The Pentagon published a document on nuclear warfare (entitled "Nuclear Operations") earlier this month. It was most probably a mistake because it was swiftly removed from the website – but not before the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) had the chance to archive the paper.
The document summarizes the military's position on nukes, their management, and how and why they might be deployed. It is the first doctrine paper along these lines to be published in the last 14 years and it makes for some alarming reading.
"US nuclear forces serve the national objective of maintaining peace through strength," reads the document.
It goes on to say "The spectrum of nuclear warfare may range from tactical application, to limited regional use, to global employment by friendly forces and/or enemies," hinting at the possible use of nuclear weapons in smaller, more localized altercations. A policy, it is argued, that could make nuclear war (and winter) far more likely.
The document then explains how nukes could be employed to "accelerate" a military campaign and allow the US to sue for peace on "more favorable terms".
"Employment of nuclear weapons can radically alter or accelerate the course of a campaign," the document continues.
"A nuclear weapon could be brought into the campaign as a result of perceived failure in a conventional campaign, potential loss of control or regime, or to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more favorable terms."
This view is further illustrated in a quote from a Cold War strategist called Herman Kahn: "My guess is that nuclear weapons will be used sometime in the next hundred years, but that their use is much more likely to be small and limited than widespread and unconstrained," the quote (also included in the document) reads.
Kahn was a physician who just so happened to be one of the real-life inspirations behind the titular character of Stanley Kubrick's wartime parody film Dr Strangelove.
"The document provides a useful overview of US nuclear force structure, planning, and operations," Steven Aftergood, who directs the FAS' Project on Government Secrecy, told IFLScience in an email.
"What is startling to a reader, though, is the treatment of nuclear warfighting as a foreseeable scenario and one in which US forces could meaningfully prevail."
It is important to add that this is not necessarily a new change of direction as far as nuclear thinking is concerned. As Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Vice: "There is plenty of goofy shit in there, but I should note that it’s the same goofy shit that has underpinned nuclear strategy for decades, just without the good sense to gloss over certain things."
It also comes at a time when the US has pulled out of two nuclear agreements – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (2015) and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia (1987) – and contemplates a third (the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which is due to expire in 2021 if talks to renew fail).
Meanwhile, nuclear states including the US, Russia, and North Korea are solidifying and expanding their nuclear capacity, whether that is by developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles, designing lower yield (read: more usable) warheads, easing restrictions, or amping up nuclear test programs.
As for this controversial document on nuclear operations, a spokesperson for the joint chiefs of staff told The Guardian it was removed from the (publically accessible) website because "it was determined that this publication, as is with other joint staff publications, should be for official use only".