Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Nuclear Revolution: Deterrence, Flexible Response, Massive Retaliation, Medium Nuclear States and the Impossibility of Victory

November, 2013

In August 1945 the United States military dropped nuclear devices on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, directly or indirectly bringing about the end of WWII. These attacks were the first and—so far—last time atomic weapons have been used in war. I argue these attacks represented a ‘nuclear revolution’, the dawning of a new era in which the character of warfare was dramatically altered. Anyone who then or since has witnessed the consequences of their use understands that the awesome destructive power of atomic weapons is greater than anything the world has seen before. However there is more to this fundamental change. Below I will explore three additional dimensions of this shift in the nature of military conflict: the impossibility of victory in nuclear war, how the revolutionary character of atomic weapons bolstered smaller states as much as large, and how the concept of deterrence turned warfare on its head to explain why the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of this ‘nuclear revolution’, signalling a fundamental change in the character of warfare.

Nuclear War Cannot Be Won
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented a revolution in that they marked the beginning of a new era of warfare in which neither side could, no matter the outcome, claim military victory. Both parties would stand to lose so much that even if one side were left standing, they would preside only over a ruined world. A mass nuclear first strike and ‘mass retaliation’ would leave the world decimated. This state of affairs is ‘mutually-assured destruction’ (Jervis, 1989:4).

U.S. President Eisenhower (1956, cited ibid.: 5) held that nuclear war means destruction of the enemy and likely ‘suicide’ for the victor. In all previous iterations of warfare, from archaic and ancient to modern up to 1945, there was still some way to determine that one side had come out ahead of the other, whether the measure was military, economic or political. In a full-scale nuclear war, the destruction by both sides following a mass first-strike and mass retaliation would be so total that any national government which scurried out of their bunker after the exchange would have nothing left to rule over. It can hardly be imagined that any political, military or economic goal would be worth risking such an outcome to any rational actor. Ambrose quotes Eisenhower (1954, cited ibid.: 4) as questioning his Joint Chiefs of Staff what could be done with such a victory with society in North America, Europe and Asia destroyed, devoid of communications and virtually devoid of life. That cannot be seen as a victory in any sense. French President Charles de Gaulle held, “[After nuclear war, the] two sides would have neither powers, nor laws, nor cities, nor cultures, nor cradles, nor tombs” (ibid.: 1).

The ‘Flexible Response’ doctrine attempted to address Ike’s bleak picture of mutually-assured destruction through first-strike and mass retaliation. Advocates of the policy such as Colin Gray (1981: 47-9) argued that U.S. nuclear strategy should not be based upon a large-scale unleashing of the full nuclear arsenal upon Soviet cities and industrial areas likely to be met with an equal reaction from Moscow, but rather based upon a more restrained, step-laddered approach where tit-for-tat nuclear strikes, though heavily damaging, would still leave open the possibility for diplomatic negotiations and a political climb-down before the conflict reaches nuclear Armageddon. Such a nuclear exchange would leave open the possibility of one side or the other ‘winning’ without destroying society as we know it (ibid.).

However critics of Flexible Response such as David Dessler (1982: 55-7) argue the idea was wrongheaded. Such a policy could lead to ‘deterrence failure’ if the Soviets did not believe the U.S. would respond massively in kind to a nuclear attack, thus inviting them to try their luck. It also ignored Moscow’s ‘strategic culture’, namely that the USSR utterly rejected a graduated response in favour of massive retaliation. In this view, attempts to lessen the costs of a nuclear war could in fact increase the likelihood of nuclear war occurring (ibid.). According to Schelling (1963: 6), pursuing a ‘lesser evil’ policy of limiting war below massive retaliation detracts from deterrence because the reduced threat this implies may not create enough disincentive for a would-be attacker. Thus if the Soviet Union mounted a mass nuclear attack, the U.S. would be faced with the option of hoping to absorb it and respond with a step-laddered approach or respond immediately in kind. The USSR had stated its policy, thus eliminating any real options in a U.S. response. Thibaut and Kelley (1959, cited in Jervis, 1989: 3) call this the difference between ‘fate-control’ and ‘behaviour-control’—namely that the U.S. and USSR controlled one another’s fates in a nuclear exchange, but U.S. Flexible Response policy could not control Soviet behaviour, only hope to influence it. If the Soviets struck, their policy stated it would be en masse. The only hope was that a limited U.S. action would reciprocate a limited reaction from Moscow—a rather risky idea.

