Why a ‘no-first-use’ US nuclear weapons policy is a bad idea

Alexi Heazle | Indo-Pacific Fellow

The Biden administration has signalled that it will conduct a major review of US nuclear posture and strategic policy in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Of particular significance is his indication of support for a ‘no-first-use’ (NFU) or ‘sole purpose’ declaratory policy for America’s use of nuclear weapons.

In 2017, he stated that ‘given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense’. And in 2020, the Democratic Party platform announced that ‘the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter—and, if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack’. Biden also stated at a campaign event in 2019 that he has supported a NFU policy for over twenty years.

This signalling by Biden is unsurprising, given his ongoing commitments to global non-proliferation and his values-based foreign policy, focusing on multilateralism to collectively address global issues as a shift away from an ‘America First’ focused Trump administration.

Another less referenced motivator are constraints present within the US budgetary environment. One projection puts the cost for current nuclear weapons spending plans at an estimated US$1.7 trillion over the next 30 years, taking funds away from much needed contributions to housing, education and healthcare in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A US that is committed to a NFU policy is only able to employ its nuclear forces after an adversary has used their own nuclear forces against it. This approach, then, is great news for America’s adversaries, as they can be aware of the point at which their actions would elicit a US nuclear response with exact specificity.

This is the reason why many nuclear-armed states, including Russia, the UK, and presently the US, choose to subscribe to a strategy of calculated ambiguity. The logic behind such an approach is that a state’s adversaries are far less likely to challenge its interests and engage in aggression if they cannot be certain of when their actions would spark a nuclear response and impose unacceptable costs.

Biden subscribing to a NFU policy removes this element of ambiguity from America’s strategic approach and makes the prospect of US adversaries like China and Russia behaving more aggressively to prosecute their regional interests more likely.

This is particularly concerning given the highly diverse and unique range of international security challenges Biden will face over his first term. America’s primary competitor, China, has and continues to develop a range of kinetic and non-kinetic military capabilities to deter the US from regional escalation in assistance of allies in a conflict or crisis. China’s military modernisation has allowed it to gain at least regional parity in its conventional military capabilities – this is particularly relevant when examining the implications for Taiwan, where anxieties about a successful Chinese assault remain high.

Russia is also engaged in modernisation of both its conventional and nuclear forces in ways which pose continuing challenges to US security and its ability to project influence in key regions. And the threat of North Korea inflicting damage on US allies like South Korea and Japan via conventional or nuclear means is significant.

A congressionally mandated report from 2018 puts this simply, predicting that the US military could lose its next interstate war, citing that America has been unable to leverage existing and emerging technologies as effectively as China and Russia, signalling a crisis of US power. Given the emergence of a conventional gap between the capabilities of the US and its adversaries, guaranteeing the security of the US and its partners through the deterrent value of nuclear weapons becomes a necessity.

A NFU policy that removes ambiguity makes strategic calculations significantly easier for China, Russia and other US adversaries, who are better placed to utilise their conventional forces to pursue regional interests without fear of American nuclear retaliation.

Although proponents of a NFU policy argue that current US policy and the existence of a robust nuclear force lowers the threshold for nuclear use, the current approach in fact decreases the likelihood of a devastating nuclear crisis. Strong and credible deterrence on the part of the US (which is undermined by a NFU posture) decreases the likelihood of a regional contingency caused by adversary aggression, therefore lowering the overall likelihood of nuclear escalation.

Importantly, a NFU policy sends bad signals to America’s allies and partners. Extended nuclear deterrence on behalf of the United States towards its allies and partners only works if those countries believe that they will be safe without their own nuclear weapons, and if they genuinely believe that the US is a credible guarantor of their security.

A NFU policy would place this working assumption of extended nuclear deterrence into doubt, as it would imply that US security guarantees do not include employment of all of its military capabilities, unless those under the nuclear umbrella are attacked first. US partners that interpret the NFU policy as a weakening of resolve to defend them are more likely to contemplate the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons – paradoxically taking Biden further away from his original non-proliferation ambitions.

Indeed, there is a reason why Obama chose not to walk this path when he pondered the same question for the 2010 NPR. He ultimately decided that the constraints such an approach would pose on US strategic action would outweigh any potential benefits. Given that Biden now faces a more uncertain and threatening security environment than that faced by his former boss, his choice should be clear.

Alexi Heazle is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.