The Air Force is crafting new policy that envisions more fluidity between conventional and nuclear weapons, as well as a broader range of options to keep others from using their own nuclear weapons.
The U.S. has long treated conventional and nuclear warfare as separate concepts, but that’s beginning to change, said Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
Over the past year and a half, nuclear experts on the Air Staff have crafted an overview of “conventional and nuclear integration,” in which American service members must be able to survive a conflict that involves a nuclear weapon.
“The multipolar world is presenting different challenges for us,” Clark said at an Aug. 19 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. “The lines are a bit more blurred between conventional and nuclear, so that’s driven us to start thinking in ways that may be different than we thought about in the last 20 years or so.”
A multipolar landscape, where China also poses a top nuclear threat, is the biggest difference from nuclear policy 30 years ago, when defusing tension with Russia was the singular goal, according to Maj. Gen. Michael J. Lutton, who oversees ICBMs as the head of 20th Air Force.
Now, adversaries see conventional and nuclear options as two points on a broader spectrum of conflict, rather than keeping nuclear warfare largely off-limits. Countries like Russia, China, and North Korea seem to understand they are outmatched by America’s non-nuclear bombs and missiles, and are looking for ways to exploit other weaknesses.
“We have to be able to reconstitute our capability. We have to be able to plan and execute integrated operations, multidomain, whether conventional or nuclear, and most importantly, we have to be able to fight in, around, and through that environment to achieve our objectives,” Clark said.