Thanks to our ever helpful volunteer narrator, this post is now also available in audio format.
This week I wanted to expand on something I touched on only briefly in our ‘explainer’ on Putin’s War in Ukraine: the “delicate balance of terror” of nuclear deterrence. Of course this is a complex and much debated topic, so what I want to provide is an introductory overview of the concepts of the sort I’d provide for an introductory class on the topic and, as with last week, end with some implications for understanding some of the concerns around Putin’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine.
Nuclear deterrence can be an odd topic to discuss with people outside of the security studies (military history, political science, IR, etc) space. As we’ll see, there is a certain inescapable logic to many of the conclusions of deterrence theory, but the conclusions themselves viewed without considering that logic seem absurd (and occasionally are, even with the logic). Nevertheless, outside of those security studies fields at the college level, we generally don’t teach nuclear deterrence theory in school and so while this is actually one of the most studied and theorized concepts in the modern world (note that this doesn’t mean the theory is necessarily correct, but it does mean that a lot of very smart and well informed people have been grappling with these ideas for a while now), in my experience there is a tendency by the general public to assume that they are the first to notice this or that absurd-seeming conclusion. Everyone has an opinion about nuclear weapons, but the gap between having an opinion and having an informed opinion is both massive and rarely spanned.
Or to put it very briefly: Dr. Strangelove is a great movie, but if you only have your deterrence theory from Dr. Strangelove, you are dangerously under-informed (though while we’re here it seems worth noting that the Soviet automated-launch doomsday device of the film mostly actually exists, as a system called Dead Hand in the West and Perimeter in Russia and still in use by Russia. Presumably, since Russian nuclear forces are currently on high alert, Perimeter is active, which should be a chilling thought. I am going to say this several times because it is a fundamental truth about nuclear weapons: if you aren’t at least a bit worried, you aren’t paying attention).
Now to be clear about the scope of our discussion: I am mostly here going to focus on nuclear deterrence for my country, the United States and its major military alliance, NATO. But of course the current nuclear weapons states extend beyond this: the USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel1 all have nuclear weapons. I know the logic and thinking behind the US nuclear position best, but not all nuclear powers have the same doctrine or assumptions. If there are any of my Global History of Warfare students lurking around thinking about paper ideas, researching some other county’s nuclear doctrine and its evolution often makes for really good second papers.
And once again before we get started, a reminder that the conflict in Ukraine is not notional or theoretical but very real and is causing very real suffering, including displacing large numbers of Ukrainians as refugees, both within Ukraine and beyond its borders. If you want to help, consider donating to Ukrainian aid organizations like Razom for Ukraine or to the Ukrainian Red Cross. They may, unfortunately, require support for quite some time as the conflict continues.
The Cold War Context
Understanding the development of US nuclear doctrine and NATO requires understanding the western allies’ position after the end of WWII. In Britain, France and the United States, there was no political constituency, after the war was over, to remain at anything like full mobilization and so consequently the allies substantially demobilized following the war. By contrast, the USSR did not demobilize to anything like the same degree, leaving the USSR with substantial conventional military superiority in Eastern Europe (in part because, of course, Stalin and later Soviet leaders did not have to cater to public sentiment about defense spending). The USSR also ended the war having annexed several countries in whole or in part (including eastern Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, parts of Finland and bits of Romania) and creating non-democratic puppet governments over much of the rest of Eastern Europe. American fears that the USSR planned to attempt to further extend its control were effectively confirmed in 1948 by the Russian-backed coup in Czechoslovakia creating communist one-party rule there and by the June 1948 decision by Stalin to begin the Berlin Blockade in an effort to force the allies from Berlin as a prelude to bringing all of Germany, including the allied sectors which would become West Germany (that is the Federal Republic of Germany).
It’s important, I think, for us to be clear-eyed here about what the USSR was during the Cold War – while the USSR made opportunistic use of anti-imperialist rhetoric against western powers (which were, it must be noted, also imperial powers), the Soviet Union was also very clearly an empire. Indeed, it was an empire of a very traditional kind, in which a core demographic (ethnic Russians were substantially over-represented in central leadership) led by an imperial elite (Communist party members) extracted resources, labor and manpower from a politically subordinated periphery (both the other Soviet Socialist Republics that composed the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries) for the benefit of the imperial elite and the core. While the USSR presented itself as notionally federal in nature, it was in fact extremely centralized and dominated by a relatively small elite.
So when Western planners planned based on fears that the highly militarized expansionist territorial empire openly committed to an expansionist ideology and actively trying to lever out opposing governments from central (not eastern) Europe might try to expand further, they weren’t simply imagining things. This is not to say everything they did in response was wise, moral or legal; much of it wasn’t. There is a certain sort of childish error which assumes that because the ‘West’ did some unsavory things during the Cold War, that means that the threat of the Soviet Union wasn’t real; we must put away such childish things. The fear had a very real basis.
Direct military action against the USSR with conventional forces was both politically unacceptable even before the USSR tested its first nuclear weapons – voters in Britain, France or the United States did not want another world war; two was quite enough – and also militarily impossible as Soviet forces in Europe substantially outnumbered their Western opponents. Soviet leaders, by contrast, were not nearly so constrained by public opinion (as shown by their strategic decision to limit demobilization, something the democracies simply couldn’t do).
