An Evolving Narrative A Report on the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1989-Today

This study aims to create a dialogue with the nation’s nuclear personnel about the rationales for the U.S. nuclear arsenal that already exist—some of which have been stated at the highest levels of leadership—to ask what the nuclear forces actually hear, what works and what does not, and what motivates them on a daily basis.

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Managing and operating the nation’s nuclear weapons, forces, and delivery systems is an enormous responsibility and among the most demanding of military missions. The men and women responsible for executing that mission—for acting as the custodians of the nuclear arsenal of the United States—must perform difficult and sometimes tedious tasks in highly challenging environments and under demanding expectations. They do so amid a changing “nuclear landscape” that has, since the end of the Cold War, seen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy decline as the concept of deterrence has become increasingly abstract in the twenty-first century.

Over the last few years, many observers, including key Department of Defense (DoD) officials, have commented on the need for DoD to better communicate a more compelling rationale for why the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains essential to the post–Cold War strategy of the United States and to the security of the American people. Those airmen and sailors who comprise the nuclear workforce, and who are asked to dedicate their lives in service of their mission, deserve a persuasive explanation as to why their unwavering stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will matter as long as these weapons exist in the world. In the assessment of some, including this study’s authors, a coherent narrative about the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not been sufficiently stated and promulgated across the force. This is to the detriment of efforts to respond to the broader challenges facing the nuclear enterprise, as a compelling rationale contributes to a healthier, more vibrant, and better motivated nuclear workforce. Recognizing this need, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Nuclear Matters endorsed the three objectives of this study:

Three Objectives

  1. Track the changing historical narrative for U.S. nuclear weapons as it has evolved from 1989 to the present.
  2. Evaluate the current narrative’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Articulate a rationale that better meets the needs of the U.S. Air Force and Navy forces responsible for supporting and executing the U.S. nuclear mission, inclusive of the mid-level commanders, the junior officers, and the enlisted.

To be clear, this study does not make new nuclear policy. At its core, this study aims to create a dialogue with the nation’s nuclear personnel about the rationales for the U.S. nuclear arsenal that already exist—some of which have been stated at the highest levels of leadership—to ask what the nuclear forces actually hear, what works and what does not, and what motivates them on a daily basis. Over the course of the research effort, however, it also became evident that, while the message matters, the individuals who deliver the rationale, the means by which it is communicated, and the context in which it is received are also important.

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Executive Summary:Trends in the Historical Nuclear NarrativeDownload Full Section

To assess the evolving historical narrative for U.S. nuclear weapons, this study juxtaposes an overview of the international security environment with the statements and decisions made about the arsenal between 1989 and the present. Who said what, and when? What was happening in the world at the time, and did these statements represent a shift in nuclear policy at the time? For the purposes of this study, this period between 1989 and the present is divided into three eras:


Era 1: Decline and Dissolution of the Soviet Union (1989–2001)
The Soviet Union’s sudden collapse relieved the United States of its primary strategic threat and caused an immense shift on the international stage.

Era 2: 9/11 and Terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars (2001–2010)
In the wake of 9/11, the United States embarked on a “Global War on Terror” and plunged into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, as it fought to subdue a new generation of extremists and state sponsors of terrorism.

Era 3: Growing Great-Power Competition in an Era of Rising Disorder (2011–Present)
Although the beginning of the third era is harder to determine, relations with Russia and, to a lesser extent, China began to deteriorate even as the threat posed by nonstate enemies metastasized and grew in severity.

Tracing how the U.S. nuclear policy narrative has evolved through these three periods reveals more consistency than change, even though the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union have seen a range of turbulent international events. Moreover, despite the highly polarized political climate of recent decades, the shifts and differences in the arc of the nation’s nuclear narrative do not correspond to predictable partisan patterns. The most fundamental articulations of U.S. nuclear weapons’ role, function, posture, and priority—the four key characteristics of the U.S. nuclear arsenal identified and defined in this study—have remained more or less the same through Republican and Democratic administrations; namely:

  • The role and salience of U.S. nuclear weapons is declining, even as they remain critical to deterring the most dangerous current and imagined nuclear threats.
  • As long as these weapons exist in the world, the United States must retain its arsenal safely, securely, and effectively.

