Michael Brenner Nuclear War

Flirting With Armaggedon—Again

Photograph of a mock-up of the Little Boy nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945. This was the first photograph of the Little Boy bomb casing to ever be released by the U.S. government (it was declassified in 1960). US government DOD and/or DOE photograph, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Michael Brenner

An oddity of our times is the cavalier manner by which analysts of public issues ignore acquired understanding and history. Their motto seems to be: the world begins anew when I first take note of it. We have seen this phenomenon in the rolling discussion of responses to the Great Financial Collapse and to the COVID downturn. For many, Keynes might as well never have existed, trillions were funneled to culpable Wall Street rather than to stricken Main Street in a digitalized version of the long discredited ‘trickle down’ model, and firm government regulation of financial institutions dismissed as retrograde. The dogmatic dedication to archaic austerity strategies has wreaked ruin on economies across Europe, and much of the LDC world. We see it in the canard that dampening inflation must concentrate on blocking rising wages even when official statistics show clearly that currently corporate profiteering is by far the main engine of the CPI.  We have seen it is the willful ignoring of the truism that to launch a campaign of humiliation against another power coupled with a string of personal insults directed at its leader precludes any diplomatic exchange and negotiation. We have seen it in the unbridled readiness to abrogate treaties and accords of capital importance dissolves all credibility across the board. Yet, the faith in the tried-and-failed persists.

These days, it is nuclear issues reawakened by the Ukrainian war, the widespread discussion of war with China provoked by the Taiwan dispute, the unsettled Iran question and the growing North Korean capability that are in the limelight. They are being treated as something novel under the sun. That is perplexing – and disturbing. Decades ago, very able minds conducted fine-grain examinations of the logic and psychology of nuclear strategy which produced analysis of remarkable sophistication. It acquired further authority by the experience of the past 70 years. Yet, today self-proclaimed experts and pundits take exceptional liberties that reflect neither focused thought nor history nor any awareness whatsoever that the matters they freely pronounce on have been addressed previously in a thorough-going fashion.

This situation has prompted me to attempt a summing up of what we have learned since 1945 and to apply it to present and prospective circumstances. It is intended to establish a conceptual framework for consideration of the two current deviations from orthodox nuclear wisdom that have gained currency: 1) the feasibility of employing low yield tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to alter the balance in a conventional military conflict; 2) the possibility that the protagonists could engage in restricted nuclear exchanges without it escalating into a cataclysm. The commentary is unusually lengthy due to the inclusion of supplementary material. For those who find that nuclear strategy is not their cup of tea, or are distracted by the beach bully kicking sand in their face, there is a natural break at page 10.

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The acquired wisdom can be distilled into these propositions.

1. When we speak of an encounter between two nuclear armed states, the weapons’ primary utility is to deter the other. The risk and consequences of nuclear war are so great as to outweigh any possible advantage in trying to use them to military advantage.

2. This condition of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is stable when the following conditions are met: both sides have the capacity to withstand a first strike while retaining the means to deliver a nuclear riposte; and when there is the will to do so. No one has ever thought of testing the latter.

3. The absence of an assured second-strike capability on one side does introduce an element of instability by both enticing a first strike by the superior and encouraging the inferior to strike preemptively. That condition increases the risk of unintentional nuclear use to some immeasurable degree. The India-Pakistan stand-off confirms the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons even under imperfect conditions of deterrence. That is to say: relatively small arsenals; no invulnerable delivery systems; contiguous geography; major points of contention; and a history of past combat (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999). 

4. There is a further condition for a stable binary nuclear relationship: sophisticated and dependable command and control/fail-safe systems, e.g. permissive action links (PALs) on nuclear delivery systems. That serves everyone’s interest – with one exception. The exception may be an inferior nuclear state that wishes to foster anxiety that its weapons might be activated accidently at the height of a crisis – thereby deterring a superior (nuclear and conventional) antagonist from pressing its advantage. A similar logic points to cultivating an image of being ‘irrational.’ Would the United States have invaded Iraq if it believed a ‘crazy’ Saddam had 3 or 4 nuclear weapons? Would it consider aggressive action against Iran if it believed the ‘mad Mullahs’ in possession of 3 or 4 nuclear weapons?

