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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)



29 November 2005


Edward A. Corcoran



This paper examines the utility of strategic nuclear weapons. These weapons, a legacy of the Cold War, were developed to deter Soviet actions which would threaten vital interests or the survival of the United States. Such strategic deterrence seeks to convince adversaries that the benefits of hostile actions would be far outweighed by the consequences.[1] More recently, as the Soviet threat has all but disappeared, emerging nuclear threats from proliferation and terrorism reinforce the need for deterrence. Nevertheless,  the usefulness of nuclear weapons in general and strategic nuclear weapons in particular has drastically declined.


Although there has been extensive military planning for the use of nuclear weapons in a deterrent role, there has been relatively little public discussion, particularly about the present role of strategic nuclear weapons.[2]  The current Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations is publicly available in draft form. It specifies 1700 - 2200 as the necessary number of "operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads"  to meet current requirements[3], with additional weapons kept in a non-deployed status. But it provides only very general guidance on how these weapons would be used. This doctrine is based on  a February 2004 report of the Defense Science Board on Future Strategic Strike Forces[4]. This report also addressed the issue in very general terms. It envisioned a shift from a reliance on nuclear weapons and even recommended modifying some intercontinental and submarine-launched strategic missiles to carry non-nuclear warheads. The report focused on capabilities and called for nuclear weapons that produced much lower collateral damage[5]. It addressed notional contingencies, but did not look at specific adversaries or situations.


The exact size and composition of the US strategic nuclear forces are highly classified, but unclassified estimates outline their magnitude. Strategic forces in one estimate include some 529 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), 360 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) and 77 strategic bombers. Most of these strategic delivery vehicles carry from 3 to 20 warheads with yields ranging from 100 to 500 kilotons.[6]


During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was a core element of US national security strategy. This evolved out of the security situation in Europe. In the immediate post-war situation, overwhelming Soviet conventional forces threatened to dominate Western Europe. These conventional forces were initially countered by a US nuclear capability. But once the Soviets acquired their own nuclear capability, stepwise efforts to achieve nuclear superiority led to the dead end of Mutually Assured Destruction.


At this stage, each side had nuclear stockpiles numbering in the tens of thousands.  Large complexes for the development, production and testing of nuclear weapons allowed each side to hold the other hostage. Diversified force structures insured that preemptive strikes could not disarm the opponent who would then mount an annihilatory response.  The situation was marginally stable - each side balanced the other, but the balance was in constant danger of disruption by false warnings or misunderstandings. The Cuban Missile Crisis forced a sober recognition of some of these dangers; thorough analysis many years later showed that nuclear war was much closer than either side had recognized at the time. This crisis spurred arms control efforts which added stability to the situation. However, deterrence theory remained both an underpinning of US foreign policy and a rationale for the continued research, development, and testing of nuclear weapons.


The collapse of the Soviet Union also collapsed the Soviet threat to Western Europe. At some stages in the Cold War it might have been possible for the Soviets to envision a first strike on the United States. But the new security situation in Europe totally eliminated whatever warped rationality could have justified this. Both sides recognized these changes and have significantly reduced their strategic nuclear arsenals.


Now the US-Russian relationship is an ambivalent one, with cordial relations overlying some fundamental disagreements. Against this background, sizable US and Russian strategic nuclear forces remain frozen in adversarial postures. At the same time, the rise of other nuclear threats is forcing the nation to re-evaluate its strategic posture.


Any reassessment of nuclear needs and postures must start with a sober assessment of the threats facing the nation and the utility of nuclear forces in meeting them.






The United States now faces a variety of nuclear threats from both state and non-state actors. Each of these has its own complex set of unique and enigmatic circumstances. Libya has recently disbanded a nuclear weapons program. Iraq's program has been forcibly destroyed. But what might happen in the decades ahead remains unknowable.




Lesser Challenges



These lesser challenges put the United States (including overseas forces and bases) and its allies at risk of nuclear attack. But these challenges do not pose a risk of catastrophic attack across the entire nation. Detailed analyses of any of these threats is far beyond the scope of this paper. However, available materials provide overviews of the magnitude of the challenges.





North Korea probably represents one of the most significant nuclear threats facing the nation. It is implacably hostile to the United States and unpredictable in its responses. For more than 60 years it has posed an invasion threat to South Korea, though the military balance has been increasingly tilting against its favor. North Korea now claims to have nuclear weapons, and Western analysts agree that it has had a capability to have produced them.[7]


For years North Korea's overwhelming conventional superiority on the peninsula was partly countered by US nuclear capabilities, much as the Soviet threat to West Europe had been countered by US nuclear weapons years earlier. But as South Korean military capabilities grew, the balance shifted so significantly that by the early 1990's, the United States had withdrawn all theater nuclear weapons from South Korea.


The core significance of North Korean nuclear weapons is that they make a US use of nuclear weapons unattractive in any military confrontation. A North Korean invasion would certainly require a strong US response. With so many US forces tied down in the Middle East, nuclear weapons might even be considered. The United States might also be tempted to use nuclear weapons to preempt a North Korean attack. Perhaps more disturbing is the North Korean nuclear program. Not only has North Korea withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and claimed to have actually developed its own nuclear weapons, but it appears to have been a major player in a worldwide black market in nuclear materials, information, and potential delivery vehicles. It has also been very intransigent during on-going discussions regarding its nuclear programs, insisting on a right to have its own nuclear energy reactors. More recently, tentative agreements have been reached, thanks largely to Chinese involvement. These have resulted in significant economic benefits to North Korea while difficult negotiations continue.[8]


The US Defense Counterproliferation Initiative and a later National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction include programs to tailor US weapons to destroy hostile weapons of mass destruction. Such counterproliferation actions could potentially include military strikes on nuclear and underground facilities as well as command and control installations.[9]


But targeting North Korea would be a daunting task. A detailed analysis of options is obviously far beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, even an initial overview shows that military options are very restricted and the usefulness of high-yield strategic nuclear weapons is very limited. The situation is so difficult because of a number of major considerations, including:


                - Nuclear Weapons. As noted above, North Korea claims to have such weapons and this greatly complicates any military action by the United States.


                - Weak intelligence. Donald Gregg, a C.I.A. station chief in Seoul during the cold war who returned there as the American ambassador, has called North Korea "the longest-running intelligence failure." As a result, our knowledge of details of its military and political infrastructure are very limited. This significantly increases targeting uncertainties and hence requires much larger strikes to insure results.[10]


                - Hardened facilities.  Arthur Brown, who spent more than 20 years studying North Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency, has characterized the North Koreans as "mole people," commenting that, "there are hundreds, thousands of holes in the ground, and we don't know what's in them."[11]  Individual military targets are routinely hardened -- strike aircraft, for example, are often placed in reinforced bunkers or tunnels.


                - Damage recovery. Any post-war costs of reconstruction and decontamination, not to mention treatment of mass casualties, would fall to the South Koreans. As the experience of East Germany has shown, integrating economically backward North Korea into a prosperous South Korea would pose enough challenges without adding widespread devastation.


                - Fallout. North Korea is a small country, surrounded by China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea. Fallout from any nuclear strikes would contaminate at least one if not more of these critical countries. Obviously, the fallout pattern would depend on the number and types of weapons used, as well as strike options, weather conditions, and other imponderables, so a definitive prior assessment is not possible. One computer simulation of a single higher-yield nuclear strike on a hardened North Korean target showed lethal fallout reaching Seoul and significant levels reaching into Japan.[12] Another simulation showed the fallout pattern reaching into the Sea of Japan, but also estimated that even a small nuclear weapon (5 KT) and favorable weather conditions would still result in 5000 prompt casualties.[13] Certainly, fallout severely constrains any US nuclear options, especially the use of higher-yield nuclear weapons.


                - Seoul. South Korea in general and Seoul in particular is hostage to North Korean actions. The edge of Seoul is only some 25 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) - within range of tactical missiles. Even without considering potential weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it would be very difficult to insure that North Korea could not inflict serious damage and high casualties on South Korea.


                - Beleaguered leadership. Although they have faced little cohesive internal opposition, the North Korean leadership remains vulnerable; the experiences of numerous other Communist dictatorships have shown that popular pressures cannot be indefinitely contained. The North Korean leadership appears to put survival as a top priority. If this survival is directly attacked, the leadership has little incentive to negotiate and could well initiate as much destruction as it remained capable of. 


                - Allied objections. Because of these and other considerations, South Korea bends over backwards to avoid provocations to North Korea. It recently endorsed a North Korean right to develop nuclear energy, even when the United states was adamantly opposed to such a development, and has offered to supply large amounts of electricity if North Korea halts and nuclear weapons work.[14] South Korea is adamantly opposed to any use of nuclear weapons -- doubtless one of the reasons that President Bush ordered the removal of all such weapons from South Korea in 1991. Additionally, any strikes with long-range strategic weapons might well require overflights of Japan or Russia, neither of which would be likely to provide permission. Japan also remains adamantly opposed to any use of nuclear weapons.


