National Security Science in its December 2014 issue takes a hard look at US nuclear weapons policy after 1991. Excerpts below:

The Cold War began in 1945 with the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II and officially ended in December 1989 with a joint declaration in Malta by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev…While many factors contributed to stability during this time, the contribution of nuclear weapons is undeniable.

… for over 40 years following World War II, opposing U.S. and Soviet forces were poised for war in Europe but remained fixed in place. Why? Amassing adequate conventional forces in Western Europe to counter Soviet forces had been politically, economically, and geographically impossible. The peak size of the U.S. Army during the Cold War was 18 divisions. The Soviets had approximately 200 divisions. Western Europe could not have been protected from Soviet aggression without the balance of power brought by the omnipresent American nuclear weapons.

How Deterrence Worked

During the Cold War, much was written on specific factors necessary to achieve deterrence. These requisite factors always included the following: (1) maintaining an acceptable degree of strategic parity between the states involved, (2) having confidence that weapons involved in deterrence would function as designed if called upon to do so, (3) avoiding significant surprises regarding advancements in the nuclear capabilities of foreign nations, and (4) ensuring that intelligence for the U.S. decision makers would be of the highest caliber possible. Prompt and accurate detection of foreign launch preparations and/or actual launches was an important aspect of this latter paradigm. Distinguishing Soviet exercises from actual preparations for a preemptive attack was equally important. Let us examine each of these in turn.

Nuclear weapons work without being detonated. They kept the Warsaw Pact’s armies at bay for almost 50 years.

Confidence That Your Weapons Will Work

Confidence on both sides that their respective nuclear weapons would function properly was achieved through well-funded nuclear weapons physics and engineering laboratories—staffed with scientists and engineers of the highest caliber—and through well-planned nuclear weapons testing programs. These tests were originally in the atmosphere and later underground. Ironically, radioactive debris from the atmospheric tests provided the other party with significant insights into the testing party’s technology.

No Big Surprises, Please!

During the Cold War, avoiding being surprised by some advancement in the nuclear capability of a foreign nation was considered essential, and this fact drove the development and use of many highly advanced technologies to gather information of the highest quality. This strategy gave rise to many critical innovations, including the Atomic Energy Detection System, which looked for nuclear weapon detonations; worldwide signal intelligence, including communications intelligence and electronic intelligence; reconnaissance systems, including the U-2 spy planes and Corona photographic satellites; and missile-launch detection systems. Of course, human-gathered intelligence was critical too, and much of what are viewed as “classical” espionage activities focused on gathering intelligence on nuclear capabilities.

Europe has not had a major war for 69 years.
How Deterrence Is Working Today: Cold War Lessons Forgotten in a Hot, New World

With the end of the Cold War, the world political landscape has become much more convoluted and unpredictable and dangerous…A concomitant surge has also arisen in reemerging historical conflicts, regional “warlordism,” lethal violence by nonstate actors, and international competition for resources, especially energy.

Against this new backdrop, terrorists with the declared goal of acquiring nuclear weapons are being supported directly by nations actively pursuing such capabilities themselves in direct violation of international agreements, for example, Hezbollah receiving support from Iran. Other jihadist terrorists, some of them emboldened by “fatwas,” are looking for opportunities to acquire nuclear weapon materials directly through theft or diversion.

Russia’s recent actions to demonstrate its independence, military prowess, and new economic power are troubling. These actions include probes by Russian strategic bombers of U.S. naval operations and air defenses around Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Great Britain; large joint exercises involving Russian and Chinese armed forces; Russia’s continued support of Iran’s nuclear ambitions; explicit nuclear threats against Poland for accepting a missile defense base on Polish territory; the military incursions into the Republic of Georgia; and more recently, the illegal seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine.

Russian Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky has bluntly stated Russia’s policy on the use of nuclear weapons: “We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to clearly understand. . . that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used preventively, including the use of nuclear weapons.

“Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.”

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