5. A nuclear armed state that deploys an effective ballistic defense system (BMD) has a theoretical possibility of neutralizing a nuclear armed antagonist ability to retaliate. That could provide some incentive to launch a disarming first strike. The incentive increases if the BMD endowed state faces only a rudimentary arsenal. The same logic applies to the superior power’s taking risky actions involving conventional forces. The key factor in all these calculations is the level of confidence in one’s BMD’s reliability. ‘Almost’ is not good enough when nuclear weapons are present. No such reliable BMD system that can provide an impenetrable shield currently exists. The Patriot and other systems which the United States has been promoting as protection against some conjectured Iranian threat do not meet the standard – witness Ukraine.

6. Can the inferior nuclear state deter the superior from launching conventional attacks on it directly? We do not have much data on this – especially since there is no case of the superior state trying to do so. Would an Iran with a rudimentary nuclear arsenal be able to deter an American or Israeli-led assault a la Iraq by threatening troop concentrations and/or fleet elements in the Persian Gulf? All we can say is that it will heighten caution. Current example: will the prospect of introducing NATO (American) troops into Ukraine be nullified by fear that , if successful, the consequence could be a lowering of the odds on a Russian resort to TNWs? Would either the United States or China be dissuaded from resorting to the nuclear option in extremity when losing a conventional war around Taiwan?

What separates these two scenarios from Cold War crises is that the parties are in direct hostilities. Logically, that should reinforce the already powerful cautionary instincts instilled in the past.  However, there are so-called strategists today who seriously conjecture scenarios wherein one plays around with TNWs. Of course, the inescapable truth is that any war with China will obliterate Taiwan. The fate of a few million Taiwanese is given no greater weight in the equation than we do the fate of a few million Ukrainians.

7. If the inferior state (e.g. N. Korea) has the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the superior’s homeland, that cautionary element grows by several factors of magnitude.

8. Can the nuclear state provide a credible deterrent umbrella for an ally that is conventionally inferior to a superior armed enemy? (Western Europe facing the Red Army). The NATO and South Korea experience says ‘yes.’ That is, if the stakes are highly valued by the state providing the “nuclear umbrella”, e.g. the integrity of Western Europe or Japan. This logic does not apply, however, to a possible NATO/US defense guarantee to a Ukrainian state entity. For it is neither a member of a mutual defense alliance which carries legal pledges and obligations nor a bilateral agreement with the U.S. such as Japan has. Moreover, Ukraine does not possess the same intrinsic importance to the United States.

A related issue arises re. the conjecture that Russia in Ukraine might resort to TNWs in the unlikely event that if it were on the brink of a decisive defeat. Since there is no defense treaty between the Kiev government and NATO – or the U.S. bilaterally – the fear of a nuclear response would be low. Moreover, they have no core security interest at stake. There would be widespread repercussions, though – elsewhere, overtime, indirect – that could inflict very significant damage on Russia’s global position, a loss equivalent or greater to whatever occurs in the Ukraine war.

Putin’s vague allusion to nuclear weapons properly should be understood not as a threat of possible resort to TNWs, but rather as reinforcing the message that any physical military conflict between nuclear powers (the U.S. and Russia) carries cataclysmic risks. Therefore, Washington is warned that it should exclude out-of-hand any notion of armed intervention. The deployment of TNWs in Belarus serves the same deterrent purpose by throwing a nuclear umbrella over a close partner who may be targeted by the West.

9. What of the nuclear taboo? It didn’t exist at the time of Hiroshima/Nagasaki – for two reasons. The devastating effects of nuclear weapons had not yet been demonstrated; we were in the midst of a total war with Japan. That taboo exists today and will inhibit anyone who is tempted to use nuclear weapons in a compellent mode.

10. This above logic manifestly has been absorbed by everyone who has been in a position to order a nuclear strike. No civilian leader (and nearly all military commanders) with the authority to launch a nuclear attack ever believed that the result would be other than a massive exchange -mutual suicide for those with large arsenals. Certainly, that was true from the early 1960s onwards once the USSR had deployed reliable retaliatory nuclear weapons and the notion of ‘winning’ a nuclear exchange of any kind faded in the Pentagon and among its intellectual auxiliaries. This sobering reality did not encourage risk-taking at lower levels of conflict. Just the opposite.