This context – a west (soon to be NATO) that is working from the assumption that the USSR is expansionist (which it was) and that western forces would be weaker than Soviet forces in conventional warfare (which they were) – provides the foundation for how deterrence theory would develop.
The Absolute Weapon
In that context, the fact that it had been the United States which had been the first to successfully develop nuclear weapons (and use them in anger, a decision which remains hotly debated to this day) must have seemed like an act of divine providence, as it enabled the western allies to retain a form of military parity with the USSR (and thus deterrence) while still demobilizing. US airbases in Europe put much of the Soviet Union in range of American bombers which could carry nuclear weapons, which served to ‘balance’ the conventional disparity. It’s important to keep in mind also that nuclear weapons emerged in the context where ‘strategic’ urban bombing had been extensively normalized during the Second World War; the idea that the next major war would include the destruction of cities from the air wasn’t quite as shocking to them as it was to us – indeed, it was assumed. Consequently, planners in the US military went about planning how they would use nuclear weapons on the battlefield (and beyond it) should a war with a non-nuclear Soviet Union occur.
At the same time, US strategists (particularly associated with the RAND Corporation) were beginning to puzzle out the long term strategic implications of nuclear weapons. In 1946, Bernard Brodie published The Absolute Weapon which set out the basic outlines of deterrence theory; he did this, to be clear three years before the USSR successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 (far earlier than anyone expected because the USSR had spies in the Manhattan Project). Brodie is thus predicting what the strategic situation will be like when the USSR developed nuclear weapons; his predictions proved startlingly accurate, in the event.
Brodie’s argument proceeds as a series of propositions (paraphrased):
- The power of a nuclear bomb is such that any city can be destroyed by less than ten bombs.
- No adequate defense against the bomb exists and the possibilities of such are very unlikely.
- Nuclear weapons will motivate the development of newer, longer range and harder to stop delivery systems.
- Superiority in the air is not going to be enough to stop sufficient nuclear weapons getting through2
- Superiority in nuclear arms also cannot guarantee meaningful strategic superiority. It does not matter that you had more bombs if all of your cities are rubble.
- Within five to ten years (of 1946), other powers will have nuclear weapons. [Of course this happened in just three years.]
All of which, in the following years were shown to be true. Consequently, Brodie notes that while nuclear weapons are “the apotheosis of aggressive instruments,” any attacker who used them would fear retaliation with their enemy’s nuclear weapons which would in turn also be so destructive such that “no victory, even if guaranteed in advance – which it never is – would be worth the price.” Crucially, it is not the fact of retaliation, but the fear of it, which matters and “the threat of retaliation does not have to be 100 per cent certain; it is sufficient if there is a good chance of it, or if there is a belief that there is a good chance of it. The prediction is more important than the fact.” [emphasis mine]
This does not “make war impossible” by any means, but rather turns strategy towards focusing on making sure that nuclear weapons are not used, by making it clear to any potential aggressor that nuclear weapons would be used against them. And that leads to Brodie’s final, key conclusion:
Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about who will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. 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. It can have almost no other useful purpose.
To sum that up, because both the United States and its key enemies will have nuclear weapons and because their destructive power is effectively absolute (so high as to make any ‘victory’ meaningless) and because there is no effective defense against such weapons, consequently the only rational response is to avoid the use of nuclear weapons and the only way to do that is to be able to credibly threaten to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of war (since if you cannot so retaliate, your opponent could use their nuclear weapons without fear).
That thinking actually took a while to take hold in actual American policy and instead during the 1940s and 1950s, the United States focused resources on bomber fleets with the assumption that they would match Soviet superiority in conventional arms in Europe with American nuclear superiority, striking military and industrial targets (“precision attacks with an area weapon,” a notion that is as preposterous as it feels) to immediately cripple the USSR in the event of war, or else aim to ‘win’ a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange.
The Missile Age
The advance of missile and rocket technology in the late 1950s started to change the strategic picture; the significant of Sputnik (launched in 1957) was always that if the USSR could orbit a small satellite around the Earth, they could do the same with a nuclear weapon. By 1959, both the USA and the USSR had mounted nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), fulfilling Brodie’s prophecy that nuclear weapons would accelerate the development of longer-range and harder to intercept platforms: now the platforms had effectively infinite range and were effectively impossible to intercept.
This also meant that a devastating nuclear ‘first strike’ could now be delivered before an opponent would know it was coming, or at least on extremely short notice. A nuclear power could no longer count on having enough warning to get its nuclear weapons off before the enemy’s nuclear strike had arrived. Bernard Brodie grappled with these problems in Strategy in the Missile Age (1959) but let’s focus on a different theorist, Albert Wohlstetter, also with the RAND Corporation, who wrote The Delicate Balance of Terror (1958) the year prior.
Wohlstetter argued that deterrence was not assured, but was in fact fragile: any development which allowed one party to break the other’s nuclear strike capability (e.g. the ability to deliver your strike so powerfully that the enemy’s retaliation was impossible) would encourage that power to strike in the window of vulnerability. Wohstetter, writing in the post-Sputnik shock, saw the likelihood that the USSR’s momentary advantage in missile technology would create such a moment of vulnerability for the United States.