Further, Ball’s (1981) analysis of American and Soviet nuclear command and control systems calls into question the ability of either side in a nuclear exchange to control their response in a coordinated way once a nuclear engagement has begun as communications and firing control systems would likely be destroyed or break down and/or political and military leadership may be eliminated. If true, the advantage will lay with the party conducting the first strike and seriously degrade or even eliminate the possibility of a retaliatory strike if not conducted immediately or simultaneously. This reinforces the idea that nuclear strikes must be an ‘all or nothing’, massive force affair; otherwise the loss of command and control may render any non-immediate response ineffective or impossible (ibid.).

Fortunately the impossibility of victory or the rectitude of mass retaliation or Flexible Response have never been, and hopefully never will be, tested in practice. In any case, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a revolution in that they signalled the beginning of a phase when both sides had to take into account that a nuclear war meant neither side could ever really claim victory, a wholly revolutionary state of affairs in the history of conflict.

A Revolution for ‘Medium’ Nuclear States
Possession of nuclear weapons was also a revolution for powers smaller than the U.S. and USSR. It meant states with relatively small militaries, small population and/or smaller industrial and financial resources—though large enough to develop and maintain nuclear weapons—could keep up with states with vastly more such resources.

This aspect was especially important for Western second-tier nuclear powers such as Britain and France who were able to maintain a degree of influence over collective security in the new bipolar world, unlike satellites of the Soviet Union such as Hungary, East Germany and Bulgaria (Mastny, 2005: 30-1). Because of the military and political influence nuclear weapons granted them, Britain and France arguably maintained more influence in the U.S.-dominated Western bloc than did their Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact opposite numbers. The USSR wholly rejected the idea of arming its satellite states with an independent capability, refusing to help them build their own programs or even to jointly develop Warsaw Pact nuclear strategy (ibid.). In this regard, nuclear weapons were a revolutionary tool for less powerful states to stay in the game militarily and politically.

According to Clark and Wheeler (1989: 43), the 1947 British decision to pursue the bomb was, “So self-evident as to require no compelling strategic assessment in support of it.” Though individual policymakers had their own reasons, there was never any doubt Britain would pursue atomic weapons (ibid.). In 1945, the Soviet military had consisted of 6 million service personnel (Dear and Foot, 2005: 966) and the United States had over 8 million spread across North America, Europe and Asia (ibid.: 931). Britain had only 4.6 million in uniform (ibid.: 884) to cover home and all of its international empire. Britain’s domestic economy was greatly strained under the heavy burden of war-related debt and the costs of conventional forces had to be reduced (Clark and Wheeler, 1989: 25-30). The argument would frequently be put forward, predominantly in the early 1950s, that investment in nuclear arms would translate into cost savings by reducing Britain’s need for conventional forces (ibid.: 27). Though pursuing atomic weapons was not cheap for Britain, they were certainly more obtainable than attempting to build as many conventional bombers, tanks and artillery pieces to stay relevant in the contest between the U.S. and USSR and simultaneously attempting to maintain the standard of living at home. Both the United States and Britain came to see nuclear weapons as a set-off to reducing spending on conventional forces (Pierre, 1972: 87-8). It is arguable that while Britain lost political and economic influence and shed its colonial empire following WWII, developing nuclear arms kept London at the table with Washington and Moscow while it cut spending on conventional forces and rebuilt the economy at home.

According to Stoddart (2007), this lesson was not lost on Charles de Gaulle, who, in a similar situation economically, was already pursuing an independent path for France after splitting with the U.S. and Britain over NATO policy. De Gaulle hoped to convince Britain to help France obtain its own nuclear capability quicker and cheaper and there is good evidence Britain traded atomic know-how, telling French atomic scientists what not to do, for UK accession to the European Economic Community in 1972 (ibid.). Though France was late to enter the Cold War nuclear club, the capability made sure France was still a player in the politics of the era.

The nuclear era, ushered in by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, represented a revolution for Britain, France and later smaller powers in that developing their own independent nuclear capabilities allowed them to influence the actions powers such as the United States and USSR, relieved some of their budget pressures, and allowed them to have a significant say in their independent and collective security.

Deterrence Turns War on its Head
One of the major facets of the revolution in the character or warfare that followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that nuclear weapons turned the focus of military power on its head. As Brodie states, “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them” (1946, cited in Jervis, 1989: 7). Schelling (1963: 9) called deterrence, “A theory of the skilful nonuse of military forces” (original emphasis).

There were differences in how these states viewed the use of their nuclear weapons and how credible the threat of their use was (Pierre, 1972: 87). Britain and France could not afford to build a nuclear arsenal capable of credibly threatening the Soviet Union with the same level of mutually-assured destruction America could. However atomic weapons meant they possessed their own independent nuclear capabilities which could still inflict a degree of ‘punishment’ on Soviet cities in a nuclear exchange that would be high enough to deter Moscow from attacking (ibid.).

