US policy and first-use of nuclear weapons: part two


Image result for the nuclear button

The build up to the 2016 US presidential election has seen a small flurry of articles and interest in US nuclear first-use policy. Many commentators have expressed surprise that the US has, for decades, kept a first-use option on the books.

There’s been much speculation that President Obama might get rid of the first-use option. This would be a final gesture to add some weight to his early promise of moving toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. Speculation has centred on the idea of Obama by-passing Congress and imposing the policy as an executive decision, via his position as commander in chief.

Here are some recent links on the topic, drawn from the media coverage of the election campaign:

Official says nuclear options are being considered.

“Why we should keep first-use.”

Why we should get rid of first-use.”

For background on Obama’s nuclear policy, see my article from 2012: American Exceptionalism and President Obama’s Call for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (note, this is a long article).


US policy on first-use of nuclear weapons: part one


Pershing II missile; potential US nuclear escalation option in Europe in the 1980s. Over 200 were built. Explosive power could apparently be ‘dialled’ between 5Kt and 80Kt (the Hiroshima bomb was 15-20Kt); it had a range of about 1,700km. Focus of deployment was West Germany.
Pershing I missile; potential US nuclear escalation option in the 1960s & 1970s. About 700 were built. Reportedly had selectable explosive yields of 60Kt, 200Kt, and 400Kt. Range of about 700km. Focus of deployment was West Germany.










To coincide with the completion of a draft manuscript of my novel, The Credibility Vortex (recently sent out to a group of readers/critics), I have provided some sources on a central theme of the book: US nuclear strategy.

The particular focus here concerns possible American first-use of nuclear weapons. Washington has repeatedly refused to rule-out this option. Aside from its implications for war planning, this stance has been a persistent theme in US arms control diplomacy for decades. It is a policy position that has been especially noticeable (and, I would say, a noticeable embarrassment) at several international review conferences of the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

The topic has been a longstanding interest of mine, it was a key issue in my post-graduate research, as well as the subject of academic journal articles, such as:

Andy Butfoy, ‘Washington’s Apparent Readiness to Start Nuclear War’, Survival, October-November 2008.

Andy Butfoy, ‘Perpetuating US Nuclear First-Use into the Indefinite Future: Reckless Inertia or Pillar of World Order?’, Contemporary Security Policy, August 2002.

Many people are surprised to hear that the US insists on a “right” to initiate nuclear escalation. They are often even more surprised to hear that President Obama, while backing away from the more alarming rhetoric of President George W. Bush, would not rule-out American nuclear first use (and has made smaller cuts to the US nuclear arsenal than his predecessor). For an examination of the factors at work here, see:

Andy Butfoy, ‘American Exceptionalism and President Obama’s Call for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons’, Contemporary Security Policy, December 2012.

Alas, copyright restrictions prevent me from putting these articles on-line. Those of you fortunate enough to have university library access will find it easy to get copies. Fortunately there is much information on the issue which is freely available. For example, see the following study of so-called ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ (often singled-out as likely candidates for first-use, especially during the Cold War). It was produced by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College:


The 1983 Nuclear War Scare: Misperceptions & Armageddeon

Very famous: President Ronald Reagan
Unknown: Lieutenant General Leonard Peroots, US Air Force.

New documents dealing with the risk of a nuclear World War Three arising from the Cold War conflict between Moscow and NATO have been published. The focus of the new papers is a 1983 NATO  exercise called ABLE ARCHER. This included testing arrangements for transmitting nuclear release orders. The Soviet Union read this as possible preparation and cover for an American first-strike. In response, Moscow considered preemption, consequently it raised its nuclear alert level.  Thus the scene was set for a disastrous chain of escalation. Fortunately, the crisis was resolved by, among other things, a senior US Air Force Intelligence Officer  (Lt. Gen. Peroots) deciding – on his own initiative – not to elevate American war readiness in response to the higher Soviet alert levels.

The outline of the story is familiar to strategic analysts/historians. But it was only this month, after decades of semi-official denials, that the details have been confirmed and declassified. See this link:

The National Security Archive: George Washington University: The 1983 War Scare.