There has been one possible exception that gained wide currency over the years. It is the report that Israel Prime Minister Golda Meier, at the darkest moment in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, wheeled out elements of its nuclear force in preparation for use were Israel’s survival stake. Subsequently investigations have cast doubt on this story. That is not to say that it would preclude doing so were the country’s fate jeopardized.

Q: does that sober thinking/instincts still prevail today?

Ancillary Propositions

1a. To the extent that we take seriously the technical and psychological requirements for deterrence (and I’m not at all sure this holds – see ‘1’ above), the logic tells us that the strategy most effective for deterrence is the one that you absolutely do not want in place in the events of hostilities. Example: a tripwire or doomsday mechanism. Works wonderfully as deterrence, but… That’s why the development of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) was such a boost to stable deterrence.

2b. Two things deter: certainty (see ‘3’); and total uncertainty (see ‘1’ above). Certainty can take the form of tripwires: e.g. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe deployed on the battlefield that almost surely would escalate into strategic, inter-continental exchanges. Certainty could take another form: “launch-on-warning.” That is to say, as soon as incoming missiles are detected – in whatever number, on whatever trajectory – ICBMs and SLBMs are activated and launched. That also obviates the risk that an incoming strike might ‘decapitate’ the targeted government’s leadership – leaving it paralyzed to respond. Knowledge that such arrangements are in place should be the ultimate deterrent to an intentional  first-strike. However, in the event of an accidental launch or limited launch, you have committed both sides to suicide. The U.S. government never has stated that in has in place any such arrangement to provides a direct link between warning system and release of ICBMs – but there are recurrent assertions that in fact they have existed since Jimmy Carter’s day.

3c. The most sensible thing to do about nuclear weapons in your possession or in the possession of an enemy is to forget about them.

The point is that we need not depend on formal rationality (awareness of ends, means, probabilities) when it comes to nuclear weapons. The key element is perceptual. Nuclear weapons have been taboo since August 1945 and accepted as such by everyone who has been in charge of them. You get into trouble when you begin to try thinking it through from scratch because some just might skip a logical step or give way to emotion. (Kissinger and others did this in the 1950s and 60s with their far-fetched ideas about limited nuclear war restricted to tactical nuclear weapons, TNWs. See his now forgotten Nuclear Weapons and National Strategy – 1958. That book made his reputation as a strategist).

Here’s an analogy. In the entire history of the NYC subway, there is no recorded incident of someone electrocuting himself by crossing the track – and 3rd rail – to reach the opposite platform. This is so even though that route is shorter and quicker than walking up and over. The one way to ensure that someone or other will indeed try, and kill himself in the attempt, is to display big posters everywhere in the system laying out the pros and cons of taking that route rather than going up, over and down via the stairs – EVEN if the conclusion that it made no sense to try is underscored, in bold and in red.

One Conclusion: India and Pakistan should shut down all the think tanks devoted to nuclear strategy.

4d. In nuclear matters, it is dangerous to put together a team of intelligent strategic planners who have plenty of time and a mandate to think out of the box. They likely will generate intricate schemes which have a surface plausibility but in fact only a tenuous connection to reality. The performance of the RAND Corp in service to the Air Force confirms that fear. Here is an example of the extreme proposals that can emanate from this type of blue-sky thinking; One idea that got off the drawing board envisaged a reaction to signals that NORAD had picked up flights of Soviet missiles on a trajectory pointing to our own missile silos. It called for a synchronized startup of our 1,000 plus liquid-fueled ATLAS rocket engines which would produce such a tremendous reverberation as to stop the rotation of the earth for a micro-second. As a result, the Soviet missiles would miss their targets – winding up in Missouri cornfields, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone Park instead. Physicists possessing a modicum of knowledge realized that it was a ridiculous expectation – and, if such a shock could be produced, the earth itself would split open. (See Ellsberg for a fuller account).

In short, the nuclear doctrine with attendant deployments that is most effective as deterrent is the worst to have in place were actual hostilities to break out.

Theoretically, there is a way to reconcile the two objectives: loudly announce that you have set in place launch-on-warning arrangements but refrain from doing so. Nobody is likely to call your bluff.

