Nuclear Constraints and Concepts of Future Warfare

The United States Army and the Russian Army view each other as potential future adversaries. General Mark Milley, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, has spoken extensively about the threat Russia poses and its adversarial nature.[1] Likewise, the 2014 “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation” also identifies the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the primary threat to Russia.[2] While the U.S. and Russian militaries view each other in an adversarial way, both have developed different conclusions about future warfare based on the current environment and the constraining impact of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Army has returned to emphasizing large-scale operations against near-peer threats like Russia, as outlined in its recently updated doctrine in Field Manual 3-0: Operations.[3] In contrast, while Russia has retained some large formations—designed to deter attacks and if needed fight under nuclear conditions—Moscow has turned towards more ambiguous methods employing smaller, more agile conventional formations to achieve external political objectives.[4] In fact, General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, has suggested the greatest threat to Russia is from a U.S. sponsored political movement and other U.S. strategic capabilities, but not large-scale conventional operations.[5] Russia’s preparation for future warfare better appreciates the realities of nuclear constraints; rather than preparing for large-scale operations, the U.S. should prepare for small, politically constrained, ambiguous, limited conflict with Russia.

General Mark Milley, U.S. Army Chief of Staff (Timothy Hale/U.S. Army Photo)

One of the principal problems that will constrain future military operations and warfare is the presence of nuclear weapons. Numerous authors and studies articulate how nuclear weapons limit the use of force while simultaneously increasing the risk of escalation during large-scale conflicts between nuclear armed adversaries.[6] Nuclear constraints were evident during the 1999 Indo-Pakistan conflict and the 1969 Sino-Soviet War. Both remained extremely limited but still almost escalated to a nuclear exchange.[7] The constraints and risks outlined by these examples illustrate that future warfare between nuclear-armed adversaries will likely be limited, small-scale conflicts, or proxy wars, because if they do not a nuclear exchange is the likely result. Further, any nuclear exchange would both significantly threaten human life and nullify the importance of conventional large-scale combat operations.[8]

Russian concepts of future warfare appear well positioned to minimize America’s conventional military strength and maximize Moscow’s success within a nuclear constrained environment. Moscow knows it cannot match conventional U.S. capability or strength head-to-head.[9] However, due to the strategic environment and Russia’s view of the future, the Russian military and government recognize that large-scale warfare is unlikely.[10] Moscow recognizes the limits of force imposed by nuclear weapons and relies on a tough concept of strategic deterrence and nuclear diplomacy.[11] In fact, the concept of de-escalation emphasizes that if Moscow faces a large-scale conventional attack it could respond with a limited nuclear strike.[12] Further, current Russian doctrine states that Moscow retains the right to employ nuclear weapons in response to significant conventional attacks.[13] To operate within nuclear constraints and the environment, Russia’s efforts increasingly emphasize politically-focused operations.[14] General Gerasimov has even stated that warfare is now conducted in a four to one ratio of non-military to military measures.[15] Politically focused operations have enabled Russia’s efforts to blend multiple aspects of warfare—including war and peace, the levels of war, and various forms or methods of warfare—to better achieve political objectives below the threshold of conventional responses.[16] Russia has also begun transitioning from large corps and division formations to smaller brigade and battalion formations to better support political warfare while remaining below the threshold of major combat and also attempting to prevent escalation.[17] Thus, the Russian military seems poised to exploit opportunities using limited incremental operations behind their nuclear shield while controlling escalation if war occurs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

In contrast to the Russian view of future conflict, the U.S. Army has focused on large-scale operations for conflict against peer adversaries. Recent U.S. Army doctrine explicitly focuses on division, corps, and theater army formations and operations for high-intensity combat operations.[18] Further, the new doctrine emphasizes many basic concepts of the American way of warfare including offensive operations, reliance on technology, rapid aggressive maneuver, deep operations, and attacking command and control and other strategic capabilities. This doctrine, and the associated concept of future warfare, is founded on the assumptions that 1) major combat operations against a near-peer state competitor are likely in the near future and, 2) that clear victory is possible.[19] However, these assumptions are compromised by the risk posed by nuclear escalation. The presence of nuclear weapons makes the probability of large-scale conventional warfare low and ensures a decisive victory is unlikely. Further, many of the concepts espoused by U.S. Army doctrine are escalatory—attacking command and control structures, integrated air defense systems, and weapons of mass destruction facilities, for example—and increase the risk of inadvertent escalation. While Field Manual 3-0: Operations recognizes the likelihood of use of weapons of mass destruction would probably increase in a highly destructive conflict between near-peer adversaries, especially one between the U.S. and Russia, the doctrine provides little analysis of how to fight within the constraints imposed by nuclear weapons.[20] Inadequate guidance, and escalatory concepts, are dangerous because once policy makers authorize military operations, military leaders may take action and select targets, often based on doctrine, with potentially limited or ambiguous political oversight. Further, military leaders may not have the time, or the ability, to clearly articulate potential risks and underlying assumptions to political leaders prior to each action. Thus, current American doctrine for fighting a nuclear-armed, near-peer adversary displays significant gaps and is ill suited for a constrained environment; following the doctrine may well result in inadvertent escalation.

