Nuclear Warfare as a Forgotten RMA

Soviet military science considered nuclear warfare a military revolution, and I’m inclined to agree. As John Robb once pointed out, it was definitely the biggest revolution in war that (thankfully) never occured. On the tactical and operational level, it had rather severe implications for ground forces. Everyone is familiar with the Pentomic system, which in some ways was an earlier precursor to the extreme dispersion of contemporary Distributed Operations, Enhanced Company Operations, and netwar concepts. Dispersed teams would move quickly, exploiting airmobility, to avoid concentration for nuclear targeting. This died along with the entire idea of Massive Retaliation and we soon moved on to the more traditional ROAD organizational structure. And, of course, an entire science was built around the strategic level of targeting and nuclear strike, and the resulting gigantic cybernetic command and control infrastructure eventually led to the conventional birth of our current C4ISR regime.

The biggest debate in nuclear strategy, however, was whether the term was an oxymoron. If a nuclear war didn’t lead to what we would understand as “victory” and it was impossible to actually use the weapons for anything except theoretical coercion, did nuclear warfighting mark a final discontinuity in the classical tradition of strategy? Colin S. Gray thought not, and wrote a famous article calling for a “theory of victory” in nuclear strategy. I tend to lean towards Gray’s side on this, largely because in theoretical terms a “victory” was possible–and nuclear warfare is governed by Clausewitz just like anything else. Of course, I’m also a big fan of Gray’s criticism of arms control regimes too.

Most writing about nuclear strategy today has been replaced by an arms control framework. I suspect that the value of the nuclear strategy canon will be rediscovered when we discover, contrary to dreams of “global zero”, that nuclear arms development and use is–like anything else–driven by politics that technical limitations have no impact on.


8 thoughts on “Nuclear Warfare as a Forgotten RMA

  1. Absolutely. “Global Zero” is ridiculous and taking time, energy and focus far away from dealing with the world the way that it really is. We’re going to need a nuclear strategy in a world of proliferated nuclear powers and, the increased likelihood of superempowered groups and/or individuals with access to nuclear technology.

    Threats don’t disappear due to wishful thinking.

  2. Hi Adam, Good post. Two observations (1) I was an arms control inspector for five years under the INF and START treaties. The benefits of those agreements far out-weighed the negatives, if for no other reason than the demystification of the “enemy” at the company and field grade level. We learned a lot from them, and them from us—what they learned on their trips here was that their gov’t had been systematically lying to them. We learned about the terrible toll taken on the people of the “worker’s paradise.” INF eliminated an entire class of weapons—weapons that were cause for much anxiety in Europe. That said, the new START agreement doesn’t seem to have the same precision as the first. (2) Brodie attempts in Strategy in the Missile Age to reconcile the new weapons and the implications. I have never read this book through, although I had occasion many years ago to read large swaths.
    I suspect we should be thinking of our nuclear strategy in a world of terror; either retaliation policies/frameworks, or preemptive when all lesser means fail or cannot reasonably be employed. And I hope sincerely someone has given these two ideas enough thought to prevent us from being stupid.

    • I agree that the agreements were certainly positive, but the problem I’ve had with the AC community’s thinking is that it is similar to the NGO’s–it puts the root of the problem in something other than politics, which is the ultimate source of warfare.

      I haven’t read Brodie, mainly just familiar with Kahn, Schelling, and to a limited extent Freedman, Wohlsetter, and Gray. There has been some thought on “complex deterrence” at RAND but a three-game actor or non-state attribution is extremely difficult.

      • Brodie did some heavy lifting, but not enough. I was always curious about the intellectual underpinnings of Bush’s preemptive model—-we’d preempt until it wasn’t convenient…

        The brillance of INF, was the Soviets were eager to get those weapons off the table, however, politically, it must have stung because it removed the cause for many propaganda demonstrations in West Germany and the UK.

        We’re past that stage, however, and as I said above, I do hope someone at the Pentagon/DoS is thinking—we’re going to have to have some policy whether we like it or not. Nucs aren’t going away.

  3. One of my biggest personal concerns with the arms control debate, and in particular the global zero folks, is that there seems to be a lacking alternative theory and strategy of deterrence. This is particularly important and it turns out that Waltz and the rest are right and it really was nuclear weapons that have stabilized great power relations since 1945.

    How will the US military maintain a robust deterrent that can fulfill security commitments to overseas allies without an increased forward presence of military forces?

    How will a conventional deterrent retain the ability to destroy enemy military and civil targets rapidly and en masse without need for prior softening military operations that would just lead to conventional war?

    How will a conventional deterrent achieve the same psychological horror as nuclear arms?


    Finally, will the US or other enforcing powers maintain a conventional military robust enough to sustain either assault and disarmament of any re-nuclearizing foe, or, in the worst case scenario, do so while sustaining limited nuclear attack from it?

    • Exactly. There’s also the problem that a lot of conventional techs (especially Global Strike) are hard for other powers to recognize AS CONVENTIONAL from a distance. So you get the same destabilizing effect without the actual nuclear punch.

    • You won’t get an argument out of me w/respect to the global zero types. I believe we need to not only maintain our deterrent, but modernize for the reasons you mentions—-if not, who.

      The future will include nucs, so we’ll either be prepared, or have ours collectives asses handed to us.

      The answer to your last question concerning the maintenance of a robust conventional military gives me pause—if we’re not broke, we can see it from here—and non-discretionary spending in the form of mandated entitlements are unsustainable; making the challenge even more daunting.

      The folks at the Pentagon are going to need to get real and get lean; let’s just hope Dempsey has the guts to move us in that direction—for our budget isn’t the only thing broken–our acquisition process is a train wreck.

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