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Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been reexamining its basic assumptions about foreign policy and instruments of national security policy. This study examines the possible roles of nuclear weapons in contemporary U.S. national security policy. The U.S. nuclear forces are only somewhat reduced from what the nation has maintained for decades. It has a range of nuclear strategies and postures among which to choose: from abolition of U.S. nuclear weapons, aggressive reductions and “dealerting,” “business as usual, only smaller,” more aggressive nuclear posture, to nuclear emphasis. For most foreseeable combat situations, advanced conventional weapons are probably sufficiently effective if there are enough of them and they are used properly; still, if other options are inadequate and the stakes are high enough, nuclear weapons could give the United States a decisive advantage. Nuclear weapons remain the final guarantor of U.S. security, and the United States might wish to retain the traditional threat of nuclear retaliation to deter threats to its national existence. At the same time, it should have the operational flexibility to in fact use a modest number of nuclear weapons if the need were overwhelming and other options were inadequate. Training should include use of nuclear weapons in exercises. Any nuclear strategy the United States chooses will require a different set of nuclear forces and operations practices than it has now.

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The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and performed within the RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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