The Challenge of Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age: A Discussion with Paul Bracken


2013-01-28 Recently, Second Line of Defense sat down with Professor Paul Bracken to discuss his new book entitled The Second Nuclear Age.

The book is an important statement of the challenge of deterrence in a proliferating nuclear world, one in which Americans see less value in nuclear weapons, but much of the rest of the world does not.

The book discusses a classic Inside the Beltway problem: what passes for universal knowledge in Washington isn’t.

The world is changing in fundamental ways, and the new strategic setting which is emerging is one in which the Western partners and their allies might find themselves quite uncomfortable.

The book is as much about the phenomenon of the changing global calculus as it is about nuclear weapons.

The book would make Herman Kahn, for whom Bracken worked, proud of this effort.

In fact, it was at a meeting with Herman Kahn at which one of the SLD principals first met Bracken.

SLD: Your book although entitled The Second Nuclear Age is about strategy in a world of nuclear proliferation.

It is about deterrence in a very different nuclear world than one shaped by the competition and the rules shaped by the two nuclear superpowers.

Bracken: It is. What I wanted to do was to shift the debate.  There are many, many studies of books about deterrence, but deterrence really needs to be broken up into what I would call smaller chunks, which really gets into the subject of escalation and de-escalation.  I don’t think it’s possible to talk about deterrence and not talk about escalation and de-escalation.

Every time I use the term ‘escalation,’ I will also mean de-escalation, but I don’t want to say it because it’s cumbersome to say it every time.

One of the interesting surprise discoveries of the early part of the Cold War is this is exactly what happened.  The tone for all this was discovered in 1948 in the Berlin crisis. Key decisions had to be made.

Should we go to war to defend Berlin? Is there another place we can attack the Soviet Union?

The big war and peace issues gave away almost overnight into these much smaller chunks, which nobody had ever really thought about the escalatory significance of using military force in a phrase that was widely used in the Cold War, but I haven’t seen it used much in more recent years, and that’s communication and bargaining.

In other words, what was happening in the early Cold War was people discovered you could communicate and bargain using nuclear weapons.

Communication and bargaining, and escalation and de-escalation are at the heart of the use of military force, including nuclear weapons. 

They are not so unique as to preclude such normal behavior.

SLD: We were having discussion with a senior US Admiral about the Pacific.  And his central point about the strategic game with China was really that it revolved around escalation and de-escalation.  Presence was crucial, notably working with allies, so that you did not leave a power vacuum in the region, but such presence really was part of what you are calling a communication and bargaining strategy.

Bracken:  I agree with that.  The problem in the current U.S. strategic and military world is that the military are focusing on the war plans and operations, but the civilians have lost the bubble on provided real strategic guidance.

By that I mean an ability to dialogue with the military about the use of military power and the need to have an integrated communication and bargaining strategy.

But for bargaining, you have to have a clear sense of your strategic or political objectives. The strategic or political elite does not have a coordinated perspective and the different senior politically appointed officials hasn’t been coordinated, reviewed, or disciplined by the danger of nuclear events as it was in the Cold War.

SLD: Whom do you bargain with and whom do you communicate to as the world shifts with nuclear proliferation and other military technological advances?

Bracken:  That is really a good question.  Let us take the case of China.  The United States currently does not want to look like it is bargaining with China in any way with regard to nuclear weapons.

The notion that China could on nuclear alert or do other things, move nuclear weapons around or introduce them into the calculus, goes against the fundamental premise of the U.S. in recent years, which is that nuclear weapons have no utility.

If we acknowledge that China could do something with them, even something small, that would undermine that premise.

It’s just amazing to me the way U.S. treats China.

There’s this debate that it’s a power struggle inside the Chinese government between the arms controllers who want to join the international multilateral community and the hawks, and we have to play to the arms controllers.

If there’s one lesson of the Cold War it is that constructing factions in the other side’s camp that you would like to see is an example of magical thinking and to negotiate more with these fictitious players doesn’t make any sense.

SLD: This is part of the general problem facing the political establishment and to thinking Inside the Beltway.  Namely, the world does not move in ways that fit into American worldviews, yet we project continuously our internal debates and perspective onto the world as if they have universal application.

Bracken:  I could not agree more.  A good recent example of this is the National Intelligence Council’s latest forecast of the future.

It’s very much a view of the world of 2030 as seen by a combination of U.S. academics and think tanks inside the beltway.

I teach in the business school at Yale and one of the things I always say, “You come up with your scenario for the company. Okay, put it aside and create something called your ‘competitor scenario and your customer scenario’ and then compare them.”

So what they did not do in the NIC study is to look at the world from (for example) a Chinese point of view and see if it bore any resemblance to the NIC document they produced.

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.

SLD: One issue we have focused on is the impact of technological innovation in dealing with the new strategic situation.  It is clear that responding to 21st century challenges with aging 20th century equipment wont work and wont be effective.  Unfortunately, there is not a robust focus on con-ops evolutions to deal with these challenges.  A good case in point is the F-35.  The F-35 is treated as a tactical aircraft replacement, when a fleet of F-35s is a whole different animal.  We have focused for example, on how a fleet of F-35s could provide a key element in shaping redundant space capability in many ways. What role might this kind of innovation play in shaping effective responses?

Bracken: That’s really interesting because then you have to get into the whole question about sharing with Japan, number one.  Number two; the NRO is going to see this as the enemy because they want to prioritize giant satellites, not synergy throughout the ISR network.

There’re a lot of implications from this and it should be getting a lot more thought, but you cant do it with the old frameworks.

The old framework is how the F-35 is treated.

It is as if we had Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense and there’s a curve of performance versus number you buy and the number you’re going to buy goes to the left because you need to save money.

The larger information/cyber/intel uses of the plane are rarely considered.

But such considerations are clearly part of shaping an effective deterrent and escalation and de-escalation strategy for The Second Nuclear Age.