by Michael Brenner on 30 Jan 2020 0 Comment

An oddity of our times is the cavalier manner by which analysts of public issues ignore acquired understanding and history. Their motto seems to be: the world begins anew when I first take note of it. We have seen this phenomenon in the rolling discussion of responses to the Great Financial Collapse. For many, Keynes might as well never have existed and the experiences of the 1930s juxtaposed to the post-war period never occurred. The dogmatic dedication to austerity has wreaked ruin on economies across Europe, much of the LDC world – most recently, Tunisia. Unrest there stems directly from the dogmatic IMF imposed ‘conditionality’ measures which never work but guarantee political instability. Yet, the faith in the tried-and-failed persists.


These days, it is nuclear issues reawakened by the Iran question and the North Korean capability that are getting treated as something novel under the sun. At the same time, our most senior commanders are talking publicly about war with Russia or North Korea – emboldened by President Trump. The concentrated examination of the logic and psychology of nuclear strategy over the years produced analysis of remarkable sophistication. It acquired further authority by the experience of the past 70 years. Yet, today self-proclaimed experts and pundits take exceptional liberties that reflect neither focused thought nor history nor any awareness whatsoever that the matters they freely pronounce on have been addressed previously in a thorough-going fashion. This situation has prompted me to attempt a summing up of what we have learned since 1945 and apply it to present and prospective circumstances.



As a necessary assist to consideration of the strategic implications of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and Iran’s possible capabilities, it is worthwhile to review the experience of the nuclear age as it has been analyzed by some very sharp minds since 1946. The acquired wisdom can be distilled into these propositions.


1. When we speak of an encounter between two nuclear armed states, the weapons’ primary utility is to deter the other. The risk and consequences of nuclear war are so great as to outweigh any possible advantage in trying to use them.


2. This condition of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is stable when the following conditions are met: both sides have the capacity to withstand a first strike while retaining the means to deliver a nuclear riposte; and when there is the will to do so. No one has ever thought of testing the latter.


3. The absence of an assured second strike capability on one side does introduce an element of instability by both enticing a first strike by the superior and encouraging the inferior to strike preemptively. That condition increases the risk of unintentional nuclear use to some immeasurable degree. The India-Pakistan stand-off confirms the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons even under imperfect conditions of deterrence. That is to say: relatively small arsenals; no invulnerable delivery systems; contiguous geography; major points of contention; and a history of past combat (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999). 


4. There is a further condition for a stable binary nuclear relationship; sophisticated and dependable command and control/fail-safe systems, e.g. permissive action links on nuclear delivery systems. That serves everyone’s interest – with one exception. The exception may be an inferior nuclear state that wishes to foster anxiety that its weapons might be activated accidently at the height of a crisis – thereby deterring a superior (nuclear and conventional) antagonist from pressing its advantage. A similar logic points to cultivating an image of being ‘irrational.’ Would the United States have invaded Iraq if it believed a ‘crazy’ Saddam had 3 or 4 nuclear weapons? Would it consider aggressive action against Iran if it believed the ‘mad Mullahs’ in possession of 3 or 4 nuclear weapons?


5. A nuclear armed state that deploys an effective ballistic defense system (BMD) has a theoretical possibility of neutralizing a nuclear armed antagonist’s ability to retaliate. That could provide some incentive to launch a disarming first strike. The incentive increases if the BMD endowed state faces only a rudimentary arsenal. The same logic applies to the superior power’s taking risky actions involving conventional forces. The key factor in all these calculations is the level of confidence in one’s BMD’s reliability. ‘Almost’ is not good enough when nuclear weapons are present. No such reliable BMD system that can provide an impenetrable shield currently exists. The Patriot and other systems which the United States has been promoting as protection against some conjectured Iranian threat do not meet the standard.


6. Can the inferior nuclear state deter the superior from launching conventional attacks? We do not have much data on this – especially since there is no case of the superior state trying to do so. Would an Iran with a rudimentary nuclear arsenal be able to deter an American or Israeli-led assault a la Iraq by threatening troop concentrations and/or fleet elements in the Persian Gulf? All we can say is that it will heighten caution.


7. If the inferior state (e.g. N. Korea) has the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the superior’s homeland, that cautionary element grows by several factors of magnitude.


8. Can the nuclear state provide a credible deterrent umbrella for an ally that is conventionally inferior to a superior armed enemy? (Western Europe facing the Red Army). The NATO and South Korea experience says ‘yes.’ That is, if the stakes are highly valued by the state providing the “nuclear umbrella”, e.g. the integrity of Western Europe or Japan. Again, the risks of escalating to nuclear exchanges have a conservative effect on everyone.