According to Pierre (ibid.), Britain’s 1952 ‘Global Strategy Paper’ called nuclear weapons a revolution in the character of warfare. It was also the first policy paper to call for a strategy based upon the concept of deterrence, picked up in the United States by President Eisenhower’s ‘New Look’ policy (ibid.). The idea was for the West to openly state that Soviet military advances would be met with an atomic response, not just local, conventional action. Deterrence would make clear to Moscow that any aggression would be met not solely at distant points of friction between East and West, but would strike at the centre of the USSR itself (ibid.). Moscow would not be allowed to whittle away at the margins by taking calculated risks. The idea was to promise to punish the Soviets severely for any attack on Western interests.

Jervis (1989:6-9) points out that the speed and scale of destruction wrought by atomic weapons is such that their use is almost unthinkable despite the clear offensive advantage they represent. Conventional weapons such as artillery and strategic bombers and methods such as sieges and blockades could rationally deliver as much ‘punishment’ through destruction, but could do so only very slowly, very intensively and very expensively. Such conventional methods are calculated to bring an opponent down before their destruction was total and certainly before the act became destructive to the aggressor as well and still left time for diplomacy and second thoughts (ibid.). Nuclear weapons are of such awesome power and so fast and absolute in their destruction that there can be no real rational basis for their use. When both sides possess nuclear weapons, the destruction is mutual and virtually simultaneous. Cities are destroyed within hours and no time is left for negotiation. Rationally, their character becomes therefore more responsive than active or offensive. Facing such destruction, an opponent will be demur from attacking in the face of this scale of ‘deterrence by punishment’ (ibid.).

Another aspect of nuclear capability is that it defeats ‘deterrence by denial’. In conventional war, the credible ability of a state to repel or defend itself against attack by an opponent is ‘denial capability’ (Snyder, 1961: 3-5). Defence is the actual capability to repel an attack. A state that is credibly seen to be capable of defending itself by inflicting damage on any aggressor will deter an aggressor from attacking—deterrence by denial. However, nuclear weapons make defence impossible and thus eliminate deterrence by denial (ibid.).

The creation of a weapon that can hardly be defended against is a revolution, further exhibited in the unique response to the prospect of developing capability to defend against them. The development of every other weapon in history has logically led to the development of a defence, leading, of course, to further improvements to the weapon or new weapons to overcome that defence. Swords and arrows were countered by shields and armour. Bullets and artillery were countered by flak jackets and Kevlar helmets. As yet, there is no credible defence against a nuclear attack. The position of nuclear weapons in this regard was revolutionary because both the U.S. and USSR agreed not to fully develop a defence against them. U.S thinkers argued stability could be gained through this concept of ‘mutual vulnerability’, though both sides continued to attempt to develop nuclear defences to varying degrees (Yost, 2007: 555). Barnaby (1969: 26-35) writes comprehensively on the arguments for and against developing anti-ballistic missile systems and exhibits the difficulty in coming to any conclusion as to whether developing such a defensive capability actually provides increased security or if it decreases security. In the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the U.S. and USSR agreed to limit their capability to destroy each other’s incoming nuclear missiles to one battery of interceptors each. Later, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ‘Star Wars’, missile defence programme threatened to derail nuclear arms reduction talks. Though the feasibility of such a program was questioned, it presented enough of a threat to the balance of nuclear power to Moscow that Premier Mikhail Gorbechev was induced to sign the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement, a bilateral treaty to eliminate IRBMs and SRBMs, in exchange U.S. promises regarding the SDI (Boyd and Scouras, 2013; Norman, 1986). Never before had a weapon of war been considered so essential or given so much credence as to induce two powers to agree not to develop a defence against it in order to maintain peace.

Besides the great destructive power nuclear weapons represent as shown through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons were a revolution that changed the character of warfare. Conflicts in which both opponents possess nuclear weapons made victory in war for either side impossible, despite risky attempts to control the destruction through Flexible Response. Atomic weapons gave smaller states such as Britain and France more leverage, independence, and economic relief than they would have otherwise had, shown more clearly in contrast with their Warsaw Pact counterparts who were denied the capability. The deterrent effect nuclear weapons created and virtual impossibility of defending against them meant that military strategy was now more concerned with avoiding war than with winning it. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki truly marked a ‘nuclear revolution’ that brought about a fundamental shift in the character of warfare.


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