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The Erosion of US Nuclear Deterrence Credibility in the 21st Century

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Technical Report

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Air War College Air University Maxwell AFB United States

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The US maintains nuclear weapons to deter, dissuade, and defeat a range of immediate and potential conventional, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threats.1 No other weapon matches its physical and psychological power. While their emphasis in the US national security strategy has diminished since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons continue to serve as the ultimate deterrent. Looking forward, shifts in the strategic landscape are calling into question the value of nuclear weapons. Technology continues to advance exponentially, multiplying the number of threats and creating new domains such as cyberspace. When combined with political and social changes driven by globalization, the international relations system has become more complex by shifting the power balance between states empowering small groups and individuals and giving rise to new conceptions of conflict such as hybrid warfare. This increased complexity is challenging the credibility of the US nuclear arsenal and making deterrence more complicated. These developments raise an important question Is the credibility of the US nuclear stockpile waning given these changes in the international system To answer this question, this paper begins by providing a primer of traditional deterrence.

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