These topline messages are also accompanied by other prominent narrative themes and countervailing narratives that, in some cases, reflect a shifting degree of consensus across the nuclear and national security communities:

  • While deterrence remains important, the arsenal serves mostly as a hedge against future threats that may arise.
  • As a greater number of current threats can be met with conventional capabilities, a greater share of the deterrence burden will be placed on conventional capabilities.
  • Nuclear weapons do not necessarily deter twenty-first-century threats, such as nonstate actors or rogue states.
  • The U.S. nuclear arsenal requires attention and investment, even as reductions take place.
  • The United States must lead in reduction efforts if it wants nonproliferation to succeed.
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Executive Summary:Building a Compelling RationaleDownload Full Section

As the research progressed, it became clear that the effectiveness of the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons has only partially to do with the words used to articulate it. Feedback from operational personnel overwhelmingly points to the significant influence of other factors in determining whether the rationale reaches the forces clearly and precisely, with a real impact. The message matters, but the individuals who deliver the rationale, the means by which it is communicated, and the context in which it is received are also important. As such, taking the historical nuclear narrative as its starting point, this study came to ask four questions:

Four Questions

  1. Is the existing rationale the right one?
  2. Is the rationale tailored to specific audiences with appropriate detail and specificity?
  3. Is the rationale suitable but being improperly communicated?
  4. Is the rationale communicated effectively within the mission but undermined outside of the mission?

In answering these questions, the study team identified a number of disconnects and challenges not only in the rationale for nuclear weapons over time, but in the way that narrative is perceived, internalized, and remembered over time by various audiences. These challenges naturally fall into six basic categories.


Is the message clear, persuasive, and consistent?

  • In many cases, U.S. nuclear weapons policy is described in highly sophisticated strategic logic that is not very accessible to the general public or the junior nuclear personnel. It is both rife with concepts and jargon that are not routinely defined and explained—for example, “deterrence,” “hedge,” “strategic stability,” “escalation”—and heavily caveated.
  • The rationale tends to focus on what nuclear weapons will not do and is dominated by descriptions of decline, reduction, and diminishment.
  • This review found few examples of an affirmative case for the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security across the time period from 1989 to the present. The only affirmative rationale that emerged during this time frame was the important role the U.S. arsenal plays in assuring partners and allies. Too little effort has been made to state the critical, albeit more limited, role of nuclear deterrence.
  • These issues of complexity, caveating, and negative framing are remarkably consistent across all three eras. While some interviewees hold strongly to the notion that such narratives can be attributed to certain leaders, administrations, or time frames, the review of the historical record found no such correlation. The challenges are bipartisan.


Who comprises the audience for the rationale? Is the message tailored to them?

  • The rationale must reach diverse communities throughout and beyond the operational forces. A compelling rationale must reach and resonate across the total force, not just the nuclear operational community.
  • The audience for the rationale is both vast and comprised of numerous communities with varying levels of interest in and familiarity with nuclear weapons. It includes those in the services who execute the nuclear mission: the mid-level commanders, the junior officers, and the enlisted. It also encompasses their conventional counterparts, their families and friends, other members of the general public, the scientific community and the broader nuclear enterprise, and Congress.
  • Junior and mid-grade officers are linchpin communicators—required to understand and re-communicate a compelling rationale—in speaking to these various audiences.


Who is speaking this narrative and, just as important, who is not? Is the communicator clear, persuasive, and disciplined?