5e. Unfortunately, there remain a few of these Dr. Strangelove types scattered throughout the vast defense establishment who entertain such looney ideas. One was Dick Cheney who pushed a plan for a massive air assault on Iran that entailed possible use of TNWs. At one point in the 2005-2006 period, it was viewed favorably by George Bush. Its eventual dismissal stemmed in good part from staunch opposition by the Pentagon brass to the nuclear component. As one participant in the policy process later said: ‘Bush and Cheney were dead serious about the nuclear planning …. and the civilian hierarchy feels extraordinarily betrayed by the brass.”1

That is by no means the only occasion when the White House seriously considered using nuclear weapons in fighting a non-nuclear foe.2  Today, they are being revived.

6f. The other idea that has surfaced in strategic writing concerns nuclear war-fighting. This hardy perennial has risen Phoenix-like from the critical dust several times. The latest iteration is set in the context of a conventional war between China and the United States. The analysis postulates that a “losing” China could revert to the use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons.2  A variant foresees a Washington resort to nuclear weapons were the conventional war take an adverse turn. This scenario defies credibility on multiple counts.

Above all, the idea that nuclear exchanges could be constrained below a certain (undefined) threshold is unrealistic in the light of what we know about human behavior. The absence of any rules means that confidence margins in the assessment of escalation probabilities are extremely wide. (This is treated in the section above). In addition, it is nearly impossible to imagine a situation whereby the United States military defeats Chinese forces to the point of making the country vulnerable to American occupation or dictation of terms (whatever they may be). A credible enforcement of submission to any specific diktat from Washington would have to entail either occupation or threat to attack cities. The Army that had its hands full pacifying Baghdad is in no position to rule 1.3 billion Chinese. As to the possible attack on high value targets, it could be deterred by the strategic nuclear capabilities that China would retain.

This reasoning highlights how reckless is both the idea that a conventional war between nuclear powers could be fought without escalating to the nuclear plane, and the belief that there is no escalatory ladder from battlefield TNWs and an all-out nuclear exchange.

7g. For a while, concocting nuclear scenarios – strategic (counterforce) and tactical focused on TNWs in Europe – was a sort of intellectual parlor game among defense intellectuals (including some military people). By the mid-70s, it ran its course as everyone came to accept the ‘Bomb’ even if they didn’t come to love it. The role of SLBMs in solidifying MAD was the capstone.

Defense intellectuals are prone to parlor games – as witness the fashionable COIN.

8h. Here is one general thought about extended deterrence as a ‘generic’ type.  Throughout the Cold War years, the United States and its strategically dependent allies wrestled with the question of credibility.  Years of mental tergiversations never resolved it.  For one intrinsic reason: it is harder to convince an ally than it is to convince a potential enemy of your readiness to use the threat of retaliation to protect them. There are two aspects to this oddity.  First, the enemy has to consider the psychology of only one other party; the ally has to consider the psychology of two other parties.  Then, the enemy knows the full direct costs of underestimating our credibility and, in a nuclear setting, will always be ultra conservative in its calculations.  By contrast, the ally that has not experienced the hard realities of both being a possible target of a nuclear attack and the possible originator of a nuclear attack cannot fully share in this psychology.

9i. Implications for the Gulf.  On the downside, if the Europeans, South Koreans and Taiwanese at times doubted the credibility of the nuclear umbrella then the Gulf leaders will – given the greater cultural and historical distance.  On the positive side, it would take a hell of a lot less to deter an embryonic Iranian nuclear capability that cannot reach the United States than it did to deter the Soviet Union. 

There is much loose talk about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East were the Sunni states truly worried about the prospect of an Iranian “breakout” fifteen or so years from now. This proliferation scenario is fatally flawed. For one thing, a quick move to build a bomb within 90 days (as the Israelis say) or even year is nonsense.  There is a lot more to the development of an atomic weapon than accumulating sufficient HEU. You don’t just pile it up in a corner, cover with a layer of dog-eared nuclear engineering manuals, and then come back a few months later to find that you have acquired a weapon by a process of spontaneous generation. The engineering and manufacturing requirements are stringent. A competent, disinterested expert on matters of nuclear engineering and design will tell you that 3 – 5 years is a much more reasonable estimate – if there are no obstacles encountered.(See ADDENDUM)

Second, speculation about a Saudi nuclear program should stress the capabilities factor rather than the factor of will. Building a primitive nuclear bomb has become progressively easier as knowledge and technology are more readily available. Still, a development program requires sophisticated engineering skills and a deep industrial base. Saudi Arabia lacks both and will continue to lack both for the indefinite future. Indeed, it is very thin even by regional standards. The KSA is unable to manufacture all but the most basic mechanical products. That deficit cannot be offset by contracted specialists. So once again we have supposedly responsible people holding responsible positions playing games of make-believe as if their politically driven pronouncements were grounded in reality and logically argued.

