Strategic Myopia: The Proposed First Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons to Defend Taiwan

The United States first deployed nuclear weapons in Europe in September 1954. Over time, thousands were sent to a series of bases to offset the vast conventional advantage of Red Army and Warsaw Pact forces, and deter their use against NATO allies. These weapons were not only viewed as important for defending the alliance but also for maintaining an unambiguous link to U.S. strategic nuclear forces that would virtually guarantee any Soviet incursion into Western Europe would quickly escalate to general nuclear war, or so the logic was explained. In reality, serious questions persisted throughout the Cold War concerning the utility of tactical nuclear forces, the capacity to control nuclear escalation, and the willingness of the United States to tie its fate to that of its European allies. Scholars and practitioners devoted significant time and effort to analyzing the problem of fighting limited wars against nuclear-armed adversaries, attempting to devise means to achieve strategic objectives while avoiding escalation to a large-scale nuclear exchange and mutual catastrophe. Their efforts bore little fruit.

China’s rapid nuclear buildup, after a massive two-decade program of conventional military modernization, confronts the United States once again with the prospect of fighting a conventional conflict against a major nuclear power. It may be prudent to revisit the topic of limited nuclear war and the use of tactical nuclear weapons given the challenges of the current security environment. However, one idea that has emerged from the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council seems particularly short-sighted and fraught with dangers: the proposal to plan and prepare for the first use of tactical nuclear weapons against a Chinese naval and amphibious force massed in the Taiwan Strait in the initial stages of an invasion.

In a series of recent reports, analysts from the Scowcroft Center argue that the potential first use of tactical nuclear weapons by the United States would be particularly useful against an enormous Chinese amphibious invasion force as it began to stage operations off Taiwan’s coast. It would have a high probability of destroying or crippling the fleet and therefore defeat the invasion, its use against military targets in the Taiwan Strait would minimize collateral damage, and its clear limitation to explicitly military targets would mitigate potential escalation dynamics by avoiding more provocative targets on the Chinese mainland, for example.

Acknowledging the importance of defending Taiwan, the proposal seems to be an overreaction to a significant — but not irreversible — shift in the conventional military balance in the region in China’s favor. So, first and foremost, it is not clear that such a policy shift is necessary. It is also not evident that a deterrent threat based upon the first use of tactical nuclear weapons would have the desired, decisive impact on Beijing that the authors seek. If employed, such a policy would trigger dangerous escalatory dynamics — something proponents downplay. The proposal is likely to be seen as dangerous and provocative, alarming allies and increasing regional tensions. Finally, it may undermine broader U.S. foreign policy goals, such as non-proliferation. Fortunately, the military challenge of a Chinese invasion can be addressed with existing and planned conventional forces, making such a radical departure from U.S. national security policy unnecessary.

The Resort to First Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Rash Overreaction

While the conventional military balance in the Taiwan Strait has certainly shifted in China’s favor over the past two decades, the first use of tactical nuclear weapons against an invasion force is an extreme and unnecessary option. Precisely because that large force would have to traverse nearlya hundred nautical miles to reach shore on Taiwan, it would be highly vulnerable to a host of conventional military options that the United States currently possesses or could feasibly develop and deploy in short order to credibly threaten the success of such an operation. For example, U.S. attack submarines coordinating with long-range U.S. bombers carrying conventional cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions should be able to significantly attrit Chinese forces as they attempt the risky voyage across the strait. Various analysts have offered several potentially inexpensive and innovative conceptsbased on autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles, mines, and other counter measures that could be developed relatively quickly. Two platforms that seem particularly useful that are scheduled for retirement with no planned follow-on programs are the four nuclear-powered, Ohio-Class guided missile submarines (each of which carry up to 154 conventionally armed cruise missiles, as well as mines and unmanned underwater drones), and the B-1B bomber, which can deliver precision-guided munitions and anti-ship missiles from ranges outside of contested areas. The central objective is to confront China’s leadership with the high probability that its invasion force will be severely degraded — if not destroyed — during its misguided attempt to reunify Taiwan by force. The United States can achieve this without resorting to the threatened first use of tactical nuclear weapons through continued investment in conventional platforms, munitions, and innovative countermeasures.

Impact on Deterrence: Less than Meets the Eye

The proposed shift to planning and threatening — whether overtly or tacitly — the first use of tactical nuclear weapons is unlikely to significantly enhance the ability of the United States to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Taiwan is not a formal treaty ally, and thus it enjoys no guarantee of direct military intervention by the United States on its behalf in the event of an attack. Thus, a U.S. deterrent threat to employ nuclear weapons against a conventional invasion force after nearly 80 years of non-use of nuclear weapons, and in the face of likely Chinese escalation, may not be perceived as credible.

