Michael KreponFebruary 23, 2021
Quote of the week:
“Until we, as a department, come to understand, if not accept, what we are facing and what should be done about it, we run the risk of developing plans we cannot execute and procuring capabilities that will not deliver desired outcomes. In the absence of change, we are on the path, once again, to prepare for the conflict we prefer, instead of one we are likely to face. It is through this lens that we must take a hard look at how we intend to compete against and deter our adversaries, assure our allies, and appropriately shape the future joint force.” – Admiral Charles Richard
As the leader of the U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Richard carries the heavy burden of preparing for a wide range of contingencies involving China and Russia. Writing in the Naval Institute Proceedings, he projects that a regional crisis involving Beijing or Moscow “could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state.” He adds, “Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility,’ and act to meet and deter that reality.”
This way of thinking about deterrence is reflected in the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Publication 3-72, “Nuclear Operations,” dated June 11, 2019, which states:
Integration of nuclear weapons into a theater of operations requires the consideration of multiple variables. Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.
I understand why the Pentagon has once again delved into what is now termed “conventional-nuclear integration.” Strategic planners are tasked to think about the unthinkable. Competitors comingle missiles that carry conventional and nuclear ordnance. “Entanglement” is a serious problem. The chain of command could break down in a severe crisis between nuclear-armed rivals. First use is unlikely to be a U.S. decision, but an adversary seeking to avoid defeat could well make this decision.
Admiral Richard’s formulation begs the questions of why the use of force against Russia or China would be so wildly disproportionate as to actually threaten either regime/state. Smartly conceived U.S. military plans and operations would not come anywhere near this threshold because to do so would invite Armageddon.
But what about lesser contingencies where the United States seeks advantage or dominance in a localized clash with a nuclear-armed state? This, too, could prompt first use by the disadvantaged state, after which all hell could break loose. U.S. forces need to have contingency plans, however otherworldly, including plans for limited nuclear options. That said, how realistic are these plans? How much can a President depend on them?
The Joint Staff’s current endorsement of “conventional-nuclear integration” harkens back to the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations. (For the particulars, I urge readers to consult Fred Kaplan’s fine book, The Bomb.)
Let’s delve into our nuclear history. The Joint Chiefs issued a policy paper in 1954 stating, “It is the policy of the United States that atomic weapons will be integrated with other weapons in the arsenal of the United States.” The Army created “pentomic divisions” to fight on battlefields where both conventional and nuclear weapons were used. Army units were equipped with the Davy Crockett, a tactical nuclear weapon that looked like a large recoilless rifle with the range of just over one mile. Soldiers could also carry atomic weapons in backpacks.
The concept of “pentomic” warfare was later acknowledged to be profoundly unsound at the tactical and operational levels of warfare. There were political problems, as well. For anything but a major war, it turned out that Eisenhower was as averse to crossing the nuclear threshold as he was eager to save money by relying on nuclear weapons.
The word “prevail” in the Joint Chief’s current formulation echoes terminology from the Reagan administration. Reagan’s brain trust at the Pentagon took varied steps to increase the salience of nuclear weapons after what was termed a “decade of neglect” during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. If truth be told, these administrations spent over one trillion dollars on defense, raising the total of U.S. warheads available for use on strategic forces from 4,250 to 9,200.
U.S. defense guidance back then was to prevail even in conditions of a protracted nuclear war, a formulation that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger defended strenuously on Capitol Hill. Not to do so, in Weinberger’s view, would constitute an impeachable offense. The Pentagon’s doctrine created major perturbations at home and in allied countries that sought safety under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. It was also totally at odds with Reagan’s deeply ingrained instincts never to use nuclear weapons; he wanted to abolish them.
Given this history, the Biden administration is obliged to take a hard look at the concept of “conventional-nuclear integration.” This concept is based on two highly contestable assumptions: first, that nuclear weapons have utility for war fighting, and second, that nuclear escalation can be controlled. Planning for battlefield use of nuclear weapons on the basis of both conjectural assumptions is necessary; executing these plans would be most unwise.
Serious brainpower has been applied to figuring out how to employ nuclear weapons in warfare. Think of Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, Bernard Brodie and James Schlesinger, for a start. Not one of these gentlemen was able to offer a convincing case of how to seek advantage and dominance and yet control escalation and prevent unacceptable damage in return. Intellectual constructs that work in the abstract but that fail once nuclear detonations begin cannot be a sound basis for national security policy.
Deterrence is a necessary objective, but deterrence fails and after failure, nuclear weapons are the insurance policy that compounds rather than compensates for loss. When deterrence fails, the value of this immensely expensive insurance policy plummets because national leaders will try their hardest to avoid crossing the nuclear threshold. Leaders that have countries to defend understand the likely consequences of first use. They therefore want and deserve military capabilities that not only can deter a serious crisis, but also have military utility if deterrence fails.
If deterrence fails and nuclear-armed rivals clash, serious analysis suggests that the outcome is likely to be determined by three factors above all. The first is the disposition of usable — that is to say, non-nuclear — capabilities within the zone of conflict or that can be brought to bear quickly once fighting begins. The second is the perceived stakes involved in the outcome of the crisis. The third is the personality traits of the contesting national leaders. So far, these personality traits, however misshapen, have not led to first use during intense crises. Even national leaders with megalomaniacal and sociopathic traits have understood how infamous and damaging first use would be — even against states that cannot retaliate in kind.
Consequently, the balance or imbalance of nuclear capabilities had no bearing on the outcome of the border clash in 1969 between China and the Soviet Union, nor during the 1999 clash between Pakistan and India. In the first instance, Moscow enjoyed clear nuclear superiority and yet Beijing initiated the crisis. In the second instance, the nuclear order of battle was opaque. Pakistan probably enjoyed nuclear advantage while seeking to change the status quo in the disputed area of Kashmir, but India enjoyed conventional advantages in the zone of crisis and could not afford to accept a change in the status quo. Pakistan backed down.
It is dangerously misguided to believe that the use of nuclear weapons would “create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability”. This presumes that nuclear advantage offers leverage and political utility in a crisis where the stakes in dispute might suggest otherwise. This also presumes escalation control when the first use of nuclear weapons, even at low yield, would far more likely create conditions for uncontrolled escalation. And absent escalation control, there is no way to square the use of nuclear weapons with the international humanitarian laws of armed conflict to which the Pentagon adheres.
I get it why these plans exist, but no political leader can possibly have confidence in them. Biden is as strongly averse to authorizing the use of nuclear weapons as his predecessors. And like his predecessors, he is likely to notionally accept STRATCOM’s nuclear warfighting plans without telling the Pentagon brass to go back to the drawing boards. Biden will nonetheless be deeply averse to authorizing the execution of plans for “conventional-nuclear integration.”
Nuclear weapons are reasonably good but not entirely effective for deterrence. They are terrible for war fighting, which helps explain the last seven decades on non-battlefield use. Biden will want and need to have at his disposal more and better non-nuclear capabilities to deter and affect the outcome of future crises.