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Five Propositions Regarding Nuclear Weapons

By Lt. Col. Charles McElvaine 2nd Operations Support Squadron commander

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In 1990, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael Dugan, was frustrated that many Airmen could not articulate the virtues and key characteristics of airpower. He issued an open challenge to his senior staff to distill the essence of air power into a set of axioms condensed enough to fit on a business card and simple enough to be understood by all Airmen. It took 5 years--far beyond Dugan's short-lived tenure as Chief of Staff--for someone to answer the call. In 1995, Col. Phillip S. Meilinger published "10 Propositions Regarding Air Power." Meilinger's tenets proved to have great longevity. They are still referenced by budding airpower advocates in numerous Air Force professional military education courses nearly 20 years later.

Meilinger's 10 Propositions Regarding Air Power

1. Whoever controls the air generally controls the surface.
2. Air Power is an inherently strategic force.
3. Air Power is primarily an offensive weapon.
4. In essence, Air Power is targeting, targeting is intelligence, and intelligence is analyzing the effects of air operations.
5. Air Power produces physical and psychological shock by dominating the fourth dimension--time.
6. Air Power can conduct parallel operations at all levels of war, simultaneously.
7. Precision air weapons have redefined the meaning of mass.
8. Air Power's unique characteristics necessitate that it be centrally controlled by Airmen.
9. Technology and air power are integrally and synergistically related.
10. Air Power includes not only military assets, but an aerospace industry and commercial aviation.

The leaders of Air Force Global Strike Command and the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise face a contemporary dilemma similar to the one identified by Dugan in 1990. Our Airmen struggle to articulate the virtues and key characteristics of nuclear weapons and the functional mechanisms of nuclear deterrence and assurance. If our Airmen cannot explain what our weapons systems bring to the table, they cannot advocate effectively. When there is not enough programmatic money to go around, the best advocates win; those who stammer through illogical arguments risk being left holding the bag.
With the goal of improving the common baseline of nuclear knowledge amongst our Airmen, and following Meilinger's model, I offer the following five propositions regarding nuclear weapons and their use. These basic propositions are not an all-inclusive set. They are, however, a relatively uncontroversial collection of "nuclear fundamentals" that every AFGSC Airman should understand.

Proposition 1: Even if we never detonate a nuclear weapon, we use those weapons every day.
Critics of nuclear weapons question the value of maintaining a stockpile of weapons that we all hope never to detonate in anger. What those critics fail to understand is that we, as a nuclear enterprise, employ the stockpile every day. Whether a warhead is loaded onto one of our bombers, sitting alert in a silo, or being refurbished to increase longevity, it contributes to our nation's deterrence and assurance objectives, and ultimately our national defense. Through our normal daily operations and periodic exercises, we demonstrate the nuclear capabilities that underpin the credibility of our nuclear force. We use these weapons every day!

Proposition 2: The presence of nuclear weapons reduces the potential for full scale wars (wars of national survival) between major powers.
Nuclear weapons do not prevent all wars, nor do they prevent lesser degrees of armed conflict. However, a strong argument can be made that nuclear weapons reduce the likelihood of major powers engaging in all-out war. They do this by raising the entry costs to the conflict (nuclear weapons required) and by increasing the stakes (incredible destruction, on a national scale, in a short period of time) for potential combatants. Since the close of World War II, when great power nations first developed nuclear weapons, no two great powers have engaged in full scale war. This 65-year period of relative peace between great powers is an anomaly within the otherwise war-riddled timeline of the last 600 years.

Proposition 3: Nuclear deterrence maintains status quo conditions when our adversaries believe we have both the capability and will to employ nuclear weapons against them.
In its most basic form, nuclear deterrence is an adversary's belief coupled with a lack of action. The adversary must believe that we have both the capability and will to attack successfully with nuclear weapons. Whether or not we actually possess these qualities is irrelevant; deterrence happens in the mind of the adversary. Once the adversary is convinced, it maintains its original disposition. The objective of deterrence is to continue the status quo; it is not intended to compel the adversary to change its behavior.

Proposition 4: Nuclear assurance maintains stability and prevents nuclear proliferation when our allies and partners believe we have the capability and will to defend their nations with our nuclear weapons.
Similar to the deterrence mechanism, nuclear assurance also requires a belief of our capability and will. This time our ally or partner must believe that we will effectively employ our nuclear arsenal to defend the ally's territory or interest. If we are convincing, the ally will eschew its own nuclear aspirations, thereby limiting proliferation and the risk of a "security-dilemma" fueled regional arms race. Were it not for the US extending our "nuclear umbrella" over our allies, many more countries would be pursuing nuclear weapons in the name of national defense.

Proposition 5: Compared to other options, nuclear weapons provide a high degree of national security at a relatively low economic cost.
Strictly speaking, nuclear weapons are not cheap. However, their costs pale in comparison to the expense of raising a large standing army and then training, feeding and sustaining that army over a prolonged period of time. The US and its allies gain a tremendous measure of security from our nuclear arsenal. This security comes at a cost of less than five percent of the total Department of Defense budget. Even after accounting for the Department of Energy's stockpile maintenance funding stream, nuclear weapons are--literally--a tremendous bang for the buck when it comes to safeguarding national sovereignty.

AFGSC Airmen are stewards of one of our nation's most precious defense assets--a safe, secure and reliable nuclear force. Our Airmen should know how our nation uses nuclear weapons. They should understand how our nuclear weapons influence our adversaries and partners. Most importantly, our Airmen should be prepared to articulate the inherent benefits of a national security strategy that includes nuclear weapons. I challenge each of you to internalize these five propositions. Once you have done that, strive to develop additional axioms and share them with your peers. The future of our nuclear enterprise depends on informed advocacy from Airmen like you!