London workshop on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

On 15-17 November 2002, Pugwash Meeting no. 279 was held in London, UK.

No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

Workshop Report by Tom Milne
The Pugwash workshop, No First Use of Nuclear Weapons, was held in London from 15-17 November 2002 and included 29 participants from 15 countries. The British Pugwash Group also organized a public session at the Royal Society on 14 November that included panel presentations on No First Use issues from Hugh Beach, Steven Miller and Alexander Nikitin. The Pugwash Conferences are grateful to the British Pugwash Trust for their support of the workshop.


It has long been argued in Pugwash circles among others that until such time as nuclear weapons can be eliminated the purpose of national nuclear forces should be confined to deterring nuclear attack. The formidable political and prudential barriers to any use of nuclear weapons are obvious. Yet it remains the case that the governments and national security establishments of some of the nuclear weapon states, not least the USA, maintain and act on the belief that nuclear weapons serve purposes extending beyond deterrence of nuclear attack and that policies of no first use have been explicitly rejected.

Over the years the nuclear weapon states have discussed, hinted at, and planned for the first use of nuclear weapons for all manner of purposes. Some of these purposes have been bound up with the existence of other nuclear weapons: planning for a pre-emptive nuclear strike in the event that nuclear war seemed inevitable, for example, or preventive nuclear war in order to destroy an adversary’s incipient or developing nuclear weapons capability. Others have not: in particular nuclear weapons have been used to offset the conventional forces of an adversary at an affordable social and economic cost, and to serve as a weapon of last resort in the face of catastrophic defeat. Use of nuclear weapons has also been threatened as a means of coercion and to deter chemical and biological weapons attack, and notions have been entertained of “demonstration” nuclear strikes as indication of a nation’s seriousness of intent in a developing conflict. A somewhat different proposition has been the consideration given to the use of nuclear weapons for ballistic missile defence.

Some of these perceived roles for nuclear weapons may today have less immediacy than in previous times or have perhaps disappeared altogether. The need for the US to provide extended deterrence to Europe is an obvious case in point. Others, however, are more prominent than ever. In particular, the past decade has seen increasing concerns voiced in the US about chemical and biological weapons, with US negative security assurances – promises that the US has made not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states – undermined by veiled threats of nuclear response to chemical or biological attack. Secretary of State James Baker implicitly threatened tactical nuclear retaliation to Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons in the Persian Gulf War; Clinton administration officials added to the ambiguity of US policy through a series of statements; and the Bush administration has gone further still, repeatedly stating that the US may be prepared to take preventive military action to disarm adversaries of their weapons of mass destruction capabilities, and in this context openly considering the first use of nuclear weapons to attack, among others, deeply buried targets.

We might, of course, discuss whether such nuclear policies are not promoted as much by an establishment with a vested interest in the maintenance of nuclear weapons as on the basis of objective judgements on defence strategy. But what cannot be doubted is that, for whatever reason, policies of “first use of nuclear weapons if necessary” are embedded in military and strategic thought. Before “no first use” could be embraced by the current possessors of nuclear weapons in a meaningful way, that is to say as a national security strategy, at least the more powerful among them would have to be persuaded that whatever the benefits they consider to derive from retaining the option of first use of nuclear weapons should, on balance of risk, be foregone.

Were the nuclear weapon states to fully embrace no first use of nuclear weapons then this would constitute a highly significant step towards nuclear disarmament. Whereas the declaration of no first use by the Soviet Union in 1982 saw no alteration to Soviet nuclear weapons deployments, and was given little if any credence by the US and NATO, a multilateral agreement on no first use, if it were to be credible, would entail sweeping and substantial changes to US and Russian nuclear deployments, with each nation needing only to retain a survivable strike-second deterrent. Lesser changes might need to be made to the nuclear forces of the other nuclear weapon states. Moreover, the whole approach taken by the nuclear weapon states to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world would be transformed: the logic becomes that “if no-one has them no-one needs them” and attention can turn from debating the utility of nuclear weapons to the more tractable political, administrative and technical issues facing deep cuts in nuclear arsenals and the eventual creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world regime and control system.

