The Utility of Offensive Nuclear Weapons in the Modern Era

By: Mark Bhaskar, Columnist

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Discussing the potential, or even necessary, use of nuclear weapons by the United States in any reputable forum usually invites near-universal condemnation. Such a strong reaction proves that the “nuclear taboo,” best described in Nina Tannenwald’s 1999 essay, is alive and well. As per this taboo, using nuclear weapons is unethical, always disproportional, and political suicide for any leader.[i] However, recent surveys of the American public and assessments of the situations in North Korea and Iran indicate that this taboo is weaker than previously thought and that it restricts the ability of policymakers to defend the United States. In fact, the American people are more than willing to use nuclear weapons against an adversary as long as certain conditions are met. Those conditions originate in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and there are certain strategic parallels between the United States’ confrontation of the Empire of Japan in 1945 and the potential for conflict with North Korea or Iran in the present.

Leaders, both elected and otherwise, tend to avoid discussions about using nuclear weapons due to the “widespread popular revulsion against nuclear weapons and widely held inhibitions on their use.”[ii] However, an August 2017 study by the MIT Press illustrates that US officials have little to fear in terms of domestic opinion. In the study, 59% of Americans said that, during a war with Iran, they would approve of a nuclear strike killing 2 million Iranians as long as the strike saved the lives of 20,000 US soldiers. Indeed, 63% of Americans would accept 100,000 Iranian casualties in a conventional airstrike with the same stipulation regarding US soldiers. Based on these results, the creators of the study concluded that, “the majority of Americans prioritize protecting US troops and achieving American war aims, even when doing so would result in the deliberate killing of millions of foreign noncombatants.”[iii] Another survey conducted in 2009 for the book Paying the Human Costs of War put forth a similar dilemma with North Korea. When asked how to rate the importance of limiting American military deaths versus limiting DPRK civilian deaths, 52% of respondents concluded that limiting American deaths was “much more” or “somewhat more important.”[iv] The article “Atomic Aversion” shifts the focus of nuclear weapons use to efficacy. In a scenario in which al-Qa’ida was building a nuclear bomb in Syria, 77.2% of those surveyed said they would support a presidential decision to use nuclear weapons against al-Qa’ida if nuclear weapons were deemed twice as effective as conventional weapons in carrying out a successful strike. The message from such studies is clear: US leaders have a popular mandate to use nuclear weapons, even against civilian targets, as long as American combatants are saved and US objectives are achieved.[v]

With this mandate, it falls to policymakers to determine the standards for carrying out a nuclear attack. Here there is only a single precedent: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From these attacks, one can extract three conditions under which the US would use a nuclear bomb. The first is intractability of the opponent. Against Japan, the United States initially tried diplomatic incentives, and later economic coercion, to bring about an end to their imperial expansion—but to no avail. Despite a vicious fire-bombing campaign that killed between 240,000 and 300,000 Japanese people and severe military defeats in Burma, Manchuria, and various Pacific Islands, the Japanese government would not surrender. Kamikaze and banzai tactics, as well as the decision to draft elderly men and women into the military indicated that Japan was preparing for a last stand.[vi] From this information, one can conclude that the United States should only consider using nuclear weapons against an adversary who does not respond to diplomatic, economic, or military means of coercion.

The second and third conditions are the high cost of a conventional campaign against an adversary and that adversary’s second-strike capabilities. The Allies estimated that the invasion of the Japanese home islands—Operation Downfall—would result in over 500,000 Allied casualties and require more than 1.3 million American personnel. The fighting itself, given Japan’s steadfast defenses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, was expected to last until 1947. The estimated number of Japanese dead from the operation varies widely, yet nearly all place the total in the millions.[vii] By comparison, the atomic bombs inflicted over 200,000 casualties on Japan and killed twenty American, British, and Dutch prisoners of war.[viii] Just as important, unlike the future Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan had no substantial defenses against the atomic bomb, nor could they respond with a nuclear attack of their own. From this information, one concludes that nuclear weapons should only be used in the event that a conventional campaign will incur too high a cost in blood and treasure, and if the enemy cannot retaliate in kind.

North Korea and Iran are modern adversaries that fit these three conditions—intractability, prospect of a costly conventional campaign, and lack of nuclear retaliation capability—albeit to varying degrees. In the case of the DPRK, the United States has tried to end their nuclear program through diplomatic negotiations under three separate administrations[ix], as well as through what some consider “the toughest-ever” economic sanctions.[x] The result of such efforts is that North Korea has approximately 30 nuclear warheads[xi] and possesses an ICBM that can target the continental United States, which the DPRK tested as recently as November 28.[xii] A conventional attack, in either the form of an airstrike against suspected nuclear sites or a ground-based invasion, would be ineffective and horrific in terms of the human and economic costs. North Korea is a national fortress, with an army over one million strong, vast quantities of long-range artillery, and its own chemical weapons capabilities.[xiii] Under Kim Jung Un, the DPRK more than satisfies the first two conditions of intractability and a potential high-cost conventional campaign. On the third condition, while the United States and its allies possess the missile defense capabilities to defend against a limited North Korean ICBM attack, a more substantial launch could overwhelm defensive systems.[xiv] A decision to use nuclear weapons against the DPRK would have to hinge on effective missile defense.

