The Pentagon Revealed Its Nuclear War Strategy and It's Terrifying

'The United States has always sought to use its nuclear weapons for more than deterrence despite protestations to the contrary.'
dr. stangelove
George C. Scott plays the role of General Buck Turgidson in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Image: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Pentagon published the “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s website last week, then pulled the document. The 60 page paper is a look at how the Pentagon views nuclear weapons, the circumstances under which it might use them, and how it might fight after a nuclear detonation.

The “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” vanished from the Joint Chiefs website, but not before the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)—a non-profit that uses science to study national and international security threats—archived it.


Nuclear war policy is terrifying. These weapons have the power to destroy all life on Earth, but the Pentagon has thought long and hard about how to deploy these weapons in smaller engagements. The leaked document is just further proof of that.

“There is plenty of goofy shit in there, but I should note that it’s the same goofy shit that has underpinned nuclear strategy for decades, just without the good sense to gloss over certain things,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said in an email. “This Administration insists on saying the quiet part out loud.”

“Integration of nuclear weapons employment with conventional and special operations forces is essential to the success of any mission or operation,” the document said. The United States doesn't have a “no first use” policy when it comes to nuclear weapons and—according to the “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations”—the US is prepared to use nukes in ways typically reserved for conventional munitions.

A section of the document titled “Nuclear Operations” detailed what war might look like in a post-nuclear detonation world.

“The spectrum of nuclear warfare may range from tactical application, to limited regional use, to global employment by friendly forces and/or enemies,” the document said. “Employment of nuclear weapons can radically alter or accelerate the course of a campaign. A nuclear weapon could be brought into the campaign as a result of perceived failure in a conventional campaign, potential loss of control or regime, or to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more-favorable terms.”


Continuing the theme of turning nuclear weapons into everyday-use weapons, the document also suggests that commanders in the field could suggest nuclear targets. “The [military commanders] can nominate potential targets to consider for nuclear options that would support [military commander’s] objectives in ongoing operations,” the document said.

“The United States has always sought to use its nuclear weapons for more than deterrence despite protestations to the contrary,” Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico who studies the culture of nuclear weapons, told me over Twitter. “[The document is] a continuation of long-standing beliefs in United States’s thinking about the nigh-magical fungibility and compellent power of nuclear weapons.”

“The United States plans to use nuclear weapons in a broad range of scenarios and against a broad range of targets even when conventional weapons would work as well or better,” Lewis said. “The [document] makes clear that remains the case, referencing ‘a broad range of targets’ for nuclear nuclear forces and talking about the importance of using nuclear weapons for war termination.”

“What leapt out at me is the frank discussion of nuclear warfighting—which is in fact the meaning of ‘Nuclear Operations,'” Steven Aftergood, director of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy—told me in an email. “It begins with the presumption that deterrence will have failed.”

Aftergood said we shouldn’t overstate the document’s importance. “The document is not radically different from similar doctrinal publications,” he said. “Nor does it represent a new policy departure by the Department of Defense…but in today's context of proposals for new nuclear weapons, expiring arms control treaties, and erratic political leadership, the new doctrine takes on an alarming cast.”

The world feels closer to a nuclear conflict today than at any time in living memory. Both the United States and Russia are committed to modernizing its nuclear arsenal. Russia has made headlines showing off hypersonic missiles, nuclear powered torpedos, and nuclear powered cruise missiles. Both the US and Russia have pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a Cold War-era agreement that prohibited certain types of intercontinental ballistic missiles. New START, another treaty which limits the amount of nuclear warheads each country can have, will expire in February 5, 2021 unless the US and Russia agree to extend it until 2026. They might not.

“The traditional view is that preparing for war is the best way to avert it,” Aftergood said. “But this would be more credible if the government were also pursuing reductions in nuclear arsenals and other peace building initiatives.”