9. What of the nuclear taboo? It didn’t exist at the time of Hiroshima/Nagasaki – for two reasons. The devastating effects of nuclear weapons had not yet been demonstrated; we were in the midst of a total war with Japan. That taboo exists today and will inhibit anyone who is tempted to use nuclear weapons in a compellent mode.


10. This above logic manifestly has been absorbed by everyone who has been in a position to order a nuclear strike. No civilian leader (and nearly all military commanders) with the authority to launch a nuclear attack ever believed that the result would be other than a massive exchange – mutual suicide for those with large arsenals. Certainly, that was true from the early 1960s onwards once the USSR had deployed reliable retaliatory nuclear weapons and the notion of ‘winning’ a nuclear exchange of any kind faded in the Pentagon and among its intellectual auxiliaries. This sobering reality did not encourage risk-taking at lower levels of conflict. Just the opposite.


Ancillary Propositions


1a. To the extent that we take seriously the technical and psychological requirements for deterrence (and I’m not at all sure this holds - see ‘1’ above), the logic tells us that the strategy most effective for deterrence is the one that you absolutely do not want in place in the events of hostilities. Example: a tripwire or doomsday mechanism. Works wonderfully as deterrence, but... That’s why the development of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) was such a boost to stable deterrence.


2a. Two things deter: certainty (see ‘3’); and total uncertainty (see ‘1’ above). Certainty can take the form of tripwires: e.g. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe deployed on the battlefield that almost surely would escalate into strategic, inter-continental exchanges. Certainty could take another form: “launch-on-warning.” That is to say, as soon as incoming missiles are detected – in whatever number, on whatever trajectory – ICBMs and SLBMs are activated and launched. That also obviates the risk that an incoming strike might ‘decapitate’ the targeted government’s leadership – leaving it paralyzed to respond. Knowledge that such arrangements are in place should be the ultimate deterrent to an intentional first-strike. However, in the event of an accidental launch or limited launch, you have committed both sides to suicide. The U.S. government never has stated that it has in place any such arrangement to provides a direct link between warning system and ICBMs, but there are recurrent assertions that in fact they have existed since Jimmy Carter’s day.


3a. The best thing to do about nuclear weapons in your possession or in the possession of an enemy is to forget about them. The point is that we need not depend on formal rationality (awareness of ends, means, probabilities) when it comes to nuclear weapons. The key element is perceptual. Nuclear weapons have been taboo since August 1945 and accepted as such by everyone who has been in charge of them. You get into trouble when you begin to try thinking it through from scratch because some just might skip a logical step or give way to emotion. (Kissinger and others did this in the 1950s and 60s with their far-fetched ideas about limited nuclear war restricted to tactical nuclear weapons, TNWs. See his now forgotten Nuclear Weapons and National Strategy–1958. That book made his reputation as a strategist).


One Conclusion: India and Pakistan should shut down all the think tanks devoted to nuclear strategy.


In nuclear matters, it is dangerous to put together a team of intelligent strategic planners who have plenty of time and a mandate to think out of the box. They likely will generate intricate schemes which have a surface plausibility but in fact only a tenuous connection to reality. The performance of the RAND Corp in service to the Air Force confirms that fear. Here is an example of the extreme proposals that can emanate from this type of blue-sky thinking: One idea that got off the drawing board envisaged a reaction to signals that NORAD had picked up flights of Soviet missiles on a trajectory pointing to our own missile silos. It called for a synchronized startup of our 1,000 plus liquid-fueled ATLAS rocket engines which would produce such a tremendous reverberation as to stop the rotation of the earth for a micro-second. As a result, the Soviet missiles would miss their targets – winding up in Missouri cornfields, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone Park instead. Physicists possessing a modicum of knowledge realized that it was a ridiculous expectation – and, if such a shock could be produced, the earth itself would split open. (See Ellsberg for a fuller account).


In short, the nuclear doctrine with attendant deployments that is most effective as deterrent is the worst to have in place were actual hostilities to break out.


Unfortunately, there remain a few of these Dr. Strangelove types scattered throughout the vast defense establishment who entertain such looney ideas. One was Dick Cheney who pushed a plan for a massive air assault on Iran that entailed possible use of TNWs. At one point in the 2005-2006 period, it was viewed favorably by George Bush. Its eventual dismissal stemmed in good part from staunch opposition by the Pentagon brass to the nuclear component. As one participant in the policy process later said: ‘Bush and Cheney were dead serious about the nuclear planning …. and the civilian hierarchy feels extraordinarily betrayed by the brass.”