Like Brodie, Wohlstetter concluded that the only way to avoid being the victim of a nuclear first strike (that having the enemy hit you with their nukes) was being able to credibly deliver a second strike. This is an important distinction that is often misunderstood; there is a tendency to read these theorists (Dr. Strangelove does this to a degree and influences public perception on this point) as planning for a ‘winnable’ nuclear war (and some did, just not these fellows here), but indeed the point is quite the opposite: they assume nuclear war is fundamentally unwinnable and to be avoided, but that the only way to avoid it successfully is through deterrence and deterrence can only be maintained if the second strike (that is, your retaliation after your opponent’s nuclear weapons have already gone off) can be assured. Consequently, planning for nuclear war is the only way to avoid nuclear war – a point we’ll come back to.
Wohlstetter identifies six hurdles that must be overcome in order to provide a durable, credible second strike system – and remember, it is the perception of the system, not its reality that matters (though reality may be the best way to create perception). Such systems need to be stable in peacetime (and Wohlstetter notes that stability is both in the sense of being able to work in the event after a period of peace, but also such that they do not cause unintended escalation; he thus warns against, for instance, just keeping lots of nuclear-armed bombers in the air all of the time), they must be able to survive the enemy’s initial nuclear strikes, it must be possible to decide to retaliate and communicate that to the units with the nuclear weapons, then they must be able to reach enemy territory, then they have to penetrate enemy defenses, and finally they have to be powerful enough to guarantee that whatever fraction do penetrate those defenses are powerful enough to inflict irrecoverable damage.
You can think of these hurdles as a series of filters. You start a conflict with a certain number of systems and then each hurdle filters some of them out. Some may not work in the event, some may be destroyed by the enemy attack, some may be out of communication, some may be intercepted by enemy defenses. You need enough at the end to do so much damage that it would never be worth it to sustain such damage.
This is the logic behind the otherwise preposterously large nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation (inherited from the USSR). In order to sustain your nuclear deterrent, you need more weapons than you would need in the event because you are planning for scenarios in which some large number of weapons are lost in the enemy’s first strike. At the same time, as you overbuild nuclear weapons to counter this, you both look more like you are planning a first strike and your opponent has to estimate that a larger portion of their nuclear arsenal may be destroyed in that (theoretical) first strike, which means they too need more missiles.
What I want to note about this logic is that it neatly explains why nuclear disarmament is so hard: nuclear weapons are, in a deterrence scenario, both necessary and useless. Necessary, because your nuclear arsenal is the only thing which can deter an enemy with nuclear weapons, but that very deterrence renders the weapons useless in the sense that you are trying to avoid any scenario in which you use them. If one side unilaterally disarmed, nuclear weapons would suddenly become useful – if only one side has them, well, they are the “absolute” weapon, able to make up for essentially any deficiency in conventional strength – and once useful, they would be used. Humanity has never once developed a useful weapon they would not use in extremis; and war is the land of in extremis.
Thus the absurd-sounding conclusion to fairly solid chain of logic: to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, you have to build so many nuclear weapons that it is impossible for a nuclear-armed opponent to destroy them all in a first strike, ensuring your second-strike lands. You build extra missiles for the purpose of not having to fire them.
(I should note here that these concerns were not the only things driving the US and USSR’s buildup of nuclear weapons. Often politics and a lack of clear information contributed as well. In the 1960s, US fears of a ‘missile gap’ – which were unfounded and which many of the politicians pushing them knew were unfounded – were used to push for more investment in the US’s nuclear arsenal despite the United States already having at that time a stronger position in terms of nuclear weapons. In the 1970s and 1980s, the push for the development of precision guidance systems – partly driven by inter-agency rivalry in the USA and not designed to make a first strike possible – played a role in the massive Soviet nuclear buildup in that period; the USSR feared that precision systems might be designed for a ‘counter-force’ first strike (that is a first strike targeting Soviet nuclear weapons themselves) and so built up to try to have enough missiles to ensure survivable second strike capability. This buildup, driven by concerns beyond even deterrence did lead to absurdities: when the SIOP (‘Single Integrated Operational Plan’) for a nuclear war was assessed by General George Lee Butler in 1991, he declared it, “the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” Having more warheads than targets had lead to the assignment of absurd amounts of nuclear firepower on increasingly trivial targets.)
All of this theory eventually filtered into American policy making in the form of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (initially phrased as ‘assured destruction’ by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1964). The idea here was, as we have laid out, that US nuclear forces would be designed to withstand a first nuclear strike still able to launch a retaliatory second strike of such scale that the attacker would be utterly destroyed; by doing so it was hoped that one would avoid nuclear war in general. Because different kinds of systems would have different survivability capabilities, it also led to procurement focused on a nuclear ‘triad’ with nuclear systems split between land-based ICBMs in hardened silos, forward-deployed long-range bombers operating from bases in Europe and nuclear-armed missiles launched from submarines which could lurk off an enemy coast undetected. The idea here is that with a triad it would be impossible for an enemy to assure themselves that they could neutralize all of these systems, which assures the second strike, which assures the destruction, which deters the nuclear war you don’t want to have in the first place.
