Confronting the Realities of the Second Nuclear Age


2014-12-15 by Robbin Laird

There is a long history and strategic culture associated with nuclear deterrence.

The question is whether the history and the culture are more of hindrance than a help into thinking about second nuclear age deterrence and warfighting?

Paul Bracken has argued persuasively that nuclear weapons have returned clearly as an agent of global influence.

What’s taking place isn’t disarmament; rather it’s nuclear modernization. 

These countries are building nuclear postures, which in their view will be suited to 21st century conditions.  They may be wrong about this, certainly.

But the larger point is that the United States effort to design a world order that was free of nuclear weapons hasn’t worked out….

Put another way, nuclear weapons have returned as a source of influence and power in the international system. 

If we go back to the earlier years of establishing “rules” of deterrence, we might recover a sense of what a new round of nuclear modernization in a multi-polar world might entail.

We can begin by understanding the context within which the US first used nuclear weapons. 

After bloody island campaigns, the voluntary suicides Marpi Point, Saipan and the bloody fight on Okinawa, and the defense of Okinawa in part by the widespread attacks on the US fleet by Kamikaze pilots, President Truman reached the conclusion that a nuclear attack made a great deal of sense.

The alternative was to face massive destruction and death on the Japanese mainland as the Japanese fought to the last man.

In other words, the US used nuclear weapons to meet a strategic purpose not well met by conventional means. 

This clearly can fit someone’s calculus today.

A kamikaze attack on a US warship during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944
A kamikaze attack on a US warship during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944

A second example was the French desperate struggle in Indochina where the French government asked President Eisenhower to use tactical nuclear weapons in helping defeat the Vietnamese Communists.

Eisenhower refused, for perfectly good reasons, but clearly made the point that nuclear weapons are a sovereign national solution, not an allied one or international one for that matter.  It is only sovereign national decisions, which raises fundamental questions as Asian allies face a persistent Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization trajectory about whether or not they too need access to nuclear weapons to defend their interests or to trigger U.S. actions in the broader alliance defense.

A third example involved the Korean War and the request by Chou En-Lai to Stalin of whether he was willing to use nuclear weapons in defense of Chinese troops in Korea if the US used tactical nuclear weapons against those troops?

The answer was a clear no and again this pointed out the limits of alliance solidarity when it came to tying war with the potential use of nuclear weapons below the strategic threshold.

These were fundamental realities of the beginnings of the first nuclear age; and after a long transformation through the Cuban Missile Crisis and into the demise of the Soviet Union, the second nuclear age might look more like the beginning of the first.

There are recent developments as well, which are triggering significant rethinks about the nuclear threshold or at least the political utility of possessing nuclear weapons.

Odyssey Dawn

First, there is Odyssey Dawn, a military attack on Gaddafi, which would be unthinkable if he had not given up nuclear weapons.

As Ed Timperlake has argued:

What lessons are other countries that are not currently directly involved learning from observing the situation?

It can also be noted that some countries without troops have the right to also kibitz from the side like Putin is currently doing, because of the Administration is using a UN Security Council imprimatur to justify the attack.

But what do other thuggish countries think and what will they do? And this is literally a life and death question.

The world now knows that when the U.S. decides the leader of a country is an “evil doer” about to stage a massacre  a forceful military attack can be justified and launched. This is the emerging “Obama Doctrine. ” Ironically, it is reinforced by the observed experience of the Bush Doctrine and the Clinton Doctrine. The goal is to stop a negative by pointing out the massacre that does not happen.

Now visualize a meeting after the U.S. Military successfully attacked both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussain Iraq. At that table of world class thuggish leaders sits Moammar Gadhafi, Kim il Jong, the Dear Leader of North Korea, and Mahmoud Ahmadmejad of Iran. They see a huge problem –what will the Americans do next?

Gadhafi, knowing Saddam had WMD, specifically poison gas that he had used and a nuke R&D effort, decides his best course is to welcome the western nations into his country to deactivate his nuclear research and development program. The Dear Leader of North Korea leaves their meeting and shows the world that he has credible nuclear devices along with trying to build ICBMs. Mahmoud Ahmadejad had a choice when he left that table –he could follow the lead of the Libyan leader or play catch up to the Dear Leader.

With the attack on Libya, the Obama Administration has just made Kim il Jong look like a strategic genius. It also totally confirmed a lesson learned to the Iranian Leadership. The lesson is the only thing that can stop the Obama Administration deciding, with no U.S. Congressional notification, to attack a sovereign nation, is credible WMD.  Iranian leaders must now quickly double down on their belief that they need credible deterrence against an attack.

The Russian Seizure of Ukraine

Second, there is the Russian seizure of Crimea, which is a direct violation of agreements signed by the United States and the United Kingdom.

What remains of the non-proliferation treaty and its value when a state gives up its nuclear weapons in return for a promise of the protection of its territorial integrity by so doing?

