Throughout the nuclear age, presidents have allowed their senior commanders to plan for the first use of nuclear weapons. Contingency plans were drawn to initiate first strikes to repel an invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union, defeat China and North Korea, take out chemical and biological weapons and conduct other missions.
A no-first-use policy would also reduce the risks of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. By scrapping the vulnerable land-based missile force, any need for launching on warning disappears. Strategic bombers can be sent aloft on warning of an apparent incoming attack, which may or may not be a false alarm, and stay up until the situation clarifies. Strategic submarines are extremely survivable and exert no pressure on decision-makers to fire them quickly. They can patrol for months waiting for instructions. Both bombers and submarines are also less vulnerable to cyberwarfare than the strategic missiles on land.
Finally, no-first-use would help ensure that democratically elected officials maintained control over nuclear weapons. Savings from reducing the nuclear force could be invested in fortifying command centers and communications networks, which would better protect the president and ensure the continuity of government during a crisis. This would not only fortify deterrence but also reduce the current possibility of a president’s losing control over nuclear operations at an early stage of conflict.
Beyond those benefits, we believe a no-first-use policy could catalyze multilateral negotiations to reduce nuclear arms, discourage nonnuclear states from developing them and reinforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
China and India adopted this policy long ago, and the American people overwhelmingly support it, according to a recent survey. In that poll, two-thirds say the United States should use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack or not at all, while just 18 percent think that first-use may be justified sometimes.
President Obama would be wise to follow China’s example. As commander in chief, he can adopt no-first-use overnight and lead the way in establishing it as a global norm among all of the nine countries with nuclear weapons. The next president ought to stay that course. Our nation, our allies and indeed the world will be better and safer for it.
Read more at End the First-Use Policy for Nuclear Weapons