                - Threat Misperceptions. Distant launches targeted at North Korea could also be mistakenly identified by Russia or China as incoming strikes and initiate some sort of counter-actions against the United States.


Against this background, a first overview of potential targeting will consider several engagement scenarios and major target sets.


Engagement scenarios include:[15]


                - Retaliation. In response to a North Korean strike on the United States, US force abroad, or US allies and their forces, the United States may face a situation where retaliatory action is required. Fortunately, North Korea has at most a very limited capability for a direct attack on the United States, perhaps using a ship to launch a medium-range missile or sneak a weapon into a US port. But it does have a significant capability to strike US forces abroad, particularly in Japan and South Korea, and it could also strike either or both of these US allies.[16] The North Korean government has its own unique priorities, but it is hard to construct credible scenarios which would lead it to carry out such strikes except in a situation of utter desperation or collapse. In such a situation, deterrence could play at most a minor role. A situation calling for a major military response could include targeting of cities, infrastructure, or command and control elements.


                - WMD neutralization. Threats of North Korean use of WMD probably makes neutralization of these weapons a necessary component of any military scenario. Preemptive neutralization could also be considered in a crisis situation. This would require elimination of delivery systems, military stocks, and production facilities.


                - Leadership incapacitation. This would certainly be an immediate objective in case of any military response and is also an independent preemptive possibility in a crisis situation. It would require rapid elimination of command and control facilities with a high degree of assurance so that retaliatory strikes would be unlikely.


                - Military neutralization. This would require elimination of key military facilities and infrastructure.


                - Comprehensive engagement. This would essentially be a combination of all of the above. It would be a major war situation in response to a North Korean attack southward or some major North Korean strikes.


According to the joint doctrine, nuclear targeting seeks to hold at risk those things which an adversary values highly. Target sets for the scenarios above could include the following:


                - Major cities. Pyongyang, with a population of over two million as well as six other cities with populations over  300,000 are obviously of high value for the North Korean leadership. They are also soft targets which could be severely damaged by conventional attacks and easily destroyed by air bursts of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons. However, a retaliatory strike on Pyongyang would accomplish little. Whatever the North Korean leadership might have done, killing tens of thousands of wretched North Korean citizens after the fact would provide little recompense. In World War II, the United States atom bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and fire bombed Tokyo and Dresden. The morality of those strikes is still debated and bitterness at the United States still remains. In the case of North Korea, the loss of Pyongyang would have minimal immediate impact on North Korea's war fighting ability and would ultimately face South Korea with a staggering reconstruction requirement. And it would certainly undermine US relations with other nations, particularly in Asia. Along these lines,  the Defense Science Board report stressed  the need to avoid disproportionate damage to a country's population.[17]  So strikes on major cities are both unlikely and unattractive.


                - Infrastructure. The experience of the systematic NATO destruction of Serbian infrastructure shows that this is a major task. This NATO effort was intentionally drawn out; a concentrated conventional attack on North Korean infrastructure (ports, power stations, transportation nodes, industry, etc.) would clearly require a large number of attack assets. While elimination of some targets (e. g., transportation or communications nodes) would have a short-term impact on North Korean military operations, effects of other strikes would be longer term. Infrastructure targets are generally soft targets, so low-yield nuclear weapons would certainly be adequate. The number of potential targets is unclear but would include major bridges, rail yards, power generation and transmission facilities, telecommunications centers, industrial plants, and fuel depots. Certainly there are at least 50 targets whose destruction would have a prompt impact on military operations.


                - Command and control. Compared to cities and infrastructure, these are very different and very difficult targets. They include the people who would be responsible for any North Korean actions, but the difficulties the United States had targeting Saddam Hussein in the opening stages of the Iraqi War vividly illustrate the difficulties it would face in targeting the North Korean leadership. Years of building underground structures at some 30 known locations as well as presumably additional unknown ones makes the targeting extremely difficult. Even high precision conventional weapons would be expected to produce minimal results. Nuclear weapons can cause severe damage to underground facilities, but have several drawbacks. Even high-yield weapons (say, 200 kilotons) would have to be reasonably close to the actual command center  and in any case could not be expected to be effective against centers over 100 meters deep. So while the general location and entrances  of an underground complex may be known, the exact location of critical elements inevitably has a large amount of uncertainty. Furthermore, any nuclear attack would necessarily produce large amounts of fallout. Even an underground burst can be expected to immediately vent to the atmosphere, especially since tunnels themselves would provide a vent pathway. A comprehensive nuclear strike would certainly disrupt North Korean operations but is unlikely to decapitate the command structure.


                - Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). In addition to its claim to have nuclear weapons, North Korea is generally assessed to have both chemical and biological weapons. Eliminating the threat that these weapons pose would be a formidable task.


                                * Delivery Systems. These would be the highest priority targets, and eliminating them would be essential to neutralizing North Korea's WMD threat.[18] Some 420 fighters, bombers, transport planes, and helicopters were redeployed in October 1995, with more than 100 aircraft moved to three air bases near the DMZ. As part of this redeployment, more than 20 Il-28 bombers were moved to Taetan which shortened their arrival time to Seoul from 30 minutes to 10 minutes. North Korea is also assessed as having some 500 mobile SCUD and perhaps 100 more modern missiles with ranges over 1000 km. The mobile launchers can move between various deployment positions and are expected to be in reinforced shelters. In addition, biological or chemical agents could be dispersed by hundreds of helicopters, light aircraft, or artillery shells. Just using precision conventional weapons to strike well over 500 hardened shelters for aircraft and missile launchers would be a sizable task and would probably leave a significant percentage of targets still operational. Using low-yield nuclear weapons could increase the kill rate and would allow several positions to be struck with one weapon.  But even figuring ten targets per weapon, 50 nuclear strikes, many close to the DMZ, would result in widespread contamination and still leave untouched hundreds of smaller delivery vehicles, as well as surviving attack aircraft and longer range missiles.


                                * Storage sites. Kanggye No.26 General Plant is the largest underground facility in North Korea --  approximately 10-20,000 workers there manufacture a wide variety of munitions.[19] Kanggye is apparently one of two primary chemical munition assembly facilities, with the other being located at Sakchu. Underground facilities in nearby Chagang Province are reportedly used for manufacturing nuclear warheads or storing plutonium. Anbyon and Masan-dong have been identified as primary chemical weapons storage facilities, with numerous underground storage tunnels dug into mountains. At least a dozen such facilities have been identified and they would provide depot-level storage. Operational weapons would be held by military units in dozens of local storage sites, undoubtedly concealed and hardened. It is highly unlikely that all or even most storage sites have been identified. And even those that are definitely identified no doubt have critical weapons in heavily reinforced locations. Conventional weapon attacks would have little chance of a high kill rate; nuclear attacks would have a higher kill rate but at the cost of still more contamination, particularly since hardened underground locations with uncertain aim points would require ground or subsurface bursts of higher-yield weapons. A single weapon on any one site would severely disrupt activities, but would be unlikely to actually destroy more than a fraction of actual stocks.


                                * Production facilities. Eight probable chemical production sites have been identified, as well as several suspected biological research and production facilities.[20] These are relatively soft targets, vulnerable to precision conventional weapons. Such strikes would certainly result in local agent releases. Chemical releases would dissipate long before reaching friendly forces. Biological agent releases pose a more challenging situation as local disease outbreaks could eventually spread to a lot larger population. As for nuclear facilities, several major ones are well known, particularly Yongbyon, which has both an operating  5 MW research reactor (currently North Korea's main source of plutonium) and a plutonium processing facility.[21] Several much larger reactors are planned or in various stages of completion, though construction activities have mostly stopped with the on-going international controversies. Attacking operating reactors can pose considerable risks; there are three precedents: Osirak, Chernobyl, and Tuwaitha:


                                                # On June 7, 1981, Israeli fighter jets destroyed the Iraqi Osirak (Tammuz-1) reactor. This was then under construction; the time of the attack was specifically chosen to take place before any nuclear fuel had been loaded. Such a nuclear charging of the reactor would certainly have made a strike much more problematical.[22]


                                                # On April 25-26, 1986 the world's worst nuclear power accident occurred at Chernobyl, 80 miles north of Kiev. During testing at reactor number 4, numerous safety procedures were disregarded; the reactor went out of control, creating explosions and a fireball which blew off its heavy steel and concrete lid. This accident clearly showed the potential results of explosions at an operating reactor; hundreds of square miles are now permanently uninhabitable.[23]


                                                # On January 18, 1991, during the Gulf War, US sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs struck facilities at Tuwaitha (the site of the earlier Israeli attack on Osirak). Two operative research reactors were destroyed, as well as one production unit with two hot cells. This resulted in some release of radiation and the facility was afterwards closed for two days. US military spokesmen said that they had detected no radiation release from the bombing. Apparently the Iraqis had shut down the reactor and moved some nuclear fuel to a safer location before the hostilities began and the strike did not destroy reactor cores.[24]


                                                # These precedents show that strikes on a small research reactor may possibly be carried out without major contamination, but destruction of a major power reactor would be another matter. One study shows that a conventional explosive attack on a 1000 MW power reactor could spread high levels of contamination for over 150 miles[25] -- this could certainly provide the United States an incentive to strike reactors before they could be completed. Although the one operating reactor is relatively small, it would certainly be difficult to destroy with any assurance of limited contamination. Any future completion of the larger power reactors would make strikes infeasible.


