In addition to maintaining deterrence, the size and structure of the nuclear force must promote strategic stability between the US and the other principal nuclear powers. This chapter examines the concept of strategic stability under the full triad and the three alternatives.

It is a long-standing US practice to ensure that the size and structure of the nuclear force, while maintaining deterrence, also supports and promotes strategic stability between the US and the other principal nuclear powers. This objective is reflected in current nuclear posture and employment guidance.

In the paradoxical world of nuclear strategy, efforts to achieve superiority over a rival can be self-defeating because they can induce destabilising actions by the rival, thereby reducing the security of both states. This is the classic security dilemma. It is particularly acute in the nuclear realm because changes in one state’s nuclear arsenal, intended to make its forces more capable and its nuclear threats more credible to an adversary, can also stoke fears on the part of the adversary that it may be subject to a first strike designed to weaken its retaliatory potential. This lowers the nuclear threshold, with a potential adversary concluding it faces a ‘use them or lose them’ choice regarding its nuclear forces.

A fundamental lesson of nuclear strategy is therefore to see the balance of nuclear forces through the eyes of your potential nuclear-armed adversaries. In other words, in the nuclear age your adversaries’ sense of security becomes your concern. Nuclear-armed states must understand this consideration in order to avoid worsening the ever-present risk of nuclear conflict by miscalculation.

Dr James E. Doyle formerly a specialist in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, focuses on strategic planning and policy development in the field of nuclear weapons.

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