It is worth noting that while the United States and the USSR both developed such a nuclear triad, other nuclear powers have often seen this sort of secure, absolute second-strike capability as not being essential to create deterrence. The People’s Republic of China, for instance, has generally focused their resources on a fewer number of systems, confident that even with a smaller number of bombs, the risk of any of them striking an enemy city (typically an American city) would be enough to deter an enemy. As I’ve heard it phrased informally by one western observer, a strategy of, “one bomb and we’ll be sure to get it to L.A.” though of course that requires more than one bomb and one doubts the PRC phrases their doctrine so glibly (note that China is, in theory committed to developing a triad, they just haven’t bothered to actually really do so).
No First Use?
Now, you might ask at this point: why not defuse some of this tension with a “no first use” policy – openly declare that you won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons even in a non-nuclear conflict?
For the United States during the Cold War, the problem with declaring a ‘no first use’ policy was the worry that it would essentially serve as a ‘green light’ for conventional Soviet military action in Europe. Recall, after all, that the Soviet military was stronger in conventional forces in Europe during the Cold War and that episodes like the Berlin Blockade (and resultant Berlin Airlift) seemed to confirm Soviet interest in expanding their control over central Europe. At the same time, the Soviet use of military force to crush the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and the Prague Spring (1968) continued to reaffirm that the USSR had no intention of letting Central or Eastern Europe choose their own fates – this was an empire that ruled by dominate and intended to expand if it could.
The solution to blocking that expansion was NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Not because NATO collectively could defeat the USSR in a conventional war – the general assumption was that they probably couldn’t – but because NATO’s article 5 clause pledging mutual defense essentially meant that the nuclear powers of NATO (Britain, the United States and France) pledged to defend the territory of all NATO members3 with nuclear weapons. But just like deterrence, mutual defense alliances are based on the perception that all members will defend each other. Declaring that the United States wouldn’t use nuclear weapons first would essentially be telling the Germans, “we’ll fight for you, but we won’t use our most powerful weapons for you” in the event of a conventional war; it would be creating a giant unacceptable asterisk next to that mutual defense clause.
So the United States had to be committed to at least the possibility that it would respond to a conventional military assault on West Germany with nuclear retaliation (often envisaged as a ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons – that is, using smaller nuclear weapons against enemy military formations. That said, even in the 1950s, Bernard Brodie was already warning that restraining the escalation to general use of nuclear weapons once a tactical nuclear weapon was used would be practically impossible). But why then didn’t the USSR commit to ‘no first use’ either?
War Under the Umbrella
To look at that, we need to talk about why the logic of nuclear deterrence discussed above didn’t end war in general. After all, by Brodie’s logic, all nuclear powers would be in the same position: having to try to avoid war rather than win wars. But that isn’t quite so universally true.
There are a lot of ways to think about this question but the one I find myself leaning on the most is the framework set out by French strategist and general André Beaufre. He describes (in An Introduction to Strategy (1965)) what he terms ‘indirect strategy.’ In essence, this sort of strategy is the answer to how two nuclear powers can still compete with each other without triggering a nuclear war. It is, “the art of making the best use of the limited area of freedom of action left us by the deterrent effect of the existence of nuclear weapons.”
When I explain this to my students, I explain it in a spatial metaphor. Imagine two countries (let’s use the USA and the USSR for simplicity), both with nuclear weapons. They each have ‘red lines’ where they would use nuclear weapons. Neither country wants a nuclear exchange, so they have to avoid crossing their opponent’s red lines which would trigger that. But below that threshold, you have a window of ‘freedom of action’ – a sort of ‘space’ (really a set of options) – where either power can engage in all sorts of activity, including military activity (typically against third parties, as directly attacking a nuclear power is almost always over the red line). Beaufre’s term for the things you do inside the window of freedom of action to gain direct advantages is ‘interior maneuvers.’ For instance supplying weapons to the Afghan mujaheddin in order to degrade Soviet control of Afghanistan – that’s an interior maneuver. Intervening militarily to topple a government that is aligned with your competitor but who they have no formal obligation to protect – that’s also an interior maneuver.
But those two powers can also engage in activity designed to alter the window itself, to give themselves more freedom of action or their opponents less. Remember that deterrence is all about perception, not hard and fast rules. If you can convince the world (and your opponent) that a third-country regime isn’t worth defending (because it is evil or a pariah state, etc.), you can potentially do more or more extensive interior maneuvers against it without nearing that red line. Alternately – especially in a democracy – if you can convince your own people that a third-country regime is noble and just, you can generate the political will to harden your red line, thus closing down some of the freedom of action of your opponent. This sort of thing is what Beaufre terms the ‘exterior maneuver’ – efforts made not to manipulate the direct theater of competition, but the freedom of action each side has to act in that theater. A broad range of activities fit here, as Beaufre notes – appeals to international law, propaganda with moral and humanitarian bent, threatened indirect intervention, economic retaliation (sanctions), and of course ultimately the threat of direct intervention.
