Election 2016: Playing a Game of Chicken With Nuclear Strategy

By Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1. Originally published at TomDispatch

Once upon a time, when choosing a new president, a factor for many voters was the perennial question: “Whose finger do you want on the nuclear button?” Of all the responsibilities of America’s top executive, none may be more momentous than deciding whether, and under what circumstances, to activate the “nuclear codes” — the secret alphanumeric messages that would inform missile officers in silos and submarines that the fearful moment had finally arrived to launch their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) toward a foreign adversary, igniting a thermonuclear war.

Until recently in the post-Cold War world, however, nuclear weapons seemed to drop from sight, and that question along with it. Not any longer. In 2016, the nuclear issue is back big time, thanks both to the rise of Donald Trump (including various unsettling comments he’s made about nuclear weapons) and actual changes in the global nuclear landscape.

With passions running high on both sides in this year’s election and rising fears about Donald Trump’s impulsive nature and Hillary Clinton’s hawkish one, it’s hardly surprising that the “nuclear button” question has surfaced repeatedly throughout the campaign.  In one of the more pointed exchanges of the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump lacked the mental composure for the job.  “A man who can be provoked by a tweet,” she commented, “should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.”  Donald Trump has reciprocated by charging that Clinton is too prone to intervene abroad. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria,” he told reporters in Florida last month.

For most election observers, however, the matter of personal character and temperament has dominated discussions of the nuclear issue, with partisans on each side insisting that the other candidate is temperamentally unfit to exercise control over the nuclear codes.  There is, however, a more important reason to worry about whose finger will be on that button this time around: at this very moment, for a variety of reasons, the “nuclear threshold” — the point at which some party to a “conventional” (non-nuclear) conflict chooses to employ atomic weapons — seems to be moving dangerously lower.

Not so long ago, it was implausible that a major nuclear power — the United States, Russia, or China — would consider using atomic weapons in any imaginable conflict scenario.  No longer.  Worse yet, this is likely to be our reality for years to come, which means that the next president will face a world in which a nuclear decision-making point might arrive far sooner than anyone would have thought possible just a year or two ago — with potentially catastrophic consequences for us all.

No less worrisome, the major nuclear powers (and some smaller ones) are all in the process of acquiring new nuclear arms, which could, in theory, push that threshold lower still.  These include a variety of cruise missiles and other delivery systems capable of being used in “limited” nuclear wars — atomic conflicts that, in theory at least, could be confined to just a single country or one area of the world (say, Eastern Europe) and so might be even easier for decision-makers to initiate.  The next president will have to decide whether the U.S. should actually produce weapons of this type and also what measures should be taken in response to similar decisions by Washington’s likely adversaries.

Lowering the Nuclear Threshold

During the dark days of the Cold War, nuclear strategists in the United States and the Soviet Union conjured up elaborate conflict scenarios in which military actions by the two superpowers and their allies might lead from, say, minor skirmishing along the Iron Curtain to full-scale tank combat to, in the end, the use of “battlefield” nuclear weapons, and then city-busting versions of the same to avert defeat.  In some of these scenarios, strategists hypothesized about wielding “tactical” or battlefield weaponry — nukes powerful enough to wipe out a major tank formation, but not Paris or Moscow — and claimed that it would be possible to contain atomic warfare at such a devastating but still sub-apocalyptic level.  (Henry Kissinger, for instance, made his reputation by preaching this lunatic doctrine in his first book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.)  Eventually, leaders on both sides concluded that the only feasible role for their atomic arsenals was to act as deterrents to the use of such weaponry by the other side.  This was, of course, the concept of “mutually assured destruction,” or — in one of the most classically apt acronyms of all times: MAD.  It would, in the end, form the basis for all subsequent arms control agreements between the two superpowers.

Anxiety over the escalatory potential of tactical nuclear weapons peaked in the 1970s when the Soviet Union began deploying the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile (capable of striking cities in Europe, but not the U.S.) and Washington responded with plans to deploy nuclear-armed, ground-launched cruise missiles and the Pershing-II ballistic missile in Europe.  The announcement of such plans provoked massive antinuclear demonstrations across Europe and the United States.  On December 8, 1987, at a time when worries had been growing about how a nuclear conflagration in Europe might trigger an all-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

That historic agreement — the first to eliminate an entire class of nuclear delivery systems — banned the deployment of ground-based cruise or ballistic missiles with a range of 500 and 5,500 kilometers and required the destruction of all those then in existence.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation inherited the USSR’s treaty obligations and pledged to uphold the INF along with other U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements.  In the view of most observers, the prospect of a nuclear war between the two countries practically vanished as both sides made deep cuts in their atomic stockpiles in accordance with already existing accords and then signed others, including the New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2010.