For and Against No First Use

To reiterate, for the current nuclear weapon states to adopt strategies of no first use of nuclear weapons they need, logically speaking, only to take the view that the risks of retaining policies of “nuclear first use if necessary” outweigh the risks of explicitly foregoing this option. It may still be allowed, for example, that nuclear weapons could have some deterrent effect against chemical and biological threats, as many would intuitively believe to be the case, while concluding that such deterrence is bought at too high a cost.

This was the basis of the case made for no first use in the 1997 report from the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the US National Academy of Sciences The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. Although written from a US perspective, the report makes a case of more general relevance and formed the basis of the workshop’s opening presentation. Credible policies of no first use on the part of the nuclear weapon states, the Committee argued, would significantly reduce a number of the foremost dangers stemming from the possession of nuclear weapons. In particular, it would make other nations less likely to seek to develop countervailing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons capabilities. The risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, or of hasty and foolish authorized resort to nuclear weapons in a crisis, would also be reduced as a consequence of associated changes to force posture.

Turning the argument around, to weigh the accompanying risks, the Committee further suggested that the United States, not itself facing any conventional threat, possesses conventional forces adequate to meet all of its existing security commitments as well as to deter or respond to chemical and biological attack. As a matter of practical politics, it is more credible that the US plans to confront non-nuclear threats with conventional force rather than with nuclear weapons, as well as more proportionate to the threat, and by far the preferable option in terms of minimizing the level of violence. Moreover, the existential threat inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons would remain a powerful deterrent to unrestricted war, even in scenarios in which first use of nuclear weapons had been renounced.

The Committee also ventured the belief that the other nuclear weapon states could be persuaded to reach comparable conclusions. This may be plausible given a US lead. Not just on the issue of no first use, but in the case of nuclear disarmament more generally, the other nuclear weapons states would probably follow a US lead. If, however, in addition to the five “official” nuclear weapon states, India, Pakistan and Israel are to be considered, then while a general agreement on no first use would bring a great weight of international pressure to follow suit, it should still be obvious that for Israel and Pakistan, feeling more directly and closely threatened by potential aggression, committing to a strategy of no first use of nuclear weapons might be a difficult decision to take. Pakistan, for example, which incidentally had not openly “gone nuclear” at the time that the Academy study was published, might see itself as confronted with an uncomfortable trade-off between first use deterrence of more powerful Indian forces and the need to strengthen its conventional forces at a cost the nation could ill-afford. Israel is unwilling to make any explicit statement about its presumed nuclear weapons capability for fear of making an already fraught regional situation worse.

Nuclear deterrence of non-nuclear threats was for a long time a controversial issue within NATO, especially in the early years when the need for social and economic reconstruction in Europe was most acute and Western strategy was based on early and massive resort to nuclear weapons. A conventional wisdom has emerged which finds that the balance eventually struck by NATO between conventional and nuclear deterrence has been proven justified (“conventional wisdom” is perhaps not the most apt of phrases!) and indeed the NATO model is often invoked to support policies of nuclear first use applied in other contexts. Yet as is often pointed out, and was reiterated at the workshop, not only does this assume both that the Soviet Union had the desire and capability to invade Western Europe (if not, there were no grounds for deterrence), and that it would not in any case have been deterred by NATO conventional forces and the existential nuclear threat, but it takes no account of the incalculable consequences should the policy have failed, nor of the stimulus that NATO nuclear policy might have provided to the nuclear ambitions of other nations.

A further, subtle argument against no first use allows that the nuclear weapon states should use whatever language and confidence-building measures they can to portray a complete lack of interest in using nuclear weapons in any circumstances (that is, there should be no discussion whatever of first use), but still resists any explicit undertaking of no first use. The reasoning is that such undertakings fail to solve the problem of avoiding nuclear war, in the sense that they can never be dependable, while at the same time risking weakening the one useful role that nuclear weapons may play, which is that of inducing caution in a crisis. Since it is not in dispute that the purpose of no first use is less to seek to constrain the use of weapons in war than to constrain the deployment of weapons in peacetime and to contribute to a disarmament process, at issue here is whether and when an unwillingness to openly and legally commit to no first use would impede wider efforts to devalue and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Implementing a No First Use Strategy

The possibility of first use is, of course, inherent in the possession of any weapon and thus it may not be possible to identify a particular point on the de-alerting spectrum at which a nation can be said no longer to possess a first use capability, nor the ability secretly to configure one, while still retaining a credible strike-second option. Nonetheless, a combination of declaratory policy, legal undertakings, changes to weapon deployments, and a general denuclearisation of war planning, military exercises and training programmes could serve to reduce, to a large extent, the capacity and preparedness of a nation to use nuclear weapons first. Indeed, once a nation accepts the case for a no first use strategy these changes become both possible and desirable in order to promote disarmament, discourage proliferation, and minimize danger of accidents.