  • Clear statements from the highest possible echelons of policymaking—the president, the secretary of defense, the secretaries of state and energy—carry a weight all their own, especially in terms of priority and strategic vision. What senior leadership says matters, but what they do not say also matters. Silence can be deafening.
  • Those closest to the nuclear personnel in the chain of command are most responsible and thus accountable for communicating the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons. The message will not get through to them if someone in the chain of command just one or two levels above in seniority decides the personnel do not need to hear it. They are the ones who must “make good” on the words from senior leadership.
  • Junior officers, who begin as message receivers, quickly become messengers themselves in training the next generation of nuclear personnel. Junior and mid-grade officers, who are charged with distilling complex policy statements and translating them into a sense of purpose and mission for their subordinates, need targeted and refined messages coupled with resources, materials, training, and support. The success of current efforts will depend on whether they are properly equipped to execute their role as re-messengers.


Is the message communicated effectively and appropriately through appropriate tools and forums that ensure that the message reaches its intended audience intact?

  • Speeches, congressional testimony, media statements, and official documents, strategies, and reviews are the traditional mechanisms for establishing and communicating the nuclear narrative and for helping the “inside the beltway” policy elites, congressional members and staff, and high-level media and international audiences communicate with each other. But the detailed and caveated rationales to explain the role of nuclear weapons, the trade-offs between competing priorities, the complexities of deterrence in the post–Cold War era, or even the priority that military services put on the nuclear mission are a high-risk gamble to translate through trickle-down methods.
  • The initial messengers at the beginning of the chain have yet to adapt their methods to new forms of communication that speak to audiences in highly personalized ways, such as blogs, personalized news alerts or feeds, and social media. Key messages are reaching the operational forces third- or fourth-hand at best, via communicators who may not be highly knowledgeable on the issues.

Volume and Dissonance

What is the volume of the message and how much noise must it overcome to be heard? Are competing voices and narratives crowding out the narrative?

  • The problems with the mechanisms by which the rationale is conveyed to the nuclear forces are compounded by an oversaturated information landscape.
  • It is crucial to not talk “inside a nuclear silo” without listening to what is being said or is left unsaid by and to the rest of the force. Synergies can and should be found across virtually every geographic region.
  • Countervailing narratives can also contest and undermine the topline rationale. The nuclear policy community, both within the United States and internationally, is diverse and divided. Competing narratives, even within the nuclear mission space, can lead to a crowded message board.


What is the context or environment in which the message is communicated? Does it reinforce or undermine the message?

  • The importance of how well the context in which a message is received “fits” the message itself cannot be overstated. No matter how “right” the words or the means of delivery may be, they will only be received and internalized in a positive environment—one of sufficiently supportive command leadership, educational opportunities and training support, and investment of time and resources—that encourages such strategic thinking.
  • The nuclear workforce looks closely at the alignment of words and deeds to determine if the narrative is credible, sustainable, and persuasive. The “say-do” gap creates the impression that the words are hollow, which undermines the credibility of the narrative and fosters cynicism and low morale. Again and again, interviewees pointed to the gap between words (rationale) and deeds (funding, leadership attention, and personnel practices) as a fundamental problem with the rationale for nuclear weapons.
  • A deeper dive into the various communities that comprise the nuclear forces shows that they each have their own deeds that carry the most impact and meaning depending on their service culture, deployment location, and operational activity.
  • There is a “say-do-believe” gap. Overcoming perceptions that the message is not reflected in actions will take patience: it will require creating an affirmative context for the rationale, undoing and remedying the various pieces of the say-do gap, and doing so in a continuous, sustained effort that conveys to the nuclear workforce that this commitment is lasting.
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Executive Summary:A Compelling RationaleDownload Full Section

The proposed rationale for U.S. nuclear forces set forth in this study reflects the authors’ effort to capture the themes that resonated most strongly with the target audience. In developing it, the authors have sought to adhere to the following “dos” and “don’ts”:


  • Develop a rationale that is affirmatively, rather than negatively, framed.
  • Use language that is clear and direct and does not require a sophisticated understanding of nuclear policy.
  • Use topline messages that can be employed consistently with a wide range of audiences (the public, the Congress, the armed forces) but can also be tailored to various audiences through additional specificity.
  • Look to the future, not the past, as the source of challenge and opportunity
  • Remember that words accompanied by meaningful and appropriate actions are always the most effective message.


