Policy Paper

Nuclear Weapons and the Deterrence of Biological and Chemical Warfare

in Program

In the evolving debate about the future roles and risks of nuclear weapons, the potential of nuclear weapons to deter or respond to threats or attacks with chemical and biological (CB) weapons has emerged as a key issue. Despite the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (ewe) and efforts to design and negotiate a verification mechanism for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), there is a real possibility of an increase in CB threats over the next several decades. Some experts argue that the United States must or should rely, either explicitly or implicitly, on nuclear weapons to counter CB threats or attacks. Others argue that the role of nuclear weapons can and should be limited to the deterrence of other nuclear weapons.

What role do and should nuclear weapons play in deterring CB use by states? What should be US policy for retaliating against CB use? To the extent that nuclear weapons currently play some role in deterring the use of CB-even if this is not stated policy-are there viable non-nuclear alternatives that would minimize the prospects that nuclear retaliation for CB attacks would ever seem appropriate?

In his study, Nuclear Weapons and the Deterrence of Biological and Chemical Warfare, Dr. Victor A. Utgoff takes on these and other important issues related to the utility of nuclear deterrence to counter CB threats. Utgoff begins by looking at situations in which CB might be used, the ends to which they might be employed, and the pressures for a nuclear response that such use would create. He postulates that there are three main reasons why the United States might consider using nuclear weapons to retaliate against CB use: (1) to respond to, or revenge, high numbers of deaths among US and allied citizens or troops; (2) to avoid a disastrous defeat; and (3) to avoid the higher costs that a conventional, rather than nuclear, response to CB attacks could lead to, such as a large increase in the number of casualties suffered by the United States and its allies. Facing high levels of deaths, possible defeat, or substantially increased costs of war, the US government could judge the consequences to be unacceptable and could also encounter strong domestic and foreign political pressure to use nuclear weapons, Utgoff observes. Yet, in considering alternative responses  to CB use, the government would also need to consider how the US response could affect attitudes toward the military or political utility of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC), proliferation motivations, or the risks of further use of NBC.

Taking action in advance to lessen the potential impact of CB attacks and increase the capability for conventional retaliation would reduce the potential pressures for nuclear retaliation, Utgoff reasons. The best option, he suggests, would be a composite strategy of arms control, defenses, and conventional retaliation. While none of these options seem likely to provide a complete solution in itself, combining them could go a long way to reduce the prospects that a nuclear response to CB attacks would seem needed or appropriate.

In particular, achieving reliable CB bans on the major powers should be a more tractable task than achieving reliable bans for the entire world. Given reliable CB bans on the major powers, the question of nuclear retaliation for CB use would be limited to use by small-to-medium aggressors. Successful interventions against such opponents should be possible even if they were to initiate CB attacks, if the United States and its allies protect themselves with strong CB defenses. Because of the overwhelming conventional superiority of the United States and it allies over such states, it should still be possible to defeat them, even taking the various burdens of CB defenses into account. Equally important, CB defenses for allied civilians could reduce the damage of CB attacks against them to the point where allied conventional forces would be able to impose commensurate punishment on the opponent if that were judged necessary. Alternatively, the goals of conventional retaliation might be to defeat, disarm, and reform  the opponent, or to destroy directly its leaders.

Although the United States has already undertaken some efforts in each area-defenses, arms control, and enhanced conventional retaliatory capabilities-Utgoff observes that “integrating CB defense systems to create an overall capability for effective protection of military forces and civilians would require considerably greater effort than is being made currently.” Adoption of a composite strategy would take time to implement, involve a greater degree of complexity than nuclear deterrence of CB, and entail additional costs to develop new capabilities. But the alternatives may also have costs-should nuclear deterrence of CB attack fail in some future war, damage to both sides could be devastating. A change to current policy leading to the adoption of a more explicit reliance on nuclear retaliation against CB attacks would be both unnecessary and unwise, in Utgoff’s view.

This study was conducted under the auspices of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, which is intended to encourage a national and international debate on the long-term nuclear future. The project is based on the premise that the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the grave dangers of proliferation provide both reason and opportunity to reexamine fundamental assumptions regarding the relative benefits and risks associated with reliance on nuclear weapons as instruments of state policy.

The study is the fifth in a series that examines key challenges for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Other studies in this series examine the implications of further reductions of nuclear weapons for US and Russian defense policy, the problems of verifying nuclear disarmament, and the challenges of safeguarding against violations of a ban on nuclear  weapons.  In undertaking this analysis, these studies seek to identify the main obstacles to the progressive elimination of mass destruction weapons from all nations and to propose solutions-both intermediate measures and longer-term approaches to overcome these obstacles.

The Stimson Center is grateful to the Ford Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We are particularly grateful to Christine Wing of the Ford Foundation for her continued support.

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