                                * Overall, the total North Korean WMD system seems to be far beyond the stage that any sort of "surgical" or even preemptive strike is feasible. And even if nuclear weapons were used in a neutralization effort, the obvious role for any high-yield weapons is very limited.


                - Critical military facilities. In addition to command and control, infrastructure, and WMD elements addressed above, several specific types of targets deserve some specific attention.


                                * Airfields. Aside from the threat posed by the strike aircraft (discussed above), the airfields themselves are important targets, with aircraft stationed at some 20-30 individual bases.[26] Much of the support equipment (radars, fueling facilities, etc.) could be engaged by precision conventional weapons, but the runways are very difficult targets. Craters from conventional weapons can be rapidly filled in. Nuclear weapons can cause severe long-term damage in two ways. They can heave the earth under the runways, but then an effective strike would require surface penetration -- not an easy task when dealing with reinforced runways. Alternatively, a ground burst on the runway itself would produce major cratering. But such ground bursts also would produce widespread contamination. Furthermore, even such strikes would probably have limited military impact because North Korea has dozens of alternative runways, including specially prepared highway strips.


                                * Air Defense systems. These are also priority targets to provide US aircraft with free use of North Korean airspace. Such systems were among the priority targets at the start of the Iraqi War and certainly would be a priority in North Korean operations. They can be effectively engaged by precision conventional munitions, but obviously weapons targeted at these facilities in an initial strike would not be available for other priority targets. The bulk of North Korean radars are older Soviet and Chinese models with vacuum-tube technology, which limits continuous operations. The overall early warning and ground controlled intercept system is susceptible to saturation and jamming by a sophisticated foe with state-of-the-art electronic warfare capabilities. Nevertheless, the multilayered, coordinated, mutually supporting air defense structure is a formidable deterrent to air attack. With over 8,800 antiaircraft guns, as well as SA-2/3/5 and handheld SA-7/16 surface-to-air missiles, North Korea has constructed one of the world's most dense air defense networks. Individual targets are in the hundreds, with at least 50 major command, missile, and radar installations.[27] Nuclear targeting would of course facilitate system neutralization; lower-yield air bursts would be adequate for many of these targets, although command centers would probably require higher-yield strikes, probably with ground or subsurface bursts.


                                * Major troop garrisons. Unfortunately, there are not five major garrisons, but hundreds of smaller ones. They are all clearly vulnerable to conventional strikes, but in any crisis situation troops would be deployed in the field. Troop concentrations closer to Seoul would certainly be a relative priority and a large percentage of potential North Korean attack forces are in this general region. Their nearness to Seoul increases the urgency of the threat they pose and consequently the priority for engagement. Small-yield nuclear weapons could be militarily very useful, but these are exactly the weapons which were withdrawn in 1991. Furthermore, any nuclear weapons use close to Seoul would pose substantial contamination problems for the South Koreans, although enhanced radiation weapons could reduce the problem. At most, a selective use of lower-yield weapons on the most menacing troop formations might be considered.



Target type



















Major cities











Priority targets with immediate impact

Command & Control





Uncertain results, high contamination

WMD Systems






   - Delivery





Marginal effectiveness

   - Depot Storage





Limited immediate impact

   - Field Storage





Difficult to identify target points

   - Production






       * Chem/bio





Agent releases

       * Nuclear





Contamination considerations complicate targeting

Critical Military Systems






   - Airfields





Bases with aircraft stationed

   - Air defense systems





Including hardened command centers

   - Troops





Selected very high priority units only

Table 1. Potential Nuclear Targets - North Korea


Table 1 summarizes potential nuclear targeting. Conventional weapons would be generally ineffective against the most critical targets (command and control centers and WMD delivery vehicles). Engaging these targets with nuclear weapons would not only require large numbers (well over 100), but even then effectiveness is questionable because of target hardening and uncertainties on locations. Neutralization to a high degree of confidence of North Korean command and WMD capabilities seems well out of reach, even with a US use of nuclear weapons, so potential North Korean retaliation (particularly against Seoul) cannot be reliably eliminated.


Using nuclear weapons would necessarily result in widespread nuclear contamination and large numbers of causalities. Nor would it be possible to limit this to the Korean peninsula alone. High air bursts would minimize fallout, but also insure that it carried a maximum distance (i.e., across neighboring countries). Higher yield ground bursts (required for many of the hardened facilities) would release much more fallout. Even limiting their use to the most critical probable command centers, perhaps a dozen, would still produce unacceptable levels of fallout. Anything less would certainly be ineffective. Lower-yield, deep penetrating warheads, even if available would be inadequate because of the difficulty of specifying an exact underground location to engage.


It is clear that rapid neutralization of the North Korean WMD capabilities or incapacitation of the leadership cannot be achieved with conventional weapons. But the use of nuclear weapons would require relatively large numbers, would produce significant fallout, and would still provide only a low assurance of success. And even in these extreme circumstances, the only clear requirement for high-yield strategic nuclear weapons would be on some selected command and control facilities; their use would have to be restricted to a small number of targets because of fallout considerations. In the event of large-scale hostilities, the number of potential targets climbs into the hundreds. Such a widespread use of nuclear weapons on the small Korean peninsula not only seems most unattractive, it would almost certainly provoke North Korean retaliation with their own remaining WMD.


Use of a relatively few nuclear weapons against carefully selected targets would minimize contamination, but would also minimize results and still raise the specter of North Korean retaliation.


Overall, it seems difficult to construct scenarios where any nuclear strikes would be appropriate; even a battlefield use of nuclear weapons seems unappealing. Furthermore, current counterproliferation planning emphasizes the use of lower-yield weapons, including specially designed earth-penetrating weapons.[28] So even if a high-yield requirement somehow developed, a handful of strategic weapons would certainly suffice.






Iran is another potential nuclear opponent. The United States remains very suspicious of its nuclear programs, which Iran claims are strictly for peaceful use.[29] Despite extensive international pressure, Iran insists on a right to enrich uranium. In regard to potential US counteractions, President Bush has specifically stated that "all options" are open.[30]


But assuming Iran did develop nuclear weapons and for some reason decided to use them, they also would pose little threat to the United States itself, at least for a number of years.


Targeting Iran faces an entirely different set of considerations than actions against North Korea. But, as with North Korea, even an initial overview shows that military options are very restricted and the usefulness of high-yield strategic nuclear weapons is very limited. Major considerations with Iran include:


                - Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Iran insists that is has no nuclear weapons and is not trying to produce them; Western reviews dispute this, but estimate that such production would take five to ten years.[31] Iran apparently also has chemical and possibly biological weapons.


                - Intelligence. Iran is not nearly so impenetrable as North Korea. However, intelligence failures prior to the Iraq invasion underline how difficult it can be to get good information in this area of the world and then to accurately assess it. One recent evaluation concluded that US intelligence knows "disturbingly little" about Iran.[32]


                - Hardened facilities.  Iran does not have anything even vaguely resembling the extensive North Korean tunnel system, although Iran has recently been tunneling just north of its uranium conversion facility at Isfahan. In the words of one Iranian official, "From the moment the Americans threaten to attack our nuclear sites, what are we to do? We have to put them somewhere." Iran had also managed to keep a fairly extensive research and pilot program secret from the international community for a number of years. Nevertheless, it is clear that most facilities are soft targets and that deep targeting requirements are much smaller than with North Korea.


                - Damage recovery. The burden of any post-strike recovery would not fall on any US ally. Rather, if Iranian policies resulted in US strikes, it is Iran itself that would bear the brunt of reconstruction costs.


                - Fallout. This is the same problem that nuclear strikes in North Korea would pose. Iran is a larger country, but is surrounded by many more countries than North Korea, including former Soviet countries on the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east, and to the north and west not only Turkey and Iraq, but a whole range of countries and emirates across the Persian Gulf.


                - Hostage Cities. There is no local equivalent to Seoul, a major allied city within easy striking distance of Iran. There are some US military units and facilities in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel is within range of some Iranian missiles and is certainly considered by many in the Iranian leadership as a US partner.


                - Allied objections. Three European countries (Germany, France and Great Britain) are heavily engaged in negotiations with Iran and strongly opposed to any military action, all the more since unilateral US intervention in Iraq has proved so costly and the threat from Iran is not a pressing one. The German Chancellor, for example, recently commented "take the military options off of the table ... they're not suitable."[33] Iran has also been actively working to get additional countries involved in the negotiations. In addition, Russia has been expanding its relationship with Iran, including long-standing cooperation supplying military equipment and civilian nuclear technology and has specifically declined to support U.N. actions against Iran.[34] As with North Korea, any strikes with long-range strategic weapons might well require overflights of other nations which would be unlikely to provide permission.


