Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Kelly Lundeen
On April 15 Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Representative Adam Smith, D-Wash., re-introduced a bill declaring that the United States would “not use nuclear weapons first.”
“This bill would strengthen deterrence while reducing the chance of nuclear use due to miscalculation or misunderstanding,” Rep. Smith said. Smith’s construction is mistaken. A no-first-use law would in fact re-establish deterrence. Today’s Pentagon plans to strike first with nuclear weapons are the destabilizing and terrifying opposite. A first strike is what deterrence is supposed to prevent.
The effect of a no-first-use law would be that in a conflict situation there would be no danger of surprise nuclear attacks, which unnecessarily escalate tensions. An “opponent” receiving warnings of an incoming missile could feel reassured that the weapon isn’t nuclear and would not have to consider responding with immediate nuclear retaliation. However, critics point out that countries potentially targeted with US nuclear weapons would have to trust the US no-first-use pledge.
If the no-first-use bill passed, it would follow in the footsteps of four of the eight other nuclear-armed states. China started a trend in 1964 making a pledge, which it has reaffirmed many times, “not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” Additionally, China has called for an international no-first-use treaty among the nine nuclear-armed states, which would constitute a significant move toward keeping the weapons from ever being used again.
In 1998, India adopted a no-first-use pledge, and in 2016 North Korea made the same commitment. In a 2018 statement by Vladmir Putin, Russia declared that it would use nuclear weapons only as retaliation. Even though the promise was reported by the AP, and the other pledges have all been covered in mainstream media, they are not often considered effective commitments, which raises the question of their usefulness.
The new no-first-use bill is literally 14 words long, leaving questions about implementation unanswered. If Congress’s policy of no-first-use becomes law, who enforces the law: Congress, the president, or the military? For other countries to believe that a US pledge has been made in good faith and will continue under changing circumstances, the law would need to be backed up with structural changes to the nuclear arsenal. Many of the weapons would need to be dismantled since they were built primarily for first-strike capability. The purpose of the 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles is to destroy “opposing” nuclear forces before they are launched, which would also cause deaths in the millions. They could be taken off hair-trigger alert and decommissioned. Air- and sea-based nuclear missiles and bombs could be physically separated from bombers and submarines, as China has done.
Of course, a no-first-use policy is common sense, and a cheaper policy than the status quo. However, if the US wants to pave the path to true security, all 5,550 nuclear warheads must be decommissioned and subject to a never-use policy.
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Apr. 15, 2021; AP, “Putin: Russia would only use its nuclear arms in retaliation,” Oct. 18, 2018; Global Zero, Sept. 2018; The Independent, “North Korea will not use its nuclear weapons first, Kim Jong-un tells Congress,” May 8, 2016