Nuclear Deterrence

What is nuclear deterrence?

The principle of nuclear deterrence states that a country’s possession of nuclear weapons discourages other countries from using nuclear weapons.

From the perspective of a country, nuclear deterrence operates on a simple promise: if you use nuclear weapons against us, we’ll use them against you.


What is MAD?

MAD stands for “Mutually Assured Destruction,” a belief that a full-scale nuclear war would result in the annihilation of all participants. MAD is a concept that originated during the Cold War and represents nuclear deterrence taken to the extreme.

Again from a country’s perspective, the theory of mutually assured destruction states: if nuclear weapons are used against us, we’ll retaliate with a massive nuclear strike and both of us will be destroyed.  


Does nuclear deterrence respond to the current threats?

Put simply, no. Terrorists and non-state actors are not deterred by the number of nuclear weapons in a country’s arsenal. To the contrary, those weapons may become targets for theft or attack.

Nuclear deterrence has also failed to prevent countries from engaging in low-level conventional conflicts with other states. Russia’s territorial aggression in Crimea illustrates the inability of the vast arsenals of NATO members to prevent non-nuclear conflicts.

The current U.S. nuclear arsenal wasn’t built to counter these threats. Rather than reducing the risk of conflict, large arsenals of nuclear weapons create new threats by increasing the likelihood of accidents and miscalculation.

Globalization, active diplomacy, and traditional nuclear deterrence ensure that a full scale intentional nuclear attack from a country is exceedingly unlikely.


How many nuclear weapons are required for deterrence?

Far fewer than the 4500 in the current U.S. arsenal.

Since 1991, the United States has dismantled nearly twice the number of nuclear warheads (9,866) than currently exist in the arsenal (4,500) with no loss to deterrence. President Obama has said that roughly 1,000 weapons would be necessary to sustain a deterrent. While there isn’t an exact “magic number” of nuclear weapons needed to retain a credible deterrent, thousands more could be dismantled without any negative consequences for deterrence.


Read more about Nuclear Deterrence: 

“American Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Minimal Deterrence Strategy”