As for Iran, it fulfills two of the three strategic conditions: the prospect of a high-cost conventional war and the lack of second-strike capability. The presence of the third condition—intractability—is subject to debate. Iran has a powerful military—with 934,000 known personnel—and both the size and terrain of Iran heavily favor them in a defensive conflict.[xv] Iran also has a high nuclear threshold, meaning that it could develop nuclear weapons quickly if it wished;[xvi] although, as of this writing, it possesses no warheads and its missile defenses are geared towards countering cruise missiles and other ground-to-ground projectiles—not ICBMs.[xvii] Regarding Iran’s intractability, proponents of the JCPOA point to the agreement as evidence that Iran’s leadership, particularly under President Hassan Rouhani, is moderate and open to negotiation. However, the JCPOA could end prematurely for a number of reasons, such as actions by the Trump Administration or Rouhani’s potential overthrow by IRGC hardliners, despite the clear popular mandate conferred on him by the election in May.[xviii] Regardless of the JCPOA and Rouhani’s efforts at domestic reform, Iran has not changed its expansionist foreign policy—instead remaining engaged in destructive conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and actively threatening US allies in the Middle East.[xix] The fact remains that Iran is actively sabotaging the United States and its interests in the region.

The purpose of this article is not to advocate for a first-use nuclear weapons policy for the United States. However, nuclear weapons retain offensive utility within certain parameters. North Korea and Iran have developed into uncompromising adversaries against whom a conventional campaign would prove long and bloody. Unlike Russia and China, neither country yet possesses the ability to threaten the United States with a comparable nuclear stockpile or to deter the US with substantial missile defense systems. There are certainly risks to using nuclear weapons, and the international security environment after their use would fundamentally change—maybe unrecognizably so. But key conditions of nuclear weapon use in 1945 are present today, and to not consider the use of nuclear weapons in the North Korean and Iranian cases does a disservice to the American people.

[i] Tannenwald, Nina. “The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-Use.” JSTOR, The MIT Press, 1999.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Sagan, Scott D, and Benjamin A Valentino. “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants.” The MIT Press Journal, International Security, 2 Aug. 2017.

[iv] Gelpi, Christopher, Peter D. Feaver, and Jason Reifler, Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 257.

[v] Press, Daryl G, et al. “Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Stanford CISAC, American Political Science Review, Feb. 2013.

[vi] Murray, Williamson, and Allan R Millett. A War To Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. 1st ed., Harvard University Press, 2001.484-508.

[vii] Murray, Williamson, and Allan R Millett. 509-526.

[viii] “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Atomic Archive, National Science Digital Library, 2015.

[ix] Boghani, Priyanka. “The U.S. and North Korea On The Brink: A Timeline.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 4 Oct. 2017.

[x] Morello, Carol, et al. “U.N. Agrees to Toughest-Ever Sanctions against North Korea.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Sept. 2017.

[xi] Gady, Franz-Stefan. “North Korea: The End of the Nuclear Taboo?” The Diplomat, The Diplomat, 29 Aug. 2017.

[xii] Sang-hun, Choe. “North Korea Fires a Ballistic Missile, in a Further Challenge to Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2017.

[xiii] McInnis, Kathleen J, et al. The North Korean Nuclear Challenge: Military Options and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 6 Nov. 2017.

[xiv] Gallagher, Sean. “As N. Korea Threatens Nuclear Missile Test, Are US Ballistic Defenses Ready?” Ars Technica, 26 Sept. 2017.

[xv] “2017 Iran Military Strength.” – World Military Strengths Detailed, 2017.

[xvi] Pincus, Walter. “Iran Is Already a Threshold Nuclear State.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Aug. 2015.

[xvii] McKernan Beirut, Bethan. “Iran Tests First Ever Long-Range Missile Defence System.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 4 Sept. 2017.

[xviii] Hafezi, Parisa, and Jonathan Saul. “Tested on All Fronts, Iran’s Rouhani May Struggle on Reforms.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 2 June 2017.

[xix] Negahban, Behbod. “Who Makes Iran’s Foreign Policy? The Revolutionary Guard and Factional Politics in the Formulation of Iranian Foreign Policy .” Yale Journal of International Affairs, Yale University, 2017.

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