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Back to the Future: Reprising the Delicate Balance of Terror

Phil Williams
Global Fellow
5 MINS READMar 20, 2018 | 20:28 GMT
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / Staff / Getty Images

The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review explicitly disavows the idea that modernization of its strategic nuclear capabilities will allow “nuclear war-fighting” while legitimately presenting US modernization efforts as a response to both Russian and Chinese building up their nuclear forces. Even so, President Putin’s claim that Russia possesses nuclear weapons capable of penetrating any defenses could be a harbinger of an arms race similar to the most intense periods of cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In such circumstances, nuclear war-fighting strategies could all too readily come back to the fore.

There are two basic approaches to nuclear weapons. The first revolves around deterrence stability and the benefits of mutual assured destruction (MAD) and its corollary, mutual assured vulnerability. In other words, strategic stability is most readily maintained when neither side can obtain significant benefit from attacking first with nuclear weapons. Indeed, so long as each side is capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on the adversary in a retaliatory strike, neither side has an incentive to strike first.  The second approach, however, is to emphasize nuclear war fighting and possibly even war winning. 

There have even been times when members of the U.S. military have flirted with the idea of winning a nuclear war. During the most dangerous event of the Cold War - the Cuban Missile Crisis - military advisers to President Kennedy saw an opportunity to eliminate both the Cuban nuisance and the Soviet threat.  Despite the supposed missile gap enjoyed by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, Washington had counterforce superiority and military advisers such as Curtis Le May wanted to exploit it. Fortunately, the president and some of his civilian advisers were more concerned about avoiding a nuclear war than “winning” in what they thought would be a catastrophe without precedent.

By the mid 1960s, the US advantage had given way to a rough equality that was enshrined in the concept of MAD. During the mid-1970s, however, the United States believed the Soviet Union was trying to achieve strategic nuclear superiority that would allow it to envisage winning a nuclear war. In response, the Carter administration issued Presidential Directive 59 that articulated a “countervailing strategy” while deploying new weapon systems that seemed capable of targeting Soviet nuclear forces.

The Reagan administration went further and emphasized the need to prevail in a protracted nuclear war. Although the US strategic nuclear modernization under Carter and Reagan responded to a perceived Soviet threat, the Soviets viewed it as possible preparation for a surprise nuclear attack.  Soviet Premier, Yuri Andropov established an elaborate system of indicators and warnings named RYAN (surprise nuclear attack) based on a massive human intelligence effort that was designed to guard against such a possibility but succeeded in heightening Soviet insecurity. This reached a crescendo during NATO’s 1983 able Archer command post exercise November 2-12, 1983.

The exercise, which simulated the release of nuclear weapons by NATO rang alarm bells in Soviet intelligence and prompted increased alert of some Soviet nuclear forces. In the event, NATO did not respond in kind and tensions diminished as the exercise came to a close. Although analysts differ about precisely how close to war the U.S. and Soviet Union came during Able Archer, most concur the danger was greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In sum, the two major flashpoints of the Cold War were related to instabilities associated with counterforce capabilities, nuclear war-fighting strategies and the advantages of a surprise attack. The danger now - US protestations notwithstanding - is that such instabilities will become even more pronounced. Indeed, current technological capabilities and future trends could encourage the re-emergence of what Albert Wohlstetter in a famous analysis in 1958 called the delicate balance of terror.

The first challenge comes from the increased precision of conventional weapons including ballistic and cruise missiles equipped with conventional warheads. As such weapons grow in sophistication and number, it is conceivable that they could put nuclear weapons in jeopardy.  Although we often assume that greater reliance on conventional forces raises the nuclear threshold, it is equally plausible that it will blur this threshold. 

A second challenge and one that helped to animate the Carter administration’s countervailing strategy and the Reagan administration’s efforts to ensure continuity of government is the possibility that command, control, communications, and information (C3I) systems will be disabled, rendering nuclear retaliation impossible. A concern in the late 1970s was of this might be achieved through weapons emitting an electromagnetic pulse. As Rafal Rohozinski noted, this concern is even greater today because such a weapon has a particularly damaging impact on digital systems.

The third, closely related, challenge - also emphasized by Rohozinski - stems from the increasing dependence of command control, communications and information systems well as nuclear weapon systems themselves on cyberspace. Potentially this creates a new avenue for degrading the capacity for nuclear retaliation and has raised the possibility of what has been termed cross-domain escalation.  To the extent that a massive cyber-attack degrades the potential for nuclear retaliation, it creates use them or lose them dilemmas, dilemmas that in a crisis could be massively destabilizing. 

All of this suggests that the good old days of mutual assured destruction - which were never really as good as they seemed at the time - might be even more difficult to maintain than they were in the past.  Crises such as those in October 1962 and November 1983 could be even more frequent and intense than they were during the Cold War. To avoid this, Washington and Moscow could once again look to arms control as a stabilizing mechanism. This, however, would require a degree of wisdom and farsightedness that, unfortunately, seems to be lacking in both capitals.

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