The Next Lenin: On the Cusp of Truly Revolutionary Warfare

The Next Lenin: On the Cusp of Truly Revolutionary Warfare

Mini Teaser: Only an oppressive police state could assure total government control over novel tools for mass destruction.

by Author(s): Fred C. Ikle

When the Romans set out to annihilate Carthage they first had to lay
siege to the city and overcome its defenses. When Francisco Pizarro
led a small band of Spanish soldiers into Peru and destroyed Incan
society, he first had to prevail in fierce fighting. No more. A
century and a half into the Industrial Revolution, advances in
science and technology have reached the stage where leading
industrial nations can make weapons of mass destruction that are so
lethal relative to their size and weight that they can be used to
circumvent defenses--even in clandestine ways--for the purpose of
annihilating a country's society without first defeating its military

Today, our perception of these weapons and the problems they present
is crucially shaped by our recent experience during the Cold War.
Despite much initial alarm and then sustained tension over four
decades, this was a period during which military strategy
unexpectedly became insulated from the nuclear threat, and in which
great restraint was observed as far as all weapons of mass
destruction were concerned. Our current strategic thought tends to
project this peculiar experience into the future. It assumes that the
use of mass destruction weapons will either be deterred or be
confined to localized disasters caused by strategically incompetent
terrorists. Competent adversaries, this thinking implicitly assumes,
will have to emulate the "revolutionary" military technology that we
now possess, but at the same time adhere to our old,
counter-revolutionary strategy, as worked out in our superpower
rivalry with the former Soviet Union. But, unfortunately, our old
strategy is not an immutable law of nature. A highly competent enemy
might well emerge who will seek to destroy the United States by using
mass destruction weapons in a truly revolutionary kind of warfare.

Science fiction writers had anticipated mass destruction weapons
decades before 1945, the year when the United States detonated the
first three atomic bombs. Scarcely twenty years later the United
States itself had to fear the kind of attack that could annihilate
its society without first having to defeat any of its powerful
military forces. Another twenty years on, the United States and the
Soviet Union had both accumulated tens of thousands of nuclear
weapons, a few other countries had acquired much smaller stockpiles,
and many more had gained the capability to make atomic bombs or
biological and chemical weapons. What has been the impact on war and
peace in the world, indeed on human civilization, of the accumulation
and proliferation of all these mass destruction weapons?

If you and I were asked today to prepare an epitaph for the
twentieth century brief enough to fit on a tombstone, we might not
waste any words on nuclear proliferation. Instead, we would confine
our lapidary inscription to more influential events. We would recall
the technological revolutions in computers, communications,
agriculture, and public health, as well as the almost fourfold
increase in the world's population that these revolutions made
possible; and we would surely note the two World Wars, the quick rise
and defeat of fascism, the expansion and collapse of Soviet
communism, the wave of decolonization that swept the world from India
through Africa to Central Asia, perhaps the progress toward Europe's
unification, and the economic rise of the Asia-Pacific region. These
were the changes that profoundly transformed the human condition in
the last hundred years. Compared with such upheavals, the social,
economic, and political changes wrought by the A-bomb and the H-bomb,
by nuclear reactors and nuclear proliferation, have added little. Not
surprisingly, while the term "nuclear age" was in vogue forty years
ago, it is rarely used today.

The Frozen Military Revolution

In 1945 it all looked different. The fiery revelation that one of
nature's most powerful forces had been unlocked slashed like a
flaming sword into people's consciousness. Oh, that just a single
bomb could now destroy a whole city! Is it not self-evident, people
then argued, that this new nuclear age must radically change the
world of sovereign nations? Senior statesmen and informed scientists
expected the A-bomb and the yet-to-be-developed H-bomb to transform
military strategy more profoundly than anything in all of history, a
transformation that would compel nations to make a clear break with
traditional uses of force in international conflicts. And they
correctly anticipated that the H-bomb would be followed by entirely
new biological weapons of mass destruction.

