear weapons had never been invented, a conventional war
between the NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact would have been
much more probable.32 Conventional forces alone have failed to
deter war in all ages, even when equal to those of the aggressor.
Although a no first use doctrine may assure that nuclear weapons
would not be used in conflict, a conventional war between NATO
and the Warsaw Pact would be more likely and would most assuredly
bring about unparalleled destruction.
Such destruction would also be evident should the NATO
alliance employ the second use concept. Many feel the alliance
can gain support for this concept more readily, thereby
increasing its credibility. Second use, in my opinion, is just
too late. To concede such vast destruction uncontested is an
In today's nuclear parity environment, it is critical that
alliance nuclear policies deter war against Warsaw Pact
aggression. First strike's most important contributions are
through deterrence. As a deterrent, we need these capabilities
more than the Soviets do.33
Evidence shows the Soviets view our nuclear capabilities and
doctrine with much respect. Throughout the last decade, the
Soviet politico-military leadership has shown this respect by
providing startling evidence of new soviet thinking on nuclear
war. Leading Soviet military thinkers have themselves traced the
origin of these new thoughts to evolving technological
developments and to a perceived US policy of a "no-holds-barred"
offensive against socialism and its aggression.34 In his 1977
address at Tula, General Secretary Brezhnev affirmed that the
USSR was no longer striving for superiority in armaments with the
aim of delivering a first strike.33 This enunciation is a ground
breaking shift from traditional Soviet nuclear thinking. And
since his elevation to General Secretary in 1985, Mr. Gorbachev
has not only reaffirmed these Tula principles, but has also
attempted to lower existing levels of parity and mutual
deterrence through a comprehensive program of arms control
Additionally, a growing body of evidence indicates that by
1980 the Soviet politico-military leadership had downgraded all
nuclear contingencies in favor of an independent, conventional
war option as their long-term military development goal. Western
analyst are in turn documenting more and more changes in
operational art and force developments that point clearly to a
Soviet preference for conventional warfare. 36
The Soviets continue to publicly make negative assessments
of US policy under the Reagan/Bush administrations. However, the
Tula principles continue to shape Soviet strategy. In my opinion,
this shift in Soviet nuclear thinking is directly attributable to
a sound US/NATO policy of flexible response - with its threat of
nuclear first use. This policy has now been supported by six
presidents over the last twenty years. Unmistakingly, it has
achieved favorable results.
Such favorable results highlight the credibility which the
flexible response doctrine, with its nuclear first strike
options, has given us. Hopefully, future Soviet - US treaties
will continue to reduce nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, as long
as we each have at least one nuclear weapon remaining, we should
not support any policy which denies us the option to use that
weapon first. The nuclear first use option is essential to the
NATO and US strategy of deterrence through flexible response.
1. Robert C. Aldridge, First Strike! The Pentagon's Strategy
for Nuclear War (Boston: South End Press,1983), p.4.
2. Thomas M. Coffey, Iron Eagle (New York: Crown Publishers,
3. Report of the Secretary of the Defense, "Annual Report to
Congress, FY 1990," US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.,
4. Edward G. Thibault,ed., The Art and Practices of Military
Strategy (Washington,D.C.: National Defense University,1984),
5. General John R. Galvin, "Flexible Response and Forward Defense,"
Defense `88, (July/August 1988),p.7
6. Aldridge, p.45 - 47.
7. Ibid p.44.
8. Ibid. p.51.
9. Ibid. p.21.
11. LtCol D.A. Wellman, "Marines and Nuclear Capability," Amphibious
Warfare Review,6 (Summer,l988), 98.
13. Aldridge, p.21.
14. Report of the Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress,
FY 1990," US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1989AP.35.
15. Thibault, p.576.
17. Report of the Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress,
FY 1990," US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC., 1989,p.35.
18. Thibault, p .665.
19. Aldridge, p.35.
20. Galvin, p.6.
21. Thibault, p.584.
22. Report of the Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress
FY 1990," US Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. ,1989,p.34.
24. General John R. Galvin, "Maintaining Peace in Europe," Defense `87,
25. Report of the Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress,
FY 1990," US Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. ,1989,p.34.
26. Galvin, "Flexible Response and Forward Defense," p.7.
29. Carl H. Builder,The Case For First Strike Counterforce
Capability(Santa Monica: The Rand Corp. ,1978)p.2.
30. Galvin, "Flexible Response and Forward Defense," p.8.
32. Thibault, p.657.
33. Builder, p.2.
34. Mary C. Fitzgerald, The Soviet Leadership on Nuclear War
(Alexandria,Va.: Center For Naval Analysis, Division of Hudson
35. Ibid. p.25.
36. Ibid. p.26.
Aldridge, Robert C. First Strike! The Pentagon's Strategy for
Nuclear War Boston: South End Press, 1983.
Builder, Carl H. The Case for First Strike Counterforce Capability.
Santa Monica: The Rand Corp., 1983.
Coffey, Thomas M. Iron Eage. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1986
Galvin, John R., "Flexible Response and Forward Defense." Defense '88,
July/August 1988, pp.5-11.
Galvin, John R. "Maintaining Peace in Europe." Defense '87, November/
December 1987, pp.10-19.
Fitzgerald, Mary C. The Soviet Leadership on Nuclear War. Alexandria, VA:
Center for Naval Analysis, Division of the Hudson Institute, 1987.
Report of the Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress, FY 1990."
US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1989.
Thibault, Edward George, ed. The Art and Practice of Military Strategy.
Washington, DC.: National Defense University, 1984.
Wellman, D.A. "Marines and Nuclear Capability." Amphibious Warfare
Review, Summer, 1988, pp.97-100.
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