What IS No First Use?
Simply put, a country that declares a policy of No First Use (NFU) is saying that it will not use a nuclear weapon unless it is attacked by nuclear weapons. Some countries expand that definition to include an attack by chemical or biological weapons. Sometimes the phrase “sole purpose” is used to mean essentially the same thing: that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack.
What is the US Policy on No First Use?
The United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war; of course, it was a “first use” situation because no other country had nukes at the time. But today, nine countries have nuclear weapons, and the destructive power of modern nukes is many times greater. It is widely understood that a nuclear war would be devastating to all parties, likely causing nuclear winter and possibly even the destruction of much of human civilization. Therefore, most national leaders have no appetite to initiate a nuclear war, seeing their nukes as a means to deter nuclear aggression from other countries. As detailed in “The Button”, by William J. Perry and Tom Collina, U.S. presidents from Truman to Trump have shown a revulsion at the prospect of using nukes first. And yet, none of them has formally declared that they would never use them first, instead making vague statements about “not leaving anything off the table.”
Every several years, the Pentagon conducts a review of nuclear policy, and produces a document called the Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR. While NPRs have generally maintained that the primary use of nuclear weapons is for deterrence, this document is also used to spell out the “extreme circumstances” under which a president might consider nuclear first use. The 2018 NPR expanded the number of cases which would be considered “extreme circumstances” to include new categories, like a terrorist attack or a cyberattack. The Biden administration is carrying out a new NPR, which is due to be announced some time in 2022.
What are the No First Use policies of other nuclear-armed nations?
The Soviet Union declared a No First Use policy in 1982, but Russia dropped that policy in 1993. Recent Russian military doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons “in response to large-scale conventional weapons.” Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in early 2022, there has been much discussion of Russia’s so-called “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy. As outlined in this article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, this doctrine says that if Russia were faced with a large-scale conventional attack and was in danger of losing, it might respond with a “limited” nuclear strike (“escalate”). The theory is that this would lead the adversary to back down (“de-escalate”). The change in Russian strategy was driven by witnessing the efficacy of the high-precision weaponry in the Gulf War and the conflict in Kosovo, which Russia could not counter. By promoting this policy, Russia hoped to deter the US and NATO from becoming actively involved in conflicts such as Ukraine. Ironically, this was quite similar to US policy in Europe during the 1960s, when NATO conventional forces were seen as inferior, as discussed in this document from the National Security Archives from 1964.
In that same year, China announced that it was adopting a No First Use policy. In 2012, China proposed that all nuclear states create and join a multilateral No First Use treaty. However, recent remarks from Chinese military officials have called the credibility of this policy into question. In 1998, India announced that its nuclear arsenal would only be used as a deterrent, and would never be used against non-nuclear countries. Although this remains official Indian policy, there have also been some push-back against the policy by some in India as tensions have risen with Pakistan over the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir. None of the other nuclear powers (United Kingdom, France, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea) have made a No First Use declaration.
What are the basic arguments for and against declaring a No First Use policy?
Critics of NFU note that US allies in Europe and Asia, who rely on the US’s “nuclear umbrella”, feel vulnerable to non-nuclear aggression by Russia and China, and oppose making such a declaration. They also argue that such a significant change in policy should only be made in a time of geopolitical stability. President Obama gave serious consideration to declaring No First Use, but was dissuaded in part by dissent from members of his own cabinet.
Supporters of NFU argue that first use of nukes is basically a hollow threat…the massive damage and risk of nuclear escalation is so high that the threat is not credible. But if an adversary does believe that the US might use their nukes first in a crisis, this could be an incentive for them to use their own first…a ”use it or lose it” mentality. By declaring NFU, the pressure to strike first is minimized. A related concern is “presidential sole authority”: in the US, the president has the legal authority to order a nuclear strike with no consultation. This danger would be greatly reduced by an NFU declaration. Another line of thought is that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and a nuclear first strike ordered by a president would contravene that. Declaring NFU would aid in attempts to create new nuclear treaties, and inhibit further nuclear proliferation.
One lesson from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that the US and NATO have a significant advantage over Russia in conventional forces. These forces are much more credible (meaning your enemy is likely to believe you will use them, and they’ve seen that these forces are effective), and can be used to effectively counter any level of aggression short of a direct nuclear attack. A First Strike option doesn’t deter, it threatens deterrence. Our bombers and sub-based missiles cannot be credibly threatened with a first strike, and would remain largely intact to deliver devastating retaliation. This so-called “second strike” is the key to nuclear deterrence.