Since going nuclear in 1964, China has consistently maintained an unconditional declaratory policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. Despite the lack of transparency surrounding China’s nuclear and military programmes, the apparent restraint that China has exercised in its nuclear programme, together with the public positions taken by the government, has over time helped to afford credibility to its proclaimed position. India has announced a similar strategy of no first use, which was considered by many workshop participants as likely to endure even though Indian nuclear doctrine is still evolving. Comparable undertakings of no first use from the US, NATO and others, or at least statements to the effect that they cannot envisage using nuclear weapons first in any foreseeable circumstance, where now they pointedly refuse to offer such a judgement, would no doubt help to devalue the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs and improve prospects for disarmament.

At a certain stage in a disarmament process, however, it was felt that the nuclear weapon states would be likely to want to move beyond declaratory statements to conclude a legally-binding treaty of no first use. Opinions differ on the likely preconditions for agreement on such a step, but as already suggested a serious commitment to no first use amounts to a commitment to a process of nuclear disarmament and thus is not foreseeable at the current time. As a first step, therefore, it might prove easier to secure agreement from the nuclear weapon states on legally-binding and unconditional negative security assurances. These would replace the existing forms of assurances, which as discussed have been weakened and undermined in recent years, not just by the United States, and might provide an important boost to the ailing non-proliferation regime. A multilateral agreement on “no first use of weapons of mass destruction” was also discussed as a possible approach. Such an agreement could be seen as an advance on the current situation in that it would explicitly exclude the use of nuclear weapons to counter conventional threats, but at the same time it would legitimise the use of nuclear weapons in response to chemical and biological attack, arguably already the most likely route to the use of nuclear weapons today, in view of which most workshop participants judged that the idea should be strongly opposed.

A strategy of no first use, pursued cooperatively among all the nuclear weapon states, should allow significantly smaller nuclear forces, at least on the part of the USA and Russia. There would be no requirement for counterforce capabilities. Weapons designed for tactical or battlefield operations ought also largely to be eliminated, in the wider context of no first use as part of a disarmament process. Certainly there could be no place in the arsenals for weapons such as those currently being developed for attacking underground targets.

The technical launch readiness of nuclear systems could also be relaxed and delays might be introduced into the decision-making process that would authorize nuclear use. Technical means of de-alerting, which it was felt should be implemented regardless of whether a nation has a strategy of no first use, include disabling missiles or launch systems to add significant time delays to the launch process. These measures make sense whether or not the other side reciprocates, so verification of the de-alerted condition, which may prove difficult in some cases, is not crucial.

A more far-reaching measure of de-alerting would involve separating warheads from delivery systems and possibly placing warheads under civilian control. Nations would thereby revert to practices followed in the early years of the Cold War when warheads were not routinely mated, nor necessarily co-located, with delivery systems. It was the subsequent development of many of the safety features designed into modern warheads and the advent of sophisticated administrative controls on nuclear weapons that made higher alert levels possible. At the extreme, each side would invite the other side or sides to place observers or technical means of verification at sites at which warheads were stored, allowing them to monitor what went in and what went out. Survivability of de-alerted nuclear forces would be a significant concern at all stages, but given the relatively benign international relations needed for disarmament to make progress should not present any insurmountable problem.

No First Use and the Pugwash Agenda

Taking place at a time when the United States is leading preparations for preventive war against Iraq, in order to disarm Iraq of whatever WMD capabilities it might possess and to depose the current regime, one session of the workshop was given over to a general discussion of the world political situation, including its relevance to the subject at hand.

It seems that with each passing day the greater is the disdain shown by the US administration towards the current system of multilateral arms control. Multilateral regimes are dismissed as serving mainly an administrative and accounting function, ineffective in the important cases of recalcitrant states. Indeed the US administration appears to assign little value to any of the major international treaties regulating weapons of mass destruction. It seems instead more concerned to ensure that as few constraints as possible are placed on the unprecedented military and diplomatic power at its disposal.

