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The US Ought to Pursue Nuclear First Strike Capability


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Resolution: The US ought to pursue nuclear first strike capability.

Nuclear first strike capability. From Encyclopedia Britannica: "First strike, also known as preemptive nuclear strike, attack on an enemy’s nuclear arsenal that effectively prevents retaliation against the attacker. A successful first strike would cripple enemy missiles that are ready to launch and would prevent the opponent from readying others for a counterstrike by targeting the enemy’s nuclear stockpiles and launch facilities." In simple terms, first strike capability means you can disarm the enemy's nuclear arsenal by launching first. This might be achieved through excellent counterforce targeting strategies and technologies, along with sufficiently effective ballistic missile defense systems.

Round Structure:
R1 Opening statements
R2 Response to R1
R3 Response to R2 and closing arguments (no wholly new arguments may be introduced in this round)

If voters determine one of the debaters has violated the round structure, they must award conduct to their opponent.

Round 1
Cost and difficulty
I want to begin by drawing to readers' attentions just how high of a standard our nuclear forces must meet if they are to conduct a disarming first-strike: US political leaders would need to be highly confident that every enemy nuclear weapon would be rendered un-deliverable by a first-strike, or else the incentives against preemption would be too strong, as McGeorge Bundy, a principal adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, makes clear:
In the real world of real political leaders... a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder
This is the high standard that must be met to achieve true nuclear first-strike capability: not one American city can be at risk of nuclear retaliation. If the President's generals cannot promise they can destroy every enemy warhead in a first-strike, we have not truly achieved first-strike capability. Thus, although it is theoretically possible to achieve first-strike capability, it is extremely difficult.

Furthermore, it is expensive. Missile defense systems, which would likely be integral to any first-strike strategy, have swallowed up around $250 billion dollars over their unsuccessful history. From the Arms Control Center:
The only program designed to protect the entire United States homeland from a long-range missile attack is the Ground-based Midcourse (GMD) program. GMD has a failing test record: a success rate of just 50 percent in highly scripted tests, including three misses in the last five tries.
This poor success rate, even under ideal conditions, should not be surprising. After all, missile defense has been described as trying to hit a bullet with a bullet.

Inherently destabilizing nature of first-strike capability
I will divide this section into three sub-points, which all work together to demonstrate the inherently destabilizing effect of possessing first-strike capability.

a) Use 'Em or Lose 'Em (UELE)
UELE is a perfect phrase to describe a particular dilemma of nuclear weapons strategy. If waiting means risking the loss of your nuclear arsenal, there are strong incentives to use that arsenal quickly, especially if one fears an enemy preemptive strike is imminent.

Thus, if the US were to possess first-strike capability over an enemy nuclear state, that enemy state would be extremely skittish about the threat of preemption in any crisis situation. At minimum, the enemy state would be incentivized to keep its weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch at the first sign of an imminent US first-strike. UELE in the context of hair-trigger alert is dangerous, because it increases the risk of accidental war. All it takes is one false alarm and a national leader making decisions in the paranoia-inducing environment of a nuclear crisis to cause accidental nuclear war.

Even outside the hair-trigger context, the simple knowledge that the US could choose to preemptively destroy one's arsenal at any time could lead an enemy state to fire first. This has been discussed with respect to North Korea. Although my opponent and I have agreed, for the purpose of this debate, the US does not currently have first-strike capability over any state, the North Korea example is still instructive. We may not have first-strike capability, but we could wipe out quite a bit of the North Korean arsenal, and any strike would be designed to maximize how many warheads we eliminate. Thus, the Kim regime has ample incentive to use them before they lose them.

b) The only way to be safe
UELE considers first-strike capabilities from the perspective of the state on the receiving end of a preemptive strike. But what about the state doing the preempting?

In the event of a serious crisis between the US and another nuclear state we had the ability to conduct a disarming first-strike against, there would be immense pressure on the US to preempt, given that preemption is the only way for the US government to guarantee the safety of the homeland.

c) Both sides understand the other's incentives
This is where first-strike capability's destabilizing nature really becomes clear and powerful. Both sides can infer what the other side is thinking. The US knows the state they could launch a disarming first-strike against is under UELE pressures, and the state under UELE pressures knows the US is aware the only way to guarantee its safety is through preemption. And both sides know the other is aware of their awareness... and so on, deeper and deeper into a spiral of mutual distrust and fear.

