The U.S. military appears to believe it can somehow prevail in a nuclear war, according to a Pentagon document that was briefly made public, and has plans for using atomic weapons in “small and limited” capacities in order to create “strategic stability” for itself in the world.
The document, Nuclear Operations (pdf), describes the current political and military environment and the challenges faced by the Pentagon in strategizing how to most effectively deploy nuclear weapons in war. It was first reported on by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which downloaded and released the document on June 19.
The Pentagon published the document on June 11 and removed it earlier this week. In a statement to The Guardian, a Defense Department official said the document was made private “because it was determined that this publication, as is with other joint staff publications, should be for official use only.”
“Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” the document reads. “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.”
That passage was referred to as “Strangelovian” by FAS government secrecy project director Steven Aftergood. It’s an appropriate descriptor given the report’s third chapter, “Planning and Targeting,” opens with a quote from cold war theorist Herman Kahn:
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.
Kahn was an inspiration for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr. Strangelove.
In comment to The Guardian, Aftergood said that the document is “unsettling” in its approach to nuclear weapons because the language of the report indicates the Pentagon is treating nuclear weapons as an offensive tactical advantage, not simply as a deterrent.
“That kind of thinking itself can be hazardous,” said Aftergood. “It can make that sort of eventuality more likely instead of deterring it.”
FAS’s publication of the Pentagon document comes just days after the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released a report (pdf) on the state of military armaments and weaponry across the world. SIPRI found that “despite an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2018, all nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals,” making nuclear conflict more likely than than the year before.
“We are no longer in the classic strategy of deterrence by the accumulation of nuclear warheads,” SIPRI fellow Hans M. Kristensen told Euronews.
In his comments to the continental news outlet, Kristensen ticked off a number of threats to world peace presented by nuclear weapons:
The US withdrawal from the Middle East Non-Proliferation Treaty and the new plans for the renewal of the nuclear arsenal that President Donald Trump has brought to Congress, as well as the conflict between Washington and Iran, are mentioned as other elements of instability in the global balance, prompting Kristensen to believe that the risk of a potential nuclear conflict has increased.
In remarks to The Guardian, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation senior policy director Alexandra Bell said the document’s publication was “both tone-deaf and disorganized” and that the current climate of tension between the U.S. and Iran made the release of the report potentially dangerous and destabilizing.
“Posting a document about nuclear operations and then promptly deleting it shows a lack of messaging discipline and a lack of strategy,” said Bell. “Further, at a time of rising nuclear tensions, casually postulating about the potential upsides of a nuclear attack is obtuse in the extreme.”
In a tweet, GrayZone founder and journalist Max Blumenthal sarcastically reflected on what the document revealed about U.S. foreign policy.
“Very reassuring that the Pentagon thinks it could win a nuclear war,” Blumenthal wrote.