That is by no means the only occasion when the White House seriously considered using nuclear weapons in fighting a non-nuclear foe.[1]


4a. For a while, concocting nuclear scenarios - strategic (counterforce) and tactical focused on TNWs in Europe - was a sort of intellectual parlor game among defense intellectuals (including some military people). By the mid-70s, it ran its course as everyone came to accept the Bomb even if they didn’t come to love it. The role of SLBMs in solidifying MAD was the capstone.


Defense intellectuals are prone to parlor games - as witness the fashionable COIN.


8a. Here is one general thought about extended deterrence as a ‘generic’ type. Throughout the Cold War years, the United States and its strategically dependent allies wrestled with the question of credibility. Years of mental tergiversations never resolved it. For one intrinsic reason: it is harder to convince an ally than it is to convince a potential enemy of your readiness to use the threat of retaliation to protect them. There are two aspects to this oddity. First, the enemy has to consider the psychology of only one other party; the ally has to consider the psychology of two other parties. Then, the enemy knows the full direct costs of underestimating our credibility and, in a nuclear setting, will always be ultra conservative in its calculations. By contrast, the ally that has not experienced the hard realities of both being a possible target of a nuclear attack and the possible originator of a nuclear attack cannot fully share in this psychology.


8b. Implications for the Gulf. On the downside, if the Europeans, South Koreans and Taiwanese at times doubted the credibility of the nuclear umbrella then the Gulf leaders will - given the greater cultural and historical distance.  On the positive side, it would take a hell of a lot less to deter an embryonic Iranian nuclear capability that cannot reach the United States than it did to deter the Soviet Union. 


There is much loose talk about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East were the Sunni states truly worried about the prospect of an Iranian “breakout” fifteen or so years from now. This proliferation scenario is fatally flawed. For one thing, a quick move to build a bomb within 90 days (as the Israelis say) or even year is nonsense. There is a lot more to the development of an atomic weapon than accumulating sufficient HEU. You don’t just pile it up in a corner, cover with a layer of dog-eared nuclear engineering manuals, and then come back a few months later to find that you have acquired a weapon by a process of spontaneous generation. The engineering and manufacturing requirements are stringent. A competent, disinterested expert on matters of nuclear engineering and design will tell you that 3–5 years is a much more reasonable estimate – if there are no obstacles encountered. (See ADDENDUM)


Second, speculation about a Saudi nuclear program should stress the capabilities factor rather than the factor of will. Building a primitive nuclear bomb has become progressively easier as knowledge and technology are more readily available. Still, a development program requires sophisticated engineering skills and a deep industrial base. Saudi Arabia lacks both and will continue to lack both for the indefinite future. Indeed, it is very thin even by regional standards. The KSA is unable to manufacture all but the most basic mechanical products. That deficit cannot be offset by contracted specialists. So once again we have supposedly responsible people holding responsible positions playing games of make-believe as if their politically driven pronouncements were grounded in reality and logically argued.


(To be concluded….)




1)      In 1969-70, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought to end the Vietnam War – on American terms. In effort to persuade the Soviet leadership through hints and gestures that unless the Kremlin applied its full weight on Hanoi to accept terms of a settlement satisfactory to Washington, Nixon might consider a resort to battlefield nuclear weapons. Nixon and Kissinger went so far as to call in Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to convey the message personally in the hope of scaring him and the Kremlin leadership. The Soviets ignored the menace as a bluff lacking all credibility. (See the account in Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War by Jeffrey P. Kimball & William Burr  University of Kansas Press 2015).


It also is taken up in detail by Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Bloomsbury USA 2017).  Ellsberg, referencing what he believes are previously unexamined classified documents, gives greater credence to Nixon’s nuclear threats. He asserts that multiple plans drawn up by the President and Kissinger went further, and were more detailed, that any other nuclear war-fighting contingencies the Pentagon has prepared for under other Presidents. Among the array of actions plotted in their conjectural plans was the bizarre idea of attacking a key point on the Ho Chi Min Trail (the Pass) with ‘small’ nuclear weapons. This is like nuking the I-278 Interchange of the New Jersey Turnpike in an attempt to stem the infiltration of “Saturday night specials” into NYC. Let’s bear in mind that this was the thinking of two certifiably sane men – unlike the present incumbent of the White House.


Ellsberg goes on to claim that the consistent United States refusal to sign a “no-first-use” pledge reflects not just the role of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) in NATO doctrine, but also other situations considered by almost all Presidents since 1945 as involving high American stakes.


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