In short, possessing nuclear first-strike capabilities is incredibly dangerous. It puts unacceptably strong pressures on both states to use nuclear weapons.

Environmental and economic effects
Even if the US were to conduct a disarming nuclear first-strike against an enemy state, it's not as if the American people would escape unscathed.

Even a 'small' nuclear war could have disastrous global consequences:
Even a small nuclear war between India and Pakistan, with each country detonating 50 Hiroshima-size atom bombs... could produce so much smoke that temperatures would fall below those of the Little Ice Age of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries, shortening the growing season around the world and threatening the global food supply. Furthermore, there would be massive ozone depletion, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth's surface.
Also, the highly globalized nature of the world economy means that even a single nuclear weapon detonation could be extremely disruptive.

The US would suffer from the global chaos nuclear war would unleash, even if the homeland was not targeted with nuclear weapons. A massive economic downturn, disruptions to global food supplies, and other extreme disturbances would at bare-minimum grievously harm the American economy. Additionally, the instability wrought by nuclear war would of course create a more conflict-prone world, thus leaving America less secure than before.

For these reasons, it should be clear that even a perfect disarming first-strike would not keep America safe. The chaos created by nuclear war would inflict serious costs on the US.

Achieving true first-strike capability would be costly and difficult. Even if the US managed to pull it off, we - and the world - would not be better for it. Possessing first-strike capability generates extreme escalation pressures in crisis situations. The logic of UELE would push the threatened state to quickly use its nuclear weapons. Knowing this, the US would feel pressured to quickly launch a preemptive strike. Thus, the pursuit of first-strike substantially raises the risk of nuclear war occurring. Finally, even if the US executed a perfect first-strike, Americans would still suffer greatly from the effects of nuclear war.

The tragic irony, then, is that possessing first-strike capability - a policy intended to provide absolute security - would actually make America far less safe.
Thanks, Jeff_Goldblum! I will now begin my constructive. 

I affirm the Resolved: The US Ought to Pursue Nuclear First Strike Capability.


Historical precedence has consistently shown that the presence of nuclear weapons serves as a great deterrent for conflict. So great, in fact, that ever since the invention of nuclear weapons, we have been thrust into an era known as the “Long Peace.”

According to the Lexington Institute

“Since August 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about seven to 10 million people have died from conflict. Compare this to the two world wars that caused about 70 to 100 million deaths prior to the creation of nuclear weapons.”

But the World Wars were unprecedented, so let’s look at some more statistics. 
According to the Human Security Report in 2013,
“What Pinker describes as the “most interesting statistic since 1945” does not lend itself well to being displayed in a chart. This is because it is a single number—zero. Zero is the number that applies to an astonishing collection of categories of war during the two-thirds of a century that has elapsed since the end of the deadliest war of all time. “Zero” refers to the use of nuclear weapons in war; to the number of wars between the two Cold War superpowers; to the number of great-power wars since 1953; and to the number of interstate wars in Western Europe or between major developed powers.”

Indeed: while proxy wars and civil conflicts have happened here and there, conflict between the great powers of the world has ceased, and all of them have nuclear weapons. 

This is because of the concept of deterrence. From a US perspective, the US having the ability to attack and retaliate with nuclear weapons deters countries from threatening the US in the first place. 

However, this deterrence is not perfect. Other nations (such as China) are building their arsenals and modernizing their weapons, and thus threatening US dominance.

While traditionally China has maintained a moderate nuclear stance, with the rise of Chinese nationalism, according to National Interest,
 “We have heard some new voices calling to ‘build a nuclear force appropriate for a great power.’
As China has deployed first the road-mobile DF-31, then DF-31A and now JL-2 (a submarine-launched nuclear weapon), China’s nuclear strategy has moved from “assured retaliation” to what one may term “completely assured retaliation.” 
Even further, China has started testing the 
“DF-41, which will finally provide China with the capability to launch missiles from north central China and hit all targets in the U.S. (except Florida).”