                - Beleaguered leadership. Although much of the Iranian public appears to be unhappy with the tight theocratic controls, US actions against the government would probably considerably strengthen its popular acceptance. The leadership clearly does not feel itself threatened and is committed to promoting Shiite Islam. Further, in any crisis situation, the leadership would have incentives to negotiate, so its elimination would not necessarily be an objective.


                - Threat misperceptions. As with North Korea, distant launches could be mistakenly identified by Russia or China as incoming strikes and cause them to initiate some sort of counter-actions against the United States.


                - Iraq. The unsettled situation in Iraq also greatly complicates the overall US-Iranian relationship. Already there have been at least suspicions that Iran is aiding Shiite extremists within Iraq. Certainly it has an ability to promote Shiite opposition to US troops and to a central Iraqi government. So one consequence of any direct US actions against Iran would certainly be a serious destabilizing of any Iraqi government. On the other hand, a bit further in the future, Iran could well develop close ties with a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government which certainly would not support US strikes on Iran. Cooperative military actions have already begun, led by the Iraqi  Defense Minister, a Sunni.[35] Depending on the flow of future events, such an alliance could be strongly anti-American and undermine US efforts throughout the Middle East.


                - Oil. Economically, North Korea is a basket case, while Iran is swimming on a sea of oil in a world of rapidly rising oil prices. This situation not only makes economic sanctions against Iran inherently ineffective, but also buys strong support to Iran from China whose own oil requirements continue to rise dramatically.


Against this background, a first overview will consider the same types of engagement scenarios and major target sets as for North Korea.


Engagement scenarios include:


                - Retaliation. Iran does not have nearly the capability for a major strike on US interests that North Korea has. The largest threat might be a strike on Israel, but Israel has shown itself well capable of its own retaliatory strikes. Nevertheless, some unforeseen developments might call for a major US military response .


                - WMD neutralization. Threats of Iranian WMD are mainly set in some future period when Iran may hold nuclear weapons. The United Sates may also consider preemptive neutralization, eliminating delivery systems, military stocks, and/or research or production facilities.


                - Leadership incapacitation. This could certainly be an immediate objective in case of some military actions, but does not seem to have near the urgency that it would have in a North Korean crisis.


                - Military neutralization. This would require elimination of key military facilities and infrastructure.


                - Comprehensive engagement. This would require essentially a combination of all of the above. It would be a major war situation in response some kind of momentous Iranian provocations. But even in this situation, some sort of major land war seems highly unlikely. There is certainly no adjacent US ally that would be ready to occupy the country as is the case with North Korea.


Target sets for these scenarios include the following:


                - Major cities. Tehran, with a population of over six million, as well as Mashad with well over a million and Esfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz, all of which are near one million, are the largest. Altogether there are over 30 cities with populations exceeding 100,000. But it is hard to envision any scenarios which would focus on urban destruction. Further, as soft targets, these cities could be devastated by relatively small nuclear weapons. There is no conceivable requirement for high-yield strategic weapons to attack Iranian urban targets.


                - Infrastructure. A concentrated conventional attack on Iranian infrastructure (major bridges, rail yards, power generation and transmission facilities, telecommunications centers, industrial plants, and fuel depots) could certainly destroy the Iranian economy. Numbers are certainly larger than for North Korea. These are almost all soft targets susceptible to attack by conventional weapons. Attrition of infrastructure could conceivably be used to pressure the government (as was done with Serbia). Only in extreme cases would any use of lower-yield nuclear weapons be at all attractive.


                - Command and control. Iran's key leaders are religious figures, so targeting the national leadership necessarily means targeting major religious centers. Such an action could only result in a firestorm of opposition throughout the Muslim world; this makes any specific targeting of the Iranian national leadership impractical. At a lower level, the Joint Staff of the Ministry of Defense, with its subordinate Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as an Operational Area Command and several field headquarters could certainly be targeted.[36] Some of these may be in hardened locations, but the biggest targeting challenge would undoubtedly be identifying exact locations, especially in a time of crisis. Conceivably, attacks on some identified, hardened command centers could be carried out with nuclear weapons.


                - Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). In addition to its nuclear programs, Iran is estimated to have an inventory of several thousand tons of various chemical agents capable of delivery by artillery and bomb systems, and possibly by Scud missiles.[37] It also has a capability to produce biological weapons, but seems to be only involved in research at this point.


                                * Delivery Systems. These would be the highest priority targets, and eliminating them would be essential to neutralizing Iran's WMD threat, at the moment primarily a chemical weapons threat. The US weapon embargo since the Iranian Revolution has severely degraded Iran's air force. Perhaps 150 older fighter aircraft remain operational; these have been augmented by some more modern Russian military aircraft. Neutralization would require multiple strikes at some 14 airbases. [38]Nuclear weapons would be much more effective than conventional ones, but aircraft dispersal in a crisis situation would greatly complicate targeting.


                                * Storage sites. Iran strongly denies producing or possessing chemical weapons. Open source reports of Parchin as a major chemical weapons facility, along with the facilities located at Damghan, Esfahan and Qazvin are of uncertain reliability.[39]


                                * Production facilities. In addition to the four chemical sites just mentioned, there are approximately two dozen nuclear-associated sites, ranging from research facilities to an enrichment facility at Natanz, research reactors at Ishfahan, and a developing power reactor complex at Bushehr[40]


                                * Overall, the total Iranian WMD system is much less developed than the North Korean one. From a proliferation point of view, the enrichment facility is of particular concern. Although most of the facilities are relatively soft targets, the difficulty of bringing large numbers of conventional weapons to bear deep within Iran could make use of nuclear weapons more attractive. One notional evaluation of such a strike involved ten facilities, each targeted by three smaller-yield (10 KT) weapons. Such a strike would basically destroy the Iranian nuclear system, but would cause probably two million deaths and wide contamination.[41] Even in this extreme case, any role for strategic weapons would be very limited. A less damaging strike of one nuclear weapon each on ten target points would still produce major casualties and widespread contamination, but would also have much more limited results.


                - Critical military facilities. These would include:


                                * Airfields. A total of 14 air bases are currently operational. In addition, Iran has several hundred older SCUD missiles with ranges up to 500 kilometers. Extensive cooperation with North Korea and China have led to development of longer range missiles, including a Shehab-3 based on the North Korean Nodong missile with a range of 1300 kilometers and an inventory of at least 25.[42] More recently, Ukraine was reported to have sold Iran a dozen cruise missiles boasting a highly accurate guidance system and a range of up to 3,000 km.[43] Potential targets would include the Shahroud missile range as well as several other launch facilities. None of these facilities are hardened like the North Korean facilities, so conventional weapons could do serious damage. Runway destruction could require nuclear strikes, but the presence of numerous alternative civilian airfields makes this an unattractive option. 


                                * Air Defense systems. Iran does not have a nationwide, integrated air defense network, and continues to rely on point defense of key locations with surface-to-air missile batteries. By the mid-1990s, Iran's total holdings seemed to include 30 Improved Hawk fire units, 45-60 SA-2 and Chinese equivalents, as well as perhaps 25 Russian SA-6 launchers.[44] There are also unverified reports of Soviet-made long-range SA-5 units, with a total of 10-15 launchers -- enough for six sites.[45] In total, this is not a very robust capability, but some of the missiles are mobile and this of course complicates targeting. Altogether there are perhaps 20 sites that could be targeted plus some command and control and radar installations; low-yield nuclear weapons would be one option.


                                * Major troop garrisons. Iranian troop concentrations are of a much lower concern than North Korea's since they do not actively threaten any US ally. A confrontation with some new government in Baghdad is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely given that Iraqi Shiites will almost certainly play a major role in any new Iraqi government. In the more distant future, Iran seems determined to become a power in the Middle East and some sort of ground threat might develop. At the moment, there is none in sight.


                                                                                POTENTIAL NUCLEAR TARGETS -- IRAN



Target type




















Major cities





Unlikely targets






Priority attrition targets, limited nuc use

Command & Control





Military centers only

WMD Systems






   - Delivery





Marginal effectiveness if dispersed

   - Depot Storage





Limited immediate impact

   - Field Storage





Difficult to identify targets

   - Production






        * Chem





Potential agent releases

        * Nuclear





Contamination considerations

Critical Military Systems






   - Airfields





Military airbases only

   - Air defense





Including command centers

   - Troops





Selected high priority units

Table 2.  Potential Nuclear Targets - Iran


Table 2 summarizes potential nuclear targeting in Iran.  The total target requirements seems to be considerably lower than for North Korea for several main reasons: Iran does not pose a major ground threat to a neighboring US ally, Iran has a much less developed system of hardened facilities, and Iran has only a limited capability for prompt retaliation against US allies.


As with North Korea, any use of nuclear weapons would necessarily result in widespread nuclear contamination and large numbers of causalities. Nor would it be possible to limit this to Iran alone. And even in these extreme circumstances, the only clear requirement for high-yield strategic nuclear weapons would be on some selected command and control facilities; their use would have to be restricted to a small number of targets because of fallout considerations.