Russia recognizes and tries to maximize the use of nuclear constraints, while U.S. concepts are undermined and diminished by nuclear weapons.

A nuclear-constrained environment invalidates the two primary assumptions on which current U.S. doctrine and concepts are based. While the U.S. Army has avoided the implications of nuclear weapons, Russia has embraced nuclear reality and increased planning, training, exercises, concept development, and considerations of the role of nuclear weapons. Russian officials have threatened to employ a nuclear strike should NATO attempt military efforts in Crimea, and Moscow includes simulated nuclear strikes in most exercises.[21] It is clear Russia recognizes and tries to maximize the use of nuclear constraints, while U.S. concepts are undermined and diminished by nuclear weapons.

Since the United States’ near-peer adversaries possess nuclear weapons, the U.S. Army needs to prepare for small, politically constrained, ambiguous, limited conflict. There are three actions the U.S. military can take to address the dislocation between current concepts for fighting a near-peer adversary and the reality of nuclear constraints. First, the U.S. should continue revitalizing low-yield and flexible nuclear options.[22] Low-yield nuclear options will increase strategic flexibility and help deter Russia or other near-peers from using limited nuclear options by facilitating a potential response in kind. Second, the U.S. Army should initiate rapid concept development for operating in constrained, limited warfare environments to prevent accidental escalation to the nuclear threshold. Concept development should include increased training and exercises with the Army operating in a limited warfare capacity. Because of these constraints, the Army should organize and prepare for small, limited, politically focused, ambiguous conflicts using a strategy of exhaustion, rather than a strategy of annihilation. A strategy of annihilation will most likely lead to nuclear escalation. Third, because of these changes, the U.S. Army should refocus on smaller unit combat operations at the battalion and brigade level. Small units that are rapidly deployable and strategically flexible could facilitate the U.S. fighting small limited warfare in a coherent manner without accidentally escalating the size or scope of the conflict. Without a reorientation on the future, the U.S. Army doctrine and concepts are not useful and potentially limit policymakers’ options, or worse, risk accidental nuclear escalation. 

Zachary L. Morris is a U.S. Army officer and a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Headers Image: Artist's rendering of a nuclear weapon detonated in a large city. (Levant News)


[1] Association of the United States Army (AUSA), “AUSA 2016 Swight David Eisenhower Luncheon, Speaker GEN Mark A. Milley,” AUSA Defense Video Imagery Distribution System (4OCT2016); available from <>. Accessed 2MAY2018.

[2] Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United Kingdom, “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, December 25, 2014,” Press Release (29JUN2015); available from <>.  See Section III, Para 27. Accessed 02MAY2018. Also discussed in Olga Oliker, Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2016), 3.

[3] Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-0: Operations (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters Department of the Army, 2017), Foreword.

[4] Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016), 25 & 33..

[5] Charles K. Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Military Review (January-February 2016): 37.

[6] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 20. Matthew Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 18. Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 9. Barry R. Posen, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[7] Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb, 25 & 124.  

[8] Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon, “Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering,” Scientific American, Vol. 302, No. 1 (January 2010): 74-81.

[9] Pasi Eronen, Russian Hybrid Warfare: How to Confront a New Challenge to the West (Washington D.C.: Foundation for Defense of Democracies Press, 2016), 6.

[10] Mark Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War,” In Moscow’s Shadows (27FEB2013); available from <>. Accessed 02MAY2018. See also Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” 36. Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United Kingdom, “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, December 25, 2014.” Eronen, Russian Hybrid Warfare, 6.

[11] Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War,” & Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” 35-36.

[12] Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” 36.

[13] Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United Kingdom, “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, December 25, 2014.”

[14] Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War.”

[15] Timothy Thomas, “The Evolving Nature of Russia’s Way of War,” Military Review (July-August 2017): 37. Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” 34.

[16] Thomas, “The Evolving Nature of Russia’s Way of War,” 36. Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War.”

[17] Grau and Bartles, The Russian Way of War, 28-33 & 37-40.

[18] Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-0: Operations, Foreword & ix.

[19] Association of the United States Army (AUSA), “AUSA 2016 Dwight David Eisenhower Luncheon, Speaker GEN Mark A. Milley.” Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-0: Operations, Foreword.

[20] Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-0: Operations, pp 1-4.

[22] Eronen, Russian Hybrid Warfare, 15.

[23] Valerie Insinna, “To Deter Russia, US Needs New Low-Yield Nukes, Says STRATCOM Head,” Defense News (20MAR2018); available from <>. Accessed 02MAY2018.