China is expected to surpass the US's absolute GDP by 2030, and from 1996 to 2015, China increased its military spending by 620%. Paired with the rise in Chinese nationalism, the continued development of Chinese nuclear capabilities are inevitable. 

This is why we need first strike capability. The threat of being able to preemptively strike and disable the nuclear arsenal of a threatening nation such as China deters them from acting aggressively in the first place. 

As Striking First elaborates:
“states tend to avoid posing clearly dangerous threats against targets that could effectively eliminate them by striking first.” 

This is out of simple self-preservation, and we would see the same behavior from China and other nations. 
Further, if there is strength in numbers, than further deterrence can be achieved through the use of NATO nuclear sharing. Currently, the US holds hundreds of nuclear weapons in NATO countries to guard against threats, and if each country is equipped with the ability to strike first, then the incentive of threatening the US and our allies diminishes exponentially for aggressive nations like China. This is achievable, as the US frequently modernizes European nuclear stock. 

Utilitarian Benefit

Still, even if deterrence fails (which it doesn’t, countries are not suicidal), pre-emptive strikes actually help limit nuclear war in the event that a war became imminent. 

Consider some situations posed by Bloomberg:

“Say a president received intelligence reports that the North Koreans were planning either a nuclear attack themselves, or to sell some of their weapons to hostile terrorist groups. Assume also that a direct ground invasion was infeasible (likely) and that bunker-buster bombs would not suffice to take out the regime (also likely). In that situation, the U.S. might well entertain the notion of a limited nuclear strike on North Korea, if only to forestall an even greater catastrophe… Or, if you prefer, take a hypothetical from history. Say Nazi Germany still was fighting World War II when the Manhattan Project succeeded in building a few nuclear bombs. If the Germans were on the verge of getting their own nuclear weapon, would you have wanted America to have the freedom to take out the Nazi bomb?

It is hard to see why the U.S. should voluntarily surrender this capability.”
As Striking First continues:
“launching the anticipatory attack will dramatically reduce the expected costs of the war. If offense is dominant in the relationship—if attacking promises great success while defense is unpromising—the first-strike advantage will tend to be large,”
Indeed, pre-emptive strike reduces the costs of wars that are already imminent, so why not use this capability? 

Conclusion and Summary:

Historical precedence has shown that nuclear weapons prevent major conflict. However, with the rise of rival powers, the US needs to be able to contend with first strike capability. This capability would deter countries from threatening the US. Even if war became imminent, however, the first strike capability would reduce overall cost of conflict. 

Thanks to all who are reading this far in the debate. Onto you, Jeff!

Round 2
Thanks to my opponent for their reply.

Re: Deterrence
The Long Peace
I agree the post-WWII international order has featured great power peace brought on by nuclear deterrence. However, let's not lose sight of the precise mechanism behind this stability. When two states both possess secure second-strike capabilities, they are in a state of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which inhibits aggression. First strike capability undermines this framework and thus increases the risk of nuclear war.

China is expected to surpass the US's absolute GDP by 2030, and from 1996 to 2015, China increased its military spending by 620%... continued development of Chinese nuclear capabilities are inevitable.

This is why we need first strike capability. The threat of being able to preemptively strike and disable the nuclear arsenal of a threatening nation such as China deters them from acting aggressively in the first place.
I will address the (critical) concept in bold shortly, but for the moment I'll say this about China: it is precisely because we can expect continued economic growth and nuclear modernization from China that it would be futile to pursue first strike capability against them. As I established in R1, the standard for true first strike capability is very high, and it's extremely unlikely the US could find the economic and political capital to build an arsenal so overwhelmingly superior to China's that we could achieve first strike capability. It is far more likely that, if we tried, we would merely bankrupt ourselves in a fruitless arms race.

further deterrence can be achieved through the use of NATO nuclear sharing... if each country is equipped with the ability to strike first, then the incentive of threatening the US and our allies diminishes exponentially... This is achievable, as the US frequently modernizes European nuclear stock.
With all due respect, my opponent's sources do nothing to suggest the feasibility of providing each NATO member nuclear first strike capability, as defined in this debate. The first source merely describes how US nuclear weapons are essentially placed under the care of certain NATO members, while the second briefly mentions modernization of tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable aircraft (neither of which imply strong potential for achieving first strike capability). Even if achieving first strike were possible for NATO, it would not be desirable. This brings me to my next point.