A credible deterrent threat is composed of material capabilities and an assessment of the defender’s resolve. The former typically comprises military forces sufficient to ensure that the expected costs suffered by the adversary in response to taking a proscribed action is so high as to undermine any perceived benefits accrued (punishment), or that the risks of failure to achieve the adversary’s objectives are so great that doing so is seen as futile (denial). The latter — a defender’s resolve — is more difficult to achieve and sustain with confidence. It boils down to a psychological relationship between the defender and the adversary in which the adversary believes that the defender has the will and commitment to follow through on its threat should the adversary take unwanted action. Deterring an aggressive and risk-acceptant adversary from launching a direct attack may be difficult. But given that the defender is fighting for its people, territory, and survival as a sovereign state, making the adversary believe that the costs and risks will outweigh any expected benefits should be straightforward with the possession of sufficient military power.

The challenge of constructing and sustaining a credible deterrent threat becomes significantly more difficult when a defender attempts to prevent an adversary from acting against a third-party, such as an ally. Extending a deterrent guarantee demands making an adversary believe not only that the defender will follow through on its commitment and intervene on behalf of it ally in the event of an attack, but also that the defender is willing to suffer significant damage in doing so. With the advent of nuclear weapons and the arrival of a strategic nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union — where either superpower could annihilate the other in the event of a large-scale nuclear exchange —  maintaining a strong and credible deterrence that extended to NATO allies required careful calibration of military capabilities, extensive and painstaking diplomacy, and constant reassurance to maintain alliance cohesion.

While the Taiwan Relations Act can be interpreted as obligating the United States to support Taiwan with direct military intervention in the event of a Chinese attack, it is equally valid to interpret the commitment to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” as primarily constituting military aid, vital supplies, and other forms of material support. This is simply not the formal diplomatic and security relationship that would provide a foundation to consider the potential use of nuclear weapons under virtually any circumstance, never mind launching a nuclear first strike against an adversary’s conventional forces. Moreover, U.S. public support for Taiwan, which is as high as it has ever been according to polls, supports aiding Taiwan to defend itself against China in the event of an attack, but consistently opposes any direct military intervention by the United States. Taken together, these two facts — an ambiguous and murky diplomatic obligation and scant public support for direct U.S. involvement — significantly undermine the credibility of a threat of U.S. nuclear use in the Taiwan context.

If implemented as a formal U.S. policy, it could place an unfortunate U.S. president in an interminably difficult position of a credibility trap — forced to choose between utilizing tactical nuclear weapons in a situation that does not directly engage vital U.S. national security interests or standing down. For this reason alone, it should be rejected.

Overlooking Dangerous Escalation Dynamics

The Atlantic Council report argues that, while there would be “significant escalation risk,” Beijing would have little incentive to escalate to nuclear use in the aftermath of the U.S. first strike against China’s invasion force because that escalation would do nothing to improve the outcome of the invasion.

As noted above, the destruction of the PLA amphibious force would make pursuit of “military advantage” a somewhat moot point, as China’s remaining forces would be unable to seize Taiwan as long as they had not yet seized several major ports and airfields

This may be technically accurate. However, given the shock of a U.S. nuclear strike, extensive casualties, and loss of naval assets, it is dubious to assume that Chinese leaders would react so meekly. The massive amphibious operation may effectively be defeated, but China’s investments in conventional and nuclear ballistic and cruise missile forces offer a wide range of options to respond to U.S. nuclear strikes in ways that could be damaging to the U.S. position in the Western Pacific. A conventional and/or nuclear barrage against one or more U.S. carrier groups in the region may be viewed as a proportional response to U.S. first use. Andersen Air Force Base and other installations on Guam, while technically constituting an attack on U.S. territory and therefore risking further U.S. escalation, is another inviting target, as are U.S. bases on Okinawa and Japan. Chinese planners could conceivably view these targets as attractive to degrade the capacity of the United States to generate forces in the immediate region for some time during which China could execute a sustained and devastating coercive air and missile campaign against Taiwan.

Whether driven by a leader’s emotional reaction, the pressure to be seen as taking decisive action to meet to demands of an angry populace, or a carefully planned strategic counterattack, the likelihood of Chinese escalation should be considered extremely high in the aftermath of losing a significant portion of its navy and invasion force in the initial hours of a campaign against Taiwan.