 Grand Themes

A.      Nuclear Disarmament & The Zero Option

We never will achieve a nuclear free world.  Getting very close to zero is highly dangerous for obvious reasons; and modest reductions in the arsenals of the United States and Russia are strategically meaningless.  Yes, it is a talking point in the proliferation context since with have a legal obligation under the NPT to lower the number of warheads in the arsenals of n-weapons states.  No would-be weapons state, though, cares a fig about those numbers in making the momentous decision whether or not to go nuclear.

B.      Ensuring the security of nuclear stockpiles and of highly radioactive material is, of course, of the utmost importance.  In this sphere, the ideas on the table fall into three categories: the vapid; the technical; and the absurd.  In the first is some kind of convention containing anodyne language declaring all parties’ readiness to worry about the problem and vowing earnestly to worry.  In the second, there could be of some small utility to agreements on the exchange of practical information on how to reduce the risk of unauthorized access to, or activation of weapons or weapons grade material.  The specifics, probably, are better worked out in bilateral or wider ad hoc cooperative projects – as the US has been doing for 50 years.

The third category refers to the headline story about terrorists and nuclear weapons.  Obama made this the leitmotif of his arms control vision in declaring repeatedly that terrorism is the most serious nuclear threat we face.  That is simply untrue.  An accurate statement designed to educate rather than to play on emotions would say that the seizure of nuclear materials by ‘al-Qaeda’ would create a vitally dangerous situation BUT it is not an urgent concern because the likelihood of such an eventuality coming to pass is close to zero.  Classic al-Qaeda is a weak, fragmented grouping able to do little more than survive physically.  It’s the ‘groupies’ and loners who have been responsible for attacks in France and Belgium in recent years, and in the U.S. several years back. None required much planning, organization  or technical skill.

C.   Thinking about the “no first use” question was a central strategic issue during the Cold War.  The United States’ strategy for countering the Red Army’s enormous advantage in conventional arms was to deploy thousands of tactical nuclear weapons.  If NATO forces were breaking before the onslaught, we theoretically could use small nukes against battlefield and rear echelon targets to stem the tide.  Moreover, our capability for doing was intended to deter the Soviets from launching a conventional war in the belief that we would not put our cities at risk to prevent them from occupying Western Europe.  Whether any of this reasoning existed anywhere other than in war game rooms is an open question.  Anyway, it all seemed to become irrelevant. The Ukraine conflict has given it new life – at least in some circles.


Do the above observations point in favor of developing a more refined first-strike capability? No. In the Middle East, given the disproportion of forces, there is no conceivable gain from the conjectured fine-tuning of the American nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region is very low.

So why are we pushing ahead with a hugely expensive ($1 Trillion) nuclear weapons program that serves no evident strategic purpose? One conceivable answer is that we are just “keeping up with the Joneses.” Who are the Joneses? There were none when the program was inaugurated by the Obama administration Now, its promoters point to the breakthrough hypersonic delivery system developed by Russia and likely possessed as well by China. The basic truth, though, that ‘improved’ delivery does not obviate the logic of BMD. Only a seal-proof missile defense system could do that given the existence of SLBMs. However, it is an effective talking point in justifications of the nuclear ‘upgrade’ project.3

Greater efficiency? Nuclear weapons are unique in that they serve their purpose when they are not used – just sitting in the garage. Small improvements in potential performance, therefore, offer no benefit to the owner. Another, more realistic explanation is that we want to prove to ourselves that we “can” do it. That is also why we climb mountains. In this case, there is something of a technological imperative involved as well. If advances in science and engineering hold out the prospect of our being able to do something technologically impressive, then we are tempted to demonstrate that we are up to the challenge. Much of innovation in the post-modern era is of this nature, i.e. technological feats of uncertain practical benefit. To nuclear weapons, we should add the macho enhancement effect. That mind-set includes an element of faddism. We cultivate a desire for a product after the fact of its being manufactured. Smart Watches, for an example. Or, self-driving cars.