Even more than in the North Korea case, it seems difficult to construct scenarios where any nuclear strikes would be appropriate; at most, a handful of strategic weapons would certainly be sufficient for any high-yield requirements.






Pakistan, a recognized nuclear power[46], is an ally now, but an unstable one. Several attempts on President Musharraf's life underline this fragility.[47] Security within the Pakistani nuclear complex is questionable, especially in light of earlier worldwide sales of nuclear equipment and technology, including centrifuges to North Korea.[48] US support in improving nuclear security would seem to be a priority.


Yet there remains a disturbing possibility that power could be seized by some radical elements, even elements supportive of terrorism against the United States. This would obviously be a very dangerous situation for the United States, but it is an open question what sort of role US nuclear weapons could play. The use of strategic nuclear weapons would seem to be out of the question.






India is also a nuclear power[49], and more stable than Pakistan.  Security within the Indian nuclear complex is not likely to be up to the level of sophistication of our own nuclear weapons complex. India has its own share of fanatical religious groups which certainly increase the potential for theft or diversion of nuclear materials.


Recently the United States has agreed  to provide India with civilian nuclear technology in return for Indian agreements to maintain international control over civilian reactors and to reinforce its support of nonproliferation actions. This has been controversial, particularly in view of India's continuing refusal to actually sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[50]


Continued confrontation over Kashmir also raises the possibility of war and even nuclear war between these two states.  Under wartime  conditions, a reduction in security of nuclear materials would be unavoidable. This could allow fanatic elements to even seize control of weapon systems.  Some kind of US and international intervention, even military intervention, would be unavoidable. But there is no foreseeable role for US nuclear weapons, especially strategic ones.  






The terrorist threat is a new one, one that does not involve state actors or rational leaders. Terrorist groups have openly spoken of a desire to obtain nuclear weapons[51]. Much nuclear technology and weapons know how is readily available and presumably has been exploited by them. Their biggest challenge seems to be obtaining fissionable material. The combination of fanaticism, brutality, and money gives terrorist groups a potential to obtain fissionable materials, or even an actual weapon - not to mention a whole country like Pakistan.


The terrorist threat is not limited to nuclear weapons, but also includes a threat of intentional dispersion of radioactive materials. The immediate impact of such an event would not be nearly so dramatic as a nuclear explosion, but the ultimate result could well be comparable in terms of deaths, injuries, and economic costs. Although terrorists pose a nuclear threat, the use of nuclear weapons against them appears impractical, to say the least. Not only are there no appropriate targets, but many terrorists seek martyrdom and would see a US strike on a Muslim target as a positive step toward turning the Muslim world against the United States.






Great Britain, France and Israel all have sizable nuclear arsenals[52]. Although we have no fears that one of these allied countries would launch a nuclear attack against the United States, these forces are still cause for concern for two reasons:


                - The larger a nuclear weapons complex is, the larger the chance of some theft, pilferage, or diversion, as well as the threat of unauthorized or criminal actions. We have concerns about such events within our own nuclear weapons complex and have integrated many security elements to minimize such  threats. Such concerns also apply to allied systems.


                - Russia naturally considers the British and French weapons to be part of the threat it faces, complicating further US-Russian agreements on nuclear force reductions. Further, allied weapons which would be considered theater weapons by the United States may well be viewed by the Russians as strategic because of their relative closeness to Russia. The same can also be said of US theater weapons still stationed in Europe - originally deployed there to counter the threat of a massive Soviet conventional attack.






Our own extensive nuclear forces are managed by thousands of very knowledgeable individuals. We put detailed security systems into place and complex technical controls within the systems and within the weapons themselves - coded access devices, accelerometers, pressure sensors, etc.[53] Collectively, these make it extremely difficult for any warped individual to initiate an unauthorized launch or nuclear explosion -- very difficult, but not impossible.


                - The more complex a system is, the more vulnerable it is to creative manipulation. Hackers have shown repeatedly that supposedly invulnerable computer networks are in fact extremely vulnerable to knowledgeable individuals. Our nuclear control systems are built around such computer networks.


                - Criminal psychology teaches us that no one is immune to criminal temptations or mental breakdowns. There is no better example than Dennis Rader, the Kansas City killer - a pillar of his church, a conscientious public servant, and yet some one possessed by his own private demons which led him to unspeakable acts. No amount of prior screening can weed out all the people who might snap under some unforeseen or unrecognized stress.


Some type of armed attack on a nuclear weapons site is also possible. Obviously such sites are heavily guarded, but a well executed commando-type attack would have some potential for success.


The bottom line is that the larger and more complex the overall system is, the more likely it is that sooner or later some insider or some dedicated opponent will wreak havoc.






There are no other nuclear powers on the close horizon, but a number of countries could eventually choose to develop such weapons. This would mean a gross failure of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the United States needs to be sensitive to such possibilities. However, maintaining a large US arsenal of nuclear weapons also undercuts this treaty and so can help to spur the very developments which the nation would be protecting against.






Regional powers, terrorists, and deranged individuals all pose some risk of nuclear destruction. Regional powers may also pose a nuclear proliferation or conventional threat of such magnitude that a nuclear response could be a possible option. But strategic nuclear weapons do not have any significant role to play. At most a handful of such weapons could satisfy requirements.



Major Challenges



These challenges include the risk of a catastrophic nuclear attack encompassing the entire country. Such a challenge can only be posed by a hostile major power. This is the type of challenge which the nation faced when the Cold War evolved into a condition of Mutually Assured  Destruction - either side could have totally destroyed the other.  The fragile balance depended on deterrence, with the US posture based on two complementary targeting concepts:[54]


                - Countervalue targeting placed the opponent's high-value targets at risk - major cities, industrial complexes, and critical economic nodes. Even allowing for redundancy, this approach required a relatively small number of weapons. But it offered no protection at all. Massive retaliation might provide some satisfaction to survivors, but the damage would already be done.


                - Counterforce targeting addressed this problem by developing a capability to strike the opponent's weapon systems before they were launched, thus minimizing the impact of a subsequent strike. This approach required many more weapons to provide even a minimal assurance of major destruction of the opponent's systems. It was greatly complicated by the presence of mobile launchers, including submarines at sea. Success also depended on a preemptive attack, so each side maintained large forces on a high state of alert, ready to launch on indications that the opponent was preparing an imminent strike. Waiting even a few minutes, when hostile missiles could already be airborne, could mean catastrophe. But even an accurately timed preemptive launch could still result in significant numbers of hostile missiles being launched before the initiating strikes impacted or from surviving mobile systems. Mutually Assured Destruction included hair triggers.


While these concepts provided general guidance in drawing up actual target lists, these lists were and are highly classified. During the height of the Cold War, a Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) detailed these target lists. At that time, the world was continuously less than thirty minutes away from full-scale nuclear war. Unfortunately, it seems that this is still the case.[55]






From the point of view of strategic nuclear weapons, Russia remains by far the major concern. It still maintains a formidable nuclear force, basically oriented on the United States. But the potential for an overwhelming conventional attack against West Europe has totally disappeared, and with it any rational requirement for large nuclear forces. It is hard to put together any scenario for a Russian nuclear attack against the United States.


The end of the Cold War raised prospects of fundamental changes in Russia which would eventually transform the country into a prosperous democracy. Unfortunately opportunities for such a fundamental transition have withered. Major portions of the economy have been taken over by oligarchs connected to the old regime or by criminal elements, while the breakdown of the old economic system has left many citizens impoverished and embittered. President Putin has been systematically reducing the scope of internal freedoms. Russia now stands at a crossroads - to regress to internal despotism or reinvigorate cooperation with the West and internal politico-economic development.


The end of the Cold War also brought a sobering awareness of the vulnerabilities of the Russian nuclear complex and the dangers this posed to the West. Under Communist totalitarianism there were strict internal security controls. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, this security significantly degraded, while major nuclear assets were left in new and unstable countries. For many nuclear sites, the isolation which had helped protect them in the Soviet era suddenly became a vulnerability in the new circumstances. One important effort to address this new set of concerns was the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program which has been operating since 1991.[56]


The focus of this program is increasing security of nuclear materials and information. Weapons and nuclear materials were removed from Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. A systematic effort was initiated to improve physical security and material accountability at scattered Russian nuclear facilities. Economic programs were also set in place to provide employment and alternative work for thousands of knowledgeable Soviet nuclear scientists and technicians.


At the same time, top level negotiations led to the Moscow Treaty, which recognized the need for significant reductions in the strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. In fact, before President Bush personally joined in direct negotiations, he announced that the United States would reduce its arsenal whether or not Russia responded. Unfortunately, the treaty remains basically a statement of intent to remove weapons from active deployment. Even in 2012 it envisions roughly two thousand strategic weapons remaining on each side. It does not require the destruction of any weapons, nor does it set any timetable or provide for verification.[57] To date, there have been negligible actual results.


