Is the United States Trying to Fight and Win Nuclear Wars?
Critics contend that a nuclear war can never be “won.”
In mid-2020, the Louisiana Tech Research Institute published Guide to Nuclear Deterrence in an Age of Great Power Competition, a twenty-three chapter handbook written by the country’s top nuclear experts, including former senior military commanders.
Recently, Alan Kaptanoglu and Stewart Prager reviewed the book for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, condemning it for advocating nuclear warfighting.
For decades, the disarmament community has held that the United States’ counterforce deterrent strategy—that holds an adversary’s nuclear assets at risk—is actually a “war fighting strategy.” These critics hold that a nuclear war can never be “won.”
First, the only cohesive view in the book is that nuclear deterrence is a critical requirement for the United States. Neither Global Strike Command nor any other entity gave any direction to the authors. Period.
Second, Kaptanoglu and Prager’s review makes additional false claims that directly relate to the warfighting charge. For example, the review claims that the book is hostile to arms control. My chapter on strategic stability credits several former U.S. presidents with negotiating successful arms control treaties that reduced deployed strategic nuclear forces by nearly 90 percent. Certainly, some arms control agreements (such as START I) improve U.S. security. But given the long record of Soviet and now Russian cheating and treaty non-compliance, ensuring that arms agreements are highly verifiable is necessary—though highly difficult.
Also critical is the need to avoid harmful concessions. Both Russia’s massive strategic warhead upload capability under New START and the thousands of Russia’s unregulated regional and medium-range nuclear weapons are prime examples.
Further, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was not and is not required for arms control to take place.
Interestingly, since the ABM treaty ended in 2002, the United States and Russia have agreed under the Moscow and New START deals to cut countable deployed strategic nuclear weapons from 6,000 to 1,550, a huge 75 percent cut.
As for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Kaptanoglu and Prager’s review believes we should still adhere to, the Russians were the ones who violated the treaty, not the United States. It does not make sense to adhere to a treaty that the other party violates.
As for the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), the Iranians have been violating the agreement from day one. And have never disclosed (as required) their previous nuclear weapons work especially as discovered in the nuclear dossier secured by the Israeli raid on the Iranian nuclear facilities.
Given all provisions sunset, the agreement was actually a pathway to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. As former U.S. Air Force General Michael Hayden explained, the JCPOA was a prescription for Iran to attain “an industrial strength nuclear” industry.
Even more revealing is the lack of effort by many in the disarmament community to energetically support the START II ban on multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) land-based missiles, despite being ratified by the U.S. Senate. A combination of opposition of some within the U.S. disarmament community, the Russian Duma, and even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, killed the deal, with the excuse that such a ban would bankrupt Russia.
Just as it would be unwarranted to say arms control groups that opposed the MIRV intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ban were “against arms control,” opposition to the highly stabilizing START II agreement eventually deep-sixed the treaty, leaving Russia with a preponderance of heavily MIRVed and destabilizing land-based missile systems.
Vladimir Putin in 1998 as secretary to the Russian National Security Council wrote up the plan to modernize the Russian nuclear arsenal including massive multiple warhead (MIRV) land-based systems, even after START II had been signed by Russian President Yeltsin.
With the demise of START II, the United States didn’t push for the ICBM ban under the subsequent 2003 Moscow Treaty because it assumed, ironically, that Russia could not afford an expensive nuclear modernization effort so such a MIRVed threat would not materialize.
The reviewers then assume, as many in the disarmament community believe, that opposition to even some arms control must be due to an embrace of a warfighting strategy, as an arms control deal might potentially allow fewer warheads than required for “counter-force” strategies.
The United States has maintained a rational counterforce deterrent strategy even as six major arms control agreements—from the 1987 INF through the 2021 extended New START Treaty—have simultaneously cut U.S. deployed strategic nuclear warheads by nearly 90 percent.
In fact, the book is unanimous that if a U.S. adversary were to use nuclear weapons, U.S. strategy has long sought to deescalate the conflict while discouraging any additional nuclear use. Former U.S. Strategic Command commander Admiral Cecil Haney called these “off-ramps.” Such a strategy can hardly be considered “nuclear war fighting.”
Holding the enemy’s military capability at risk means that U.S. retaliatory strikes are intended to curtail an enemy’s military power, therefore removing their ability to fight. However, given that U.S. adversaries today have relatively survivable nuclear forces, a disarming, pre-emptive or first strike threat is not achievable even if the United States maintains a formidable counterforce deterrent.
Further, an alternative strategy of retaliatory strikes against an adversary’s cities does not necessarily guarantee that U.S. adversaries will stop fighting. Totalitarian leaders that will murder millions to stay in power—as Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Adolf Hitler did—must be kept in mind. To say nothing of the tens of millions killed by waging war.
It is often assumed by opponents of a counterforce strategy that any use of nuclear weapons will automatically escalate to an all-out war or Armageddon. Thus, these critics contend, under no reasonable definition can any use of nuclear weapons be part of a “winnable” strategy.
But what about in the case of a minimum nuclear deterrent strategy that calls for targeting cities? Why is it not also feared that such a strategy would escalate automatically to Armageddon and thus should be rejected?
To understand what advocates of disarmament are striving for requires listening to Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero, who testified before the House Armed Services Committee that if Russia or China use nuclear weapons against the United States, Washington should only retaliate with conventional weapons—going beyond even advocates of a “minimum deterrent” nuclear strategy.
As for U.S. great power adversaries, both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have been talking about using limited nuclear strikes as a means of escalating or threatening to escalate conventional conflicts to the nuclear level to get the United States and its allies to preemptively surrender. General John Hyten called this an “escalate to win strategy.” Imagine how easy it would be for China and Russia to prevail if the United States stopped relying on its nuclear deterrent.
Kaptanoglu and Prager’s preferred deterrent strategy is apparently to hold an adversary’s cities at risk. But even when the United States and its allies respond to a nuclear attack from China or Russia with a retaliatory strike against only their cities—a highly immoral strategy—both China and Russia are certainly going to think that this is a matter of warfighting (as they see their cities burn to the ground) and not de-escalation. These two major powers are willing to kill tens of millions to stay in power and have military strategies that reflect that. The only deterrent option is to take down their remaining military power in the event of conflict.
Ronald Reagan was not in favor of abandoning a counterforce nuclear strategy; he pushed for missile defense as an insurance policy should the tragic use of nuclear weapons occur, particularly by a rogue or hostile state actor. Reagan thought any use of nuclear weapons was going to be a disaster for the world even if only a limited number of such weapons were used. That policy is what Gorbachev repeatedly rejected at numerous summits with Reagan and George H.W. Bush, precisely because missile defenses take away the limited nuclear strike option currently preferred by Russia and China.
But the totalitarian commanders that sit in Beijing and Moscow do not believe in the benign possession of nuclear weapons. And it is certainly not the U.S. community of nuclear professionals, including the multiple book authors, and U.S. leaders that are continually making nuclear threats.
The authors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists review apparently have not read about the history of the Cuban missile crisis or the even more dangerous crisis the year before over Berlin. It was, in fact, President John F. Kennedy that said he was able to end the Cuban missile crisis because of how the newly deployed Minuteman missile, his “ace in the hole,” allowed him to hold key Soviet military capabilities at risk.
And on Berlin too, Kennedy thanked the scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for their role in developing the submarine-launched ballistic missiles that deterred the Soviets from attacking U.S. forces in Europe.
Indeed, it was a diplomatic agreement that got the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba. But that diplomatic agreement did not happen in a vacuum. As noted above, the Minuteman ICBM offered the credible threat of force that made diplomacy succeed.