While unquestionably the current system of international arms control has substantial weaknesses, not least the lack of any effective means of enforcement, it was suggested that Pugwash must seek to reassert, in positive and objective terms, the fundamental importance of multilateral approaches to world security and verified treaty-based disarmament. This is, after all, the point of view held by the vast majority of the world’s nations. From this standpoint, and because it is closely linked to the objective of multilateral nuclear disarmament, working towards a multilateral agreement on no first use of nuclear weapons is an important topic for continuing Pugwash attention, made all the more timely by the emphasis on tactical nuclear first use in current US doctrine.

Until such time as the United States might be ready to take the lead in pursuing a multilateral agreement on no first use, which seems certain not to be until the current administration and any successors in kind have passed from power, attention may have to be focussed on no first use agreements in regional and bilateral contexts. Several papers were presented at the workshop, not reflected in this report but available to the interested reader on the Pugwash website, setting out current thinking on policies of no first use of nuclear weapons in China, Russia, NATO, India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Korea. The papers discuss, among other things, the extent to which current undertakings of no first use by China and India should be expected to be resilient to political change, and possible circumstances in which NATO, Russia, Pakistan and Israel might reconsider their present policies in which the first use of nuclear weapons is not explicitly excluded. Suggestions were made for potential bilateral and regional no first use arrangements and could be pursued at future Pugwash meetings. It was also noted that in 1994 China had formally proposed a draft Treaty on the No First Use of Nuclear Weapons. The draft treaty contained no guidance on implementation and it was suggested that Pugwash might usefully meet to elaborate some technical guidelines.


Working Papers

Kanti Bajpai: No First Use in the India-Pakistan Context

Hugh Beach: Implementation of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons Strategy/Agreements

Jeffrey Boutwell:  The US and No First Use: Preemption Trumps Deterrence?

Yuri Federov: Russia’s Doctrine on the Use of Nuclear Weapons

Lawrence Freedman: No First Use

Jozef Goldblat:  NPT and the Security of NNWS

Ariel Levite: Preliminary Reflections on No First Use Doctrine for the Middle East

Sverre Lodgaard: Obstacles to No-First-Use

Steven E. Miller: The Utility of Nuclear Weapons and the Strategy of No-First-Use

Raja Mohan: No-First-Use and India’s Nuclear Transition

John B. Rhinelander: No First Use — It’s Time is Not Foreseeable Whatever its Form

Mohamed Kadry Said:  Security and Defense Dilemmas in the Middle East: The Nuclear Dimension

Pan Zhenqiang: On China’s No First Use of Nuclear Weapons


Prof. Kanti Bajpai, Professor of International Politics, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Sir Hugh Beach, Member, British Pugwash Group Executive Committee; Board Member: Centre for Defence Studies, VERTIC, ISIS – all London, UK [formerly: Master General of the Ordnance, British Armed Forces (1977-81)]

Prof. Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, Secretary General, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; Professor of Mathematical Physics, University of Milan, Italy; Director, Program on Disarmament and International Security, Landau Network – Centro Volta, Como, Italy [formerly: Secretary General, Union of Italian Scientists for Disarmament (USPID)]

Prof. Cheng Kaiyu, Researcher, China Academy of Engineering Physics, China.

Prof. Yuri Fedorov, Deputy Director, Institute of Applied International Research, Russia [formerly: Deputy Director, PIR-Center for Policy Studies, Moscow; Professor of Political Science, Moscow State Institute of International Relations; Head of Strategic Studies Department, Institute for USA & Canada Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia]

Dr Hal Feiveson, Senior Research Scientist, Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, USA; Editor, Science and Global Security.

Prof. John Finney, Treasurer, British Pugwash Group; Professor of Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London, UK[formerly: ISIS Chief Scientist, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (1990-1993); Science Coordinator, European Spallation Source Project (1993-1997); Professor of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, London (1986-1993)].

Prof. Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies and Head of the School of Social Science and Public Policy, King’s College, London, UK.