Old habits die hard. Ingrained Russian suspicions of US intentions often made cooperation difficult or even impossible at the working level. Inertia, poor technical capabilities, and a lack of urgency resulted in many pieces of security equipment supplied by the United States not even being put into use.[58] Ironically, the Nunn-Lugar program helped to protect the very nuclear weapon complex which remains the largest nuclear threat to the United States. The reason for this was simple: a clear judgment that the risk of an intentional Russian nuclear strike on the United States was far outweighed by the risk of nuclear materials falling into actively hostile hands. Major strides have been made in improving security of nuclear weapons and materials, as well as developing economic alternatives for nuclear specialists. On the other hand, the war in Chechnya has greatly increased the internal threat of terrorist elements, while the unsettled internal economic situation means that obtaining nuclear materials by bribery or criminal actions has become a real possibility. Some of the Russian weapons are also mobile weapons, regularly moving through isolated areas where they are vulnerable to hostile actions. Against this background, the continued maintenance of US and Russian strategic nuclear systems deployed against each other makes little sense. Counterforce strategies, developed in the era of Mutually Assured Destruction, have no relevance in current circumstances. There is no incentive at all for Russia to initiate a nuclear exchange with the Untied States. Similarly, it is hard to imagine any circumstances which would lead the United States to initiate a preemptive counterforce strike against Russia. Yet these concepts still underlie the US strategic force posture.


The presence of highly survivable mobile systems (including bombers on alert and nuclear-armed submarines) has essentially erased the distinction between countervalue and counterforce targeting. A counterforce strike by either adversary could destroy most of the opponent's nuclear weapon systems, while still causing a staggering number of casualties - perhaps some 10 million deaths. But the opponent's remaining systems would be more than sufficient to destroy the initiating nation - obviously in a countervalue strike since a counterforce strike no longer would make any sense. The originator would then have little choice but to respond. Such an exchange of countervalue attacks would kill some 50 million people in each country - a number basically impossible to comprehend -- and completely devastate the infrastructure and economy. This would be the realization of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with which we have lived with for a number of decades.


A counterforce attack, no matter how effective, would essentially be committing national suicide. Although counterforce targeting was initially developed as a way of minimizing damage to both the country attacked and the home country, the development of survivable systems has eliminated this distinction. Counterforce strategies now significantly increase the number of weapons on alert and provide a hair trigger potential. But they do not offer any additional protection.  War is avoided because both states recognize that MAD still exists, that the initiating state would ultimately be devastated.  This is no more than what countervalue targeting offered to start with, at much lower force levels and much lower potential for disaster from faulty warnings.


In fact, the highest probability of a Russian strike is probably some desperate response by a beleaguered leadership or perhaps totally unauthorized actions by some rogue commander. Against such irrational situations, deterrence provides little defense and our own strategic nuclear systems provide no protection. To the contrary, a single unauthorized launch could now initiate total devastation of both countries. The best antidotes to this irrational threat are reducing the overall size of the strategic systems and encouraging Russia to revitalize cooperation with the West and further development of internal democratic systems.


In summary, the residual Russian strategic nuclear threat is essentially a threat of irrational actions against which our own strategic nuclear systems provide no protection. Counterforce postures by both nations do not offer any additional protection, but rather increase the potential for disaster, both by compressing the time available for critical decisions and by maintaining unduly large deployed forces. The United States could stand down counterforce systems and reduce alert levels without any significant reduction of countervalue capabilities. This could certainly encourage further significant reductions on the Russian side as well. It would improve security for both sides as well as providing incentive to President Putin to revitalize cooperation with the West.






China complicates this calculus. It is a nuclear power with some long-range strike capability. It has recently raised the specter of using force and even nuclear weapons in its dispute with Taiwan. Although this was followed by official government declarations reiterating a no-first-use policy,[59] it is unlikely that such a thinly veiled threat could have been publicly raised without top-level approval.


The main problem is the future. China's nuclear arsenal is presently much smaller than the US arsenal. Even though it has been a nuclear power for over 40 years, it is generally credited with having only a modest 400 nuclear weapons; there is reason to believe that the actual number may be no more than 100.[60] Regardless of the present number, it is clear that China is not now in a nuclear race with the United States. This is consistent with China's historical inclination not to compete against opponent's strengths, but rather to focus on their weaknesses. As with North Korean weapons, the most salient effect of Chinese weapons is that they deter any US nuclear use. In fact,China's long-range strike capabilities, though limited, may already cover much of the United States.[61] So Chinese actions against Taiwan, for example, could face the United States with a choice of allowing China to prevail in a regional conflict or initiating a nuclear exchange which could bring devastation to parts of the United States.  One result is that a US nuclear umbrella no longer provides solid protection to countries like South Korea, Japan or Indonesia and could spur them to re-assess their own potential requirements for nuclear weapons programs.


China continues to modernize its conventional military capabilities. In response, the United States has been repositioning forces into the Pacific region, but also seeking to build a network of contacts with the Chinese in order to manage the growing competition.[62] So while trying to ensure China becomes a responsible player on the world stage, the United States is nevertheless voicing a range of concerns over Chinese actions.[63] The real competition is economic and political, with the rapidly growing Chinese economy not only threatening to dominate markets,  but to even develop levers directly on the US economy.


Politically, the focal point is the US belief that the spread of democracy and transparency is the key to a peaceful and prosperous world. China, with a 4000-year-old tradition of autocracy, represents a major anti-democratic force. A US belief that democracy will eventually subvert autocracy is met with systematic Chinese efforts to use autocracy to subvert democracy.  This challenge is intensified by the potential for an autocratic Russia to team up with an autocratic China in a common challenge to the West. Obvious indicators of such a potential development have been a recent joint Russian-Chinese military exercise[64] and a formal declaration by China and Russia (together with four Central Asian countries linked in a Shanghai Cooperation Organization) calling on the United States to set a deadline for withdrawing from Central Asian bases.[65] Russia is apparently also trying to interest China in buying nuclear submarines and strategic bombers, while China provides significant support to autocratic regimes in such countries as Sudan and Burma.


A Russo-Chinese anti-democratic bloc would provide a serious strategic challenge to US global efforts. It would promote tension and friction in many parts of the world, including Central Europe where Soviet legacies provide daunting enough challenges without encouraging more direct Russian support for autocratic movements. And it would make it much more difficult to address global economic inequalities. These are the essential background for increases in the number of angry, alienated elements which are the core reservoir for recruitment of extremist and terrorist groups worldwide.


Overall, there is some potential for future nuclear confrontations between China and the United States. In the near term, despite a very asymmetric force balance, China and the United States basically have a nuclear standoff. Beyond that, it is clearly in the US interest to engage China in a positive manner. This means providing incentives for putting assets into economic and developmental uses, rather than military and confrontational uses. The economic and political challenges which China pose far outweigh the military ones; keeping the challenge in non-military spheres is one of the major challenges facing the United states today.



Threat Summary



Most nuclear threats facing the United States are threats of irrational actors, including desperate leaders in unstable countries or fanatical terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons or even crude devices. Strategic nuclear weapons have minimal relevance to these threats. In regards to Russia, a counterforce posture is counterproductive - it provides no additional protection but brings higher force levels and shorter reaction times which increase nuclear risks. China is a problem in the background, it will become a serious nuclear threat only if we fail to integrate it into the world political system. Overall, current requirements for strategic nuclear weapons can be met with much lower levels of deployed weapons than the country presently has.







Deterrence remains necessary. Hostile countries must be convinced that if they take direct hostile actions against the United States or an ally, that they will be hammered, that their rash actions will cost them much more than any potential gain. Nevertheless, deterrence is not protection. If deterrence fails, retaliation may provide some satisfaction, but the damage is done.


Deterrence can fail. Even rational actors may make bad decisions based on faulty information, such as false attack warnings. Deterrence is certainly unreliable when dealing with fanatic, desperate, or irrational actors. In particular, terrorists cannot be deterred by a retaliatory threat. In reality, there are few conceivable situations in which a nuclear response would make sense. Battlefield and theater weapons have some actual war fighting application; their use in extreme situations might be attractive.


Strategic nuclear weapons, on the other hand, have negligible war fighting utility, but their use could result in a catastrophic exchange. At a minimum, any use would result in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. Moreover, as the discussion above shows, these weapons have little applicability to the threats currently facing the nation. Indeed, the Defense Science Board Report concluded that the aging stockpile of legacy nuclear weapons was of declining relevance; they have characteristics unsuitable to the threat environment.[66] Similarly, the Secretary of Defense has commented that "The only thing we have is very large, very dirty, big nuclear weapons." [67] Our current nuclear arsenal simply has the wrong weapons to address the contemporary threat.


From a deterrence point of view, a handful of strategic weapons would be adequate for the entire range of current threats. In regard to Russia, our counterforce posture is based on outmoded assumptions. Russia is no longer an actively hostile nation. Our main challenge with Russia is now to integrate it into the family of nations as an increasingly democratic and prosperous nation. Despite its autocratic drift, Russia continues to seek cooperation opportunities with the West. For example, there are active Congressional efforts to broaden space cooperation with the Russians.[68] More recently, President Putin and British Prime Minister Blair have agreed to broader security cooperation.[69] Cooperative efforts are essential because with its large oil reserves and high world market prices, Russia is well insulated from Western economic pressures.