  • Use jargonistic or theoretical language.
  • Appear nostalgic about the Cold War or suggest the future lies in a return to the past.
  • Criticize the audience in terms of knowledge, education, or interest.

Today, the United States faces a nuclear landscape of complexity, uncertainty, and risk. While nuclear dangers have certainly receded from the high-water mark of the Cold War, the nuclear optimism of the post–Cold War era has declined as well. Today, the United States no longer faces a single primary adversary from one region of the globe, but rather a diverse set of nuclear dangers spanning at least three geographic regions and potentially with global reach. These dangers include:

  • Nuclear attack by a nuclear-armed state – which while relatively unlikely, remains the primary existential threat to the United States and our way of life.
  • Growing nuclear intimidation and coercion by regional powers that hope to use their own nuclear capabilities to reshape their regions to their advantage and limit the ability of the United States to exercise power and influence in those regions.
  • Renewed and potentially expanded nuclear competition among great powers – namely, China and Russia—as they seek to expand and improve their nuclear capabilities and increase the relative role and importance of nuclear weapons in their own national strategies, despite our efforts to do the opposite.
  • Risk of nuclear intimidation and use by non-state actors and extremists who continue to seek nuclear capabilities and may show little (if any) restraint in using such weapons to further their violent agendas.
  • Growing frustration regarding global disarmament and efficacy of the NPT from increasing numbers of nonnuclear armed states that view the great powers, including the United States, not as nuclear protectors but rather as sources of nuclear danger.
  • Continued strategic uncertainty that leaves open the prospect that the future could take an even more dangerous turn and for which we could be ill-prepared to respond quickly and effectively.

In a world with nuclear weapons, U.S. nuclear forces provide a critical foundation for U.S. power and influence. Faced with such a world, U.S. nuclear weapons serve as a powerful insurance policy by ensuring that, no matter how the threats or enemies change in an uncertain world, the United States has the freedom of action to defend itself and respond. Our nuclear arsenal underwrites the United States’ national survivability against its greatest threats, providing the only existing credible defense against nuclear destruction and ensuring that no enemy can see benefit in attacking or holding hostage the U.S. homeland. The United States’ nuclear forces therefore act as a backstop to U.S. conventional power, allowing their conventional brethren to carry out their responsibilities overseas without worry that the country will go unprotected. Nuclear weapons provide awesome, world-altering, destructive power and bring with them awesome responsibilities. As long as nuclear weapons exist in the world, the U.S. will shoulder these responsibilities and serve as the nuclear counterweight to those with malicious intentions. Failure to do so would leave the world a far more dangerous place.

Our nuclear arsenal underwrites the United States’ national survivability against its greatest threats, providing the only existing credible defense against nuclear destruction and ensuring that no enemy can see benefit in attacking or holding hostage the U.S. homeland.

U.S. nuclear weapons perform these essential roles by forcing any adversary to consider that the benefits of attacking the United States are far outweighed by the costs. The U.S. arsenal provides an assured nuclear retaliatory force against any enemy state, ensuring that, should an adversary seek to disarm the United States through nuclear first strike, the United States will always have the option of responding in kind. The possibility of such a devastating response factors into every adversary state’s calculus in deciding whether launching a military attack on the United States. It “raises the bar” for that state, creating risks and costs so much greater than any gains to be achieved that restraint becomes a better option than aggression.

The United States’ extension of its nuclear protection to its allies strengthens those ties and forms the basis of the underlying security relationships, making the United States an essential provider of global security and stability in the world. U.S. nuclear weapons help bind the United States together with its closest allies based on shared interests and values as well as risks and threats. It provides those friendly states that might otherwise feel compelled to acquire their own nuclear weapons the option to instead trust in the United States’ nuclear guarantees, empowering them to go without nuclear capabilities while also feeling secure and supported. The U.S. nuclear arsenal thus enables the U.S. alliance system, allowing it to serve as a cornerstone in the overall nonproliferation framework.