Today, however, this picture has changed dramatically.  The Obama administration has concluded that Russia has violated the INF treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile of prohibited range, and there is reason to believe that, in the not-too-distant future, Moscow might abandon that treaty altogether.  Even more troubling, Russia has adopted a military doctrine that favors the early use of nuclear weapons if it faces defeat in a conventional war, and NATO is considering comparable measures in response.  The nuclear threshold, in other words, is dropping rapidly.

Much of this is due, it seems, to Russian fears about its military inferiority vis-à-vis the West.  In the chaotic years following the collapse of the USSR, Russian military spending plummeted and the size and quality of its forces diminished accordingly.  In an effort to restore Russia’s combat capabilities, President Vladimir Putin launched a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar expansion and modernization program.  The fruits of this effort were apparent in the Crimea and Ukraine in 2014, when Russian forces, however disguised, demonstrated better fighting skills and wielded better weaponry than in the Chechnya wars a decade earlier.  Even Russian analysts acknowledge, however, that their military in its current state would be no match for American and NATO forces in a head-on encounter, given the West’s superior array of conventional weaponry.  To fill the breach, Russian strategic doctrine now calls for the early use of nuclear weapons to offset an enemy’s superior conventional forces.

To put this in perspective, Russian leaders ardently believe that they are the victims of a U.S.-led drive by NATO to encircle their country and diminish its international influence.  They point, in particular, to the build-up of NATO forces in the Baltic countries, involving the semi-permanent deployment of combat battalions in what was once the territory of the Soviet Union, and in apparent violation of promises made to Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would not do so.  As a result, Russia has been bolstering its defenses in areas bordering Ukraine and the Baltic states, and training its troops for a possible clash with the NATO forces stationed there.

This is where the nuclear threshold enters the picture.  Fearing that it might be defeated in a future clash, its military strategists have called for the early use of tactical nuclear weapons, some of which no doubt would violate the INF Treaty, in order to decimate NATO forces and compel them to quit fighting.  Paradoxically, in Russia, this is labeled a “de-escalation” strategy, as resorting to strategic nuclear attacks on the U.S. under such circumstances would inevitably result in Russia’s annihilation.  On the other hand, a limited nuclear strike (so the reasoning goes) could potentially achieve success on the battlefield without igniting all-out atomic war.  As Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace explains, this strategy assumes that such supposedly “limited” nuclear strikes “will have a sobering effect on the enemy, which will then cease and desist.”

To what degree tactical nuclear weapons have been incorporated into Moscow’s official military doctrine remains unknown, given the degree of secrecy surrounding such matters.  It is apparent, however, that the Russians have been developing the means with which to conduct such “limited” strikes.  Of greatest concern to Western analysts in this regard is their deployment of the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile, a modern version of the infamous Soviet-era “Scud” missile (used by Saddam Hussein’s forces during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 and the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991).  Said to have a range of 500 kilometers (just within the INF limit), the Iskander can carry either a conventional or a nuclear warhead.  As a result, a targeted country or a targeted military could never be sure which type it might be facing (and might simply assume the worst).  Adding to such worries, the Russians have deployed the Iskander in Kaliningrad, a tiny chunk of Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania that just happens to put it within range of many western European cities.

In response, NATO strategists have discussed lowering the nuclear threshold themselves, arguing — ominously enough — that the Russians will only be fully dissuaded from employing their limited-nuclear-war strategy if they know that NATO has a robust capacity to do the same.  At the very least, what’s needed, some of them claim, is a more frequent inclusion of nuclear-capable or dual-use aircraft in exercises on Russia’s frontiers to “signal” NATO’s willingness to resort to limited nuclear strikes, too.  Again, such moves are not yet official NATO strategy, but it’s clear that senior officials are weighing them seriously.