Deterrent Benefits of First Strike Capability
The threat of being able to preemptively strike and disable the nuclear arsenal of a threatening nation such as China deters them from acting aggressively in the first place.
My opponent argues here that first strike capability essentially frightens potential enemies into submission. After all, what rational state would seek a crisis with a state that can wipe it off the face of the Earth without fear of reprisal? I accept this basic point, but we would be mistaken to conclude this means pursuit of first strike is actually in US interests, for two reasons.

First, consider the other side of the coin. If the enemy is cowed into submission by our first strike capability, by the same logic, the US must be emboldened to take greater risks. It is quite possible that just as many nuclear crises would break out in a world in which the US possessed first strike capability as in a world in which the US was subject to the traditional constraints of MAD, because US boldness would compensate for enemy timidness.

Second, regardless of how often nuclear crises would break out in a US first strike world, when they do break out, the probable consequence would be nuclear war. I will not reiterate my R1 arguments on this matter in their entirety, but suffice to say, there are extreme pressures on both sides to strike first when one state possesses true first strike capability. These extreme pressures mean nuclear war would be far more likely during a crisis than under MAD. If readers want a refresher on this argument, I suggest they review my R1 section "Inherently destabilizing nature of first-strike capability."

In sum, my opponent is correct to point out that US first strike capability would likely cause the state we have first strike against to step carefully on the international stage, but this doesn't necessarily mean nuclear crises will be less common, as increased US boldness could make up for the timidness of our foe. Furthermore, regardless of how often nuclear crises would develop, when they did, nuclear war would be very likely.

Re: Utilitarian Benefit
pre-emptive strike reduces the costs of wars that are already imminent, so why not use this capability?
We have here the idea of damage limitation. In its strongest form, I would articulate my opponent's point as: "If you have to fight a nuclear war, you should prefer to possess the capability to strike first and completely disarm your opponent, rather than prefer a situation in which your opponent retains second-strike capability."

This is true, of course, but only "if you have to fight a nuclear war". As I have stated multiple times, possession of first strike capability puts incredible escalatory pressures on both sides. Consequently, one or both states may come to feel that nuclear war is inevitable, leading them to move first. These escalation pressures do not exist under the constraints of MAD. Because both sides would suffer retaliation if they struck first, both sides can trust the other to practice restraint.

As such, this idea - "pre-emptive strike reduces the costs of wars that are already imminent, so why not use this capability?" - constitutes something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. First strike capability allows the US to protect itself when war is imminent, and first strike capability makes war imminent. The policy necessarily creates situations in which the awful act of nuclear first strike may be the least bad option.

And to be clear, disarming first strike is definitely a least bad option, at best. It cannot be considered a good option. As I covered in R1, nuclear war anywhere in the world, even if it did not result in detonations on US soil, would be grievously harmful to US interests. Since US possession of first strike capability makes this occurrence more likely, we should not pursue it.

  • I have shown that first strike capability does not necessarily reduce the number of nuclear crises the US would experience.
  • More importantly, when crises do break out, US possession of first strike capability would make nuclear war far more likely than under MAD.
  • Even though a disarming nuclear first strike would be preferable to suffering nuclear strikes on the homeland, possessing first strike capability would likely force us to exercise this option, which would not be conducive to US interests.
  • It is far more preferable to exist in a state of MAD, in which the risk of nuclear war is far lower.

Hi all! I don't want to have a sob story, but in short: some personal stuff is going on and I am in no condition to be debating a super rigorous debate at the moment. I concede this debate. Thanks for the fun while it lasted, Jeff_Goldblum!
Round 3
Thanks to my opponent for a good debate while it lasted. I appreciate that he had the courtesy to formally concede. Best of luck with IRL.
Vote my opponent, thank you.