A US Navy nuclear-deterrence sub (US Navy photo)

Nuclear Deterrence Is NOT “Warfighting”​

Joe Buff
7 min readDec 15, 2020


by Joe Buff, MS, FSA

America is not well served by a myth abroad in the land. This myth may or may have not originated with hostile foreign info-war operatives, but they’re sure exploiting it in their nefarious stoking of America’s raging domestic anti-nukes debate. The durable home-front anti-nukes sentiment threatens to undermine the effectiveness of our strategic nuclear deterrent. These overseas influence-campaign agents want to erode this bedrock of America’s national defense. Yet at the same time, Russia and China cynically, hypocritically, and threateningly beef up their own nuclear offense/defense arsenals.

The myth is that our nuclear Triad forces are, or at least could be meant not just for defense by deterrence (counter-value, counter-force, or countervailing), but also for “nuclear warfighting” (hitting the enemy first and/or big ongoing nuclear escalation). Part of the myth is that America can and must adopt a “no first use” policy for our nukes — such an ill-advised blanket restriction would in reality handcuff and diminish us. It’s more than just semantics.

As a sovereign state, a wealthy, free, capitalist nation, and the world’s de facto (and long proven) arsenal of democracy, we Americans use our nuclear weapons in a constructive way all the time. Along with flexible strategies if we are ever attacked, the Pentagon’s job is to give our C-in-C the right option choices come what may. In the modern world, safety from attack is not an absolute. We absolutely need to be able to deter other large powers from starting big shooting wars, conventional or non-. Just as much if not in fact more so, we absolutely need to prevent any nuclear armed countries from trying nuclear blackmail, coercion, and intimidation against us and our friends and allies. We do this, every day. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”

The lack of good understanding of the huge difference between deterrence and warfighting — among some politicos, media pundits, and the general public — comes from iffy grasp of the vast distinction between the two. The confusion, controversy, and conflict also stem from glibly glossing over a key practical implementation question: How do we distinguish between a nuclear deterrence arsenal and a nuclear warfighting arsenal? In this specific context, the short answer is that we don’t because we can’t and we don’t need to. This distinction is made instead in our national culture and whole history, in our democratic regime and our free way of life, in our good intentions and positive goals, in our specified policies, chosen strategies, and declared postures.

Nuclear deterrence versus warfighting pertains to whether a country is looking, in the worst extreme, to fight a national defense or a national offense. Using the example of the conventional armies in the 1930s before World War II, Germany’s goal was warfighting. The UK’s was deterrence. Germany’s post-WWI Weimar Republic was an unstable, short-lived aberration in an age-old monarchic tyranny, forced in part by vengeful foreign powers after Berlin’s defeat in 1918. The UK, though a colonial power across much of the then-developing world, was a constitutional monarchy with an entrenched, resilient democratic tradition and set of institutions going back centuries.

Deterrers love peace, and the restoration of peace with prosperity whenever war breaks out. They support the existing world-order status quo. Warfighters crave war and the prolongation of war for further political gain. They seek to upturn the existing world order.

In case a war does break out by the warfighter’s act of aggression, the deterrer fights to restore peace on politically acceptable terms. The warfighter fights for territorial expansion and geopolitical gain. Both seek regime-change in their adversary. The deterrer wants to see their former enemy become a more open and peaceful society, even a sovereign ally. (Think Germany and Japan after WII.) The warfighter wants to see their former enemy turned into a dictatorship, an ally but a puppet state, an abject vassal. (Think the Iron Curtain after WWII.)

To repeat for emphasis, the specification of a country’s military infrastructure as deterrence-oriented versus warfighting-oriented isn’t (really can’t) be made in the hardware, or even in the tactics and strategy built into combat doctrine and training. Essentially every weapon system will serve for either “deterrence” or “warfighting,” because any modern weapon can be used for either defense or attack. As military people are too aware, once the shooting starts this distinction is specious. A rifle, a rocket grenade, an armored fighting vehicle are versatile. Ditto for a ballistic or cruise missile, a fighter plane or bomber, a ship or submarine. They’re all multipurpose. They’re all inherently dual-use.