Just how all of this might play out in a European crisis is, of course, unknown, but both sides in an increasingly edgy standoff are coming to accept that nuclear weapons might have a future military role, which is, of course, a recipe for almost unimaginable escalation and disaster of an apocalyptic sort.  This danger is likely to become more pronounced in the years ahead because both Washington and Moscow seem remarkably intent on developing and deploying new nuclear weapons designed with just such needs in mind.

The New Nuclear Armaments

Both countries are already in the midst of ambitious and extremely costly efforts to “modernize” their nuclear arsenals.  Of all the weapons now being developed, the two generating the most anxiety in terms of that nuclear threshold are a new Russian ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) and an advanced U.S. air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).  Unlike ballistic missiles, which exit the Earth’s atmosphere before returning to strike their targets, such cruise missiles remain within the atmosphere throughout their flight.

American officials claim that the Russian GLCM, reportedly now being deployed, is of a type outlawed by the INF Treaty.  Without providing specifics, the State Department indicated in a 2014 memo that it had “a range capability of 500 km [kilometers] to 5,500 km,” which would indeed put it in violation of that treaty by allowing Russian combat forces to launch nuclear warheads against cities throughout Europe and the Middle East in a “limited” nuclear war.

The GLCM is likely to prove one of the most vexing foreign policy issues the next president will face.  So far, the White House has been reluctant to press Moscow too hard, fearing that the Russians might respond by exiting the INF Treaty altogether and so eliminate remaining constraints on its missile program.  But many in Congress and among Washington’s foreign policy elite are eager to see the next occupant of the Oval Office take a tougher stance if the Russians don’t halt deployment of the missile, threatening Moscow with more severe economic sanctions or moving toward countermeasures like the deployment of enhanced anti-missile systems in Europe.  The Russians would, in turn, undoubtedly perceive such moves as threats to their strategic deterrent forces and so an invitation for further weapons acquisitions, setting off a fresh round in the long-dormant Cold War nuclear arms race.

On the American side, the weapon of immediate concern is a new version of the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile, usually carried by B-52 bombers.  Also known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), it is, like the Iskander-M, expected to be deployed in both nuclear and conventional versions, leaving those on the potential receiving end unsure what might be heading their way.  In other words, as with the Iskander-M, the intended target might assume the worst in a crisis, leading to the early use of nuclear weapons.  Put another way, such missiles make for twitchy trigger fingers and are likely to lead to a heightened risk of nuclear war, which, once started, might in turn take Washington and Moscow right up the escalatory ladder to a planetary holocaust.

No wonder former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry called on President Obama to cancel the ALCM program in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. “Because they… come in both nuclear and conventional variants,” he wrote, “cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon.” And this issue is going to fall directly into the lap of the next president.

The New Nuclear Era

Whoever is elected on November 8th, we are evidently all headed into a world in which Trumpian-style itchy trigger fingers could be the norm. It already looks like both Moscow and Washington will contribute significantly to this development — and they may not be alone. In response to Russian and American moves in the nuclear arena, China is reported to be developing a “hypersonic glide vehicle,” a new type of nuclear warhead better able to evade anti-missile defenses — something that, at a moment of heightened crisis, might make a nuclear first strike seem more attractive to Washington. And don’t forget Pakistan, which is developing its own short-range “tactical” nuclear missiles, increasing the risk of the quick escalation of any future Indo-Pakistani confrontation to a nuclear exchange. (To put such “regional” dangers in perspective, a local nuclear war in South Asia could cause a global nuclear winter and, according to one study, possibly kill a billion people worldwide, thanks to crop failures and the like.)

And don’t forget North Korea, which is now testing a nuclear-armed ICBM, the Musudan, intended to strike the Western United States.  That prompted a controversial decision in Washington to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile batteries in South Korea (something China bitterly opposes), as well as the consideration of other countermeasures, including undoubtedly scenarios involving first strikes against the North Koreans.

It’s clear that we’re on the threshold of a new nuclear era: a time when the actual use of atomic weapons is being accorded greater plausibility by military and political leaders globally, while war plans are being revised to allow the use of such weapons at an earlier stage in future armed clashes.

