2-3: On Nuclear War

This week’s readings focused mainly on the mechanisms and effects of nuclear weapons including specific models on what would occur under different scenarios. For me, one of the most interesting parts of the reading was a passage in the article by Leo Sartori which discussed the “window of vulnerability.” This idea basically states that a Soviet strategic strike on American ICBM silos, targeted at crippling the American response capabilities, would result in:

  1. a large number of civilian deaths,
  2. the destruction of a majority of these missiles, but not bomber and submarine-launched ballistic missiles,
  3. no American retaliatory response due to the fear of escalation.

The most striking part of this theory is that it seems to be contrary to the popular belief of mutually assured destruction since it postulates that the US would not retaliate with their own missiles since this would undoubtedly result in all out nuclear war. If this were the case, then the production of large numbers of missiles no longer serves as a deterrent to war. So the questions then become: which of these theories is more likely? how do these opposing theories affect the way the cold war developed? and how do these theories apply to the nuclear age that we live in now? — Bohao

6 thoughts on “2-3: On Nuclear War

  1. I found it at least somewhat reassuring to know that we had considered the possibility that a single nuclear weapon detonation did not necessitate mutually assured destruction, as it always seemed possible to me that a nuclear launch would happen by accident, miscommunication, or malfunction instead of as a malicious attack. However, Drell and von Hippel make an interesting point that preparing for nuclear war without the intent of mutually assured destruction may actually be dangerous and harmful to Cold War stability (35-36).

    In a situation where mutually assured destruction is the norm, neither nation has an incentive to launch a preemptive strike because they know they will only result in their own destruction. However, the change of focus to targeted weapons on strategic targets seemingly makes the situation less stable. As Drell and von Hippel note, the new accurate US MIRVs and MARVs suggest to Russian leaders that the US is preparing for strategic attacks on silos, possibly challenging the mutually assured destruction scenario. While these sophisticated weapons at first glance appear to be an advance in technology and humaneness (as weapons can be better aimed at military targets away from civilians), they increase the risk of an attack, since the Russians may fear their silos will be taken out. Perhaps, then, mutually assured destruction is a safer paradigm than these targeted strikes, as it is game-theoretically stable.

    In response to Sartori’s analysis of a strategic Soviet strike, if the targets are entirely military, we could only hope that the US would not respond due to fear of escalation. But sophisticated weapons make retaliation more likely because the US can retaliate equally, but we cannot guarantee that the combat would stop there. Radiation from wind could cause severe harm to a US city even if it is not the target, causing thousands of civilian deaths, and complicate the proportional response scenario, which, when carried to its conclusion, is as scary as mutually assured destruction. I would hope that we live in a period of targeted weapons and military targets, but maybe this age is not as free of civilian harm as we would hope.

    -Dan

  2. Dan makes a great point by suggesting that it is very unlikely for the target of a nuclear detonation to be strictly military. It would be difficult to confine the widespread destruction of nuclear weapons, as has been more than thoroughly described in the Sartori article, to a specific target. Some might view this as the most fundamental flaw of nuclear weapons, but since they have been advanced to such a large degree, it is something we must deal with.

    The discussion regarding the tactics of mutually assured destruction is twofold. The first consideration would be the state of the world as it is today. There are a number of countries with nuclear capabilities. Nuclear peace did prove to be an effective tactic during the cold war, and one would expect that advancements in nuclear technology would serve to magnify this effect. Nuclear weapons have evolved to the point where they are no longer a novelty and have become infinitely more destructive than they were a number of years ago. Very few would like to see what would happen if this technology were unleashed on a nation. The only remaining question is how this philosophy will evolve as more and more countries begin to develop nuclear capabilities.

    The second consideration would be how the world would change if a nation did decide to use this technology as an act of war (or even by accident, as Dan suggests). This seems to be the main consideration of Bohao’s post, and is something that is discussed by Sartori. As the leader of a state, it would probably be very difficult to observe large numbers of civilian casualties within a country and not enact some form of retaliation. The question here is whether or not that retaliation would be nuclear. Sartori postulates that it would not be. In my opinion, it would likely depend upon the size of the offending state. If a smaller nation, one weaker both politically and economically, were to use nuclear weapons against the US, conventional warfare might be a viable option. However, if this nation were more developed, any attempts to use conventional warfare would result in a war that is drawn out and helpless. If retaliation was desired, the nuclear variety might be the only viable option.