They absolutely have to be. Whether a soldier enduring incoming enemy fire is engaged in defensive operations (because deterrence failed) or offensive operations (because deterrence failed) doesn’t matter one iota to him or her in the moment. The tactical situation can change between defense and offense and back again from one second to the next. A strong offense can be the best defense. Defending can be the best way to “attack” the enemy’s ability to stay in the fight (think France at Verdun or the Sovs at Stalingrad).

The hardware, training, and tactics a national armed force needs for readiness, for preparedness, is not where the distinction between deterrence and warfighting is drawn. This is true even, nay especially, for strategic nuclear arsenals. That crucial distinction, again to repeat for emphasis, is instead one of national intent, of national goals and policies. America’s practice is to incorporate these all-important parameters into our Constitution, our National Defense Strategy, and our National Nuclear Posture.

The purpose, the sole and essential purpose of our strategic nuclear deterrence Triad is in its very name: deterrence. But every posture needs to specify what our goal will be in the event our deterrence ever fails. Nuclear weapons are so powerfully destructive to human life and the natural environment, so fearful and so feared, that for over seventy years this has never happened.

But in nuclear deterrence, it’s de riguere to never say never. Effective nuclear deterrence hinges on the full and rigorous public statement of national posture, a statement which leaves no loopholes or ambiguities for any audience, foreign or domestic. Ours have always specified that we would use nuclear retaliation to defend our way of life against existential attack. If a nuclear war ever broke out, it would be because of some adversary’s violation — either nuclear, or a conventional attack so massive and overwhelming that we have no choice but to go nuclear to prevent occupation and enslavement.

The only other situation in which our posture specifies that we would ever go first with nukes is the one where an enemy uses, against American/allied vital interests, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) other than nuclear — chemical or biological weapons This essential clause is needed to close a loophole in our deterrence and defense, because America obeys the global ban on chemical and biological weapons. Retaliating with conventional arms alone against chemical and biological weapons is much too restrictive a POTUS option. It would not deter a determined enemy any more than mere conventional arms could ever deter them from nuking us for decisive geopolitical gain. (Germany and Japan were not deterred this way in WWII. A bad enough bad actor would not be deterred from starting WWIII with nukes.)

The naysayers, and the foreign info-war operatives, hammer on another divisive wedge issue: The U.S. might allegedly at some point decide to go first using nukes in an act of prevention or preemption. On the conventional warfare front, we and the world learned a terrible and hopefully never again forgotten lesson about the foolhardiness, the potentially suicidal recklessess of actually pursuing this military option.

Worse, claiming that the U.S. could ever be taken over successfully from within, by a dictatorial police-state regime that co-opts our nuclear arsenal for a purely aggressive first use, is not simply far-fetched. There are many checks and balances in place, explicit and implicit, on many levels of government and society to prevent this. There are circuit breakers and surge protectors galore, some political and some forceful, that will come into play when needed. The idea of such a takeover is a popular theme in Hollywood, but this is sensationalized commercial fantasy. It’s also a perennial stimulant among the conspiracy-theory crowd, but when that goes past being a hobby it can become truly pathological. It’s popular ammo with adversarial influence campaign agencies, too, but they’re quite frankly our enemy and they have to be battled determinedly at every turn.

Still, you never know what the future might bring. Never say never to unpleasant eventualities; always keep your powder dry and your options open. We definitely do this at the level of Pentagon doctrine, capabilities and capacity, implementation, and advice to Congress and POTUS. What should we do to render most clear and potent our all-important declared nuclear posture? Carefully include caveats and provisos on exactly when we would have to use nukes first to defend the American Way of Life. Emphasize something big to the world, to adversaries, and to ourselves: We would certainly never go first in an act of nuclear aggression or foolhardiness, of wanton murder and destruction.

If an enemy ever does go first without existential/WMD provocation, we can, must, and will respond effectively in kind, proportionally not excessively, according to our legal and moral right under the UN Charter. We will contain and punish that bad actor, restore geopolitical equilibrium to a badly disrupted world, discourage copy-cat or follow-on nukings down the timeline, and preserve the good world order that the bad actor tried to destroy.