Published on December 14th, 20121
The Return of the Nuclear Bomb, Part III/III
Jo Jakobsen, NTNU
The so-called nuclear taboo stands a good chance of being broken in my lifetime. A nuclear war looms on the horizon. It does not have to be an all-out nuclear exchange involving thousands of warheads – that is in fact quite unlikely – but some state will eventually push the big red button and end the tradition of non-use. This article, the third of three parts of which is presented today, explains why this is so.
Strike three. Enter the balance of power. The overriding topic in International Relations today is unquestionably the projected changes in the distribution of power, globally and in important regions, in the years and decades ahead – and the effects these changes will have on outcomes in world affairs, not least those related to war and peace.
What does this have to do with nuclear weapons? Well, for one, most scholars expect the steady erosion of U.S. relative (economic and military) power and, concomitantly, the steady rise in the relative power of a few other states, most notably China. Earlier in this article I have claimed that U.S. conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) military dominance is the single most important reason why the nuclear bomb has faded out of fashion. Many will disagree with me, arguing instead that the horrible prospect of the effects of a nuclear war by itself suffices to remove the nuclear option from the toolbox of policymakers. That argument emphasizes the relatively independent impact of ideas, values, and human consciousness.
The bomb will not be used, they claim, in spite of it perhaps making military-tactical sense in certain circumstances – for the weapon is too awful. I don’t claim likewise, and I do disagree. Instead I adhere to a materialist interpretation of international politics, assuming that power – in particular power defined as military capability – is the key shaper of world events, and that it also shapes human consciousness including, I must add, the pervasiveness or lack of pervasiveness of the nuclear taboo.
The bomb is out of fashion because it being out of fashion suits America, the preeminent player in the system. What, then, when China, and/or some other state(s) catch up with the overall power of the United States? A corollary of my power-centric argument would then be that – well, that it depends. It is actually quite conceivable that in a few years’ or decades’ time, the strongest military asset in the arsenal of the U.S. will be the nuclear bomb itself!
In that case, would the bomb then become the hub around which most or all other elements of the U.S. military would revolve? It is possible. And it is worrying. As for now, employing nuclear threats, or employing the nuclear bomb itself, does not at all fit U.S. national-security interests. But a time may very well come when it does. And national security is the overriding concern of any U.S. president. If the bomb can enhance that security, it will have to perform that task. National security takes precedence over the nuclear taboo. At the very least, that possibility cannot and must not be discarded a priori.
An indication of where I am heading was given six years ago by a notorious, prominently published (in International Security) article by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, entitled ‘The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy.’ Highly provocative no doubt, the article performed a theoretical simulation of a U.S. nuclear counterforce first-strike against Russia. The authors’ conclusion was startling: The Americans seem to have a so-called first-strike capability against Russia (and, by extension, also against the much smaller arsenal of China), at least if the Russian nuclear arsenal is not on full alert.
If the authors are correct, this means that the decades-old concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) no longer accurately describes the strategic situation between Russia and the United States. It is the condition of MAD that makes it illogical to fire your nukes against your adversary; for if you do, he will fire his back, at your main cities. Lieber and Press’s argument and findings suggest to the contrary, that the Russians cannot fire theirs back because, in the event, they will already have been disarmed by an overwhelming U.S. strategic nuclear force.
Assuming that MAD has really ended, or is close to ending, there are two simple reasons for this development: (1) The Russian nuclear arsenal has stagnated or even deteriorated in terms of quality, preparedness, and sheer numbers. (2) The U.S. nuclear arsenal, though certainly lower in numbers since the height of the Cold War, has undergone a gradual process of modernization and improvement, effectively piggyback-riding on the revolution of (conventional) military affairs (RMA).
In particular, the U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missilies (SLBN) now closely resemble conventional precision-guided weapons: they can accurately (unlike what was the case during the Cold War), and with a very low likelihood of malfunctioning (also unlike the Cold War), hit and eradicate their pre-specified targets. In Lieber and Press’s war game – and indeed also in actual U.S. war plans and games, one would surmise – those targets are the decaying Russian nuclear arsenal. First-strike capability!
Lieber and Press exaggerate, presenting somewhat of an idealized situation. But the basic point upholds in any case: Technological improvements translate into a much more precarious strategic (im)balance between these nuclear superpowers – and certainly also between the U.S. and China. I will shortly return to a couple of additional, highly troubling effects of the process of nuclear modernization.
Yet, let me first expand a little bit on the notion of an approximate U.S. first-strike capability, for the sake of highlighting just how a nuclear war might ensue from such a condition. Though the general dilemma holds for the U.S.–Russia dyad as well, the U.S.–China relationship is arguably better suited to elucidating the grounds for my atomic anxiety.