Post-hoc demand creation likely plays a role in maintaining impetus behind the $1 trillion nuclear arms build-up. Once the military people and defense “strategists” fix their minds on ultra-capable, precision-guided and customized nuclear missiles and bombs, they come up with ends to which they might be put. And let’s not forget that for some the idea of being able to launch a smart, nuclear tipped missile down an imagined Iranian tunnel to where critical projects are located is thrilling. Or, just think what might have happened had we such masterful technology when Osama bin-Laden was holed up in a Toro Bora cave in December 2001. I guess that by some abstract thinking it could have compensated for the obtuseness of General Franks in refusing to send up Special Forces (for fear of casualties) or the ineptitude of the CIA/NSA in losing track of him for a decade until a walk-in gave away his location.

The titanosaur sized price for that dubious gain hardly seems worth it when the much cheaper alternative is the promotion of qualified generals and Intelligence officials. The pity is not realizing at the outset that this greatest of all dinosaurs is actually a White Elephant.5

D. That leaves the question of whether Washington has an interest in keeping open the option of making first use of nuclear weapons against Iran or North Korea – or even Russia in Ukraine.  It is not at all obvious that these doctrinal nuances have any practical meaning.  Preemptive nuclear strikes are highly risky since one never knows with certainty that they will disarm an enemy and prevent them from responding in other highly disagreeable ways.  Think of 20,000 North Korean artillery pieces trained on Seoul.  Think of Iran’s several opportunities to wreak havoc in the Gulf.  Think of Russia’s own arsenal of 3,600 nuclear weapons and its ‘existential’ stake in Ukraine. That is one.

E. Can an America deter Iran from using biological weapons?  Here specific scenarios are crucial.  An unprovoked, aggressive use is one theoretical possibility.  Frankly, though, I cannot imagine such a situation unless we revert to ‘mad mullah’ fantasies.  That’s two.  Reaction to an American and/or Israeli massive airstrike is another scenario.  This is more realistic in terms of motivation.  Israel can protect itself via deterrence as it did vis a vis Iraq during Gulf War I. (See Aziz’s testimony on why Iraq did not resort to placing chemical agents in SCUD warheads at the time).  There is no Iranian threat to American territory – for technical reasons.  To American bases? Technically speaking, yes.  Would the Iranian leaders’ judgment on this be affected by abstruse doctrines promulgated in Washington? Probably not. They would decide whether or not to use unconventional weapons in the awareness that Washington’s response was impossible to predict.  That is three.

These last are matters of consequence.  We can only hope that they will be addressed with the sobriety they require once the cameras have stopped rolling and the spin machines quiet down.


It is imperative that we restate and absorb the understanding acquired decades ago. For there is a new generation of writers on nuclear strategy that seems bent on either ignoring or rejecting it. One is the revival of “counterforce” doctrine. Simply put, “counterforce” is apposite to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) in that it posits the possibility of fighting a winning a nuclear encounter. The postulated ability to destroy the retaliatory capability of the enemy through a first-strike that eliminates its missiles (land or sea-based), strategic bombers and nuclear tipped cruise missiles deployed on ships. Such a disarming blow, as the scenario goes, neutralizes the opponent’s deterrence – making the country hostage to your coercive demands. General speaking, it encourages risk-taking in crisis-management.

‘Counterforce’ concepts defined American nuclear war plans throughout the 1950s. Kennedy and McNamara forced modifications but the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) designed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff was amended only gradually. Right into the 1970s, the SIOP gave primacy to variations of ‘Counterforce’ doctrine – this despite the Soviet Union’s development of an assured second-strike retaliatory capability.  They remain an integral part of the SIOP to this day.

“Counterforce” ideas always have encountered two analytical obstacles: one technical, the other psycho/political. In order to contemplate such a strategy,` one must have at its disposal missiles of extreme accuracy able to destroy hardened missile silos, means to detect and destroy nuclear armed submarines, and wide coastal coverage that ensures the targeting of surface vessels. This conjectured capability, moreover, must possess a degree of reliability and precision that makes success a near certainty. Otherwise, you open your country to destruction by the enemy’s surviving force – a small fraction of which are adequate to wreak intolerable damage on population centers. Any government that perceives even a slight vulnerability to a first-strike would, of course, reject the idea of playing a “counterforce game” and instead threaten massive retaliation.

