Decision makers must often act with incomplete information – both for real-time, quick decisions to respond to crises as well as the slower paced (but no less important) development of a strategy that may involve future tactical decisions. Both situations require a broad look at a variety of threats and outcomes weighed against resources, policies, and administration priorities.
A key component of the committee’s tasking was to explore the interface between risk assessment and the development of strategy (Tasks 4 and 5, see Box 1-2). The committee heard from a variety of U.S. government decision and policy makers who were asked about how they utilize risk assessments related to nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, what methods they used to guide decisions, and the assumptions they made in developing nuclear security strategy for the United States.
Decisions that rely on intelligence and leadership judgment can be made quickly, so are well-suited to address real-time issues. However, they are susceptible to bias and group think (see “Challenges to the Elicitation and Use of Expert Opinion” and the references therein in the Phase I report [NASEM, 2023]) and often the number of experts is limited so the scope of possible outcomes is also limited. These known decision-making biases can be mitigated by risk analysis.
Integrated deterrence, as defined in Box 1-1, expands the scope of deterrence across domains, regions, types of conflict, and the U.S. government and its allies and partners. With this expanded scope, it is important to not lose sight of nuclear deterrence in particular. Nuclear war is a threat to the world as we know it. President Reagan’s famous 1982 quote, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” has been reiterated by the leaders of the five Nuclear Weapon States as recently as January 2022 (White House, 2022). Yet, President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his threats to use nuclear weapons have highlighted the need for a wider variety of assessments of nuclear weapon use and its consequences.
The implementation of an expanded scope of deterrence provides an opportunity for the United States to address what some have characterized as a widening gap in deterrence strategy expertise between the United States and its adversaries. Brad Roberts’s On Theories of Victory, Red and Blue (Roberts, 2020) highlights the gap in strategy development over the past few decades and cites a number of reports supporting this claim. The 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission “Providing for the Common Defense” (NDSC, 2018, p. 1-2, paraphrased) emphasized the need for the United States to develop innovative operational approaches to overcome difficult operational challenges and a lack of analytical capability, expertise, and processes to guide DoD strategy. General Joseph Dunford noted that the United States is behind in adapting to the changed character of war1 and Peter Roberts, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London has claimed that adversaries of the United Kingdom and the United States have reimagined warfare and conflict (Roberts, 2017, pp. 14 and 23).
1 Remarks at the National Defense University Graduation Ceremony, Fort McNair, Washington, DC (June 10, 2016).
CONCLUSION 3-1: Deterrence is an enduring strategic concept that needs constant rethinking and adaptations that are tailored to fit new and existing adversaries, changing contexts, and new circumstances. The U.S. government has acknowledged an expanded scope for deterrence as integrated deterrence which seeks new ways to integrate contributions to deterrence across multiple domains (e.g., military and non-military organizations, U.S. agencies, and geographic regions). In this effort, the risk of deterrence failure leading to the use of nuclear weapons becomes one part of a larger set of risks. Due to the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons’ use, the U.S. government must recognize and prioritize the need to develop specific assessments of the risks of nuclear weapons use while implementing an integrated deterrence strategy.
As noted in Conclusion 2-1, risk analysis can provide a systematic way to widen the lens when considering options. For example, an existing, well-constructed risk analysis capability can assist both in making quick decisions and in the development of long-term strategy. However, it requires active engagement of all sources of relevant information across government, industry, and academia. It also benefits from the attention and participation of decision makers throughout the process. DHS has a capability for assessing quantitative risks of nuclear terrorism and a partial qualitative nuclear war risk analysis capability exists in USSTRATCOM’s RoSDF but it is focused on military objectives.
Much more can be done, however, especially to capture a wider range of consequences and vulnerabilities. For example, within the U.S. government, multiple federal agencies that could contribute to an integrated-deterrence risk assessment of nuclear war are shown in Table 3-1 (this table is not intended to be exhaustive). Other new and diverse strategic threats could also be considered, including chemical, biological, and cyber weapons, and proliferation of nuclear weapons.
For deterrence strategy to become integrated across its multiple domains, an interagency integrator with access to federal agency capabilities could be useful to make best use of the information and responsibilities across the government.2 Examples of groups formed by the President to address high-priority topics include interagency working groups, presidential task forces, and ad hoc groups (i.e., tiger teams).3 The advantage of declared interagency efforts is that it signals the importance of an issue and its priority within an administration. It also outlines the organization of the group and allows outside expert participation (e.g., academia, university affiliated research centers, think tanks, private sector, and industry) and access to federal agency capabilities and resources such as federal agency experts, including parts of DoD, Department of Energy National Laboratories, and other federally funded research and development organizations. A recent example is the effort that outlined the U.S. Strategy for Countering WMD and Securing Nuclear and Radiological Materials.4 Several concepts that would contribute to establishing a risk analysis capability are listed in Box 3-1.
The committee identified a set of potential activities or actions that could expand the use of risk analysis to guide the implementation and management of integrated deterrence, especially as it relates to nuclear war. One option that could provide a focus on risks of nuclear weapons use in the context of integrated deterrence is to reinstate or recreate a similar function to the National Intelligence Officer for Warning. Yet another idea was to create an annual or biannual federally hosted workshop or meeting to share nuclear risk methods and results across the U.S. government. This could increase awareness of others working in the same space, the sharing of capabilities, and improve integration.
2 Currently, DoD is leading the implementation of the integrated deterrence strategy.
3 A presidential task force or White House task force is a board of advisors appointed by the President of the United States whose main purpose is to enact policies in relation to responding to either national emergencies, crises, or general policy initiatives.
4 See the NSM-19 Fact Sheet, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/02/fact-sheet-president-biden-signs-national-security-memorandum-to-counter-weapons-of-mass-destruction-terrorism-and-advance-nuclear-and-radioactive-material-security.
TABLE 3-1 Examples of Federal Agencies with Relevant Expertise or Authority
|Expertise or Authority
|Department of Agriculture
|Department of Commerce
|National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
|Department of Defense
|Defense Intelligence Agency
|Defense Threat Reduction Agency
|U.S. Strategic Command and Geographical Combatant Commands
|Nuclear strategy and planning including risk analysis, nuclear weapons, and nuclear security
|Office of the Secretary of Defense Policy
|Department of Energy
|Energy resources and energy security
National Nuclear Security Administration
|Nuclear weapons and nuclear security
Office of Science within Biological and Environmental Research
|Biological and environmental effects
|Department of Health and Human Services
|Department of Homeland Security
|Homeland effects, response
|Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency
|Cyber threats and resilience; infrastructure security and resilience
|Federal Emergency Management Agency
|Preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience
|Science and Technology Directorate
|Threats, consequences modeling
|Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction
|Nuclear and radiological material detection and incident response
|Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Coast Guard
|Securing containerized supply chains and critical infrastructure
|Department of the Interior
|Water, mineral, fossil fuel resources
|Department of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
|Illegal activities in the homeland; material trafficking; transnational terrorism and criminal networks
|Department of State
|Department of Transportation
|Transportation, supply chains
Federal Aviation Administration
|Department of the Treasury
|Economic consequences, mitigation
|Environmental Protection Agency
|Federal Communications Commission
|Communication effects, response
|Intelligence agencies, including the Central
|Intelligence threat analysis and adversary capabilities
|Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counterproliferation Center
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration
|National Science Foundation within the National Center for Atmospheric Research
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission
|Nuclear-environmental effects, response to threats to commercial reactors