Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

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

| Mar. 14, 2024

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kearn, David .“Strategic Myopia: The Proposed First Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons to Defend Taiwan.” War on the Rocks, March 14, 2024.