Dr Jozef Goldblat, Vice President, Geneva International Peace Research Institute (GIPRI), Geneva, Switzerland; Consultant, United Nations, Geneva [formerly: Director, Arms Control & Disarmament Programme, SIPRI (1969-89)]

Prof. John (Jack) Harris, Member, British Pugwash Group Executive Committee, UK [formerly: Editor, Interdisciplinary Science ReviewsUK; Manager in charge of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research, Berkeley Nuclear Laboratory, Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB); Royal Society/Esso Gold Medallist for Civil Nuclear Fuel Cycle work; Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS); Fellow Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng); MBE]

Prof. Robert Hinde, Chairman, British Pugwash Group; former Royal Society Research Professor (now retired) [also formerly: Master, St. John’s College, Cambridge, UK; Hon. Director, Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit on the Development & Integration of Behavior]

Prof. John Holdren, Teresa & John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy & Director, Program in Science, Technology, & Public Policy, Center for Science & International Affairs (CSIA), John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Professor of Environmental Science & Public Policy, Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; Visiting Distinguished Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center; Chair, Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), National Academy of Sciences; Chair, Panel on Reactor Options for the Disposition of Excess Weapon Plutonium, National Academy of Sciences. [formerly, Member, President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), The White House; Professor of Energy and Resources, University of California, Berkeley, California]

Gen. (ret.) Dr. Mohamed Kadry Said, Member, Pugwash Council; Head of Military Studies Unit and Technology Advisor, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Al-Ahram Foundation, Cairo, Egypt; Professor of Missile Mechanics of Flight, Military Technical College (MTC), Cairo [formerly: Deputy Director, Center of Defence Studies, Cairo]

Dr Ariel LeviteIsrael Atomic Energy Commission.

Prof. Liu Gongliang, Vice Chief Engineer, Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM), Beijing, China

Mr Sverre Lodgaard, Director, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Oslo, Norway [formerly: Member, Pugwash Council; Director, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Geneva; Director, Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO)]

Dr Saideh Lotfian, Associate Professor of Political Science (on leave), Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran; Visiting Iranian Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Dr Zia Mian, Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, USA.

Dr Steven Miller, Director, International Security Program, Center for Science & International Affairs (CSIA), Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; Editor-in-Chief, International Security; Member, Pugwash Council; Co-Chair, U.S. Pugwash Group [formerly: Senior Research Fellow, SIPRI; Assistant Professor, Defence and Arms Control Studies, MIT]

Dr Tom Milne, Member, British Pugwash Group Executive Committee; Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, UK.

Dr Harald Mueller, Director, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, Germany.

Dr Alexander Nikitin, Director, Center for Political and International Studies (CPIS), Moscow, Russia; Deputy Chair, Russian Pugwash Committee of Scientists for Disarmament and International Security; Vice-President of the Russian Political Science Association; Professor, Moscow State Institute of International Relations; Member, Pugwash Council

Prof. Amnon Pazy, Professor of Mathematics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel [formerly: Chairman, Planning and Budgeting Committee, Council for Higher Education, Jerusalem; President and Rector, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1985-91)]

Sir Joseph Rotblat, Member, British Pugwash Group Executive Committee; Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of London, UK; 1995 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; Emeritus President, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Rear-Admiral (Rtd.) Camille Sellier, Adviser, Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique (CEA), Direction des Applications Militaries (DAM), Bruyères Le Châtel, France [formerly: Deputy Director, Nuclear Forces Division of Joint Armies General Staff; Deputy Director, Weapons and Technology, Direction des Applications Militaires, Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique]

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Director, Centre for Strategic and International Studies; Member, Pugwash Council; Member, Indian Pugwash Society [formerly: Director, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi; Director (Operations), Air Headquarters, New Delhi; Convener, Indian Pugwash Society]

Dr. Mark Byung-Moon Suh (Germany/South Korea), Member, Pugwash Council; Senior Researcher, Free University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany; President, Korean Pugwash Group [formerly: Director, Korean International Peace Research Institute (KIPRI), Seoul; Member, Advisory Council on Democratic & Peaceful Unification of Korea, Seoul; Secretary-General, Council on German-Korean Security Studies, Berlin]


Ms Carin Atterling Wedar, Lector, Theological Faculty, University of Gothenburg, Sweden; Secretary-General, Swedish Initiative for Peace, Security and International Relations, Stockholm; Member, Swedish Pugwash Group.