More documents at:  NSA archive on Able Archer

The issue is of particular interest to me because my PhD was on the relationship between politics and conventional/nuclear war planning. Most NATO and Soviet planning for World War Three assumed escalation from conventional to nuclear conflict arising from a crisis in Germany (or sometimes Norway or Turkey). ABLE ARCHER was a test of the pointy end  of preparation for what could have led to the end of the world.



Australia to enter another civil war?


News that Prime Minister Abbott is considering launching airstrikes into Syria calls for a strategic review.

On the one hand, if the claim that islamist fighters (especially in their IS form) truly represent the greatest threat since the Second World War is accurate, then Abbott is being shockingly negligent in committing only a fraction of our military to deal with the peril. If civilisation, world order, and national survival are at stake we ought to be doing massively more. We should, for example, raise taxes very significantly to make a much larger military contribution, one commensurate with the supposed danger.

On the other hand, the government could step back from its noisy politicking and engage in more measured strategic thinking. This would require sensible perspective rather than rabble-rousing, and would recognise at least five interrelated points.

First, we still have unfinished business in Afghanistan and Iraq going all the way back to 2001 and 2003. Unsuccessful involvement in two decade-long civil wars would give most nations pause for reflection, rather than spur them on to rumble into a third adventure.

Second, the ADF can only ever be a bit player in transforming the Middle East. Although we have an obligation to assist (having helped create the mess in 2003), this should be on a selective basis. Better to have the ADF do a limited task in Iraq relatively effectively, rather than spreading its resources too thinly in a war without limit and inadequate reflection.

Abbott seems to believe the cause self evidently requires us to drop more bombs without thinking too hard about what we are doing. But if there really is a strategic imperative to militarily go after islamist fighters wherever they are to be found, why stop at Syria? Why not Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, etc? Where does the Putin of Oz want to draw the line?

Third, why not keep to clear limits in terms of international law? Support for the Iraqi government is one thing, and is almost universally seen as legal. But who would we be supporting in Syria? A sound legal position requires a clear answer. Would we side with the current Syrian government, which the West has wanted to undermine for years, one complicit in mass murder of its civilians? Or some one else. Who? And, to cycle back to an earlier point, if this alternative entity is worthy of our support, why send only a half dozen or so aircraft to drop a few bombs? To what effect in terms of building a new Syria?

The aim of international law (much ridiculed by right wingers for being imperfect, although they have no idea how to replace it with anything better) is to put limits on behaviour. Abbott appears ready to shove this concept aside. But why stretch the legal boundaries beyond their intended purpose for the sake of an almost meaningless strategic impact in Syria?

Fourth, even the dumbest armchair warrior and the most desperate Churchill wannabe ought to realise the West’s problem in Syria isn’t lack of airpower. Look at the stats. Employment of 10% of the West’s combat aircraft would probably crowd-out Syrian airspace, run out of meaningful targets within an afternoon, and inadvertently escalate the killing of civilians.

Fifth, what does the end-game look like? I’ll give you a hint: the government hasn’t got a clue.

We need to look beyond the apparent flag-waving and chest-thumping politicisation of defence policy which currently seems to be driving government decision making. A start would be a review of how we arrived at this mess. That would require introspection and an inquiry into policy decisions since at least the 1990s. Alas, I don’t see any hairy-chested government MPs signing up for that particular fight.




Hiroshima Day & the Iran Nuclear Deal



The 6th of August is Hiroshima Day. On this day in 1945 a single bomb killed about 80,000 people in that city, and many more died, or lived suffering terribly, in the weeks and years that followed. This link is to a survivor’s story.

Since 1945 the history of efforts to control nuclear bombs has been  patchy. On the one hand, apart from the attack on Nagasaki (on the 9th August 1945), the bombs have remained the great unused weapon of world politics, with the establishment of a so-called “nuclear taboo”, and — something often lost in the media noise on nuclear matters — most countries which could build a Bomb have decided not to do so.

