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Nuclear Threats from Small States

Authored by Mr. Jerome H. Kahan. | June 1994

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Conclusion 1: The Problem Is Real.

Third World states are acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Before the year 2000, the world might well see one or more of these states using nuclear weapons in a regional setting. It is difficult to assume otherwise, given the potential for conflict and the political instabilities surrounding these emerging nuclear states, combined with the technically unsophisticated characteristics of some small nuclear forces. The prospect of regional nuclear use creates risks to U.S. security interests. Our forces, citizens, and allies would be gravely endangered. Global stability also could be jeopardized once the barrier against nuclear use is penetrated.

Conclusion 2: Planning Is Essential.

U.S. policymakers need to focus on how to dissuade small nuclear states from actually using their weapons or threatening such use in an attempt to coerce others. Declaratory policies warning such states to eschew nuclear use need to be backed by concrete military planning to develop capabilities to deter, protect against, and, if necessary, destroy hostile Third World nuclear forces. Special counterproliferation strategies and force packages should be developed. Although we must retain powerful nuclear forces of our own, we should emphasize acquiring offensive conventional forces that have effective counterforce potential as well as developing credible theater missile defenses. It is not correct to assume that such capabilities would automatically be subsumed within a force structure designed to deter larger nuclear threats or to prevail in major regional contingencies facing conventionally armed opponents.9

Conclusion 3: Execution Is Difficult.

Even with careful and high priority counterproliferation planning, U.S. policymakers would face difficult choices in dealing with Third World nuclear crises. It would be particularly difficult to judge whether to intervene and when to move beyond deterrence and actively apply U.S. military power in an attempt to disarm an enemy's nuclear force before it is used. U.S. leaders, under the pressure of a fast-breaking crisis, would experience "Hobson's choice" in balancing the failure to act early enough to head off nuclear use against the failure of acting too early and precipitating such use. Once nuclear use occurs, how to respond militarily would create a new set of uncertain and unpleasant choices. Whether available theater defensive systems can help resolve these dilemmas and offer acceptable policy options remains to be seen.

Conclusion 4: Think About the "New" Unthinkable.10

Solutions to the problem of dealing with Third World nuclear threats are not obvious, whether approached from diplomatic, economic, or military perspectives. To move towards a solution requires far more attention be paid to addressing this problem than has been the case in recent years. There needs to be a recognition that the challenges posed by Third World nuclear states create differences in kind, not simply differences in degree, compared with both traditional cold war nuclear challenges and the conventional contingencies currently driving our strategic planning. The stakes, risks, constraints, and uncertainties associated with this emerging nuclear problem are unique. Mistakes are costly and largely irreversible, even if limited nuclear use occurs in a distant regional setting. The United States should not face this challenge alone, but should exert leadership in organizing the industrialized democracies to coordinate counterproliferation strategies.


9. The Defense Department, however, has organized an effort to identify technologies and systems that can contribute to U.S. counterproliferation strategy. See "DOD Working Groups To Study Counterproliferation Technologies," Inside the Pentagon, January 20, 1994, p.7.

10. With thanks to Herman Kahn, who coined the phrase "Thinking About the Unthinkable" in preparing ourselves to deal with the risk of a U.S.-USSR nuclear war. For a book well ahead of its time in thinking about the "new" unthinkable, see Rodney Jones, Small Nuclear Forces and U.S. Security Policy, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1984. For a recent assessment, see Robert Blackwill and Albert Carnesale, eds, Coping with New Nuclear Nations, New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994.