Managing and operating the nation’s nuclear weapons, forces, and delivery systems is an enormous responsibility and among the most demanding of military missions. The men and women responsible for executing that mission—for acting as the custodians of the nuclear arsenal of the United States—must perform difficult and sometimes tedious tasks in highly challenging environments and under demanding expectations. They do so amid a changing “nuclear landscape” that has, since the end of the Cold War, seen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy decline as the concept of deterrence has become increasingly abstract in the twenty-first century.
Over the last few years, many observers, including key Department of Defense (DoD) officials, have commented on the need for DoD to better communicate a more compelling rationale for why the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains essential to the post–Cold War strategy of the United States and to the security of the American people. Those airmen and sailors who comprise the nuclear workforce, and who are asked to dedicate their lives in service of their mission, deserve a persuasive explanation as to why their unwavering stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will matter as long as these weapons exist in the world. In the assessment of some, including this study’s authors, a coherent narrative about the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not been sufficiently stated and promulgated across the force. This is to the detriment of efforts to respond to the broader challenges facing the nuclear enterprise, as a compelling rationale contributes to a healthier, more vibrant, and better motivated nuclear workforce. Recognizing this need, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Nuclear Matters endorsed the three objectives of this study:
- 1. Track the changing historical narrative for U.S. nuclear weapons as it has evolved from 1989 to the present.
- 2. Evaluate the current narrative’s strengths and weaknesses.
- 3. Articulate a rationale that better meets the needs of the U.S. Air Force and Navy forces responsible for supporting and executing the U.S. nuclear mission, inclusive of the mid-level commanders, the junior officers, and the enlisted.
To be clear, this study does not make new nuclear policy. At its core, this study aims to create a dialogue with the nation’s nuclear personnel about the rationales for the U.S. nuclear arsenal that already exist—some of which have been stated at the highest levels of leadership—to ask what the nuclear forces actually hear, what works and what does not, and what motivates them on a daily basis. Over the course of the research effort, however, it also became evident that, while the message matters, the individuals who deliver the rationale, the means by which it is communicated, and the context in which it is received are also important.