Nuclear No First Use
What does No-First-Use (NFU) mean?
By adopting a policy of No First Use, a country commits to never use nuclear weapons first.
Where do nuclear-armed countries stand on No First Use?
China is the only nuclear-armed country to have an unconditional NFU policy. India maintains a policy of NFU with exceptions for a response to chemical or biological attacks.
France, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States maintain policies that permit the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Israel does not acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and, therefore, has no official policy.
Why advocate for global NFU commitments now?
The world has never faced so many nuclear flashpoints simultaneously. With growing tensions between US/NATO and Russia, India and Pakistan, the US and China in the South China Sea and fragile relations on the Korean peninsula, the risk that nuclear weapons will be used – intentionally, accidentally, or due to miscalculation – is the highest it’s been since the height of the Cold War.
Establishing global NFU commitments, would immediately make the world safer by removing unpredictability about what a nuclear-armed power might do in a crisis, reducing the risk of miscalculation that could lead to all-out nuclear war.
What are consequences of nuclear first use?
Any use of a nuclear weapon would invite massive retaliation. A recent study by Global Zero estimated U.S. fatalities due to a Russian response-in-kind to a U.S. nuclear first strike. It found 30% of the total population of the top 145 biggest cities in the United States – 21 million Americans – would perish in a Russian nuclear counterattack. To put that in perspective, in the first 24 hours the U.S. death toll would be 50 times greater than all American casualties in World War II.
Not to mention the residual effects of nuclear war. A 2014 study showed a “limited” nuclear war in South Asia, in which 100 nuclear weapons are used, would have global consequences. Millions of tons of smoke would be sent into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to plunge and threatening the global food supply. Two billion people would be at risk of starvation.
How are No First Use commitments a step toward the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons?
Global No First Use would be a historic step toward making nuclear weapons irrelevant to national security. The move would strip nuclear weapons of value in the eyes of military planners, enable future nuclear disarmament negotiations, and accelerate the dismantling of these weapons. It would also serve as a confidence-building measure, building trust and encouraging nuclear weapons countries to take further steps to reduce nuclear risk and ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons.
To learn more on how No First Use fits into the path to global zero, check out our Action Plan here.
A U.S. No-First-Use Policy
What does current United States policy say about the first use of nuclear weapons?
The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) maintains the policy “the United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners,” leaving the door open for nuclear weapon use in response to a conventional, biological or chemical attack.
Who would believe a U.S. NFU policy?
Establishment of a credible NFU commitment would go beyond simple rhetoric, requiring changes to the way the United States structures its nuclear force. One tangible way to show dedication to NFU is to take all nuclear weapons off high-alert, so as to increase the time it takes to launch. Another is to eliminate all silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are by definition nuclear first-strike weapons, and prioritize retaliatory capabilities.
More nuclear force recommendations for a strategy based on NFU can be found in Global Zero’s Alternative U.S. Nuclear Posture Review.
How would adoption of a NFU policy affect national security? Doesn’t the U.S. need ambiguity when it comes to nuclear weapon use in order to deter non-nuclear aggression?
There is scant evidence to suggest nuclear weapons are effective in deterring non-nuclear attacks, including biological and chemical use. Additionally, if the United States was attacked by non-nuclear forces, it is difficult to imagine any president considering using nuclear weapons — leveling cities, damaging the environment, spreading radioactivity possibly to uninvolved countries, killing tens or hundreds of thousands — in retaliation.
There exists no plausible circumstance in which nuclear first use would be in the national security interest of the United States. A response in-kind to a U.S. nuclear first strike would be catastrophic, resulting in the deaths of millions of Americans and the devastation of economic and social infrastructure. Any first use against lesser threats, such as countries or terrorist groups with chemical and biological weapons, would be gratuitous; there are alternative means of countering those threats.
Is there support for U.S. adoption of NFU?
A number of former senior level military and government officials support U.S. adoption of NFU, including former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General (ret.) James E. Cartwright and Ambassador Thomas Pickering.
There is growing momentum for NFU in the United States. A 2016 YouGov/Huffington Post poll showed at least two-thirds of Americans support a no first use policy. In 2019, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Representative Adam Smith (D-WA9) introduced the No First Use Act (S.272/H.R.921) which simply states, “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”
How would U.S. adoption of a No-First-Use policy affect U.S. security commitments to its allies and partners? Would they be encouraged to develop their own nuclear arsenals?
A NFU policy would in no way reduce the ability of the United States to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S. or our allies. Allies would be able to rely on the superior capabilities of non-nuclear U.S. forces, which are sufficient to deal with threats to the U.S. and its allies, including biological or chemical weapons threats.
A 2016 Global Zero brief that looked at the potential for a U.S. no-first-use policy to encourage proliferation amongst allies with extended deterrence agreements found no evidence that “the decision to remain a non-nuclear power or pursue a nuclear capability rested on the expectation of a first use defense from the U.S.” The reliability of commitments to second-strike and conventional defense were found to be more important to extended deterrence.
Is it true the U.S. President has the sole authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons? What effect does a NFU policy have on that authority?
The president has sole authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons. No one — not Congress, not the secretary of defense, not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — can veto his decision.
A legally-binding NFU policy would limit the circumstances in which the president can order the launch of nuclear weapons, making the first use of these weapons illegal.