Nuclear No First Use
What does No-First-Use (NFU) actually mean?
“No First Use” is a commitment to never use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances, whether as a preemptive attack or first strike, or in response to non-nuclear attack of any kind.
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 the existence of its nuclear arsenal so has no publicly known position.
Why advocate for global NFU commitments now?
The world has never faced so many crises that could escalate to nuclear conflict. In addition to the precarious situation on the Korean peninsula, we’re running acceptably high risks of nuclear weapons use between NATO and Russia, India and Pakistan, and the United States and China. In fact right now the chances that nuclear weapons will be used – intentionally, accidentally, or due to miscalculation – are the highest they’ve been since the worst days of the Cold War.
Establishing global NFU commitments would immediately make the world safer by resolving uncertainty about what a nuclear-armed country might do in a crisis, which removes pressure and incentive for any one country to “go nuclear” first in a crisis.
What are consequences of nuclear first use?
Any use of a nuclear weapon would invite massive retaliation. A recent study by Global Zero estimated US fatalities due to a Russian retaliation to a US nuclear first strike. It found 30% of the total population of the top 145 biggest cities in the United States – 21 million Americans – would die in a Russian nuclear counterattack. To put that in perspective, in the first 24 hours the US death toll would be 50 times greater than all American casualties in World War II.
Not to mention the horrific aftermath of nuclear war. A 2014 study shows that so-called “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, plunging temperatures and damaging the global food supply. Two billion people would be at risk of death by starvation.
How are No First Use commitments a step toward the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons?
Global No First Use would be an important step toward making nuclear weapons irrelevant to national security. These policies 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” that establishes greater trust among nuclear-armed countries and makes it easier to work together to reduce nuclear risks and ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons.
No First Use in the United States
What does current United States policy say about the first use of nuclear weapons?
The 2018 US 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.” This loose language holds open the possibility that nuclear weapons would be used in an initial attack (which can be ordered by the president, whose authority to use nuclear weapons is virtually limitless) or in response to a conventional, biological, chemical or cyber attack.
Who would believe a US NFU policy?
Making a NFU policy credible — establishing it as a commitment that other countries can count on — means going beyond simple declaratory statements. This would require meaningful changes to the kinds of nuclear weapons the United States builds and the way it deploys them. One tangible way to show your NFU policy means something is to take all nuclear weapons off high-alert, meaning they are no longer ready to launch instantly. Another is to eliminate all land-based nuclear missiles (also known as intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs), which are by definition nuclear first-strike weapons, and prioritize the kinds of systems that would be used only in response to a nuclear attack.
More recommendations for what the US nuclear arsenal could look like under a guiding principle of NFU can be found in Global Zero’s Alternative US Nuclear Posture Review.
How would adoption of a NFU policy affect national security? Don’t we need to keep all our options on the table to deter our enemies?
There exists no plausible circumstance in which the use of a nuclear weapon would be in the national security interests of the United States, American people, or US allies. A nuclear counterattack following a US first strike would be catastrophic, resulting in the deaths of millions of Americans and the total 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 very effective alternative means of countering those threats.
There is little evidence to suggest nuclear weapons are effective in deterring non-nuclear attacks, including biological and chemical use. If the United States suffered a non-nuclear attack, it is difficult to imagine any president considering using nuclear weapons — destroying entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people, damaging the environment for generations, spreading deadly radiation possibly to uninvolved countries — in retaliation.
Is there support for US adoption of NFU?
There is growing momentum for NFU in the United States. A 2016 poll showed at least two-thirds of Americans support NFU. In January 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 states, “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”
A number of former senior-level military commanders and government officials support US adoption of NFU, including former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General (ret.) James E. Cartwright, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry. In January 2017, Vice President Joe Biden stated the he and President Barack Obama “strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal.”
How would adoption of No First Use affect US commitments to its allies and partners? Would they be encouraged to develop their own nuclear arsenals?
NFU in no way reduces the ability of the United States to deter nuclear attacks on the US or its allies. Allies would be able to rely on the superior capabilities of US non-nuclear forces, which are sufficient to deal with threats to the US and its allies, including biological or chemical weapons threats. A NFU policy would also help allay apprehensions among some allies about the US using nuclear weapons first in a conflict. The first use of nuclear weapons against Russia or China would invite massive retaliation against the US and its allies. First use against lesser threats like North Korea could result in blanketing allies or others uninvolved in the conflict with deadly radioactive fallout.
A 2016 Global Zero study that looked at the potential for a NFU policy to encourage proliferation by US allies with extended deterrence agreements found no evidence that a country’s decision to remain non-nuclear was based on its expectation that the United States would conduct a nuclear first strike on its behalf. The reliability of commitments to second-strike and conventional (non-nuclear) defense were found to be more important to extended deterrence.
Is it true the US President has the sole authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons? What effect does NFU have on that authority?
Every American 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 or her decision. That means under the current system, one person has the power to start a nuclear war at any time, for any reason.
A legally-binding NFU policy would change that by making the first use of nuclear weapons illegal, clearly limiting the circumstances under which a president’s nuclear launch order could be executed.
What can I do to make No First Use the policy of the United States?
Global Zero is working every day to make No First Use a reality all of the nuclear-armed countries of the world, including the United States. If you’d like to support the work of our experts and advocates, please chip in here. Your donation will fund our work to educate policymakers, the public and the press, and help build a broad base of political support for this critical next step on the road to zero.
If you’re interested in rolling up your sleeves and getting more involved, check out Beyond the Bomb, a grassroots organization building a people-powered movement to prevent nuclear war. You can sign the No First Use pledge to let your representatives know where you stand and get updates about key moments when your voice will make the biggest impact on your elected officials.