I think I need to be clear about one thing, though: It is wholly inconceivable that the U.S. will perform a nuclear ‘bolt from the blue’ in, to use my standard temporal reference, my own lifetime. That is, the U.S. president will not carry out a surprise nuclear disarming attack in times of peace. That’s a fair and necessary assumption. But in a time of crisis, in a time of conflict, if (conventional) armed struggle looms, the situation changes. Profoundly. In short, given the presumed skewed correlation of nuclear forces, the adversaries (here, China and the United States) will soon find themselves in circumstances for which we do have a very fitting label: crisis instability.
There are many flashpoints in the U.S.–China relationship. If we pick one, say Taiwan, we can briefly sketch a not-too-improbable scenario as a backdrop for our nuclear issue. The story goes as thus: A growing China is provoked by an increasingly restive Taiwan, whose government, confident in the credibility of America’s pledge of support, threatens to declare the island independent. A China displaying a level of hubris befitting a growing world power decides to call what she perceives as Taiwan’s bluff.
China invades Taiwan, in other words, to create a fait accompli before the Americans have time to react. China doesn’t quite make it, however; the U.S. fleet arrives, late but not too late, and the battle commences. It is not a huge battle, more of a fist fight, a trial of psychological strength. But the escalatory potential is glaringly evident. Will the stand-off be broken by way of a nuclear exchange?
If strategic rationality decides, then, paradoxically, yes! Or maybe. Definitely maybe. And maybe, in the context of nuclear horrors, is bad. Very bad. There’s a reciprocal fear guiding the reasoning and actions here. From Washington’s perspective, the fear is partly, of course, that they lose Taiwan to a would-be regional (or even global) hegemon, demolishing its own superpower prestige and reputation along the way.
But the primary worry, as it is, are the 20-something Chinese ICBMs that are now pointed at selected targets in mainland America. San Francisco, Seattle, and with the help of nuclear-armed submarines, cities further inland as well. In addition, of course, to the rest of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, the many nuclear-tipped medium-range missiles that can hit U.S. military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Guam.
Wouldn’t it then be worryingly tempting for the U.S. president to take these missiles out, irrespective of the collateral damage that would follow (which would in any case be somewhat limited given the presumed accuracy of the precision-guided strikes)? Simply take them out, remove the threat, because the U.S. has the first-strike capability to do exactly that. And not to do it would negate the duty of the U.S. commander-in-chief – he would risk sacrificing U.S. citizens (millions of them) on the altar of the nuclear taboo! Can the President take that risk? Yes, he can, but only with great, great difficulty – whether he belongs to the zero camp or not. The U.S., in other words, has its hand on the nuclear trigger.
And so does China. Recall that the basic dilemma here is the U.S. nuclear superiority. The Chinese are not oblivious to that fact. Neither are they oblivious to the fact that the U.S. president is currently deliberating what to do with his first-strike capability. If the U.S. strikes, it will go all out because that is the only sensible thing to do given that it has the capacity to do that. The capacity to eradicate the Chinese nuclear arsenal, that is.
No more missiles for China. Isn’t it then better for China, to shift our perspective to the decision-makers in Beijing, to make use of these missiles while they still exist? And that is a (fully rational) reasoning that incidentally also works to move the U.S. president’s finger a little closer to the trigger. Which in turn works to move China’s finger closer to its trigger. The crisis instability worsens with the passing of each minute of the conflict. Until one of the two fires the first shot. And then all hell breaks loose.
Strike four. I am now going to extend the reflections on the modernization and improvement of nuclear arsenals, in particular the American considering that country’s primacy on all military dimensions, including the nuclear one. The issue now concerns the military utility of nuclear weapons. But before I do so, let me just add – with tacit reference to the U.S.–China example above – that the crisis-instability dilemma is likely to multiply courtesy of one quite specific U.S. policy decision. That decision, it must be stated, comes quite naturally given: (a) U.S. military dominance, especially, considering this particular context, precision-attack capabilities and long-range ballistic missiles; (b) faith in the nuclear taboo; and (c) the prevailing belief that relations between the major powers of the international system are, after all, relatively benign.
The policy decision in question, to cut to the chase, concerns the so-called Prompt Global Strike (PGS). While perfectly logical, as indicated by (a), (b), and (c) above, its possible consequences are dire nonetheless. The PGS decision involves arming long-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. This will, at first glance, lower the likelihood that the U.S. will need to resort to nuclear weapons in the future; many relevant targets can usefully be taken out even by low-yield (compared to nuclear warheads) conventional weapons. And it can all happen in less than an hour. Assess the threat, locate it, decide to fire, fire, hit. One hour. Eradicate a threat anywhere on earth without breaching the nuclear taboo.
