The United States’s 1945 detonation of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains the world’s only offensive use of nuclear weapons. At the time, the U.S. had no codified policy on nuclear weapons. Over time, Defense Department policies and Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPRs) would establish usage, targeting, readiness, and alert policies. The arsenal has developed around the principle of the nuclear triad, with warheads to be delivered by land (missiles), sea (submarines), and air (bombers). The authority to use nuclear weapons remains exclusively vested in the President; the military still views the display of nuclear firepower as vital to its defense and security efforts; and the possibility of a nuclear first strike remains on the table. While the total number of warheads have decreased globally since the end of the Cold War, the U.S, Russia, and China are currently pouring billions of dollars into modernization efforts. At the same time, other nations cling to or are developing nuclear stockpiles to gain strategic advantage and safeguard against potential attacks.
U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020, accessed December 19, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200604013139/https://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/nmhb/chapters/chapter1.htm.Some nuclear scholars and historians divide the history of nuclear weapons into three distinct eras. The first era began with the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and encompassed the entirety of the Cold War-era arms race with the Soviet Union under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD proposes that nuclear aggression can be thwarted by a significant buildup of nuclear weapons that could withstand a first strike and retaliate forcefully, thus deterring any attack. After the Soviet Union broke the American monopoly on the atomic bomb in 1949, both countries invested heavily in ever more powerful and plentiful nuclear weapons which were frequently tested both above- and below-ground, with serious environmental effects. The United Kingdom and France (allied with the United States) and China (allied with the Soviets) also joined the “nuclear club” during this period, though they maintained smaller retaliatory stockpiles. Robbert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 66, no. 4 (2010): 77–83, https://doi.org/10.2968/066004008.The U.S.'s gargantuan arsenal, by contrast, topped out at 31,000 warheads in 1968. Desperate to keep pace, the Soviet Union poured so many resources into its military that the rest of its economy stagnated. Despite efforts in the 1980s at reform and a de-escalation of the Cold War, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020, accessed December 19, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200604013139/https://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/nmhb/chapters/chapter1.htm.The last American nuclear explosive test followed in 1992, closing the first nuclear era.
The second nuclear era began with the closure of the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, Rae Ellen Bichell, “Here’s What You Should Know About Radiation At Rocky Flats,” KUNC, October 4, 2019, https://www.kunc.org/science/2019-10-04/heres-what-you-should-know-about-radiation-at-rocky-flats.which had previously produced 1,500 plutonium pits per year, and was marked by a focus on deterrence without live explosives testing or building of new warheads from scratch. Rather, the Stockpile Stewardship Program and various Life Extension Programs (LEPs) U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Defense Programs, “The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program,” May 1995, accessed June 22, 2021, https://nuke.fas.org/guide/usa/doctrine/doe/st01.htm.used computational simulations, the testing and monitoring of components, and updating elements of the arsenal to maintain a scaled back nuclear posture. This era also marked the expansion of nuclear capacity globally: India, Pakistan, and North Korea all acquired nuclear weapons, while Iran’s nuclear program was at least temporarily contained by international agreement.
The third and present nuclear era began in 2018 with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and release of a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a document which acknowledged Russia and China as possible adversaries amidst rising global tensions. Iran resumed uranium enrichment, and North Korea has very publicly proclaimed its intention to build intercontinental ballistic missile systems (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States. More money is now being spent on upgrading the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal and delivery systems than has been spent since the cessation of the Cold War. Despite its emphasis on stockpile reduction, the Obama administration initiated, and the Trump Administration expanded, investment in both new warheads and weapons delivery systems—the missiles, airplanes, and submarines that carry a warhead to its target. The centrality of nuclear weapons to military policy is underscored by the scale and projected lifespan of these investments. Valerie Insinna, “Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program,” The New York Times, August 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/magazine/f35-joint-strike-fighter-program.html.The first third generation delivery system to be brought online, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II airplane, is the most expensive single military project in world history, projected to cost upwards of $1.2 trillion dollars by 2077. Concordantly, both Russia and China have also amped up their spending and development of their nuclear triads, while the risk of nuclear terrorism remains an ever-present danger.
In many ways, the geopolitical nuclear landscape is more complex now than it has ever been. The first days of the administration of President Biden seemed to signal a turn back to an American policy of nonproliferation, with his expressed desire to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and extending by five years the only remaining treaty limiting the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia only weeks before it was set to expire. However, tensions remain high between many countries in the nuclear club, and the multibillion-dollar contracts for nuclear modernization are already being fulfilled. Without proactive efforts to curb this latest worldwide nuclear escalation, the weapons being designed today will be with us for the next fifty years. In the face of twin emergencies of nuclear insecurity and climate change, in 2020 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its iconic Doomsday Clock, an estimate of humanity’s proximity to apocalypse, to 100 seconds to midnight—the closest to calamity that the world has ever been.
Arms Control Association. “The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy.” Accessed January 23, 2021.
Bichell, Rae Ellen. “Here’s What You Should Know About Radiation At Rocky Flats.” KUNC, October 4, 2019. Accessed April 4, 2021.
Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation. “Fact Sheet: The United States' Nuclear Arsenal,” July 2, 2020. Accessed April 4, 2021.
Gavin, Francis J. “We Need to Talk: The Past, Present, and Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy.” War on the Rocks, January 2, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2021.
Insinna, Valerie. “Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program.” The New York Times, August 21, 2019. Accessed April 4, 2021.
Mehta, Aaron. “America’s Nuclear Weapons Will Cost $1.2 Trillion over the next 30 Years.” Defense News, October 31, 2017. Accessed April 3, 2021.
U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters. Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020. Accessed December 2020.
U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Defense Programs. “The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program.” May 1995. Accessed January 23, 2021.