On the other hand, there have been over 2,000 full nuclear test explosions, ten countries have built the things (US, Russia, UK, China, France, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea), and efforts at non-proliferation have frequently been marred by hypocrisy, bad faith, and reckless disregard for the well being of humanity. Also, many bombs now in service are far more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. For instance, today the average US nuclear warhead is perhaps 10 or 15 times more powerful. And Washington and Moscow have built bombs more than a thousand times more powerful.

Although the number of nuclear weapons has declined since 1990, there are still enough to destroy every major city in the world and slaughter hundreds of millions of innocent people. Furthermore, permissive use of these weapons could well destroy the infrastructure and environmental foundations needed for the human species to build a recovery.

But recently a hopeful sign has appeared. This is the July Agreement (a 159 page “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) between Iran and the “P5+1” (US, Russia, China, France, UK + Germany) over Tehran’s nuclear program. The text of the Agreement is here.

Most experts support the the deal. For example:

The Arms Control Association

Expert Opinion Piece

There is, of course, room for measured debate over the merits of the deal. For instance, see this range of views.

Unfortunately the Agreement has also attracted lots of ill-informed or mischievous criticism, including blow-hard polemical nonsense. The most predictable and depressing reaction has come from the US Republican Party and cross-over Neo-conservatives. Often they are  the same folks who produced and directed the 2003 Iraq War. But let them, and other critics, speak for themselves:

Here a Republican contender equates the Agreement with the Nazi engineered Holocaust.

Here an advocate of the disastrous 2003 Iraq War calls for tearing up the Agreement and bombing Iran.

Here the same character calls the Agreement “the greatest display of appeasement from a president in history.”

Many critics who caricature and ridicule the deal with Tehran (including, apparently, most of the Republican candidates for the Presidential election) will  try hard to defeat it. They will then explicitly or implicitly call for a non-negotiated resolution.  This merges into advocacy of another Middle Eastern war. Some opponents are quite open about the idea.

Great! Just what we, the Middle East, and the World needs: another war. A conflict based more on parochial politically inspired rabble-rousing rather than a measured examination of the pros and cons of a seriously important diplomatic deal. What the more gung-ho critics of the agreement have to seriously reflect on is whether they think trashing a measured diplomatic initiative in order to make way for another American led war in the Middle East makes any moral, political, strategic, or practical sense.

Security & Terrorism: Get Some Perspective

One of these people knew about existential threats, the other was an existential threat.


He didn’t really get it.
Neither, it seems, does he. Although perhaps he does and is just playing tacky exploitative politics.







There are some countries that face horrendous terrorist threats to their existence, but not many.

I wish every voter and politician in the UK, USA, and Australia would read this….

Patriotism: First Refuge Of A Desperate Scoundrel


Different occasion, a few months earlier, similar imagery. Seems to be one fewer flag than today's display.
Different occasion, a few months earlier, similar imagery. Seems to be one fewer flag than today’s display.

I was going to write about Russian nuclear weapons…

But I just switched on the TV and saw our Prime Minister launch an economic policy initiative. What’s that got to do with this blog?

Well, the Prime Minister took the opportunity — unprompted, before the Q & A session — to chuck in unrelated references to national security, and maxed out the photo op by standing in front of seven large Ozzie flags. That was not happenstance. It was calculation.

He, and his minders, knows that in politics sloganeering about security is the gift that keeps on giving, especially to those without scruples. Especially if they look at the polls. It might seem like meaningless fluff, but it can be more than that. The cheapening of national security discourse, implicit or explicit, carries consequences. Waving the flag around for political advantage can sometimes — directly or indirectly —  mean people getting killed or maimed or traumatised.

And the PM implied that any one disagreeing  with him wanted to roll out a red carpet for terrorists! Which seems to suggest that they are traitors. Low-life politics.

Having got that out of my system, I’ll now get back to working on my post looking at Russian nuclear weapons…


But wait, there’s more. I shook my head: did the PM really say his opponents wanted to roll out the red carpet to terrorists? look at this (and remember this was a launch of economic policy). Yes. He did say it.