Alarming Allies and Provoking Conflict

Allies constantly seek reassurance that if they were indeed attacked by an adversary, the response would be automatic and (ideally) overwhelming. They are also highly sensitive to actions that the patron takes that could either undermine the credibility of the alliance relationship or potentially increase the probability of a military conflict that might otherwise be avoided. As the discussion above concerning the United States and NATO during the Cold War intimated, the reassurance of allies may be even more difficult to achieve than maintaining a credible deterrent. For a patron like the United States, balancing credible extended deterrence threats and the reassurance of allies is often difficult, and the perceptions and foreseeable responses of allies should be seriously considered in devising policies.

A U.S. threat to launch a tactical nuclear strike against a Chinese invasion force will likely be viewed with alarm in allied capitals for two major reasons. First, making these states believe that the United States views their security and territorial integrity as so vitally important that it is willing to defend them and (more importantly) face the expected costs of conventional or even nuclear conflict is difficult under the best of circumstances. Simply extending a nuclear deterrent threat to Taiwan for the specific case of a Chinese invasion would call into question the seriousness with which the United States brandishes such threats. Because it may be very well seen as a bluff and not credible, leaders in these countries may view this sudden and drastic change in policy as undermining the value of their alliance commitments and question the U.S. guarantee to protect them in a critical time of need. It is likely to be perceived as a sign of panic and lack of confidence on the part of the United States, and an unwelcome development for its allies.

Second, the perceived shift to a first use policy against a Chinese invasion force would undoubtedly raise tensions in the region and ignite fears that the leadership in Beijing may act preventively against Taiwan. The potential overturning of the de facto regional status quo and foreclosing of China’s option to determine the status of Taiwan through military force may precipitate the action it is meant to deter. Allies in the Western Pacific do not seek a regional war. A policy seen as a stark deviation from the norm would create serious tensions or even open ruptures in alliance relations.

One of the rationales that has been offered to underscore the importance of defending Taiwan is the impact on America’s alliance relationships in East Asia. This is certainly a valid concern. However, the critical geographic position of Taiwan is not — in and of itself — a sufficient strategic rationale to warrant the consideration of the first use of nuclear weapons against a Chinese invasion force. Simply put, an attack on Taiwan is not an attack on Japan or South Korea, and it would not be seen as such in either Tokyo or Seoul, respectively. The U.S. extended-deterrent commitment to those nations is exclusively for their protection. Stretching the definition of “protection” to include a conventional attack on Taiwan would undermine the credibility of the guarantees that constitute these alliances. The larger issue is that the U.S. threat of the first use of nuclear weapons on Taiwan’s behalf introduces a volatile new element into East Asian security that is likely to be viewed by allies as destabilizing and increasing the probability of a conventional or nuclear strike against U.S. allies. Rather than seeing this as enhancing deterrence, domestic political opposition within Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and even Australia is likely to become a significant hindrance to cooperation with allies in the event of an actual Taiwan crisis. In short, the introduction of a potential U.S. first use of nuclear weapons would only complicate alliance operations and significantly degrade the value of that cooperation when it is needed most — a strikingly self-defeating outcome.

Ignoring Larger Policy Implications

Finally, while it is unlikely to be of concern to the authors of these reports, the threat or actual first use of nuclear weapons against a Chinese invasion force would have significant, long-lasting, and negative diplomatic implications for the United States beyond the impact on regional allies described above. The perceived shift in policy is likely to complicate global non-proliferation efforts. Given the nature of the international security environment, the United States may indeed be forced to rely more heavily on its nuclear arsenal in coming decades, but this attempt to substitute tactical nuclear weapons for a perceived erosion of conventional power as a shortcut to address a military challenge that could be addressed through conventional means undermines the credibility of U.S. diplomatic efforts to maintain and/or enhance the international non-proliferation regime.

More broadly, the idea that the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945 would be by the United States in the defense of Taiwan against a conventional Chinese invasion would have significant, negative, and long-lasting, diplomatic ramifications. It is difficult to fathom the myriad potential consequences, but U.S. nuclear weapon use would almost certainly shatter the non-proliferation regime as a functioning entity, incentivize states (including China) to acquire or improve their existing nuclear arsenal, and damage America’s standing globally.

The proposal to plan and prepare to execute tactical nuclear operations against a Chinese invasion force in the Taiwan Strait is myopic. It is an unnecessary solution to a military problem that is otherwise completely detached from U.S. national security or diplomatic interests. With dubious value as a deterrent, it would be dangerous and self-defeating, with long-term deleterious consequences for the United States, its alliance relationships, and its position in the world.

David W. Kearn, Jr., Ph.D. is a visiting scholar at the Managing the Atom Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also an associate professor at St. John’s University in New York City.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lillian Miller

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David Kearn