New-age “counterforce” revivalists focus on technical advantages which might aid the aggressor. In particular, there is reference to improved missile accuracy aimed at hard targets.4 Reducing the CEP (Circular Error Probability) by a few tens of feet, though, is not the crucial variable. That number already has been extremely low (50 – 100 feet) for decades. Emphasis is also placed on improved tracking technique for detecting submarines. What lacks is assurance that the net effect is to reduce the odds on retaliation by SLBM to near zero. Unless one can do that, unilateral deterrence sets in.

That leads us to the second precondition: the ability to intimidate a nuclear armed opponent by a) demonstrating a first-strike capability or b) launching a comprehensive first-strike and daring the enemy to retaliate with the remnant of its own nuclear force and face destruction itself. The counter to the first, as noted above, is to threaten retaliation against high-value targets (cities) and perhaps to deploy and advertise “launch on warning” or trip-wire mechanisms. The counter to the second is a matter of will and emotion. Nobody considering a first-strike can know with confidence what the enemy’s state of mind and emotion would be in the hypothetical circumstances.  When the stake is your continued existence as an organized society, no reasonably sane person(s) will tempt fate in the hope of guessing right.

 The other idea regarding the coercive employment of nuclear weapons envisages battlefield us of TNWs. A prospective war with China over Taiwan is the context for these envisaged strategies that entail a resort to TNWs (see above).

It is the United States that, in fact, actually has envisaged the employment of Tactical Nuclear Weapons to deal a decisive blow to the enemy’s conventional forces or selected high value assets without fear of nuclear retaliation – tactical or strategic. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger gave serious consideration to such uses in Vietnam during the first year of his Presidency. They were shelved when the large anti-war demonstrations of 1969 showed just how unpopular the war had become – potentially jeopardizing Nixon’s re-election.

For the same logic that cuts the ground from under “counterforce” strategies holds for scenarios wherein TNWs might be employed. There is no logical reason for the other side (the USSR) to accommodate the government thinking of a tactical “first-use” by ruling out countering with TNWs of one’s own either in theatre (Vietnam) or elsewhere – or even a counter-value strike (as the Soviet doctrine publicly proclaimed in Europe in the event NATO reverted to TNWs).

All doctrines and strategies for nuclear war-fighting – whether of the ‘counterforce’ variety or TNW variety – are largely fanciful. Not only is their logic flawed, as demonstrated above, but they predicate a cool-headed rationality of individuals and institutions which is unrealistic. Human beings are not calculating machines, no matter how high their office or how grave the matters they treat. They are susceptible to emotions and impulses that can distort or even override pure rationality. When you place them in settings where multiple other human beings are involved under intense pressure, the possibility of deviating off the track of impeccable logic increases.

In truth, we have no grounds for assuming that government leaders, at multiple levels making decisions and charged with operationalizing them, will collectivity behave as postulated by nuclear war-fighting scenarios. Herman Kahn, the early Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling at times, and today’s self-conscious revisionists have fantasized about a world that doesn’t exist.*  These days, when the head of the biggest nuclear power is Donald Trump, the purveyors of doctrines that feature intricate nuclear games are as deluded as the President himself.

[Professor William Polk, who participated in high level White House decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis and a battery of nuclear war games, recently has recounted his experience in detail.  He recounts how sober senior officials, civilians and uniformed, who played in these realistic simulations reached collective decisions at various points in the exercise to “let it rip” – unleash massive nuclear strikes even though rational, games-playing logic indicated otherwise. (See attached – especially Part II)]

Nuclear strategy is a bit like Marxism or Freudian analysis or market fundamentalist economics. A lot of superior minds deploy their talents to concoct ingenious elaborations of received Truth that demonstrate brilliant logic – but their conclusions are completely divorced from reality. Thus, reputations and careers can be made – and much mischievous done. 

Addendum: Proliferation In Perspective

 Re. proliferation generally and Iran specifically, there is an underlying contradiction in the Non-Proliferation regime that has been in place for close to half a century. Simply put, the conception of proliferation risk that was embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had a critical flaw. Namely, it assumed a basic technological distinction between the technology required for a nuclear weapons program and the technology associated with a civilian power generating program. The premise was that the fissile materials that are the explosive core of a bomb (uranium or plutonium of certain isotopes) could only be produced through highly sophisticated and prohibitively costly facilities that very few countries could aspire to. Hence, enrichment and the production of plutonium in plants that extracted the needed isotopes from nuclear waste fuel were not proscribed. To reinforce this logic, the United States undertook to supply civilian reactors world-wide with low enriched uranium (LEU) at discount prices.