But why can’t you just threaten everything all of the time? Intentionally advance your red line maximally forward to deny your opponent any options at all? Because again, this is a system based on perception and no one will perceive that new red line as credible. The United States might defend Germany with nuclear weapons, but it most assuredly will not defend Egypt or Pakistan with nuclear weapons. After all, each state in this system knows all of the other states are trying to avoid a nuclear confrontation, indeed they are counting on it. Indeed, Beaufre argues that a nuclear power’s maneuvers, both interior and exterior, have to form a “logical thesis” to be effective – they have to be consistent with a line of policy and ideology which lends them credibility. Breaking from that thesis is what Beaufre terms a ‘false note’ and this has negative consequences, it both erodes the narrative that a power is advancing (reducing the effectiveness of its exterior maneuvers) but it also makes them seem less predictable – and again, because deterrence is about perception, predictability (or ‘credibility’) is a key resource. Note of course that each power has its own ‘logical thesis’ – an autocratic USSR can get away with things (like suppressing democratic movements in the countries it rules) that the democratic USA cannot and vice versa. The ‘false note’ isn’t about being humane or ‘good,’ it is about being predictable and consistent.
All of which means that nuclear deterrence need not be the end of war by nuclear powers; indirect strategy exposes a gap in Brodie’s dictum that the only useful purpose a nuclear military can have is to avert wars.
One such method that Beaufre discusses is what he calls the ‘piecemeal maneuver,’ but is often in English referred to as ‘salami tactics’ – including in this absolutely hilarious bit from Yes, Prime Minister, which is also a surprisingly good explanation of the method. The idea is that to make gains while avoiding escalation, a state can break up the gains they would make into a series of smaller actions, each with its own exterior maneuver ‘cover,’ so that it doesn’t rise to the level of triggering nuclear escalation. Putting together several such maneuvers could allow a state to make those gains which had they all been attempted at once, certainly would have triggered such an escalation. Beaufre’s example, unsurprisingly, was Hitler’s piecemeal gains before his last ‘bite’ into Poland triggered WWII.
Beaufre notes that for piecemeal maneuvers to be effective, they have to be presented as fait accompli – accomplished so quickly that anything but nuclear retaliation would arrive too late to do any good and of course nuclear retaliation would be pointless: who is going to destroy the world to save a country that was already lost? Thus Beaufre suggests that the piecemeal maneuver is best accomplished as a series of coups de main accomplished with fast moving armored, mechanized and airborne forces seizing control of the target country or region before anyone really knows what is happening. The attacking power can then present the maneuver as fait accompli and thus the new status quo that everyone has to accommodate; if successful, they have not only made gains but also moved everyone’s red lines, creating more freedom of action for further piecemeal maneuvers.
Avoiding this problem is why NATO is structured the way it is: promising a maximum response for any violation, however slight, of the territory of any member. The idea is to render the entire bloc immune to piecemeal maneuvers by putting all of it behind the red line (or at least letting the USSR think it is all behind the red line). It is also why American forces are often forward deployed in effectively trivial numbers in key areas in the world in what are often referred to as ‘tripwire’ deployments. Those American forces, for instance, in Poland, the Baltics or on the Korean DMZ (and during the Cold War, in West Germany) were not there to win the war; their purpose was, in a brutal sense, to die in its opening moments and thus ensure that the United States was committed, whether it wanted to be or not. And the reason to do that is to signal to both enemies and allies that any incursion into allied territory, no matter how trivial, will cause American deaths and thus incur an American military response. In that way you can shift the red line all of the way forward, obliterating the area of freedom of action, but only for countries where such a commitment is credible (which is going to generally be a fairly small group).
But it is also why nuclear powers struggle to commit to a no first use position: doing so essentially shifts their own red line backwards. Instead, in indirect strategy, maintaining ‘ambiguity’ about where exactly the red line is serves to limit an opposing power’s freedom of action – they cannot risk miscalculating and crossing your red lines. This is true, by the way, with conventional deterrence too, and you can see it at play with, for instance, the intentionally ambiguous stance the United States takes in regards to the defense of Taiwan; that ‘zone of ambiguity’ has been sufficient to deter military action by China without actually committing the United States to act in the event (something it might or might not want to do, depending on the circumstances). Consequently, even with substantial conventional superiority, adopting a No First Use posture removes your ability to threaten, openly or implicitly, nuclear retaliation as part of your exterior maneuvers and most nuclear powers are unwilling to self-impose that sort of limitation.
Fear and Crisis
So far all of this has assumed that all of our actors are rational, that they have good (but not perfect) information and a lot of time to make careful, rational calculations about the decision to use nuclear weapons. But of course in the event, those decisions will actually be made by emotional humans, within the fog of war, in rushed, high tension circumstances.
We have already had several such close calls. The most well known is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. When the United States discovered Soviet efforts to base nuclear missiles in Cuba (as a response to NATO missiles based in Turkey), President Kennedy responded with a blockade (and planned an invasion if a diplomatic solution proved impossible, which would have been disastrous in the event because, unbeknownst to Kennedy, Soviet forces in Cuba already had the warheads for their missiles; faced with death by invasion they may well have launched to defend themselves). On October 27, a Soviet submarine, B-59 passed under the blockade line and US Navy ships responded by dropping a series of small ‘signalling’ depth charges (practice charges that were very small, but of course in the moment does the target know they aren’t a real threat?). But B-59 was armed with nuclear torpedoes and had orders to use them if damaged by depth charges (and was, to boot, to deep to receive radio signals); the captain of the vessel assumed the war had already started and wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo but was stopped by the vice admiral who commanded the flotilla who was, happily, aboard. With the Soviet forces in Cuba already having their warheads ready, it is not hard to see how a Soviet submarine nuking an American fleet would lead fairly directly to escalation and a nuclear exchange, had just one Soviet submarine officer held a different opinion.
