It's Time to Talk About Nukes Again
Speaking to a group of children, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised a topic that has seen little attention in more than a generation—nuclear war. While many American analysts were struck when Putin broached the subject, the fact that we are still talking about nuclear war should come as no surprise. After all, the United States failed to disarm a defeated adversary at the end of the Cold War – something that usually happens when you “win” a war. More importantly, the West is complicit in creating the dangerous perception that nuclear war is a threat that lies in our past.
At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military abandoned deterrence, the strategy that served the nation well for over four decades. In search of new missions, the military found that the world was still quite dangerous. Over the next two decades, the U.S. military worked to perfect operations in a globalized world. Just as during the Cold War, our military capabilities became dominant. This time, however, it was conventional warfare, both at the high (Desert Storm) and low (Iraq and Afghanistan) ends of the spectrum.
Along the path to conventional warfare expertise, the military raised an entire generation of military officers ignorant of both the military and political value of nuclear weapons. This generation also has a nuclear command and control problem. Conventional warfare in the Pacific is under the purview and direction of the U.S. Pacific Command Commander. Nuclear war is under the purview and direction of the U.S. Strategic Command Commander. In other words, you can have one commander fighting a conventional war, while the other is trying to prevent a nuclear war. The logical challenge such a command and control structure presents is obvious as it creates new problems we did not experience during the Cold War.
While many in the military were forsaking nuclear weapons, academia and the foreign policy establishment seemingly forgot about the incredible danger posed by nuclear armed adversaries. It seemed as if the fact that a nuclear weapon has not been used since the end of World War II made their future non-use a fait accompli. Besides, it was much more interesting and relevant to study special operations or cyber war. Thus, much of the effort that went into ensuring that nuclear weapons were not used during the Cold War was not only forgotten, it became verboten.
Now whenever someone speaks about nuclear war they are considered either crazy, or worse, stupid. Never mind that over decades of thought and near catastrophes, many completely sane and incredibly intelligent people thought about the unthinkable. Over time great thinkers such as Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn came to understand that the best way to ensure nuclear weapons are never used is to think hard about how to fight and win a nuclear war.
While Strategic Command is still carrying out the mission of nuclear deterrence, many in the Pentagon, the interagency, academia, and think tanks have abandoned the task like rats off a sinking ship. The surest way to irrelevance in today’s foreign policy arena is to talk about nuclear weapons.
This must stop. In the current intellectual vacuum, some of the most inane conclusions have come to prominence. For example, the idea that we can think about conventional war against a nuclear armed foe without worrying about nuclear escalation. This reminds me of economics professors who hold all variables constant so they can isolate the variation of a single variable. The problem with this approach is that the real world does not allow U.S. to isolate one event from another. This also applies to conventional war with a nuclear armed opponent whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
You cannot think about war with a nuclear power unless you consider it from the lowest crisis to the highest conflagration. When you fail to consider what would happen, you also fail to develop responses to what you failed to consider. Understanding the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, the ramifications are horrific. Imagine a conversation between the president and the secretary of defense, “Mr. President, we have some good news and we have some bad news. The good news is that we overwhelmed our enemy with our conventional supremacy and won the war. The bad news is that we lost Los Angeles.”
Farfetched? Maybe. But consider what would happen if the United States were to fight a country like Russia or China. Can we guarantee how it would end? Presumably cooler heads would prevail, but what if they did not?
The world has changed since the Cold War. Missile defense is becoming a viable capability. Other technologies such as lasers are also becoming battlefield ready. Perhaps it will soon be possible to checkmate nuclear escalation at the start of hostilities, or perhaps we will defer hostilities due to the danger of escalation. The bottom line is that no answer can come if we do not first have the conversation—making it necessary for the Beltway intelligentsia to once again turn their gaze to nuclear war and the real prospects for a nuclear exchange.