The Buzz

NORTHCOM: How America Should Deal With Russia’s Nuclear “Deescalation” Doctrine

We have been building on Paul Bracken’s work on the second nuclear age to focus on the impact of the rethink regarding nuclear weapons going on globally.

SLD: And to the point of different perspectives, that really goes to the heart of the matter.  We are not going to bargain with ourselves.  And in the world we are in and it will get worse from this point of view, there is no clear ladder of escalation.  The rules are not clear, and learning will be by crisis not strategic design. 

Bracken: The absence of any clear escalation ladder is at the heart of the challenge.

If you knew how many weeks I wasted on trying to construct the follow-on escalation ladders for the 21st Century but could not convince myself that they were worthwhile.

In the first nuclear age it was learning by crisis, and we got fortunate because the crises that started were not particularly severe. If the Cuban Missile Crisis had come in the late ’40s, God only knows what would’ve happen. 

Nonetheless, I think we need to prepare for a crisis exploitation which crystallizes the issues we’re talking about, much as 9/11 did. Many people prior to 9/11 were talking about, terrorism, counterterrorism, but nobody paid any attention to them.

The early Bush administration in 2000 was dismissive because they had other fish to fry and then 9/11 happens and the existence of prior thinking on counterterrorism was rapidly exploited. 

The kind of crisis in which learning might occur could revolve around something like the Pacific islands in dispute in the South China Sea. 

If there’s a major Chinese move against one of these islands, the Japanese and US forces will be forced to respond. 

But what if the Chinese start moving some nuclear weapons around?  What do we do then? 

That’s really a distinct possibility. But I cannot find anybody in the U.S. government who really thinks about the realism of such a situation like that. 

Well we did find someone thinking about that, and he is the current head of NORTHCOM and NORAD.

Admiral Gortney provided a thoughtful look at how the second nuclear age is affecting the threat calculus against North America.

Question: The Russians are not the Soviets, but they are generating new capabilities, which clearly provide a need to rethink homeland defense. 

How would you characterize the Russian dynamic? 

Answer: With the emergence of the new Russia, they are developing a qualitatively better military than the quantitative military that they had in the Soviet Union.

They have a doctrine to support that wholly government doctrine. And you’re seeing that doctrine in military capability being employed in the Ukraine and in Syria. 

For example, the Russians are evolving their long-range aviation and at sea capabilities. They are fielding and employing precision-guided cruise missiles from the air, from ships and from submarines. 

Their new cruise missiles can be launched from Bears and Blackjacks and they went from development to testing by use in Syria. It achieved initial operating capability based on a shot from a deployed force. 

The Kh-101 and 102 were in development, not testing, so they used combat shots as “tests,” which means that their capability for technological “surprise” is significant as well, as their force evolves. 

The air and sea-launched cruise missiles can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, and what this means is that a “tactical” weapon can have strategic effect with regard to North America. 

Today, they can launch from their air bases over Russia and reach into North American territory. 

The challenge is that, when launched, we are catching arrows, but we are not going after the archers. 

The archers do not have to leave Russia in order to range our homeland. 

And with the augmentation of the firepower of their submarine force, the question of the state of our anti-submarine warfare capabilities is clearly raised by in the North Atlantic and the Northern Pacific waters. 

What this means for NORAD as well is that limiting it to air defense limits our ability to deal with the multi-domain threat. 

It is an air and maritime threat and you need to go on that tack and defense through multiple domains, not simply the classic air battle. 

The Admiral wisely underscored the point that it was crucial to understand what was in the mind of North Korea and Russia when contemplating nuclear use.

Question: The nuclear dimension is a key part of all of this, although there is a reluctance to talk about the Second Nuclear Age and the shaping of deterrent strategies to deal with the new dynamics. 

With regard to Russia, they have changed their doctrine and approach.

How do you view their approach and the challenge to us which flows from that change? 

Answer: Both the Chinese and Russians have said in their open military literature, that if conflict comes, they want to escalate conflict in order to de-escalate it. 

Now think about that from our side. And so now as crisis escalates, how will Russia or China want to escalate to deescalate? 

The Admiral added:

One has to think through our deterrence strategy as well. 

What deters the current leader of North Korea? 

What deters non-state actors for getting and using a nuclear weapon? 

What will deter Russia from using tactical nuclear weapons in the sequence of how they view dealing with conventional war?