So, if  you vote Labor, or Green, or any one but Mr Flag-wrap Australia, it’s your fault if maniacs run around Australia cutting innocent people’s heads off. A vote for any one but the Liberal Party is a vote for Islamic State. You asked for it.  Don’t blame the Putin of Oz. Certainly don’t blame his party, the one that followed Washington into Iraq in 2003. That was the war to cap the war on terror. Oops. The illegal invasion boosted Al-Qaeda and then gave birth to IS; it also required a premature withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, reopening the door to the Taliban.

US Primacy & World Order: The Credibility Issue

Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman CVN 75 navigates the open waters of the Persian Gulf

US foreign policy is under considerable pressure. There’s a long list of almost routine problems (e.g., North Korea, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, failing states in Africa), a resurgent challenge to liberal democracy, and the longterm matter of climate change.

And within this setting are three issues which seem to be especially pressing and appear to directly impact on both US credibility and the maintenance of global order. These are: (1) the rise of Islamic State; (2) Russia’s threat to the Ukraine; and (3), Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Each case has unique origins, and each has a dynamic of its own. But one thing they all have in common is that the protagonists in Beijing, Moscow and IS are pushing the envelope, seeing what they can get away with. And, although they are mostly pushing against local opposition, they each see the US as being in their way and, in different forms, they each see Washington as an opponent.

In addition, each issue has the potential to redraw the map. That is the aim of Beijing, Moscow and IS. Consequently, the old-fashioned idea of geopolitical competition is on the agenda. Depending on how events unfold, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia might look quite different in ten years time. Of course, they might look better, but at the moment the worry is that they will look worse. And if that happens, there is the potential for significant unwanted spill-over effects.

These effects could include greater proliferation and arms racing, a wider disintegration of the state system in  North Africa and the Middle East, a further repositioning of Iran, worsening turmoil in Afghanistan and who-knows what in Pakistan. There is also the possibility of more direct confrontation between the US on the one hand and Russia and, or, China on the other hand. That type of confrontation could turn extremely scary.

If this doesn’t look bad enough, there is an extra headache for Washington here. This is a concern that the three issues (IS; Russia-Ukraine; and the South China Sea) might be somehow linked. How? The linkage is provided by the idea of America’s credibility as a Superpower.

Since 1945 it has been assumed that the US is the ultimate enforcer of world order. The assumption has often been framed simplistically, as a cliche of world affairs. But the idea had more than a grain of truth to it, and it certainly has had a strong grip on how the international system is conceptualised.

The implication has been that a diminution of US power, or a collapse of American and/or foreign belief in this power, would lead to a disastrous unravelling of world order. Never mind that it was sometimes Washington which broke the rules and disrupted the international system, most obviously in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Or that previous misadventures demonstrated that US power had its limits, most dramatically in the case of the Vietnam war of the 1960s and 70s. But despite this, the idea of the US as a keystone of world order has persisted.

Which means that US failure anywhere, or the perception of a US back-down anywhere, is considered by many to have serious implications for the big picture. A hairline fracture could open up and crack-apart the keystone — or so the theory goes. Which means the US has felt obliged to constantly prove the credibility of its power. Which means relatively little issues can be seen as Big Issues – which in turn can then make them become Big Issues.

We are about to see this sort of logic play out, yet again, in the US presidential campaign now getting underway (even though the election isn’t until the end of next year). As if the international arena is not difficult enough to manage, President Obama will also have to hold at bay domestic American noise on foreign policy. That’s what happens in a lively democracy. Expect US Republicans to throw every thing they can at Obama’s record (and, by implication, whoever ends up being the Democratic Party candidate in 2016). There will be allegations of weakness, lack of direction, lack of focus on US national interests, and appeasement. Some of the claims will be measured, but many others will likely be wildly stupid and damaging to America’s standing.

Then we will see a rehearsal, with contemporary twists, of the old American ideological battles between isolationism, internationalism, and unilateral assertiveness. Meanwhile, once again, US allies will get nervous about Washington becoming either too inward looking or too reckless in deploying American power: will it retreat, or over-step? Either would, it is feared, make bad situations worse.