1983 also saw a pair of close-calls. In September of that year, the Soviet early-warning radar system produced a false alarm incorrectly showing the launch of initially one and then five missiles from US bases towards the USSR. The officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, figured such a small attack was unlikely and suspected a false alarm and so didn’t relay the information up the chain of command, potentially preventing a Soviet ‘retaliatory’ strike. Later that year, NATO exercises (essentially practice) provoked tension: to the Soviets, the exercises – Able Archer 83 – were basically indistinguishable from preparation for a first strike or other attack. Using ‘exercises’ this way (but for conventional, rather than nuclear, operations) had long been part of the Soviet playbook, after all, and remains part of the Russian playbook, as we saw in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine…last month.4 As the Able Archer exercise proceeded, Soviet leaders grew more and more alarmed (since the exercise was meant to simulate a ramp up in tensions leading to a nuclear war) and puts its nuclear forces on a hair-trigger alert – something the United States only really learned after the exercise had concluded.
The point of going through this is to note that the decisions about nuclear weapons in these contexts weren’t made in some emotionless, rational void but in charged, tense settings and with wildly imperfect information. Added to that, modern ICBMs also raise response time questions. Once launched, ICBMs can be at their target (pretty much anywhere) in about half an hour. That means a nuclear power worried that it might receive a nuclear first strike has to be on a hair-trigger – failure to launch before the enemy’s strike arrived would mean having much of your own nuclear arsenal potentially destroyed on the ground (a problem made much worse by modern precision guidance systems, but that’s a story for another time). Consequently, both the USSR and the USA adopted a ‘launch on warning’ posture where the full retaliation would be launched while enemy missiles were still in the air – so the decision has to be made within minutes.
The nature of uncertainty and confusion in these scenarios has meant that while occasionally there has been theorizing about the possibility of limited conventional war between nuclear powers directly (e.g. Herman Kahn’s escalation ladders in On Escalation (1965)), in practice nuclear powers have generally accepted that any direct military conflict between them poses unacceptable escalation risks – the chance for a miscalculation or a false alarm to produce catastrophe is simply too high. This risk is substantially increased by the tendency of doctrine in the modern system to prioritize striking command and control in an effort to disorient and confuse enemy forces. As Caitlin Talmadge notes, in many cases, efforts to strike conventional command and control would be indistinguishable from attempts to disable nuclear command and control, the latter of course being exactly what you would want to do if you intended to launch a nuclear first strike without suffering retaliation (because, recall, you’ve disabled the ability of the system to get over Wohlstetter’s third hurdle), presenting the opposing power with a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario.
For my own part, I think this assumption – that any direct conflict between nuclear powers presents unacceptable escalation risks – is correct. History is littered with endless ‘small’ wars that did not stay small, but escalated beyond all original intentions and in some cases beyond the control of the initiating parties. As Clausewitz observes (drink!) escalation – what he terms the three reciprocal actions and their resultant extremes – escalatory pressure is an inherent part of war, a part of its fundamental nature (mitigated by other factors, but never removed). Assuming that escalation can be controlled this time is the epitaph written on the graves of countless kings and empires; the world needs not one more such tombstone with the added feature that it glows in the dark.
As a result, nuclear powers tend to give each other a wide berth. Now you might think this makes things more stable, and in a way it does: it reduces the chance for a catastrophic miscalculation leading to nuclear war. But it also means that nuclear powers are loath to intervene directly into other nuclear power’s ‘interior maneuvers’ (to use Beaufre’s term). The result is what is called the stability-instability paradox. The idea being that on the one hand, nuclear deterrence makes it less likely that two nuclear powers will wage a big war (or any war) with each other, but on the other hand, that nuclear deterrence means that both powers can be fairly confident their ‘small’ wars – proxy wars, foreign interventions into weaker, non-nuclear third countries, etc. – won’t be allowed to escalate into major, state-threatening wars because the other (nuclear) great powers won’t intervene.
Consequently, while big wars get less likely, the stability-instability paradox means that nuclear deterrence makes smaller conflicts more likely because great (nuclear) powers need no longer fear that any small conflict they start will draw in an opposing great (nuclear) power. Moreover, the possession of nuclear weapons essentially ‘backstops’ the possible failure scenarios for the great power: if by surprise its attack is defeated, that is likely to be the end of the matter, since any conventional assault on its homeland would trigger a nuclear response (on the non-nuclear minor power target). In short, nuclear weapons make wars by nuclear powers against non-nuclear powers ‘safe’ and by lowering their risk and cost, also makes them more likely.
Implications for Ukraine
What does all of this mean for Ukraine?