Nobody could have foreseen that half a century later military
planners, as well as most scholars, would shrug off these cosmic
questions and instead nibble at the edges of the problem--worrying,
say, about whether a tactical nuclear weapon could be stolen in
Russia and sold to Iran, or whether Iraq might still be hiding some
Second World War-type biological or chemical agents. The horrors that
could have happened--but did not--make a spine-chilling story. In the
Korean War the United States did not use nuclear weapons against the
massive Chinese assault on its forces. North Vietnam did not use
sarin or some other poison gas against U.S. bases in South Vietnam.
After the 1986 U.S. raid on Libya, Qaddafi did not respond by
arranging for a "martyr" to spread anthrax in the New York subway
system. During the war against Afghanistan, the Soviet Union
abstained from using nuclear weapons. During the Gulf War Saddam
Hussein spared allied troops his ready arsenal of chemical weapons.
Most important of all, of course, has been the avoidance of the
ultimate catastrophe, so much feared from the l950s until the end of
the Cold War--the mutual nuclear destruction, by design or accident,
of the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America.

America's carefully designed deterrence strategy, its repeated,
consistent exercise of self-restraint, and its vigorous diplomacy
against the spread of nuclear and other mass destruction weapons
effectively imposed rules of warfare throughout the world that
essentially put these weapons into a forbidden realm. As a result,
not a single nuclear bomb has been used since the attack on Nagasaki;
the Soviet Union never attacked Western Europe; and the very sporadic
uses of chemical or biological agents have been furtive, of limited
impact, and have not involved the two superpowers. In theory, nuclear
weapons could of course have been used not to cause mass destruction
but to eliminate some important military targets without civilian
damage. But in no war since l945 has this happened. In hindsight it
seems clear that the American-made rules worked to the benefit of all
peaceful nations--though they proved particularly helpful to U.S.
foreign policy.

It was surely an extraordinary feat for the United States to develop
the atomic bomb within three years while straining every muscle to
win a two-front war. But what followed on the heels of this awesome
accomplishment was even more extraordinary. By simultaneously coping
with two fateful global forces that threatened nations
everywhere--nuclear weapons and expansionist Soviet communism--the
United States was able to reconstruct and conserve a world order of
independent sovereign nations. The farsighted American statesmanship
that brought this about had to be underpinned by a sustained
intellectual project in strategic analysis. It seems fair to say that
it was the combination of America's political foresight with its
intellectual leadership in nuclear strategy that created what in
retrospect seems an historic miracle: During a prolonged period of
almost unprecedented international tension, the United States
encapsulated the nuclear revolution in military affairs within a
cocoon of non-use.

The widely expected nuclear revolution in the way wars are fought
has until now been frozen in its tracks due to the rules of warfare
that the United States invented, propagated, and imposed on the
world, and the main impact of all the unused nuclear weaponry has
been to preserve the international order. While many social,
political, and technological developments in the last half century
have begun to challenge the role of sovereign nation-states, nuclear
weapons cannot be blamed for the fading of national boundaries or the
growing global interdependence that one hears so much about lately.
Far from transforming the contemporary world of disunited nations,
the nuclear age--reined in by America's rules of war--has worked like
a formaldehyde solution to preserve the Westphalian state system. In
fact, most U.S. military planners have become so accustomed to this
formaldehyde that they regard it as the natural environment whose
laws will govern all possible wars.

Read any of the hundreds of Pentagon reports and scholarly articles
on the coming Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA in Pentagon-speak)
and you will find scarcely a thought about nuclear or other mass
destruction weapons, save for a shy aside. To be sure, these writings
contain fascinating points about "information warfare", where
computers are pitted against computers and zapped by electronic
attacks; about instrumented battlefields, where the commander can
view on a television screen every piece of equipment belonging to
friend or foe and give orders to every tank and foot soldier. The
U.S. military has taken the lead in the relevant technologies for
this kind of warfare and American superiority can be maintained for
years to come. Encouraged by the victory in the Gulf War, American
strategists are now eagerly looking forward to the RMA--that is to
say, their chosen RMA.

Essay Types: Essay