As a result, the next president will have to grapple with nuclear weapons issues — and possible nuclear crises — in a way unknown since the Cold War era.  Above all else, this will require both a cool head and a sufficient command of nuclear matters to navigate competing pressures from allies, the military, politicians, pundits, and the foreign policy establishment without precipitating a nuclear conflagration.  On the face of it, that should disqualify Donald Trump.  When questioned on nuclear issues in the first debate, he exhibited a striking ignorance of the most basic aspects of nuclear policy.  But even Hillary Clinton, for all her experience as secretary of state, is likely to have a hard time grappling with the pressures and dangers that are likely to arise in the years ahead, especially given that her inclination is to toughen U.S. policy toward Russia.

In other words, whoever enters the Oval Office, it may be time for the rest of us to take up those antinuclear signs long left to molder in closets and memories, and put some political pressure on leaders globally to avoid strategies and weapons that would make human life on this planet so much more precarious than it already is.

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  1. pretzelattack

    scanning it, it keeps referring to the obama administration’s beliefs about russia, and claims by american officials. given the hysteria about putin allegedly hacking the us election, and the propaganda surrounding the war on terror, i’m reluctant to rely on this kind of evidence.

    1. Lambert Strether


      But even Hillary Clinton, for all her experience as secretary of state, is likely to have a hard time grappling with the pressures and dangers that are likely to arise in the years ahead, especially given that her inclination is to toughen U.S. policy toward Russia.

      “Even” is a little rich, given that the Clinton campaign has systematically — I hate to use the word, but — demonized* Putin. One can regard the political class as cynically able to turn on a dime when the election is done, but Clinton has also induced her base of “NPR tote baggers” to buy in, and the more massive base is harder to turn. And then of course the neo-cons have gone over to her, and they certainly know which side their bread has blood on.

      So, if Clinton wins, the dominant faction of the Democrat Party is — from the leadership through the nomenklatura to the base — committed to a “muscular” foreign policy, including a “No Fly Zone” in Syria, where shooting down a Russian plane would be an act of war, so far as Russia is concerned. (In the last debate, Clinton pointedly didn’t answer what she would do in that eventuality.)

      It is what it is. We are where we are.

      NOTE * I mean, come on. Trump and Comey as Putin’s agents of influence? Beyond bizarre.

      UPDATE One of the salient features of the bureaucratic infighters who brought about World War I is their utter mediocrity; see this review of The Sleepwalkers, a diplomatic history of how World War I came out. If you want to see real mediocrity in today’s terms, read the Podesta emails.

      1. integer

        And contrast that quote with:

        Whoever is elected on November 8th, we are evidently all headed into a world in which Trumpian-style itchy trigger fingers could be the norm.

        So even Hillary Clinton might not be able to handle a world full of Trumpian-style itchy trigger fingers. That’s a bit hard to swallow imo.

      2. timotheus

        “Muscular” policy towards Russia: [echo “muscular policy! muscular policy!” slow fade]. And we think Putin is a clownish macho.

        Joins “innovation”, economic “liftoff” and “headwinds”, “fight for”, etc.

      3. hemeantwell

        Agreed. Klare’s order of presentation creates a questionable sense of causality by talking first about Russian tech and strategy and then about what appear to be US responses. For example, my understanding of recent developments of low yield nuclear weapons — I’m thinking of the “dial a bomb” — has the US once again opening up a new strategic front the Russians feel compelled to duplicate. His discussion of the Iskander M similarly elides the question of how the Russians think about the B52-based cruise missiles the US has had for years.

        He also seems to lose track of a point he introduces by referring to Kissinger’s advocacy of the use of low yield nukes. Kissinger’s book came out in 1957, and afair only the US had battlefield nuclear missile delivery systems back in early 60s. After Kissinger gained power in the Nixon administration, they both thought that it was useful to look rationally irrational, to set out a logic for dangerous policies in order to make opponents fearful of a catastrophic reaction. The Russians are likely doing the same thing. I’m sure, too, that talking of a low first use threshold is a way to split Europe from the US.

        1. dw

          its not like the Russians havent had air launched cruise missiles.

          cause the USSR had them before it collapsed

      4. susan the other

        march of folly. I often get the feeling that our dear leaders do not want to tell us the extent to which they are threatened and panicked over Russia – they prefer to let us think we are far superior and so no sweat. So if that is true why all the fuss? If Russia were actually threatening our existence we’d be hard pressed to defend our borders because just look at how vulnerable we are. geographically. Not to mention incoming missiles. If any country starts a nuclear war, my bet is on Pakistan. Nasty little Pakistan.