To begin with, it seems fairly clear that Putin’s War in Ukraine is a fairly clear example of the stability-instability paradox. In a pre-nuclear world, an intervention like this would have risked a direct, conventional response from NATO; at least at the moment it seems clear that the political will for such an intervention exists and is only really restrained by escalation concerns. Consequently, while in a pre-nuclear world invading Ukraine would pose the real risk of sparking an unwinnable conventional war with NATO, in a nuclear world, the Russian Federation can remain relatively sure that the war in Ukraine will remain ‘cabined’ to Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons and Ukraine does not means that in the event that Ukraine wins, their ability to exploit that victory would be extremely limited; they could not, for instance, push deeply into Russian territory without triggering a potentially nuclear Russian response. The invasion thus seemed ‘safe.’
More broadly, I think Beaufre’s thinking is actually quite applicable here. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a classic interior maneuver and the Russian plan of operations follows Beaufre’s thinking closely: rapid advances with airborne, armor and mechanized forces to try to produce a coup de main that would topple the government and present its replacement as a fait accompli before the rest of the world could react. Clearly that’s not the only thing motivating the Russian operational concept – there seems to have been quite a lot of self-delusion and wishful thinking about how welcoming the Ukrainians would be. That said, it seems fairly clear that the Russian operational plan was designed to try to produce that fait accompli in just a few days, but of course the problem with such lightning advances is that should something go wrong, it is likely to go very wrong, with units spread out and often deep into enemy territory with fewer forces holding rear areas. By contrast, for instance, the United States, far more confident in its exterior maneuvers creating the window of freedom of action to intervene, was able to adopt a fairly methodical approach to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Which goes to the next point: Russian exterior maneuvers prior to the invasion were also fairly obvious. The Russian Federation, while building up claimed it had no plans to invade and used ‘exercises’ as a pretense in an effort, one assumes, to maximize confusion in the event and thus make unified action by the rest of the world more difficult. At the same time, Russia attempted to orchestrate a number of false-flag attacks and other fake ‘provocations’ in order to justify their intervention. What is also fairly obvious is that those exterior maneuvers failed, in particular because they lacked any kind of credibility. The smokescreen only works if a meaningful proportion of people believe it. The strategy NATO intelligence agencies took, of ‘calling’ Russia’s shots in advance robbed the strategy of much of its power. Again, the exterior maneuver is all about perception: Russia needed to create a ‘grey-zone’ of acceptability for what it was doing and largely failed.
Instead, the Russian invasion served as a ‘false note’ in Beaufre’s terminology: uncovered by an effective exterior maneuver to generate the freedom of action, the invasion appeared to break with the ‘logical thesis’ of Russian policy. After all, Putin has long claimed to stand for state sovereignty (against notions like the ‘Responsibility to Protect‘). Instead, the Ukrainians, in whose interest he claimed to be invading, have taken up arms to fight him and his subsequent conduct – indiscriminate shelling of urban areas – undermined his supposed concern with people of ‘our common Motherland.’ Consequently, Putin’s invasion shattered assumptions of predictability – that Putin would do ‘bad things’ but only in smaller ways or in ‘acceptable’ regions of the world – to be clear, I am not pardoning this, but remember deterrence is about perception and unfortunately when it comes to public opinion in powerful countries, some people’s suffering triggers a more intense reaction than others. Is that just? No. Is it true? Yes. Strategy deals with the true, alas, and not with the just. In that context, Putin’s war ‘is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.’
The logic of deterrence – in particular the fact that it is both very high stakes and also based entirely on perception – explains why NATO and especially the United States took any direct military action off of the table quite loudly well before the conflict began. Saying that ‘all options are on the table’ – as the United States routinely does with Taiwan – would have been a fairly obvious bluff. When Putin called that obvious bluff, it would have damaged the credibility and thus the deterrence value of that same statement when applied to NATO members or Taiwan, weakening the effect of US deterrence, and thus potentially encouraging another state (like China) to try to call an American bluff elsewhere (essentially inviting a piecemeal maneuver). And of course the danger to that is two-fold: on the one hand if the United States and NATO folds, it calls into question even more of its security arrangements, but if it doesn’t fold, the result is likely to be a major war which in turn could (and frankly probably would) lead to an escalatory spiral ending in the use of nuclear weapons.
Remember: deterrence is a game where a big enough mistake kills hundreds of millions if not billions of people.5 This is why no one is eager to gamble here. If you aren’t at least a little bit worried, you aren’t paying attention. And yet, as we’ve discussed, there is no way out of the deterrence trap: once one state has nuclear weapons, it can only be deterred from using them by other states having nuclear weapons.
At the same time basically everything that NATO is doing in Ukraine can be understood as having a dual purpose: both attempting to degrade Russian military capabilities (by sinking the Russian economy and arming Ukraine) but also as an exterior maneuver designed to alter the freedom of action of other players in the system. Unable to directly act against Russia due to the concerns of deterrence and escalation, NATO is seeking to close the window of freedom of action tight enough that wars of conquest sit outside of it. It is doing this by rallying world opinion to the imposition of massive economic costs, in an effort to signal that wars of conquest will have such tremendous negative repercussions (even if they don’t trigger direct intervention) as to never be worth the cost. The obvious audience for this flurry of exterior maneuvers is China; only time will tell if the performance was a success – though given that the scale of the response has shocked not only Russia but also NATO itself, one assumes it is likely to have surprised leaders in the People’s Republic of China as well.
