By Manpreet Sethi
In an interesting development on 15 April 2021, two Democrat members, one from each house of the US Congress, re-introduced the No First Use Act (NFU). The bill proposes that the United States would not use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare first. This is expected to help in reducing the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding by an adversary during a crisis that could lead to nuclear use—strengthening deterrence and increasing strategic stability by a clear declaratory policy and preserving the US second-strike capability to retaliate against any nuclear attack on the US or its allies.
Hurdles ahead: Domestic politics, allies, and adversaries
The presentation of this Act refocuses attention on the possibility of adoption of ‘No First Use’ by the US. Though it would be naïve to expect quick action, hope is kindled by a few aspects. The first, of course, is President Joe Biden’s expressed personal conviction in this policy. As Vice President, and later during his presidential campaign, Biden has supported reduction in the role of nuclear weapons. NFU could be a meaningful step in this direction. Also, from past experience, Biden understands the stumbling blocks to acceptance of NFU at home and amongst US allies. Therefore, he can be expected to address these concerns and rally enough support before making a public pitch for a change in US policy.
A second development that could work in favour of NFU is a heightened sense of nuclear risks, especially in case of an inadvertent escalation as major power relations remain fraught, offence-defence spiral unspools, and unregulated new technologies emerge. There is greater recognition of the fact that an incident of nuclear use, if triggered by the uncomfortable US-Russia/US-China relations, would possibly occur on the soil of US allies. This should prompt allies to support measures that obviate chances of deterrence breakdown. NFU could be beneficial in this respect by alleviating the adversary’s sense of insecurity about an imminent nuclear strike that would deter its own first use. By mitigating the ‘use or lose’ pressure, NFU lessens crisis instability.
The case for NFU would be further strengthened if the US could convince its allies of its continued commitment to extended deterrence through conventional means. It certainly has this capability and its use should carry greater credibility, as compared to nuclear use, since breaking the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons can never be expected to be easy.
Besides allies, adversaries too weaken the case for the acceptance of NFU by dismissing it as a meaningless declaratory statement. When the Soviet Union had proclaimed NFU between 1983-1992, the US had scoffed at it for its unverifiability and lack of credibility. China and India’s NFUs are also similarly treated by their adversaries. However, despite NFU being a unilateral, unverifiable statement, the seriousness of commitment can be seen in a country’s force structure and force posture. The choice of weapons and delivery systems, as well as the kind of alertness at which they are maintained, gives evidence of that assurance.
Futility of first use
To further drive home the case for NFU, it is also imperative to showcase the futility of first use. Traditionally, nuclear first use has been considered a viable deterrence strategy for countries that are conventionally weaker than their adversary, and hence, face an existential threat. But we forget that China, despite being conventionally weaker than the US—and similarly with India against China—both have declared NFU strategies. The reason for this lies not in conventional weakness or strength but in understanding the futility of nuclear first use when the first user confronts the prospect of assured nuclear retaliation. In such a case, using a nuclear weapon would only compound ‘temporary’ conventional defeat into long-lasting nuclear damage.
Another circumstance for inevitability of first use is when a country is staring at an impending nuclear strike. However, in real-life scenarios, a show of preparedness for nuclear attack has often been used for coercion. It is worth remembering that despite umpteen examples of such show, nuclear use has never happened since 1945. This is because of the myriad dilemmas posed by a first use strategy. Amongst the questions a nuclear first user must answer is when to use the weapon in conflict—early or late, where to target, counterforce or countervalue or both—and how to obviate nuclear retaliation?
Credible first use demands a pretty demanding slew of capabilities—a large arsenal of accurate missiles with real-time navigational aids to ensure high precision; MIRVed missiles to carry out multiple hits; sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for meaningful targeting; elaborate and delegated command and control to enable simultaneous attacks; and highly capable active and passive defences to handle nuclear retaliation. None of this comes easy or cheap. And yet, despite the costly investment, there can be no guarantee of no retaliation. What then can be the military utility of first use?
The Cuban Missile Crisis showed that despite US nuclear preponderance and existence of an elaborate targeting strategy to use nuclear weapons first, President Kennedy could not be assured by his generals that there would be no Soviet nuclear retaliation. So, despite having a first use strategy and capability, such use was found to be militarily useless, even dangerous. By contrast, nuclear retaliation is far more justifiable, and hence, more credible.
Disarmament purists do not appreciate the NFU since it allows nations to retain nuclear weapons and only seeks their non-use. However, given the contemporary reality where nations place a high value on nuclear weapons and are unwilling to discard them, NFU can provide a useful way-station. It allows nations to maintain a notional sense of security from their nuclear weapons, but significantly reduces possibilities of use.
An acceptance of NFU in the US, after adequate consultations with US allies, followed by visible force posture changes that stand down alert levels and offer other adjustments to the arsenal could change the prevailing atmosphere of nuclear mistrust. It is also likely to evince a response from China and India, who anyway profess NFU. China might also be able to rope in its friend and partner, Russia. The UK and France may be persuaded by the US. Pakistan and North Korea would have reservations and may hesitate to join in immediately. However, as the norm of NFU becomes stronger over time, Pakistan may like to join the club to showcase its responsible behaviour. Progress in negotiations with North Korea could get it to join too. This may need some security assurances, which may become possible as a cycle of positives is generated by majority of states accepting NFU.
Finally, to make NFU appealing, nations need to understand the current gravity of nuclear risks, the futility of first use strategies and their inability to achieve any worthwhile political objective in the face of an adversary’s assured second-strike capabilities. Accepting NFU could ease arsenal burdens, reduce crisis instabilities and the concomitant risk of inadvertent escalation, invoke greater political positivity, and thereby, reduce the overall salience of nuclear weapons. All of this would be conducive for national and international security.