Finally, the United States holds itself to the highest possible standard for responsible nuclear stewardship. U.S. nuclear weapons are entirely defensive in character, designed to prevent attacks, not to initiate them. The United States will never brandish its nuclear weapons, use them as a source of coercion or intimidation, or seek to further regional aggression through their use. The United States maintains the highest expectations for the safety, security, and command and control of its nuclear weapons and seeks at every step to demonstrate what it means to be a responsible nuclear power. The United States sets an example by leading in international efforts to establish and enforce norms in protecting nuclear materials and working to reduce the dangers that existing nuclear arsenals pose to the world.

The United States maintains the highest expectations for the safety, security, and command and control of its nuclear weapons and seeks at every step to demonstrate what it means to be a responsible nuclear power.

The value and reliability of nuclear weapons in shaping the decisions of potential adversaries depends on their perception that the capability is credible and their use in response to a threat is plausible. Similarly, U.S. decisionmakers must feel confident that nuclear weapons provide the president with a range of suitable options that meet the needs of the situation and discourage, rather than encourage, continued aggression. Our nuclear weapons must inspire confidence in our leaders and allies and fear in our adversaries. To do this, U.S. nuclear forces must, in aggregate, possess a number of essential attributes. The U.S. nuclear force must possess the necessary capabilities to be credible (i.e., inspire confidence that these weapons can and will be used if necessary), flexible (i.e., able to produce a variety of plausible options and alternative responses appropriate to and commensurate with the threat at hand), and survivable (i.e., fully capable against the full spectrum of first-strike attacks so that no adversary can believe a disarming strike is possible). In addition, the U.S. nuclear arsenal must be permanent and persistent so that no adversary believes that windows of opportunity to attack the United States will open. These capabilities must also be visible and demonstrable so that when a potential adversary questions U.S. intentions in defending itself and its allies, the United States can signal its resolve and remind potential adversaries of the risks involved. Finally, these capabilities must be responsive. They must able to adapt and adjust to new threats, emerging technological surprises, or potential opportunities in ways that cannot be fully anticipated today.

The nuclear force of the future depends fundamentally on our commitment to and investment in the human capital of the enterprise—the men and women who develop, maintain, operate, and support our nuclear arsenal.

The United States has given our nuclear forces profound responsibilities and in turn has set the highest possible expectations. These responsibilities and expectations cannot be met on the cheap. Our forces cannot perform their mission without the investment of time, resources, and attention by leadership at all levels. At times, this calls for difficult trade-offs and sacrifice to ensure that the nuclear enterprise receives the priority it needs to succeed. Facing long-delayed modernization requirements across the force, the United States today faces just such a challenge of trade-off and sacrifice. But these sacrifices can and will be made when the nation’s fundamental security hangs in the balance. Modernization and recapitalization of our nuclear infrastructure and delivery systems is essential but insufficient for building the nuclear force of the future. The nuclear force of the future depends fundamentally on our commitment to and investment in the human capital of the enterprise—the men and women who develop, maintain, operate, and support our nuclear arsenal. Sustaining a highly motivated and highly skilled workforce requires meaningful dialogue; appropriate training, education, and exercising across the force; sufficient opportunity for career and professional development; and a climate that fosters personal responsibility, accountability, and innovation. This is our commitment to our force and our pact with the American people. We can do no less.

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Executive Summary:Communicating a Compelling Rationale for U.S. Nuclear WeaponsDownload Full Section

As stressed elsewhere in this report, an effective and compelling rationale for the U.S. nuclear arsenal requires far more than just the right words. It requires a commitment to communicating that rationale and encouraging a meaningful dialogue between policymakers, the operational force (both nuclear and nonnuclear), and the communities in which they serve and work. Interviews and roundtables repeatedly stressed the need for not only a new nuclear narrative, but also a detailed strategy to improve how leaders and policy makers talk about nuclear weapons and communicate their importance and create a context in which such a compelling rationale can be heard, understood, shared, and believed.