In practice, however, the missile-tracking and surveillance systems of Russia, China, the U.S. itself, and all other of the world’s states cannot realistically separate between a conventionally-armed and a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. The scenarios emerging are disturbing to say the least. The U.S. orders a prompt strike on, say, a radical Muslim potentate in Central Asia. Whether fired eastwards or westwards, the path of that ICBM will lead it straight over, or at least tantalizingly close to Russia and China. How will Moscow and Beijing react?
Will they be warned beforehand? (How prompt is ‘prompt’?) Will they believe U.S. assurances, explanations, and forewarnings? Will they take that risk? The eternal dilemma when we discuss nuclear weapons is that you really don’t have enough time to reflect, digest, and respond to the information at hand. A ballistic missile closing in on your homeland will – and indeed must – be interpretated in the context of a worst-case-scenario-framework. For sure you must at least contemplate (and very rapidly so) striking the other guy yourself. Crisis instability – even when there’s no crisis to begin with! – unwittingly staged by American eagerness to exploit their military prowess. Logical but tragic.
That was really a sidetrack. Let me now return to this last section’s main topic: the military utility of nuclear weapons. For anyone intuitively adhering to realist thinking on issues of world affairs, like your essayist, the basic worry is that states and their political and military leaders do tend to exploit and use the means at hand, if the means at hand can be conducive to the national interest. Well, nuclear weapons can be conducive to the national interest. And there is much to suggest that they will become increasingly more so.
Let us forget for a moment the horror show that was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At its essence, the nuclear bomb is just that: a bomb. An absurdly powerful bomb, to be sure, but a bomb nonetheless. And sometimes that is just what you need in warfare: explosive power – the more, the better. Depending on the target, of course. On the battlefield, more is certainly not always better. You simply cannot go about firing a megaton-range nuclear warhead against the enemy lest you eradicate your own army as well. Consequently, nuclear strategists, military and political leaders, and nuclear physicists alike – especially in Russia and the United States – have debated for decades whether and how to proceed with so-called ‘tactical’ (i.e. battlefield) nukes.
During the Cold War, that was a very real issue; low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, even nuclear cannons and nuclear mines, were seen by the Americans as a possible key to stopping the Red Army in the case it started marching westwards. While the end of the Cold War saw the return to relative primacy of strategic (i.e. long-range) nuclear weapons, short-range nukes still exist in abundance in Europe (in addition to a plethora of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, these consist of U.S.-owned gravity bombs hosted by NATO allies and prepared for delivery by allied bombers). Currently, the least powerful nukes in the U.S. arsenal are versions of the B61 warhead, the smallest of which has an explosive yield of 0.3 kilotons (50 times less than the Hiroshima bomb, but still far, far more powerful than any conventional weapon).
The controversy surrounding tactical nuclear weapons revolves around the quite logical fear that they lower the threshold of actual use. Recall the essence of the nuclear-taboo argument: Nuclear weapons are so extraordinarily powerful that no sensible person would actually fire one at the enemy – even if there’s no risk of a retaliatory attack – unless the survival of that person’s country is at stake (and perhaps not even then). You don’t kill mice with a shotgun! However, some people are tempted to spread rat poison throughout their house; this could also be considered overkill – the owner’s cat might fall victim as well – but it’s certainly effective considering the objective at hand. And in certain circumstances, miniaturized tactical nuclear weapons would be equally tempting to the extent that they have the potential to win you a war.
This is especially so given the gradual technical improvements to the warheads as well as to their means of delivery. Relatively small, precision-guided nukes can be very effective in a tactical-military sense; at the same time, they will limit the expected collateral damage (compared to the nuclear weapons of yesteryear) and might therefore be seen as less morally reprehensible. Put slightly differently, we are on the (constant) verge of ‘conventionalizing’ nuclear weapons. And human history tells us that conventional weapons – no matter how gruesome their effects – will eventually be used in war, and they will be used over and over again.
However, the likely litmus test of the pervasiveness and perdurability of the nuclear taboo involves the future of the nuclear bunker buster. Here, too, the dilemma before us is the military effectiveness of the bomb. And again the dilemma is becoming more acute as the warheads and their delivery vehicles improve: Increased precision enhances effectiveness and reduces collateral damage, in turn lowering the (theoretical) threshold for the use of these devices. But there is a second reason why I worry that in the not-too-distant future some state – very likely the U.S. (though Israel is my wildcard alternative) – will seriously consider employing a nuclear earth-penetrating weapon (EPW). That reason is the proliferation of hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs). Two intimately linked abbreviations: EPW and HDBT. The more common becomes the latter, the more relevant becomes the former.
