From my previous post, I left the ultimate existential threat hanging in the air: thermonuclear weapons. In most respects, these are the only existential threats to the United States. Chemical, biological, and radiological weapons might spawn scenarios like Contagion, but they are a far cry from the ultimate horror akin to The Day After and Threads.
The threat from nuclear weapons oddly might have been understated in the last decade of the Cold War. A September, 2012 study on the aftereffects of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan theorize 50 Hiroshima-sized (~15-kt yield) detonations:
could produce so much smoke that temperatures would fall below those of the Little Ice Age of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries, shortening the growing season around the world and threatening the global food supply. Furthermore, there would be massive ozone depletion, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth’s surface. Recent studies predict that agricultural production in parts of the United States and China would decline by about 20 percent for four years, and by 10 percent for a decade.
Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon title their study Self-Assured Destruction, a play on the Mutually Assured Destruction or the MAD acronym of nuclear deterrence fame. Oddly enough, MAD itself was coined as a pejorative.
In 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ran a thought experiment to size the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Imagining the U.S. nuclear force consisted of thousands of one megaton warheads, McNamara’s staff noticed the blast damage to the U.S.S.R. started to level off around 400th detonation. The experiment led to a concrete second-strike policy:
The resulting policy was called “assured destruction” — the idea that once the United States had a survivable force capable of about 400 equivalent megatons that could kill much of the Soviet Union’s population and destroy its industry, there wasn’t much point in making the rubble bounce. Say what you will about the tenets of assured destruction — at least it was a ceiling.
While this might seem like a fairly sensible policy, Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute intensely disliked assured destruction as it precluded the option to “prevail” in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, an outcome the Institute, according to Jeffrey Lewis, “believed was possible with bomb shelters, missile defenses, and hard hearts.” Donald Brennan, also of the Institute, added ‘mutual’ to ‘assured destruction,’ later changing ‘destruction’ to ‘vulnerability’ when MAD was mistaken as the original phrase. There intent was apparently to show that deterrence is folly–that the U.S. should be prepared to fight and “win” a nuclear war. Much of the language of nuclear victory aficionados borders on the surreal. Lewis mentions Kahn “throw[s] around losses in the tens of millions of people like the card game Nuclear War — Anybody have change for a 100 million people?”
This strain of thinking, which I have a hard time believing is anything less than collective insanity, is prevalent in nuclear strategy to this day. Key concepts from Presidential Decision Directive 59 have heavy influence on current U.S. nuclear policy. PD-59, a recently declassified document entitled Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy dating from 1980, leans toward Kahn’s “insights:”
So as to preserve the possibility of bargaining effectively to terminate the war on acceptable terms that are as favorable as practical, if deterrence fails initially, we must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable, or in any event greater than his gains, from having initiated an attack.
While at first glace this passage seems to be a straightforward directive to maintain American second strike readiness (AKA assured destruction), the statement “if deterrence fails initially” indicates the negotiations and successful prosecution of war that PD-59 mentions would be occurring after an initial exchange of ICBMs. Wait, it gets worse:
A memorandum from NSC military aide William Odom depicted Secretary of Defense Harold Brown doing exactly that in a recent military exercise where he was “chasing [enemy] general purpose forces in East Europe and Korea with strategic weapons.” That is, he was planning how to use large nuclear weapons to defeat conventional troops. Drafters of PD-59 like Odom did not believe that deploying weapons in this way would necessarily result in apocalypse — they believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war.
In the end, the Hudson Institute had won out.
While President Carter might be forgiven for approving PD-59 during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan (considering Western intelligence sources believed Brezhnev had commissioned similar plans), after the fall of the Soviet Union it became clear that the Politburo had almost no illusions the U.S.S.R. could survive a nuclear war. The other large communist nation is similarly prosaic. China claims it has a no first-strike nuclear policy, and asks the U.S. to affirm the same before talking about nuclear disarmament. Because the U.S. will not commit to second strike only, this results:
This denial comes at no small cost to U.S.-China relations. Every administration in my professional lifetime — Clinton, Bush, and now Obama — has made it a priority to engage China on strategic stability. Each has failed largely because the United States gives the same answer when the Chinese ask whether we plan to coerce China with nuclear weapons: crickets. The result is a stunted dialogue on nuclear weapons. The Obama administration, for example, is justifiably proud that China is leading a multilateral working group to draft a glossary of key nuclear terms. This is a big step, one that builds on important work by the National Academies and its Chinese counterpart, but the symbolism couldn’t be clearer. Forget dialogue; we’re still arguing about vocabulary, with the French holding our hands.
I don’t object to having the same stale conversation over and over again. After all, it means foundations keep paying for me to travel to China — and I love Chinese food. But the pathologies that undermine nongovernmental dialogues plague official discussions as well and could, in a crisis, prove quite dangerous. I think it is highly unlikely that a U.S. or Chinese president would ever willingly choose to fight a nuclear war. But either might very well blunder into one, through misunderstandings based on stereotypes and suspicions. Chinese textbooks prepared for missile officers talk about sending signals to the United States to stop what they perceive as coercion in crisis by placing forces on alert or “lowering the nuclear threshold.” Whether an American president would understand the signal seems pretty iffy to me. The United States and China have experienced a number of crises over the years, including the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the 2001 midair collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, and the March 2009 incident at sea involving five Chinese vessels and the USNS Impeccable. This record is hardly encouraging.
I feel the need to repeat an earlier statement in this post about nuclear aftereffects–50 15-kiloton detonations in India and Pakistan, less than a megaton, are theorized to be capable to start another Little Ice Age and severely harm American agricultural output for at least a decade. A month ago I wrote about those hankering for war with Iran, where once again the disciples of Hudson Institute theories almost but don’t quite link deterrence with appeasement. It is classic nuclear fear-mongering–the belief that an adversary is not rational, will not respond to the prospect of outright annihilation. In reality, Americans are the ones filled with irrational fear and anger. The two largest communist nations on Earth both intensely feared (and China and Russia still fear) nuclear hellfire. Meanwhile, stated policy of the United States is that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would be a game-changer, as if hundreds of Israeli and thousands of American nuclear warheads are insufficient to assure destruction. I mentioned before the Israeli defense minister seems to recognize deterrence overwhelmingly favors his nation. Apparently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is thinking on similar lines:
In February, Fareed Zakaria asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, “When you observe Iranian behavior, does it strike you as highly irrational? Does it strike you as sort of unpredictable, or do they seem to follow their national interests in a fairly calculating way?” Dempsey replied: “I’ve been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008. And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.”
Message to America–Calm Down.