A 60-page PDF report recently published by the Pentagon has caused quite a stir among nuclear proliferation experts and atomic weapons scholars. The document has attracted so much attention due to its controversial content, the authors cited, due to the fact that it is the first document of its kind in 14 years, and also because the file was almost immediately taken down from the websites of the Department of Defense. This peculiar episode is further confirmation that nuclear weapons have once again become part of the military strategies of the great powers in recent years. But it also says a lot about the complex power games within the most important department in the United States.

A nuclear strategy instruction manual

On 11 June ,the US joint chiefs of staff published a document entitled Nuclear Operations. According to the preface, the document sets out the fundamental principles and guidelines for planning, executing and assessing nuclear operations. Last year, the Trump administration released the latest Nuclear Posture Review, which highlighted the new needs of America’s nuclear arsenal, the risks from other powers and the needs to be met, notably the production of low-yield warheads. But if that document represented a sort of theoretical statement of intent, the one published by the joint chiefs of staff represents a hypothetical instruction manual.

Experts were surprised by some very specific details, demonstrating how America’s nuclear doctrine could slip dangerously from one of deterrence to attack in the coming years. Perhaps the most controversial passage is found in the third chapter. The Pentagon appears to be convinced that by using nuclear weapons, conditions can be created for achieving decisive results by re-establishing strategic stability.

This passage is essential to understanding the paradigm shift that has occurred. There are officials at the Pentagon who are convinced that it is not only possible to fight a nuclear war, but that such a conflict is “winnable”. The document goes on to say that specifically:

The use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict

A few pages on, the authors cite the Art of War by Sun Tzu, namely that it is a doctrine of war not to assume the enemy will not come, but rather to rely on one’s readiness to meet him; not to presume that he will not attack, but rather to make one’s self invincible. The document reiterates that nuclear operations include not just deterrence but also “strike, assessment and return to stability,” and also that it is possible to win a nuclear conflict.

Regional use of nuclear warfare

The document then moves from the realm of theory, listing the practical aspects to be considered in the event of a nuclear attack: yield selection, height of burst, fallout, and weapon system selection, whether by gravity bomb, intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles. But the report is not just a detailed list of instructions for “decision-makers”. It goes much further. It analyses a series of aspects, such as whether troops or the command and control systems would survive a nuclear attack.

In line with the Nuclear Posture Review, the authors demonstrate that they share the principle that nuclear weapons, despite their complexity, are very much like any other type of weapon. In the Cold War years, possible thermonuclear conflict was seen as something taking place on a large scale, with warheads being fired from the two opposing blocs. But the report is clear that small-scale, regional nuclear warfare is a possibility.

The quotes used to open each chapter caused a few eyebrows to raise among non-proliferation experts, particularly a quote from Herman Kahn. Known as a futurist and expert on military strategies, he worked for many years as an analyst for the RAND Corporation, and postulated the notion of a “winnable nuclear war”. Between the 1970s and 1980s he wrote: “My guess is that nuclear weapons will be used sometime in the next hundred years, but that their use is much more likely to be small and limited than widespread and unconstrained.” Unsettlingly, Kahn was the inspiration behind the character of Dr. Strangelove, the eponymous character in Stanley Kubrick’s film.


The document was taken down shortly after publication without any particular explanation. The spokesman of the joint chiefs of staff told the Guardian that the document was taken down because it was confidential and should be for official use only. The fact that these leaks appear and are then removed shows that there is a degree of confusion within the Pentagon. The department is still rudderless. Donald Trump withdrew the nomination of Patrick Shanahan, who had replaced Jim Mattis, and nominated Mark Esper instead, but it is still unclear whether the appointment will receive Senate confirmation. This is all taking place against the backdrop of rising tensions with Iran, and escalating nuclear tensions across the globe.

The evolution of the nuclear scenario

This new nuclear doctrine comes at a time when the US, under Donald Trump, is working to reformulate their role as a nuclear power. Last year, the White House withdrew from two nuclear treaties, one with Iran, and the INF treaty signed with Russia in 1987. More than a few hawks in the administration, John Bolton chief among them, would also like to dismantle the US-Russia New START treaty signed in 2010, and in force until 2021, which limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads. It is also true, however, that despite the treaty called for by the Obama administration, both Washington and Moscow have worked, and continue to work, to carry out a vast plan to modernise their arsenals, from warheads to control and command systems. There are also risks arising from the new global players, notably China.


Translation by Stephen Dinkeldein