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The Forgotten Art of Thinking About the Bomb

Can we relearn how to think seriously about nuclear weapons?

By 12.5.12

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The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics
By Paul Bracken
(Henry Holt & Company, 320 pages, $29)

Released in November, Paul Bracken's book is truly timely. With long experience in thinking about nuclear weapons over the past 40 years, he warns readers that American thinking about the bomb is a lost art that we must revive.

The second age of emerging powers will be defined, he writes, by "rules and red lines" that will persist as precedent for years. Norms from the first nuclear age do not cover many emerging threats. New nuclear states will regard membership in the nuclear club as a ticket to larger influence on the world stage. The new nuclear order will be multi-polar, with as many as ten nuclear powers interacting in complex ways to create a fluid set of international arrangements, with manifold prospects of nuclear crises. Deterrence may "work" in peacetime, but in the event of crisis it may well break down. Key factors complicating interactions include cyberwar, precision-strike conventional weapons, communications, and intelligence. These may well interact unpredictably with nuclear arsenals.

The author takes aim at the cliché that the only use of nuclear weapons is for deterrence. He observes that there are many other uses. In doing so he writes of the "use" of nuclear weapons in a different manner than most lay readers would understand. To most people "use" means the actual firing of a nuclear weapon. To Bracken and like-minded strategists, "use" includes any form of influencing crises and conflicts in which a state's nuclear arsenal is a factor.

His extensive war-gaming experience enables the author to offer crucial insights. First, game players often ignore traditional military factors like geography. Second, game players tend to "mirror-image" what leaders in other countries will do in a given situation. This misunderstanding leads to surprise outcomes in war games. In a major classified war game played in 1983, "Proud Prophet," in which the secretary of defense played a part, a U.S. limited first-strike during a crisis led to a massive Soviet retaliation, a massive U.S. response, and more than 500 million dead. Third, leaders are poorly prepared to deal with the nuclear unexpected. This is because the new generation of senior military leaders has little or no real-world nuclear experience, and not even much experience in nuclear gaming.

Nuclear weapons, Bracken writes, have become strategic pariahs, relegated to deterrence only. They are not to be spoken of in polite company or in any other strategic or tactical context. In the Cold War the preoccupation of U.S. planners was with the most improbable of all contingencies, the "bolt-from-the-blue" massive Soviet first-strike. Far more likely are regional scenarios: an India-Pakistan crisis, an Israel-Iran crisis, or a Korean crisis. Yet Western analysts assume that regional power arsenals are solely for minimum deterrence -- a small force for retaliation only -- although the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals are far more diverse and sophisticated than would be required for a minimal mission.

Bracken questionably asserts that the Cold War declaratory doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) is "completely out of fashion." To the contrary, the New START Treaty ratified in 2010 embodies MAD. New START placed strategic defense back in the arms-control arena, a mere eight years after the George W. Bush administration exercised its legal right to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty, which was the bedrock of the U.S.-Soviet SALT I strategic arms accord. True, massive Cold War superpower arsenals have been drastically reduced, but with smaller arsenals strategic defense is potentially viable. Thus limiting its reach and capability restores strategic reliance on offensive nuclear weapons to threaten each side with instant annihilation.

The author does state that had the ABM Treaty remained in force, as arms control hawks desired, the U.S. could not deploy missile defense to help its allies defend against Iranian or North Korean ballistic missiles. And he notes that New START is an outdated idea. It is simply irrelevant to the problems posed by emerging nuclear powers, for whom "setting an example" via U.S. reductions is cheerfully ignored by emerging powers.

Bracken also recommends that the U.S. announce a "no first use" policy regarding nuclear weapons, perhaps coupled with a "guaranteed second use" policy, to strengthen deterrence. NATO policy during the Cold War aimed to deter a massive Soviet conventional invasion of Western Europe. With that threat 20 years on history's ash-heap, the author believes that "no first use" would give the U.S. the "moral high ground." Trouble is, such acclaim is ever ephemeral. Just ask Israel. Withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 was supposed to confer "moral high ground" status on Israel. It lasted, metaphorically, for five minutes. Electing Hamas in January 2006 was supposed to deprive the Palestinians of global moral standing; that lasted about the same length of time. The goalposts are repeatedly moved by the "moral high ground" set.

As for guaranteed second use, suppose Israel uses low-yield tactical nuclear weapons to preemptively destroy Iran's deep al-Fordow uranium enrichment facility. Would the U.S. strike Israel? The reason no-first-use is embedded in U.S. strategic policy is the overwhelming aversion of the public and its leaders to inflict mass casualties, save after a strike against America or its close allies. Only if an ally is perceived to have started a nuclear war that results in America being hit with one or more nuclear weapons, might such a contingency come to pass.

The author makes a vital point about deteriorating U.S. nuclear reliability. The generation of policymakers and analysts schooled in nuclear issues has largely retired. Their replacements are far less schooled in nuclear matters. Our nuclear forces are aging -- we are the only major power that shuns modernization -- and our ability to respond reliably in a crisis is thus increasingly suspect. America's manic focus on nonproliferation and on ultimate total nuclear disarmament has made serious discussion of nuclear weapon issues nearly impossible.

Ironically the book arrived just after the re-election of Barack Obama. Its message is one the Obama administration rejects, exposing the dangerously flawed thinking that pervades the leadership ranks and the public as well. The more realistic hope is that Bracken's clarion call will galvanize the loyal opposition to begin to frame thinking for the post-Obama years.

Put simply, America is woefully unprepared for a nuclear 9/11 event. Such would entail a far more rapid response than did 9/11, which for want of proper preparation would stymie policymakers fixated upon nuclear abolition, a goal unachievable for the foreseeable future. In this important book Bracken warns bluntly: "If the United States continues to sleepwalk into the second nuclear age, it can expect one surprise after another."

Need one say that when it comes to nuclear weapons unpleasant surprises are the norm?

 

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and London Center for Policy Research, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.