Hard and deeply buried targets are all the rage for those states that have something to hide – something that they value so much that they choose to go deep underground to avoid the possibility that their foes will be able to stage a successful attack. Thousands of such sites – the bulk of which are probably potential targets for the Americans – exist in various corners of the world. Iran is currently the prime example.
Several of that country’s nuclear facilities are HDBTs, but none more so than the recently-discovered Fordo uranium enrichment plant, which is buried deep underneath a mountain in the north of the country. It is a stylized example. Fordo is covered by around 100 meters of rock. The Americans and the Israelis alike would at least want to be able to bomb it. The Israelis most likely do not stand a chance; they would effectively need to pound the same exact spot at the site repeatedly and with outstanding precision using their own conventional EPWs. This is most likely a wholly unrealistic operation. As for the Americans – well, experts are unsure.
A couple of years ago Washington’s conventional EPWs of choice were the GBU-28 and GBU-37, which can penetrate about 6 meters of reinforced concrete (and 30 meters of earth). A year ago, however, a much more powerful conventional earth penetrator was finally ready. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the ‘Big Blue’ (Pentagon love to christen their bombs nearly as much as they love their acronyms), weighing 15 tons and meant for delivery by B-2 Stealth bombers, was designed to blast through 60–70 meters of concrete. Still, given Iran’s endeavors to fortify their plant, even the Big Blue would be very unlikely to cause sufficient harm. At a more general level, what we are dealing with here is a long-term race between HDBTs and conventional EPWs. If the latter digs deeper, the former does as well. And in terms of technical and pecuniary feasibility, the odds always favor the HDBTs.
If the EPWs aren’t nuclear, that is. A nuclear bunker buster should be able to do the job much more efficiently, some would say assuredly, also against the Fordos of the world. Currently, the U.S. has the B61 mod 11 earth-penetrating nuclear warhead in their arsenal. Its explosive yield is variable up to 360 kilotons (over 20 times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb, though penetration and destruction are not a linear function of yield). It cannot go very deep, but one of many things about nuclear weapons is that they create a shock wave that obliterates all things within a very substantial radius. The ground shock from a precise hit – and precision bombing is much of what the post-Cold War U.S. military is all about – would likely destroy Fordo. It would also, and these are the caveats, cause thousands of civilian casualties primarily through emitted radiation; and it would lead to vociferous protests and near-uncontainable rage among America’s friends and foes alike.
There are certainly trade-offs here. As things stand right now, Washington clearly has much more to lose from going nuclear than from abstaining, even if the former alternative sometimes makes perfect sense militarily. To be sure, legitimacy is also a useful power tool. My worry, however, is founded on an interpretation of international politics that judges core national-security interests to be the be-all and end-all of major powers’ foreign policies. Given the right (or wrong!) circumstances, national security will trump the nuclear taboo. And not all developments are comforting.
In the present article I have dealt with a few of these. Firstly, we have the systemic pressures for nuclear-weapons proliferation. Secondly is the meshing of complacency (with the taboo) with credibility and reputation. Thirdly, the effects of changes in the balance of power can have profound effects on the inclination of major powers to use the ultimate weapon. Fourthly, technological advances are not always benevolent (indeed, the bomb itself owes its existence to a scientific revolution) and may well contribute significantly to hastening the end of the nuclear taboo.
Most of you remember high school. Very few of you also remember the mathematics courses that you more or less had to suffer through. There you were, among other things, taught how to calculate the probability of a certain outcome based on several independent causal avenues each of which, if brought to its end, would suffice to produce the outcome in question. Let us assume you have 20 different possible causal avenues that may lead to the use of nuclear weapons within my budgeted lifetime (which runs until 2050, in case anyone wondered). Let us further assume that each individual causal avenue has a 10-percent probability of reaching its ultimate conclusion. Intuitively, to calculate the likelihood that the world would witness a nuclear war before the year 2050, you would want to add together all of the individual probabilities. If you do that, you would find that the probability of a nuclear war before 2050 is 20 times 10 percent – that is, 200 percent! As sure as it gets.
Now, of course, you have performed a faulty calculation, which is understandable given the significant chunk of time that has passed since high school. My worry, though, is that you’re really not that far off the mark after all.
*Cover photo by Jose Johnson Pallikkathyil, second photo by U.S. Army Korea, third photo by Ian Gardner, fourth photo by U.S. Army Korea, fifth photo by Parker Knight