    Additionally, Sartori’s article was written in the 80s, so it is missing a bit of the political aspects of nuclear retaliation. Much of the decision to use nuclear weapons in retaliation would rest upon the individuals currently holding political office. As for the current US administration, they are doing much in attempt to make nuclear weapons obsolete, and would clearly never use them on a non-threatening nation. It is my opinion that they would make an exception if attacked by a developed nation in a nuclear capacity. Others might feel differently. Discuss.

    -Nik

  3. Dan brings up a lot of interesting points. Initially, the idea that countries (in fear of escalation) will retaliate with more strategic attacks rather than launching full-on nuclear war is calming– it means that the existence of nuclear weapons does not necessitate the end of the world. However, as Dan points out, this seems to create a far scarier world, in which states are more likely and willing to initiate attacks because the new technologies can (supposedly) create more targeted responses that have less drastic impacts. But these responses can still lead to harmful outcomes of collateral damage, environmental pollution, etc. that have the potential to escalate to larger conflicts. In the end then, which is worse–a small threat of a high-impact nuclear holocaust or a big threat of smaller, individual attacks that ultimately escalate to something equally horrible? It seems doubtful that the world is much improved by the development of more strategic and sophisticated weapons. Maybe the key to preventing a nuclear war is therefore neither MAD theory nor strategic strikes, but instead complete disarmament.

    -Madhu

  4. I find the “window of vulnerability” argument very interesting as well, and it directly leads me to ask the question: would this theory also hold true for a US surgical strike on the USSR? I believe that the answer to this question may lie in how much knowledge each country has of the other’s silo locations, but otherwise I can’t imagine the reciprocal argument would be invalid. Although Sartori mentions that the US has warheads of lower yield than that of the USSR, they should certainly be powerful enough for a surgical strike of the sort Sartori postulates.
    However, as Bohao pointed out, the more relevant question today is whether either theory holds merit in today’s world. I feel that the global nuclear landscape has become more even since Sartori wrote this paper, between the disarmament of much of the US and Russian stockpiles and the expansion of nuclear programs of other countries. The relevant issue that this brings forth is that other countries are in more of a position to retaliate on behalf of their allies than before, though they may not necessarily be willing to do so. Given this uncertainty, I think both these theories still hold some validity between the large, established countries of today. However, the landscape changes entirely when considering smaller nations and terrorist organizations.

  5. I was surprised to find in Sartori’s “window of vulnerability” argument the assumption that the USSR would be able to locate all the American ICBM silos. If this were the case, and virtually no US nuclear weapons would survive a surgical strike, then it seems as if the US has no second strike capability, and as Sartori suggests, US deterrence loses it’s credibility. This leads me to question the assumption that the USSR has the ability to locate all of the sites of US nuclear weapons, because it is obvious that the US would make it a top priority to keep the locations classified. For
    the USSR to take advantage of this supposed US “window of vulnerability”, it would have to know for sure that its surgical strike does not overlook a handful of secret US locations. With the number of US nuclear weapons reaching 30,000 in 1967, it seems impossible that any surgical attack would achieve this goal. How many warheads left over from such a strike would be enough to deter the USSR from attacking? According to McNamara, all it would take to destroy 25% of the USSR’s population and 50% of its industry is several hundred. While McNamara draws his line at 25 and 50 percent, it seems to me as if any country would be deterred with the threat of far less casualties, perhaps something closer to 10 and 20 percent or even lower.

  6. This post is interesting in a few ways. The first is that the article assumes that American ICBM silos are located in areas that are less-populated, thereby resulting in very few civilian deaths. Therefore an attack on these silos would have a very different strategic goal than a traditional attack on a big city. This kind of attack, because it only aims at disabling (more of defense-attack than an offense attack, which means it is permissible in what most people consider to be “just war”), anticipates a minimal retaliatory response to begin with. However, I find this to be a dangerous assumption. This minimal retaliatory response is very dependent on a country’s foreign policy, as shown in the case of Israel’s defense policy that is often summed up facetiously as “You scratch my finger, I’ll take your arm off.” (obviously somewhat of a biased take, but still). Even an attack that is not meant to totally disable, or hurt a multitude of people, can provoke a country into a disproportionately large retaliation. I have found that America’s foreign policy under the Bush administration was similar to Israel’s in that it’s emphasis was on a “tough stance.” Obama appears to be taking steps to move America away from this image, but it remains to be seen how far it will go.

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