When one produces the academic reader for the Second Nuclear Age in about 15 years, this action by Russia will have its own chapter as a stepping stone to a new era. With Russian actions in Crimea, the agreement seems to be going the way of Kellogg-Briand Pact signed in 1928 to abolish war.

In fact, the collapse of the agreement in the face of Russian seizure of Crimea is a key lesson learned for states regarding nuclear weapons: if you have go them keep them; if you don’t have them you might want to get them to prevent “aggression” against your interests.

In an agreement signed in 1994, Ukraine gave up its access to nuclear weapons in part for security assurances he United States, Russia and Britain would provide security assurances to Ukraine, such as to respect its independence and to refrain from economic coercion. Those assurances were formally conveyed in the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances signed in December 1994.
In an agreement signed in 1994, Ukraine gave up its access to nuclear weapons in part for security assurances he United States, Russia and Britain would provide security assurances to Ukraine, such as to respect its independence and to refrain from economic coercion. Those assurances were formally conveyed in the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances signed in December 1994.

In a clear example of reverse historical logic whereby the “banning” of war by states in in the Kellogg-Briand created the preconditions for a clear marker for the return of war, the Russian seizure of Crimea has ripped apart a key agreement which was designed to reduce the risks of nuclear proliferation.

And being denigrated, such an agreement not only appears worthless but makes clear that proliferation will be viewed in a desirable manner by aspiring nuclear states.

Clearly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was facilitated by Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

The agreement crafted by the United States and the UK to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons was as worthless as the Munich agreement of 1938.

This will have lasting consequences for the Second Nuclear Age.

At an event celebrating the Non Proliferation Treaty hosted by Kazhkhstan, arms controller Rose Gottemoeller, the current Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security was asked about the impact of not honoring this agreement.

She sidestepped the issue and told the audience that we still have the START agreement and that we needed to work with the Russians.

Nicely avoiding the point is a rather brutal fact: if the Russians who signed the Ukraine agreement honored it as much as did the US and the UK — which is to say not at all — why does the START agreement matter?

Put bluntly, agreements and words do not matter a great deal when you can invade the country you have the agreement with and reset the agenda.

The question really is HOW you work with the Russians which matters.

Iran and the ISIL Crisis

Third, there is the Iranian stake in the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which may well be facilitated and abetted by the preoccupation of the West with regard to the ISIL crisis.

As Dr. Amatzia Baram put it in an interview earlier this year with us:

Question: We have discussed Iran in passing with regard to the GCC states, but obviously Iran has a big stake in the crisis as well.

Baram: They do.

And one of the ironies of the current situation is that American policy against ISIL actually helps Iran.

Baghdad is now mostly an Iranian issue, more so than an American one.

You have to be aware of what America is doing.

America is getting Iran out of trouble by helping the government of Baghdad to push the ISIS back.

You are serving Iranian interests, not just yours.

So I’m not against it, as long as you understand what you are doing.

Iran will allow you to save it from ISIS, and in return they want you to allow them to continue to develop nuclear weapons.

Question: The ISIL crisis and its ongoing consequences will affect the great powers outside of the region as well; how do you see the stance of the major players?

Baram: With regard to Russia, they have little concern about Iran having nuclear weapons.

The Russians see this from the perspective of their conviction that they can unilaterally counter an Iranian nuclear threat effectively.

But what they have not calculated well is what others are going to do.

After Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and very likely also Turkey will acquire nukes.

A multi-player nuclear crisis is extremely difficult to control.

Even a nuclear war between Iran and Israel alone is dangerous for neighboring Russia, and one should bear in mind that unlike the Cuban missile crisis, there is no direct communication between Teheran and Jerusalem to provide key elements for negotiation as a crisis unfolds.

What does deterrence mean to Tehran as opposed to an old nuclear power like the United States or Russia?

How would a crisis management emerge that could manage these two very different poles?

And if Iran were to have access to nuclear weapons, notably with the onslaught of ISIL,or another similar anti-Shi`i movement, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out, and all this in close proximity to Russia.

 In other words, second nuclear age issues are part and parcel of regional conflicts even if they are not the dominant motif.

There are part of the changing calculus of key players with regard to the role which nuclear weapons can play with regard to protecting or projecting one’s interests.

In the case of Iran, clearly the possession of nuclear weapons is perceived as part of a regional power projection strategy as they would understand it.

By possessing nuclear weapons, the sanctity of Iranian territory is preserved from which actions within other countries in the region can be encouraged without fear of reprisals against Iranian territory through traditional conventional means.

North Korea and Going After the Dear Leader

A fourth example is clearly the evolution of North Korea and the question of what happens if war comes.

Unfortunately, for many strategists the North Korea of today is perceived as fighting the last war with a wave of conventional forces coming South.

