Dealing with the Sub-Launched HSCM as a “Smaller Chunk” Within Escalation Dominance


By Edward Timperlake

In the first article in the series, we introduced the notion developed by Paul Bracken of breaking escalation dominance into smaller chunks.

In his book on the Second Nuclear Age , he argued that mastering the maneuver space for the threat to use nuclear weapons was part of escalation dominance which leaders who have access to nuclear weapons have access to and work to master.

Nuclear weapons thus made the calculation of “next moves” central to strategy. A mistake, a careless decision, or a misestimate could lead to a lot more than political embarrassment. Big decisions over war or peace were broken down into lots of smaller ones about the use of force and where it might lead.

And even the smallest decisions got high-level attention. In the Berlin crisis of 1948, the decision as to the kind of rifles U.S. guards carried on trains running to Berlin, M-1s or carbines, was kicked all the way up to the White House. 

The skill needed to identify these smaller decisions was learned on the job. It was not anticipated. Everything said here about the calculated use of force to achieve various purposes, basing decisions about using force on estimates of an opponent’s reaction, breaking down sweeping decisions on war or peace into much smaller “chunks,” and high-level attention given to micro moves—none of this was foreseen. It was “discovered” by national leaders and, even then, usually after they got into a crisis.1

Developing and showcasing a sub-based hypersonic cruise missile can be considered a “smaller chunk” in any escalation/de-escalation cycle.

Since the beginning of the first nuclear age into the second not only are the technological capabilities and intentions of force capabilities of paramount importance, it is also the intangibles of information war (IW) statements that directly impact on Professor Bracken’s point about any ops-tempo in times of crises.

Russia’s Putin understands Information War messaging about the use of nuclear weapons: 

“All Russians will go to heaven” as recently stated by a “deeply” religious former KGB Officer. 

“About a third of the way through, Putin conjured the specter of nuclear war, most likely with the United States, though he didn’t name the enemy explicitly. 

“As martyrs, we will go to heaven,” he promised. 

“And they will just croak because they won’t even have time to repent.”2

What a really nasty statement.

But it almost certainly aimed at Islamic extremists and is designed to take off the table any advantage that would accrue to those who believe that Russians fear death at the hands of Islamic extremists.

Now in addition to his IW mysticism he has personally threatened America, especially President 

Trump and his family, by having the White House and Camp David mentioned on his target list. 

This is threatening on so many levels.

The US Navy is standing ready at all levels of combat effectiveness, because  in over a hundred years of successful  Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)  from the Chief of Naval Operations down Navy Leadership has always  recognized that the future is now in standing  ready to meet threats. 

The President of Russia in February 2019  directly threatened the US with a nuclear strike from his submarine fleet off our East Coast. He and his war planners must be puzzled by a simple question; how did the United States already anticipate this threat?

Navy Chief of Naval Operations seemingly knew that Putin would eventually make such a bold threat.

President Putin and your sailors meet our newly reestablished 2nd Fleet established by CNO Admiral John Richardson, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science in Physics.

As Admiral Richardson noted at the ceremony establishing the command:

“Although deeply consequential, the meaning of this establishment can be summarized simply as a dynamic response to a dynamic security environment — a security environment clearly articulated in the National Defense Strategy,” said Richardson.

“We first need to understand this competitive security environment and why it demands every ounce of our tenacity, ingenuity and fighting spirit. Then we can focus on the mission and how best to accomplish it; 2nd Fleet will enhance our capacity to maneuver and fight in the Atlantic, and as a result, help to maintain America’s maritime superiority that will lead to security, influence and prosperity for our nation.”3

Put in blunt terms, the US Navy has anticipated what Putin is now trying to establish as an advantage in a future battle.

But the Navy is clearly working the challenge of preparing and training for a 21st century battle of the Atlantic.

And this time, the US Navy is leveraging not just its own service technology but the full panoply of what the joint and allied forces can provide as well to shape a nuclear-nuclear-tipped kill web that can dominate in a crisis and provide significant maneuver space for the President in dealing with Putin in a pre-crisis situation.

It is not about assuming strategic dominance with a so-called anti-access and area denial approach; it is about having to confront a 21st century combat force which is constantly innovating  and training to defeat a peer competitor.

As the CNO noted in 2016:

“To ensure clarity in our thinking and precision… We’ll no longer use the term A2/AD as a stand-alone acronym that can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone – we have to be better than that.”

“Since different theaters present unique challenges, ‘one size fits all’ term to describe the mission and the challenge creates confusion, not clarity. Instead, we will talk in specifics about our strategies and capabilities relative to those of our potential adversaries, within the specific context of geography, concepts, and technologies.”4

Remember Putin — we shoot back.

And before that we have significant maneuver forces to affect pre-crisis decision making of even the consummate chess player like Putin.

The featured photo shows Commander, U.S. 2nd Fleet Vice Adm. Andrew “Woody” Lewis talking with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Adm. Chris Grady, following the 2nd Fleet Establishment Ceremony aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).

U.S. 2nd Fleet will exercise operational and administrative authorities over assigned ships, aircraft and landing forces on the East Coast and North Atlantic.

NORFOLK (Aug. 24, 2018)

This is the second piece in our series on the response to Putin’s escalatory rhetoric and force structure planning.


  1. Bracken, Paul. The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics (p. 41). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
  2. Marsha Gessen, Putin Lied About His Nuclear Doctrine and Promised Russians That They Would Go to Heaven,” The New Yorker (October 19, 2018).