WASHINGTON — Two key Democratic lawmakers reintroduced legislation Thursday that would make it U.S. policy not to use nuclear weapons first.
Opponents, including top military leaders, argue the vague threat of nuclear escalation serves as a deterrent to conventional war as well as the use of chemical and biological weapons. But the sponsors ― House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Senate Armed Services Committee member Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. ― argue a “no first use” policy would lower the risk of an accidental nuclear war.
“The United States should never initiate a nuclear war,” Smith said in a statement. “This bill would strengthen deterrence while reducing the chance of nuclear use due to miscalculation or misunderstanding. Codifying that deterring nuclear use is the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal strengthens U.S. national security and would renew U.S. leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and disbarment.”
The legislation faces an uphill path through Congress, particularly the evenly divided Senate. However some nonproliferation advocates see a possible opening with President Joe Biden, who is expected to conduct his own Nuclear Posture Review and said as vice president that he was “confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against nonnuclear threats through other means.”
“The major risk of nuclear use today comes from the danger that a small or accidental clash or conflict will escalate quickly through confusion or fear and cross the nuclear threshold,” Global Zero’s chief executive, Derek Johnson, said in a statement. “America’s decades-long policy of threatening its own possible first use of nuclear weapons only adds to this danger.”
Asked at a House hearing Thursday how allies who rely on America’s nuclear deterrent would react to a “no first use” declaration, U.S. European Command’s Gen. Tod Wolters said: “You’d get some mixed responses.”
Wolters said he backs current policy, which was set in 2018 and reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” such as attacks on the U.S., its allies and its nuclear infrastructure.
Maintaining ambiguity “complicates an adversary’s decision-making process,” then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford said during a Senate hearing in 2019, “and I wouldn’t advocate any change that would simplify an adversary’s decision-making.” Dunford endorsed the nuclear weapons policy of the time.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.