At the same time, understanding deterrence explains why many of the proposed responses to Putin’s War in Ukraine impose unacceptable escalation risks. The logic of deterrence essentially demands avoiding direct confrontations between nuclear powers that could escalate uncontrollably (and escalation in war is always uncontrollable by either party): NATO still operates in the Beaufre framework where the window of freedom of action is finite. Russia putting its nuclear forces on alert very publicly can thus be seen as an effort to signal that the red line still very much exists and that NATO should think very hard before approaching it (which is also an exterior maneuver, but one designed to close down opposing freedom of action, rather than open your own).
Thus – despite journalists who apparently do not know their deterrence theory very well continue to insist on talking about it – the chances of something like a ‘no fly zone’ are effectively zero. Enforcing a no fly zone would require engaging Russian air targets and also suppressing Russian air defenses (by bombing them), including targets in Russia; the escalation risk is wildly too high.
Related concerns make using US air bases to transfer aircraft to the Ukraine difficult as well, as that draws dangerously close to NATO engaging in direct belligerent action (basing Ukrainian planes on their sovereign territory). There is a lot of frustration in some quarters that NATO and the United States won’t take more direct action, but again when you are gambling with the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people, you do not take risky bets.6 Of course part of the limitation here is that because the conflict is happening on NATO’s doorstep, any escalation risks triggering Article 5’s mutual defense provisions; consequently the non-nuclear NATO powers cannot really act independently of the effects to nuclear deterrence of the nuclear NATO powers (USA, France, Britain).
As a result, the nature of deterrence puts both hard limits (no direct intervention) and soft limits (avoid escalatory scenarios) on the ability of NATO to intervene to stop Putin’s War in Ukraine. NATO’s response has been to utilize indirect intervention methods that has been well established by previous usage (usage which might now be seen as decades of exterior maneuvers preparing for this moment) do not cross nuclear red lines: supplying arms (mostly small arms and light weapons) and economic sanctions, but doing so on a frankly extreme scale. There’s a clear logic to that strategy: safer to do a very low risk thing a lot than to do a very high risk thing a little. This is especially true in the midst of a ‘hot’ war where fear and confusion are high, increasing the odds of a miscalculation or error.
It is worth noting here though how Ukrainian interests here diverge from NATO interests. Ukraine is already in an effectively total war (from their perspective; Russia is not totally mobilized) with Russia. Russian forces are already targeting Ukrainian civilian centers with the apparent aim of inflicting civilian casualties and making the refugee situation worse. The Ukrainian state already faces the potential threat of extinction. As a result, Ukraine has very little to lose if the war escalates further (especially since from the Ukrainian perspective, nearly all of the escalatory potential is on NATO’s side; note this is not true from NATO’s perspective) and so it may be in Ukrainian interests to push for high-risk NATO strategies that it is in turn not in NATO’s interest – or the world’s interest – for NATO to adopt.
At the same time all of this means that observers, especially in NATO countries, need to calibrate their expectations for what the United States, NATO and the global community can do here, because the limits deterrence sets are real, if ambiguous (that is, we cannot know exactly where Putin’s nuclear red line is, but it does exist and crossing it would have disastrous consequences). Those limits are not arbitrary: they exist for very real reasons and while I do not always agree with the assessments of those limits made by the folks in charge, in the end, I’d rather they err on the side of caution.
Because if you aren’t worried, you haven’t been paying attention.
Next week, world events permitting, we’ll take a break from the modern and dive into the ‘runner up’ question in the last vote of the ACOUP Senate: ‘How did the Roman dictatorship work? And did it work at all?’
- Sorry Israelis, this blog is a no-strategic-ambiguity zone. You have them, we all know you have them.
- Brodie is writing before ICBMs, but he’s accurately perceiving that an iron-clad air defense just isn’t going to work. Germany, after all, couldn’t stop US strategic bombing where it took many thousands of bombs to level a city – who is going to stop an airfleet of the same size that maybe only needs 5 or 10 hits? ICBMs make this problem infinitely worse and their development is effectively predicted by the third point.
- During the Cold War, that was Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, Turkey, Spain and (West) Germany. The assumption in most planning was that the state being defended would almost certainly be West Germany.
- Reader from the future! I am writing this is March, 2022. In February of 2022, the Russian Federation used ‘exercises’ as an excuse to stage roughly 200,000 soldiers on the borders of Ukraine, falsely claiming they had no intent to invade, before launching a long-planned invasion on February 24.
- As you might imagine, there has been quite a bit of ink spilled over the years attempting to estimate the likely casualties of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR/Russia. In practice there are a lot of unknowns, particularly in terms of long term ecological effects. It’s not clear, for instance, if such an exchange would in fact cause a ‘nuclear winter’ and if so how severe it would be. Different studies have come up with different projections. What is certain is that the scale of the death and destruction would be intolerable, which is what matters.
- There are other major issues with the idea of transferring more complex weapon-systems – fixed-wing aircraft and larger ground-based SAM systems (like Patriot) – in terms of training and maintenance that don’t relate to deterrence. The Armed Forces of Ukraine for the most part are trained on legacy Soviet equipment which at this point few NATO states use. The systems that have been retained have, in many cases, been upgraded and heavily modernized. It takes a fair bit of training to use these larger, more complex systems, making these systems far less useful in the near-term.