Critiquing the NPR’s New Nuclear Missions

  • Steve Fetter
  • Charles L. Glaser
Part of the Initiatives in Strategic Studies: Issues and Policies book series (ISSIP)


This chapter explores the most controversial aspect of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR): the identification of possible new roles and missions for U.S. nuclear weapons.1 The NPR lists three ways in which the United States might use nuclear weapons in future conflicts: (1) to destroy underground facilities that house weapons of mass destruction, leadership, and command and control assets; (2) to defeat chemical and biological agents; and (3) to attack mobile and relocatable targets. Although the United States long considered many or all of these missions vis-à-vis the Soviet Union (and now, presumably, Russia), the NPR states that “new capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats,” which presumably refers to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, which are apparently mentioned in the document. As a result of the NPR, an “advanced concepts initiative” was established to explore “possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility in the stockpile; improved earth penetrating weapons (EPWs) to counter the increased use of potential adversaries of hardened and deeply buried facilities; and warheads that reduce collateral damage.” According to the NPR, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Nuclear Security Agency will “jointly review potential programs to provide nuclear capabilities, and identify opportunities for further study, including assessments of whether nuclear testing would be required to field such warheads.”2


Nuclear Weapon Nuclear Force Chemical Weapon Biological Weapon Ballistic Missile 
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  1. 15.
    On uncertainty about the effects of nuclear threats in the Gulf War see Scott D. Sagan, “The Commitment Trap: Why the United States Should Not Use Nuclear Threats to Deter Biological and Chemical Weapons Attacks,” International Security 24, no. 4 (Spring 2000): 91–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 17.
    For a more detailed analysis of this issue see Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter, “National Missile Defense and the Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” International Security 26, no. 1 (Summer 2001): 66–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 18.
    Steve Fetter, “Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction: What Is the Threat? What Should Be Done?” International Security 16, no. 1 (1991): 5–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 23.
    see Nina Tannewald, “The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis for Nuclear Non-Use,” International Organization 53, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 433–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Elizabeth Kier and Jonathan Mercer, “Setting Precedents in Anarchy: Military Intervention and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” International Security 20, no. 4 (Spring 1996): 77–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 24.
    On U.S. nuclear doctrine see Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983); on the relationship between extended deterrence and U.S. counterforce requirements see Charles L. Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), chap. 7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 25.
    See, for example, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997), which calls for shifting to no-first-use to support U.S. nonproliferation goals (71), and argues that the practice of nuclear deterrence can fuel proliferation by, among other reasons, “lending respectability to reliance on nuclear deterrence.”Google Scholar
  8. 26.
    For example, Thomas C. Schelling, “The Role of Nuclear Weapons,” in L. Benjamin Ederington and Michael J. Mazarr, eds., Turning Point: The Gulf War and U.S. Military Strategy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 113, argues that “the inhibition on any president’s authorizing the use of nuclear weapons was already far stronger than any no-first-use declaration [or even treaty] could make it; an official announcement of a no-first-use policy would have the same effect as adding a hemp rope to an anchor chain.”Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey A. Larsen 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steve Fetter
  • Charles L. Glaser

There are no affiliations available

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