This ignores not only the possession of nuclear weapons and missiles by the North, and the very isolated regime which will have its own calculus on war which will have to be affected by minutes and hours not days of actions by the UN, the South Koreans and the United States.

One way to let the North know that the US recognizes the new realities of the Second Nuclear Age is to change the command structure

It makes no sense to have an Army officer in charge of US forces in South Korea; it is time to have an Air Force officer in charge and directly focused on the capability of the US and the allies to strike North rapidly and effectively in the very early moments of the coming of war.

n spite of a fantasy of a nuclear free world , the reality is that nuclear weapons are becoming a more important element in the world. Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, and the Israelis and the conservative Arab States are shaping policies to deal with Iran. North Korea and China are two key nuclear powers able to shape a fluid environment because of those weapons.
In spite of a fantasy of a nuclear free world , the reality is that nuclear weapons are becoming a more important element in the world. Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, and the Israelis and the conservative Arab States are shaping policies to deal with Iran. North Korea and China are two key nuclear powers able to shape a fluid environment because of those weapons. 

It is not about the US Army defending South Korea in depth; it is about the South Koreans doing that and the US and allied air, naval and army air defense systems integrated in a strike and defense enterprise than can defeat North Korea’s missile and strike force.

Ironically, the ghost of McArthur has returned: in the case of war, there is no substitute for victory, but this time it is against a Second Nuclear Age power.

The current 7th USAF commander, Lt. General Jouas, put the challenge this way:

Question: You are sitting in a theater which is characterized by what Paul Bracken has referred to as a second nuclear age power facing you directly. This is not 1954, and one cannot assume that if conflict unfolds that the “Dear Leader” will follow a ladder of escalation approach. How does this affect your thinking about and approach to the theater?

Lt. General Jouas: We have a tough problem with North Korea, obviously. You have to understand that this is a different type of adversary with capabilities that concern us, and we need the best tools possible in order to contend with it.

We should not mirror image when we consider the North Korean nuclear strategy.

North Korea has seen what happened in Libya, and with Gaddafi, and that’s reinforced their strategy.

And while this may be a North Korean problem right now, there’s a strong possibility it won’t remain so. And that creates real danger to our allies and our homeland. We have to think about a world in which we have more than one North Korea, in which those capabilities are held by other nations whose interests and strategy are very different from ours.

PRC Nuclear Modernization and Power Projection

A fifth example is clearly the conjunction of the Chinese nuclear buildup with their nuclear modernization.

Because of their nuclear modernization, the Chinese are clearly working to protect their territory against classic conventional strikes and by so doing, then providing bases from which to then project power in the region.

Yet amazingly this conjunction is blown by in analyses that simply assert that the US needs a long range strike force to go after Chinese territory.

Such a strategy is based on an implied belief that the Chinese will accept a conventional phase before any nuclear response if an adversary strikes its territory. 

This is an assumption, but precisely an assumption.

Paul Bracken's book on the Second Nuclear Age has introduced a rethink of some fundamental questions.
Paul Bracken’s book on the Second Nuclear Age has introduced a rethink of some fundamental questions. 

There is no wishing this away, but clearly many precisely do this.

The basic bottom line is that the Chinese are clearly trying to extend reach from a more secure homeland base. 

And they’re doing this in a couple of different ways; one way is building their nuclear deterrent by having a more survivable force hidden in tunnels and deployed via mobile systems.

And at the same time, they are building what is referred to as anti-access, anti-denial capabilities, which at this point in history, is largely is an extension of the homeland.

They are trying to secure the area from which they can operate over time.

This provides them then with a base; the policy is based on the concept that adversaries will accept the sanctuary and demonstrate a lack of interest or capability in intruding into the sanctuary.

It forms the basis for projection power further into the Pacific and the South China Sea up into Japanese waters, up to the Arctic and towards the Malacca Straits and further south.

In short, the work of Dr. Bracken and the essays, which we have written to extend some of his analysis on our Second Line of Defense Forum on the Second Nuclear Age, is designed to think about the challenges; and not wish them away.

As Bracken puts it:

The larger danger for the United States is a narrow framing of the nuclear problem. 

As an example of this, the belief that all that is needed is a second strike capacity against Russia or China is an extremely narrow framing of the strategic problem.

It overlooks crisis management, provocations, escalation and counter escalation, communication and bargaining, and political perceptions of nuclear equality.

For the United States dealing with other country’s nuclear forces may best be done with our non-nuclear forces.

But the specific ways of doing this need to be worked out and linked to our nuclear strategy.

The band of possibilities here is much wider than in the cold war, and that’s why better scenarios are needed.

There are so many countries with nuclear weapons now, and technologies that can be used to attack them.

The approach used in the cold war was to separate conventional and nuclear options, and to strategically link them using a framework of escalation.   The old escalation ladder flagged the major thresholds, and this allowed political and military leaders to strategize in the same framework.  That wasn’t a bad solution.

But things are a lot more complicated now.

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