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Could America Really Win a "Limited" Nuclear War?

It is unlikely that “small” nuclear weapons will ever return to this level of strategic importance in the U.S. war plan. But even the use of a single low-yield weapon can cause unimaginable casualties and lasting nuclear fallout.

As the CQ Roll Call report rightly points out, “expanding the inventory of lower-yield warheads … could trigger a cycle of response from adversaries, possibly making nuclear conflict more likely … the U.S. military would need to present the president with options for using these weapons in a crisis, and those options may prove attractive … because the president might believe he could use these weapons without necessarily starting a global nuclear war.”

That belief is a fantasy. The real problem with this proposal is that any use of nuclear weapon, limited or not, could lead to escalation.

In fact, the Reagan administration launched a wargame in 1983 to test the Madman Theory and analyze the viability of U.S. nuclear warfighting plans. Codenamed Proud Prophet, the exercise had NATO launch limited nuclear strikes against Soviet targets in response to conventional provocation. But instead of backing down, the Soviet team doubled down, launching a massive nuclear counterattack at the United States, to which the U.S. responded in kind.

Wargame over.

When the dust settled half a billion people had been annihilated. NATO was gone. The results were reportedly such a shock to Reagan that his schedule had to be cleared for the rest of the day. The blowback was swift.

According to Department of Defense adviser Paul Bracken, “many of the strategic concepts proposed to deal with the Soviet Union were revealed to be either irresponsible or totally incompatible with current U.S. capabilities and immediately thrown out.”

A few months later, Reagan famously told the American people that, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Even if you believe that tactical nukes offer a strategic advantage, the 180 “dial-a-yield” B61s stationed in Europe already provide this capability. But these missions can also be carried out by conventional U.S. forces, such as the powerful JASSM-ER cruise missile, without the risk of full-on nuclear escalation.

In the words of senator Dianne Feinstein, “There’s one role — and only one role — for nuclear weapons, and that’s deterrence. We cannot, must not, will not ever countenance their actual use. There’s no such thing as limited nuclear war, and for the Pentagon’s advisory board to even suggest such a thing is deeply troubling.”

We have played this game before and it did not end well. We don’t need a 1950s nuclear arsenal in 2017. We don’t see anyone buying black and white television sets.

Let’s leave the more “usable” nukes in the dustbins of history too.

Geoff Wilson is a Policy Associate at Ploughshares Fund, where he focuses on U.S. nuclear and military strategy. Will Saetren is the author of Ghosts of the Cold War: Rethinking the Need for a New Cruise Missile, and is an alumnus of the Roger L. Hale Fellowship at Ploughshares Fund.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

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