Recommendation #1:

Develop and communicate an affirmative and compelling rationale for the U.S. nuclear arsenal that articulates the role, function, posture, and priority of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security.

Recommendation #2:

Set the tone from the top. A new nuclear narrative cannot be compelling if not fully and formally owned and communicated by the president and his or her most senior national security advisers. Give the message authority and have it come from the highest authorities.

  • A compelling rationale in any hierarchical organization must begin at the top and then flow consistently and pervasively throughout.

Recommendation #3:

Direct the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons to the whole force, not just the nuclear operators.

  • A compelling rationale will not work if only the nuclear operators hear it. The message needs to reach across the services, combatant commands, and forces in the field.
  • A message that is not believed and shared cannot be credible to the nuclear operators.

Recommendation #4:

Create an education-based context for communicating a compelling rationale, not just a public affairs plan.

  • An education-based approach ensures not only a better message, but also creates the environment in which this narrative can be heard, understood, and re-communicated. Moreover, learning through education has staying power and can withstand the constant barrage of competing messages.
  • Require basic literacy regarding the purpose and function of U.S. nuclear weapons across the whole force, not just the nuclear community.

Recommendation #5:

Cultivate and encourage strategic and policy knowledge through opportunities for education and training earlier in the officer development process and beyond the nuclear force alone.

  • Require a minimum basic knowledge of strategic nuclear matters at the service academies and make supplemental knowledge and instruction more easily accessible.
  • Require a minimum basic knowledge of strategic nuclear matters at the service academies and make supplemental knowledge and instruction more easily accessible.
  • Provide accessible, digestible, and easily distributable learning resources to junior officers and their subordinates.
  • Adapt resource materials to suit the needs and schedules of different operational communities. For example, SSBN crews need low-bandwidth websites and resources saved onto compact disc that are easily accessible when under way.
  • Provide opportunities to broaden experience and perspective early on so that young operators can better understand how their specific role (ICBMs, bombers, SSBNs, etc.) fits into the bigger picture. These opportunities can be fairly simple: internships, fellowship programs, joint assignments—for example, STRATCOM, Joint Staff, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Military Command Center (NMCC), the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), etc.—or conferences such as the STRATCOM Deterrence Symposium.

Recommendation #6:

Focus on the re-communicators—that is, junior and mid-grade officers.

  • As the “frontline” operators of the nuclear mission, they “spread the word” to nonnuclear colleagues, friends, and families.

Recommendation #7:

Close the gap between messenger and audience.

  • In addition to relying on “trickle down” message delivery, leaders and messengers should “thicken” the communication chain to the audience through use of social media, detailed talking points, and guidance for all officers in the nuclear chain of command, and a deliberate campaign of interactive communications including roundtables, town halls, and base visits by senior leaders.
  • Nuclear personnel should be engaged in a direct conversation, in person when possible.
  • Hearing these messages directly not only ensures that the message gets through undistorted, it also supports message credibility by demonstrating that senior leaders’ words are backed up by action.

Recommendation #8:

Distribute the rationale widely and via diverse communication modes that are short and easily accessed (millennials don’t play telephone—they have Google).

  • Make better use of personalized methods of communication such as social media, blogs, and personalized news alerts.
  • Use communications that are participatory (e.g., town hall meetings and roundtable discussions, not speeches) because they are shown to be most effective, particularly with millennials.

Recommendation #9:

Make better use of operational exercises across the nuclear force to engage senior leaders, build stronger connections between operators and support elements, and demonstrate priority. These are huge missed opportunities.

  • Involve more senior policy personnel in order to introduce more policy realism into the exercises and demonstrate senior engagement.
  • Reduce the number of simulated elements of the exercises to allow broader community engagement and improve realism.

Recommendation #10:

Match words with meaningful actions.

  • Without a reinforcing context, messages lose traction and lack credibility.