Strategic nuclear deterrence has its costs, and these are significant:


                - The direct costs of maintaining the strategic nuclear systems, many at a high state of readiness.  There are also the support costs, including costs of the nuclear complex that designs, tests, and maintains these weapons and their components. 


                - The potential for disaster, particularly in regard to the US-Russian nuclear posture. False warnings, unauthorized actions, or unforeseen circumstances could initiate a nuclear exchange.  On a lower level, the larger the nuclear complexes, the more likely that some insider will initiate a major incident.


                - The potential for leakage of nuclear materials or know how to terrorist groups. This is roughly proportional to the total size of global nuclear complexes.


                - Weakening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By maintaining relatively large strategic systems, the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia are all failing in their responsibility under the treaty to work for "the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery." This complicates using the treaty to pressure non-nuclear nations to refrain from potential proliferation activities. North Korea, which has withdrawn from the treaty, claims it has as much inherent right to develop nuclear weapons as the United States originally had. Other nations could easily act similarly.






The United States could significantly reduce its strategic nuclear forces without any loss of deterrence and with an overall gain of security. Reduction in the numbers of US strategic nuclear systems could immediately free resources for other uses, including such critical security uses as strengthening Homeland Defense. Even recognizing the political utility of large nuclear arsenals -- they can have a significant psychological impact and can serve as an entry barrier to other nations seeking superpower status - it makes little sense to retain large number of legacy weapons which have minimal relevance to challenges facing the nation.


Relations with Russia remain ambivalent. Substantive actions to reduce the numbers of strategic nuclear systems could immediately benefit both sides. Unfortunately, reductions are not just based on evaluations of military utility; political utility is equally important and is based on psychological rather than rational considerations. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its impressive military machine, Russia's superpower status crumbled. The one dimension in which it remains a superpower is in its nuclear arsenal. Considerations of political prestige simply would not allow Russia to reduce its nuclear forces significantly below US levels. Although the United States has expressed some willingness to make unilateral reductions, actual results have been negligible.


Russia's turn towards autocracy reflects widespread disillusionment with economic reforms. Many Russians conclude that Western market concepts and associated democratic ideals have only led to impoverishment and insecurity; they willingly turn to a strong central leader. While autocracy may eventually undermine economic progress, it also undermines trust between Russia and the Western nations, complicating efforts to reduce nuclear systems which can also be seen as a symbol of nationalistic pride. Active cooperation on strategic nuclear force reductions, including acceleration of the Moscow Treaty activities, can provide an alternative and incentives for renewed cooperation with the West and further development of civil society.


Further nuclear reductions would also provide solid support for actions within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate all national nuclear weapon programs, as well as reducing or better controlling dual-use activities (e.g., plutonium separation). A unilateral US reduction also has the advantage of not locking the nation into a specific level of weapons, allowing a future reversal if this somehow became necessary (e.g., from a burgeoning Chinese threat).


The time is also opportune because the administration has been wrestling with the problem of how to transition from a nuclear-dominated force to one with major conventional components. More recently the House Armed Services Committee has proposed a civilian commission to determine how to integrate nuclear and nonnuclear weapons in planning the nation's strategic strike forces for the next 20 years.[70]  Additionally, the rise of Iran and North Korea as new potential nuclear opponents had spurred the issuance of a top secret "Interim Global Strike Alert Order." Although the specific contents of the order are obviously not public, the fact that the Department of Defense is evaluating options is public.[71]








The US nuclear arsenal contains an assortment of weapons which are not pertinent to the contemporary threats facing the nation. In particular, there are minimal military requirements for the large number of strategic weapons still in the stockpile. These excessive numbers increase the risks of an unintended nuclear exchange with the Russians, of malevolent insider actions, and of leakage to terrorists. They also undermine broader nuclear non-proliferation efforts and drain resources from more important national needs.


A unilateral reduction would not only reinforce nonproliferation efforts, it would also free internal resources and offer an opportunity for very positive exchanges with the Russians. This could be an important step in reducing the potential for an unintended nuclear exchange and invigorating US-Russian cooperative threat reduction efforts, as well as reducing the potential for development of a future Russo-Chinese anti-democratic bloc.


All in all, the greatly changed nature of the challenges facing the nation in the post-9/11 world demand a very basic review of our entire national strategy. A hard look at the continuing utility of strategic nuclear weapons needs to be a key part of any such review.


[1]    This definition is based on a final coordination draft of Joint Publication 3-12, Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, 15 March 2005, p.viii (available at ). As a draft document, this version of JP 3-12 does not provide final policy, but the key definitions serve as a basis for discussion. See also: Monroe, Robert R., "Defining Deterrence," Washington Times, September 29, 2005, pg. 21.

[2]    For one discussion on this point, see: Korb, Lawrence, "The Road to Nuclear Security," Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, December 2004, particularly p.1. Another recent discussion is in: Norris, Robert S.; Kristensen, Hans M.; and Paine, Christopher E., "Nuclear Insecurity," Washington, DC: Natural Resources Defense Council, September 2004.

[3]    Ibid., p.    .

[4]    Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Future Strategic Strike Forces, Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, February 2004

[5]    Ibid., pp. 5-9, 5-12, and 5-13.

[6]    This is from: Estimated Strategic Nuclear Weapons Inventories (September 2004), at

[7]    For some basic discussions of North Korean capabilities and intentions, see: Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "North Korea's nuclear program, 2005," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2005, pp. 64-67 Nicholas Eberstadt, "What Surprise? The Nuclear Core of North Korea's Strategy," The Washington Post, March 1, 2005, p. A15; "North Korea Special Weapons Guide," gives a thorough review of available materials.

[8]    International negotiations with North Korea have gone on sporadically for years, with much frustration and little progress. Typical commentaries note intransigence on both sides: Jim Yardley, "U.S. and North Korea Blame Each Other for Stalemate in Talks," The New York Times, August 9, 2005; Clemens, Walter C., "Almost back to square one," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2004, pp. 22-5. More recently, a compromise has been reached  in six-party disarmament talks, but implementation remains in the future. See: Kessler, Glenn, and Cody, Edward, "N. Korea, U. S. Gave Ground to make Deal," The Washington Post, September 20, 2005; Kessler, Glenn, and Baker, Peter, "U.S. to Push Koreans On Nuclear Program," The Washington Post, October 5, 2005; Anthony Faiola, "N. Korea Gains Aid Despite Arms Standoff, The Washington Post, November 16, 2005.

[9]    The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: The White House, September 2002 (see:; The National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002 (an unclassified version is available on a number of web sites, including: For a comprehensive discussion of US Counterproliferation Policies, see: Martin Butcher, What Wrongs Our Arms May Do: The Role of Nuclear Weapons in Counterproliferation, Washington, DC: Physicians for Social Responsibility, August 2003 (available at:

[10]  Sanger, David, "What Are Koreans Up To? U.S. Agencies Can't Agree," The New York Times, May 12, 2005.

[11]  Jehl, Douglas, and Sanger, David E. "North Korea Nuclear Goals: Case of Mixed Signals," The New York Times, July 25, 2005

[12]  Matthew McKenzie, "Nuclear Earth Penetrator," graphic prepared for Senator Edward Kennedy, Senate debate on new warheads.    See: NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2005--Continued -- (Senate - June 03, 2004)

[13]  Siegel, Jonas, "In harm's way," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2005, pp. 34-5.

[14]  Sammon, Bill, "Seoul nuke stance blindsides U.S.," The Washington Times, August 13, 2005; Strobel, Warren P., "S. Korea offers energy help to North if it gives up nukes," The Denver Post (from Knight Ridder Newspapers), July 13, 2005.

[15]  For a discussion of US targeting considerations, see: Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force, p. 2-14.

[16]  Although North Korea has as many as 750 ballistic missiles deployed, none of these has a range over 800 miles.  A missile in development (the Taepodong-2) may have intercontinental range (probably sufficient to reach Alaska and Hawaii, but little of the US mainland); it has not been flight tested and it is unclear whether any available nuclear warheads would be small enough to be mounted on this vehicle. There is also some concern on possible local variants of Russian submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  See:, and Feickert, Andrew, Missile Survey: Ballistic and Cruise Missiles of Foreign Countries, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 5, 204, pp. 9-15 (available at For concerns about potential North Korean strikes on closer targets, see: May, Michael, and Nacht, Michael, "The Real Nuclear Threat Is To America's Bases," London Financial Times, September 22, 2005.

[17]  Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force, p. 2-14.

[18]  For comprehensive discussions of North Korean delivery capabilities, see: and

[22]  Ramberg, Bennett, "Attacks on Nuclear Reactors: The Implications of Israel's Strike on Osiraq," Political Science Quarterly, Winter 1982, pp. 653-669. See also: Hein, Avi, "The Raid on the Osirak Nuclear Reactor," at

[23]  There is a very large liteature on Chernobyl. Two overviews are available at: and

[24]  "Allied bombing of Iraqi reactors," Nucleonics Week, January 31, 1991, available at:; see also later commentary, "Iraq won't report to IAEA about nuclear material during bombing," ibid., February 14, 1991, available at:

[25]  Ramberg, Bennett, "Targeting Nuclear Energy," in Ball, Desmond and Richelson, Jeffrey, Strategic Nuclear Targeting, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

[27]  Ibid.