The system unraveled in the early 1970s for two reasons.  The Indian bomb that used plutonium reprocessed from a civilian (Canadian) reactor using Heavy Water as a moderating agent showed how easy and cheap it was and thereby erased the line between civilian and nuclear programs for all practical intents and purposes. The second development was a manufactured crisis in the supply of LEU that stemmed from a Nixon administration scheme to privatize nuclear enrichment – higher prices stemming from the nominal shortage were intended as a lure for private investors. The Europeans reacted by building their own enrichment facilities and started selling them abroad. The manifest proliferation risk led to the formation of a Suppliers’ Club whose technically proficient members agreed to keep enrichment out of commercial markets.  BUT the NPT never was amended and signatories retain the legal right to enrich uranium and to reprocess plutonium. The prohibitions placed on enrichment in Iran have no legal standing under the NPT.

That explains why Iran’s enrichment program, among other activities, is not in itself in violation of the NPT. They were caught on a technicality having to do with opening all national facilities to IAEA inspection and surveillance as part of the safeguards regime.  In other words, like Al Capone being indicted for tax evasion. The United States, in effect, paints Iran as Capone and therefore has sought punishment that is disproportionate to the crime. Those alleged transgressions have nothing to do with the NPT.  Therefore, the IAEA has no authority to consider matters other than those stipulated in its enabling articles which concern fuels and technologies that are part of a military program. Civil nuclear facilities/activities per se are not identified as problematic – quite the opposite. So, too, other security, political and military matters that do not have a specific nuclear association fall outside the IAEA’s legal purview.

Question: what are the changes that AI could make a difference for any of the above? ZERO.


1. In 1969-70, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought to end the Vietnam War – on American terms. In effort to persuade the Soviet leadership through hints and gestures that unless the Kremlin applied its full weight on Hanoi to accept terms of a settlement satisfactory to Washington, Nixon might consider a resort to battlefield nuclear weapons. Nixon and Kissinger went so far as to call in Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to convey the message personally in the hope of scaring him and the Kremlin leadership. The Soviets ignored the menace as a bluff lacking all credibility. (See the account in Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War by Jeffrey P. Kimball & William Burr  University of Kansas Press 2015).

It also is taken up in detail by Daniel Ellsberg in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner Bloomsbury USA 2017).  Ellsberg, referencing what he believes are previously unexamined classified documents, gives greater credence to Nixon’s nuclear threats. He asserts that multiple plans drawn up by the President and Kissinger went further, and were more detailed, that any other nuclear war-fighting contingencies the Pentagon has prepared for under other Presidents. Among the array of actions plotted in their conjectural plans was the bizarre idea of attacking a key point on the Ho Chi Min Trail (the Pass) with ‘small’ nuclear weapons.  This is like nuking the I-278 Interchange of the New Jersey Turnpike in an attempt to stem the infiltration of “Saturday night specials” into NYC. Let’s bear in mind that this was the thinking of two certifiably sane men – unlike the present incumbent of the White House.

Ellsberg goes on to claim that the consistent United States refusal to sign a “no-first-use” pledge reflects not just the role of TNWs in NATO doctrine, but also other situations considered by almost all Presidents since 1945 as involving high American stakes.

2. Charles L. Glaser, and Steve Fetter  Should the United States Reject MAD? Damage Limitation and U.S. Nuclear Strategy toward China International Security Summer 2016, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 49–98

3. For details see “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy”  WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGER The New York Times JAN. 11, 2016; also their “Race Escalates For Latest Class Of Nuclear Arms” NYT April 17, 2016

4. Keir A. Lieber et al. “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence” International Security Volume: 41, Issue: 4, pp. 9-49

5. See Daniel Ellsberg Doomsday Machine op cit

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 80 articles and published papers. His most recent works are: Democracy Promotion and IslamFear and Dread In The Middle EastToward A More Independent Europe Narcissistic Public Personalities & Our Times. His writings include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation), the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform), and the Brookings Institution (Reconcilable Differences, US-French Relations In The New Era).

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