U.S. Strategy and Force Posture for an Era of Nuclear Tripolarity

August 2023 No Comments

Speakers: Dr. Keir Lieber (Georgetown University); Dr. Daryl Press (Dartmouth College)

Date: 6 September 2023

Speaker Session Summary

US nuclear deterrence has changed drastically during the last few decades. One of the factors forcing the US to change its nuclear deterrence doctrine was the emergence of nuclear tripolarity between the US, China, and Russia. How states manage nuclear deterrence and geopolitics has become an area of focus for media outlets and civil leaders amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s fast growing nuclear arsenal. Dr. Press stated that unless the US changes its current nuclear doctrine, focusing on how the US conducts nuclear deterrence and chooses targets for retaliatory strikes, then there is a strong likelihood that there will be a trilateral nuclear arms race. Current US doctrine has three principle missions: 1) deter a nuclear strike, 2) assure allies of the US’s commitment to protect international stability, and 3) mitigate the consequences if deterrence fails.

Dr. Press described several planning principles that the US should focus on for ensuring that its nuclear deterrence is always effective, even while undergoing doctrinal changes. These principles include ensuring the survivability of US retaliatory capabilities, ensuring that its weapons systems can last as long as possible and that upgrades happen quickly, and effectively weighing the cost vs benefit of targeting only the military instillations of adversaries with nuclear strikes. He also pointed out that the US must be prepared to respond during even unlikely scenarios, such as Russia and China trying to cripple US counterstrike capability by launching a coordinated nuclear attack. Several suggestions for how to build better US nuclear deterrence include creating proportional reactions to less extreme adversarial nuclear actions and broadening nuclear deterrence doctrine to include more than just counter force doctrine. Expanding nuclear doctrine will hopefully decrease the need for the US to maintain a massive nuclear arsenal during peacetime. 

Speaker Session Recording

Briefing Materials:

US strategy and force posture for an era of nuclear tripolarity – Atlantic Council


Keir Lieber is a Professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Department of Government.  He served as Director of the Security Studies Program from 2018-2022.  He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago, and his B.A. in political science and international relations from the University of Wisconsin.  Lieber’s research and teaching interests include nuclear weapons, deterrence, and strategy; technology and the causes of war; U.S. national security policy; and international relations theory.  He is co-author (with Daryl Press) of The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2020); author of War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology (Cornell University Press, 2005); and editor of War, Peace, and International Political Realism (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).  His articles have appeared in leading scholarly and foreign policy publications, including International Security, Security Studies, Foreign Affairs, and the Atlantic Monthly.  He has been awarded major fellowships from the Brookings Institution, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Council on Foreign Relations, and Smith Richardson Foundation.

Daryl Press is a Professor of Government at Dartmouth and the Director of the Dartmouth Initiative on Global Security. His research focuses on U.S. foreign policy, deterrence, and the future of warfare. He has published two books, Calculating Credibility (2005) and The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution (2020), and his work has appeared in leading academic journals such as International Security, the American Political Science Review, and Security Studies, as well as in popular outlets including Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. Press is the co-founder (with Keir Lieber) of the Strategic Forces Bootcamp, in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, and the Seminar on Conventional Force Analysis—a project to revitalize the field of open-source conventional military analysis. His current research is on the changing military balance in Asia and its implications for U.S foreign policy. Press is the Coordinator of the Rosenwald Postdoctoral Fellows Program at Dartmouth. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Chicago and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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