[28]  Butcher, ibid., p. 46, specifically addresses this push for smaller weapons in place of high-yield strategic ones.

[29]  Even as the Iranian president flatly denies any intention to develop nuclear weapons (Kessler, Glen, "Iran's Leader Critical In First U.S. Visit," The Washington Post, September 16, 2005, p. A26), Iranian exile groups claim that "at least 14 to 15 tunnels" have been dug into the mountains outside Tehran and suggest that they are hiding elements of a clandestine nuclear program (See: Smith, Craig S., "An implacable opponent of the mullahs of Iran," The International Herald Tribune, September 24-25, 2005). For other comments on this long-running controversy, see: Linzer, Dafna, "U.S. Deploys Slide Show to Press Case Against Iran," The Washington Post, September 14, 2005; Phillips, James, and Spring, Baker,  "Iran's Latest Nuclear Charade," Executive Memorandum #951, The Heritage Foundation, November 24, 2004; Jehl, Douglas,  and Schmitt, Eric,  "Data Lacking on Iran's Arms," The New York Times, March 9, 2005;  Linzer, Dafner,  "Nuclear Disclosures on Iran Unverified," The Washington Post, November 19, 2004, p. A01; Weisman, Stephen R., and Jehl, Douglas,  "Iran determined to build nukes, report says," The Denver Post (from The New York Times), August 3, 2005; for a current review with extensive references and background, see: "Nuclear Weapons," at

[30]  Rising, David, "German chief assails idea of attacking Iran," The Denver Post (from the Associated Press), August 14, 2005.

[31]  Linzer, Dafna , "Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb," Washington Post, Tuesday, August 2, 2005. Others would dispute this, see: "Think tank says Iran could be 5 years from nuke," Denver Post (from the Associated Press), September 7, 2005.

[32]  Linzer, "Iran Is Judged," ibid.

[33]  Rising, David, ibid.

[34]  Edward A. O'Connor, "Russian-Iranian Relations: Outlook for Cooperation with the 'Axis of Evil, '" Strategic Insights, Volume IV, Issue 8 (August 2005) (See:'connorAug05.asp); Baker, Peter, "Putin Won't Support U.N. Action Against Iran," The Washington Post, September 17, 2005.

[35]  Dareini, Ali Akbar, "Iraq, Iran say they want militaries to cooperate," The Denver Post (from the Associated Press), July 8, 2005. See also: Rubin, Trudy, "Iraq war spurs Iran nukes," The Denver Post (from The Philadelphia Inquirer), August 12, 2005.

[40]  For an overview of Iran's nuclear facilities, see: Iran Profile,

[41]  " Firing Trident : a scenario of attacks on Iran" see also: Salama, Sammy, and Ruster, Karen, "A Preemptive Attack on Iran's Nuclear Facilities: Possible Consequences," CNS Research Story, August 12, 2004 (available at:

[42]  For an overview of Iranian missile programs, see:

[43]  See 2 February 2005 in the missile chronology,

[45]  Ibid.

[46]  "India and Pakistan Engagement," Special Report, United States Institute of Peace, January 2005; Ganguly, Sumit,"Beyond the Nuclear Dimension: Forging Stability in South Asia,"  Arms Control Today, December 2001.

[47]  "Musharraf survives two-pronged attack on convoy," posted on, December 25, 2003 - the article noted this as being the second attempt in 12 days.

[48]  Masood, Salman, "Pakistani leader confirms sale of nuke hardware to N. Korea," The Denver Post (from The New York Times), August 25, 2005.

[49]  For a discussion of Indian nuclear policies, see: "Nuclear Weapons and Security," New Dehli: Dehli Policy Group, 2005; McDonough, Mark, "Tracking Nuclear Proliferation," Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998; Sanjoy Majumdar, "Does nuclear status boost India's clout?" posted on on May 12, 2003; for a program overview, see:

[50]  Linzer, Dafna, "Congress Faults Nuclear Deal with India," The Washington Post, September 9, 2005 for an opposing view, see: Harrison, Selig S., "Why the India Deal Is Good," The Washington Post, August 15, 2005.

[51]  David Albright, Kathryn Beuhler and Holly Higgins, " Bin Laden and the bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan/Feb 2002, pp. 23-24; David Albright, "Al Queda's Nuclear Program: Through the Window of Seized Documents," Policy Forum Online: Special Forum 47: November 6, 2002,;  Zagorin, Adam, "Bordering on Nukes," Time, Nov 22, 2004; Jack Bopureston, "Assessing Al Queda's WMD Capabilities," Strategic Insight [Naval Postgraduate School], September 2,2002; see also: Broad, William J., and  Sanger, David E., "As Nuclear Secrets Emerge in the Khan Inquiry, More Are Suspected," The Washington Post, December 26, 2004, which specifically mentions possible links between sales of nuclear technology and Osama bin Laden.

[52]  Arkin,  William M.; Norris, Robert S.; and Handler, Joshua,  "Taking Stock," Washington, DC: Natural Resources Defense Council, March 1998; for more current data, see Country Overviews on

[53]  For a basic outline, see: "Principles of Nuclear Weapon Security and Safety," at; "Security Police Officer Training Competition," Department of Energy Press Release, May 7, 2004; "Nuclear Insecurity," CBS 60 Minutes, Aug 29, 2004,

[54]  For one contemporary discussion of deterrence requirements by a highly qualified panel, see:  Payne, Keith B., et al., Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, Fairfax (VA): National Institute for Public Policy, January 2001, pp. 5, 11-12 (available at 1 complete.pdf). For another view, see: Freedman, Lawrence,  "Does Deterrence Have a Future?"

[55]  McKinzie, Matthew, et al., "The U.S. Nuclear War Plan: A Time for Change," Washington, DC: Natural Resources Defense Council, June 2001 (available at, which argues that small, precise weapons could replace high-yield weapons in a deterrent role.

[56]  For an overview of the program see: . For comments on its current status see: Grotto, Andy, and Finlay, Brian, The Race to Secure Russia's Loose Nukes, Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, September 13, 2005.

[57]  There has  been widespread commentary on the treaty. For some basic commentary, see: Gottemoeller, Rose, "Nuclear Arms Arms Control After Moscow," Global Beat Syndicate (from New York University), August 6, 2002 (available at:; Paine, Christopher, "The Moscow Treaty: Making matters worse,"


[59]  Brinkley, Joel, "U.S. Rebukes Chinese General for His Threat of Nuclear Arms Use, The New York Times, July 16 2005.

[60]  Gee, Madelyn, China's Nuclear Arsenal, Center for Defense Information, May 2,2005 (available at:; Norris, Robert S., and Kristensen, Hans M., "Chinese nuclear forces, 2003, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 2003; "Lewis, Jeffrey, "Nuclear Numerology Chinese Style," Arms Control Today , March 2005

[61]  "China's arsenal, by the numbers," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2005, p. 55

[62]  Cody, Edward, "Shifts in the Pacific Force U.S. Military to Adapt Thinking," The Washington Post, September 17, 2005.

[63]  Kessler, Glenn, "U.S. Says China Must Address Its Intentions," the Washington, Post, September 22, 2005. For another view on the economic focus of present concerns, see: McGregor, James, "Advantage, China," The Washington Post, July 31, 2005.

[64]  Finn, Peter, "Chinese, Russian Militaries to Hold First Joint Drills, The Washington Post, August 15, 2005; McDonald, Joe, "Chinese, Russian troops finish military exercise," The Denver Post (from the Associated Press), August 26, 2005. For a broader discussion, see: Andrei Shoumikhin, Sino-Russian Relations, Fairfax (VA): National Institute for Public Policy, December 2004 (available at: Web/December2004webpage.pdf).

[65]  Chivers, C.J., "Central Asians Call on U.S. to Set a Timetable for Closing Bases ," The New York Times, July 6, 2005.

[66]  Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force, pp. 6-1 to 6-3, 6-10, 6-15; see also: Oelrich, Ivan, "Missions for Nuclear Weapons after the Cold War," Occasional Paper No. 3, Washington, DC: Federation of American Scientists, January 28, 2005 (available at:

[67]  Pincus, Walter, "Pentagon Revises Nuclear Strike Plan," The Washington Post, September 11, 2005.

[68]  Gugliotta, Guy, "NASA Seeks Clearance to Buy Russian Technology," The Washington Post, September 16, 2005.

[69]  "Blair-Putin accord on terror," The International Herald Tribune (from the Associated Press), October 6, 2005.

[70]  Pincus, Walter, "House Proposes Commission to Assess Nuclear Forces," The Washington Post, May 29, 2005, p. A9.

[71]  Arkin, William, "Not Just a Last Resort," The Washington Post, May 19, 2005.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias