Nuclear Strategic Thought

Deterrence theory has inspired critical reflections of classical ideas, but was also influenced by Clausewitz and air power theory. New concepts enabled theory-building in the absence of nuclear war, but did not lead to universally accepted paradigms in nuclear strategy. While civilians took on a leading role on strategy in the US, their influence on nuclear strategy in particular, and perspectives on deterrence, have been divergent elsewhere.

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“Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them.”

— Bernard Brodie, 1946

Nuclear Injustice

Nuclear injustice refers to the ethical, social, and geopolitical disparities arising from the possession and potential use of nuclear weapons. This concept encompasses issues such as the uneven distribution of nuclear capabilities among states, the disproportionate impact of nuclear testing and accidents on marginalized communities, and the challenges posed by nuclear proliferation. The nuclear powers’ monopoly on these weapons often leads to a power imbalance, perpetuating global inequalities and heightening the risk of conflict.

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“Each State Party in a position to do so shall provide assistance for the victims of the use or testing of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

— Article 7.4, Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2017

International Cooperation

Nations around the world recognize the importance of working together to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, reduce existing arsenals, and ultimately create a safer international environment. Treaties such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) serve as pillars of international cooperation, fostering dialogue and commitment among states. Collaborative efforts seek to strengthen verification mechanisms, promote transparency, and enhance trust among nations.

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“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

— Article VI, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 1970

Nuclear-Weapons Powers

The recognized nuclear-armed states include the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Additionally, India and Pakistan openly acknowledge possessing nuclear arsenals, while Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, although it maintains a policy of ambiguity. North Korea has conducted nuclear tests and claims to have a nuclear weapons capability, although its status remains a subject of international concern and debate.

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“We’re not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons; we seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”

— Ronald Reagan, 1985

Non-Nuclear Weapons Powers

Beyond the nine states declaring or believed to possess nuclear weapons, several other nations formerly possessed nuclear weapons, started development programs, or are engaged in serious strategic discussions. For example, when the U.S.S.R. disappeared, 3,200 strategic nuclear warheads remained in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, most of them atop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that stood on alert, ready to be fired at targets in the U.S.. Further, South Africa became the first and only country to dismantle and eliminate its nuclear weapons.

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  • Anna-Mart van Wyk (2018) South African Nuclear Development in the 1970s: A Non-Proliferation Conundrum?, The International History Review, 40:5, 1152-1173.
  • Bowen, Wyn (2012). Libya, Nuclear Rollback, and the Role of Negative and Positive Security Assurances. In: Jeffrey Knopf (ed.). Security Assurances and Nuclear Non-Proliferation.
  • Matthew Kroenig, A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
  • Sagan S. and Waltz, K. 2007. “Nuclear Iran: Promoting Stability or Courting Disaster?” Journal of International Affairs 60(2): 135 – 150
  • Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 4 (2012): 2–5.
  • Wirtz, James J. Wirtz and Peter R. Lavoy (eds.) (2012). Over the Horizon Proliferation Threats.

“The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and The United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”

— Article 4, Memorandum on Security Assurances (“Budapest Memorandum”), 1994

International Organisations

Several organizations provide platforms for coordination, dialogue, and collaborative efforts, emphasizing the shared responsibility of the international community in promoting the safety and security of member states, and ensuring the safe and peaceful use of nuclear technology. The UN, IAEA, EU, or NATO, are just some of the many examples with a significant influence on nuclear weapons politics.

  • Megan Dee (2015) The EU’s multilateralist combat against the proliferation of WMD in the NPT: mirroring the Grand Bargain, European Security, 24:1, 1-18, DOI: 1080/09662839.2014.948864
  • Tarja Cronberg (2017) No EU, no Iran deal: the EU’s choice between multilateralism and the transatlantic link, The Nonproliferation Review, 24:3-4, 243-259, DOI: 1080/10736700.2018.1432321
  • Zwolski, Kamil. Unrecognized and Unwelcome? The Role of the EU in Preventing the Proliferation of CBRN Weapons, Materials and Knowledge, Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 12:4, 477-492, DOI: 1080/15705854.2011.622962
  • Buteux, Paul. Strategy, Doctrine, and the Politics of Alliance: Theatre Nuclear Force Modernisation in NATO. Boulder: Westview Press, 1983.
  • Buteux, Paul (1983). The politics of nuclear consultation in NATO, 1965-1980. Cambridge University Press.
  • Heuser, Beatrice (1999). NATO, Britain, France, and the FRG: Nuclear Strategies and Forces for Europe, 1949–2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Andreas Lutsch (2016) Merely ‘Docile Self-Deception’? German Experiences with Nuclear Consultation in NATO, Journal of Strategic Studies, 39:4, 535-558.
  • Timothy Andrews Sayle (2020) A nuclear education: the origins of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, Journal of Strategic Studies, 43:6-7, 920-956.
  • Treverton, Gregory F. “Managing NATO’s Nuclear Dilemma.” International Security, vol. 7, no. 4, 1983, pp. 93–115.

“The Nuclear Planning Group acts as the senior body on nuclear matters in the Alliance and discusses specific policy issues associated with nuclear forces. The Alliance’s nuclear policy is kept under constant review, and is modified and adapted in light of new developments.”

— NATO, 2022

Nuclear Ages

The concept of the three nuclear ages refers to distinct periods in the history of nuclear weapons development and deployment. The first nuclear age began with the use of atomic bombs by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The second nuclear age emerged captures the height of the Cold War. The third nuclear age, often considered to have started in the early 21st century, involves new challenges such as the proliferation of nuclear capabilities to additional states, regional tensions, and the potential for non-state actors to acquire nuclear weapons.

  • Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam; The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power (New York: Vintage, 1965).
  • Herbert Feis, The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966).
  • Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980)
  • The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age. Edited by Krepon, Michael, Travis Wheeler and Shane Mason. Washington, D.C.: Stimson Center, May 2016.
  • Ward Wilson; The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima. International Security2007; 31 (4): 162–179.
  • Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).
  • Andrew Coe and Jane Vaynman, “Superpower Collusion and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” Journal of Politics 77, no. 4 (2015): 983–997.
  • Goettemoeller, Rose. (1992). Strategic Arms Control in the post-START Era. London: Brassey´s/IISS
  • Halliday, Fred. (1986) The Making of the Second Cold War.London: Verso
  • Joseph S. Nye, “Nuclear Learning and US-Soviet Security Regimes,” International Organization 41, no. 3 (1987): 371–402.
  • Adérito Vicente, Polina Sinovets, Julien Theron (2023). Russia’s War on Ukraine: The Implications for the Global Nuclear Order. Springer Cham.
  • Futter, Andrew ; Zala, Benjamin. / Strategic non-nuclear weapons and the onset of a Third Nuclear Age. In: European Journal of International Security. 2021.
  • Krepinevich Jr., Andrew F. ‘The New Nuclear Age’. Foreign Affairs 101, no. 3 (2022).
  • Narang, V. & Sagan, S. (2023). The Fragile Balance of Terror: Deterrence in the New Nuclear Age. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

“The world is on the cusp of a new nuclear age. China, Russia, and the United States are in the midst of a renewed arms race and nuclear modernization programs. Further, three new nuclear weapons powers have emerged since the end of the Cold War: India, Pakistan, and North Korea.”

— Vipin Narang and Scott D. Sagan, 2023


Related Technologies

The integration of newly emerging technologies creates a complex and interconnected landscape, which shapes the evolving nature of nuclear deterrence, arms control, and strategic stability. For example, artificial intelligence has implications for command and control systems, potentially enhancing decision-making processes, and space-based technologies contribute to surveillance and communication capabilities, impacting early warning systems and strategic communications.

  • Missile Defense Systems at a Glance. Arms Control Association,
  • Matthew Bunn and Kosta Tsipis. 8/1983. Ballistic Missile Guidance and Technical Uncertainties of Countersilo Attacks, Pp. 164. Cambridge, MA: Program in Science & Technology for International Security, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Hildreth, S. A., & Woolf, A. F. (2002, February). Missile defense: the current debate. Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
  • George Lewis and Frank von Hippel, “Limitation on Ballistic Missile Defense – Past and Possibly Future,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74(4), 2018, pp.199-209.
  • Lewis, G. and von Hippel, F. (2018) ‘Limitations on ballistic missile defense—Past and possibly future’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74(4), pp. 199–209.
  • Lisbeth Gronlund & David C. Wright (1992) Depressed trajectory SLBMS: A technical evaluation and arms control possibilities, Science & Global Security, 3:1-2, 101-159.
  • Schiller, Markus (2022, April). Missile Identification and Assessment. International Institute for Strategic Studies.—content–migration/files/research-papers/2022/04/missile-identification-and-assessment.pdf
  • Wilkening, D. (2019) ‘Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Stability’, Survival, 61(5), pp. 129–148.
  • Mutschler, M.M. (2013) ‘Space Weapons and Arms Control’, in Mutschler, M.M. (ed.) Arms Control in Space: Exploring Conditions for Preventive Arms Control. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK (Palgrave Studies in International Relations Series), pp. 104–148.
  • Raju, Nivedita; Erästö, Tytti (2023) The Role of Space Systems in Nuclear Deterrence. Solna, SIPRI.
  • Thomas G. Roberts, “Why a Space-Based Missile Interceptor System is Not Viable,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74(4), 2018, pp.238-242.
  • James Acton, “Escalation through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-andControl Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security 43:1 (Summer 2018), pp 56-99.
  • Fiona S. Cunningham; Strategic Substitution: China’s Search for Coercive Leverage in the Information Age. International Security 2022; 47 (1): 46–92. doi:
  • Erik Gatzke and Jon R. Lindsay, “Thermonuclear Cyberwar,” Journal of Cybersecurity, Feb 2017, pp.1-12.
  • James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey A. Larsen (2022). Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: A Primer on US Systems and Future Challenges. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.