Current U.S. nuclear strategy identifies new nuclear counterforce missions as a means of impeding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The strategy appears to overvalue these counterforce missions. U.S. conventional weapons can destroy most targets that can be destroyed with nuclear weapons; only moderately deep and precisely located targets can be destroyed only by nuclear weapons. In addition, the benefits of nuclear counterforce-which could include deterrence, damage limitation, and the continued ability of the United States to pursue its foreign policy objectives-are relatively small, because the United States possesses large nuclear forces and highly effective conventional forces. Finally, nuclear counterforce would bring a variety of costs, including an increased probability of accidental war and unnecessary preemptive attacks in a severe crisis. Nevertheless, the case for nuclear counterforce is stronger than during the Cold War, when the enormous size and redundancy of U.S. and Soviet forces rendered counterforce useless. When facing a small nuclear force, the United States may decide to use counterforce to limit damage. Although complex trade-offs are involved, if there are critical targets that can be destroyed only with nuclear weapons, then under a narrow set of conditions the benefits of planning for damage limitation might exceed the dangers. The United States must not, however, rely on nuclear counterforce to support a more assertive foreign policy; doing so would unjustifiably increase the probability of nuclear war.

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