      5. zapster

        In a Pilger interview on Real News Jay brought up that the danger with Trump is Pence. He’s evidently planning to channel Cheney, and is every bit as aggressive as Clinton. Can’t win for losing here.

    2. Science Officer Smirnoff

      Tangential—one looks for laughs at this dreadful point in history

      Fillip for Lambert Strether

      George Nash’s definitive history The Conservative Movement in America Since 1945 explains that the early conservatives, most of whom were or wanted to be “sublimely superfluous” trans-Atlantic intellectuals, cultivated an “aristocratic aloofness from vulgarity.” These genteel men of means and aspirant idle philosophers were essentially Henry James characters come to life, keenly aware of the “infinite vulgarity of things” and the self-evident “virtue of keeping one’s self unspotted by it.”

      Jacobin mag Nov 5th

  2. Roland

    This article on nuclear strategy makes no mention of the single most destabilizing thing that happened in nuclear affairs in this century: the USA’s unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty.

    How could the author make such an omission?

    The biggest nuclear problem we face is that there are “serious” military and political leaders in the USA who think that their new ABM systems will allow them to burst the shackles of assured-destruction, and thus to actively employ escalation dominance as a foreign policy tool..

    1. integer

      political leaders in the USA who think that their new ABM systems will allow them to burst the shackles of assured-destruction

      “Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.”

      ― Archibald Putt

    2. Jim A

      It is undoubtedly a better thing to actually defend your populace than to hold the men, women of children of your adversary hostage to against the behavior of their government. But as a practical matter, none of the ABM proposals and programs ever came close to the ability to make a full on attack by the Soviet Union “survivable” enough that it wouldn’t deter the US from actions likely to trigger one. During most of the cold war, the rule of thumb was that crossing the Iron Curtain with troops in Europe by either side would lead to nuclear war. Proxy fights in the rest of the world, wouldn’t*. When the Soviets used military force in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the West did nothing really to stop them.

      I think that the Russian perception is that the West managed a coup d’etat with the fall of the Soviet Union, when NATO expanded far Eastward, incorporating former Warsaw Pact members, in exactly the sort of thing that we didn’t attempt during the height of the Cold War. To their eyes, this nullified their “sphere of influence.” The Warsaw Pact was an extended border zone that protected them from invasion that was bought with many lives during the Great Patriotic War.

      *Japan might be another country covered by the US “nuclear umbrella.”

      1. jsn

        Add to this the long and very real history Russia has of being invaded and, whatever you think of Putin, its easy to understand the very high approval ratings he has domestically for his diplomatic and military policies.

  3. charles 2

    The author puts too much emphasis on anti-cities warfare at a pre-strategic level. A strike will be more likely to be an EMP anti-infrastructure strike. In modern societies, one doesn’t need to kill people to break their resolve. Disrupting the provision of electricity, mobile, cable and internet connection is amply enough to eliminate the appetite for overseas military adventures.

    1. fajensen

      The nukes run on a dead-man switch. If one EMP’s “everything”, the periodic “please do not launch today, sir”-signal will not reach the silos/submarines and missiles will launch automatically. We can be pretty sure that the last missiles launched will be salted with some “well, fuck you too!”-concoction to create massive fallout and maybe even some bio-weapons on top for all those weakened immune systems (from the gamma radiation). The USSR did a lot of very high quality research on biological weapons, obviously, everyone else has whatever they had in the 1980’s. People who ingest radioactive dust are goners sooner or later. Sooner with bio-weapons on top of the radiation poisoning.

      People, especially people “on top” who should be informed and know better, yet still think ABM systems work effectively for any other purpose than moving billions of USD to into the pockets of defense industry cronies, are simply deluded. Even with cooked tests, where the speed and trajectory of the opposition missile is known to the missile defence in advance, the odds of an intercept are low.

      1. susan the other

        One of the nice things about radioactive dust is that everybody gets some. The people who sat in their cement bunkers designing ways to deliver nukes eventually get nuked via the environment. So any and all of the nut cases, like Hillary and her ilk, regardless of their tiresome theatrics, are just designing an unnecessary confrontation that will not accomplish anything and will poison all life on the planet for 50,000 years. Sure, why not?

        1. jsn

          It is very sad that this is in fact what we are: charismatic predators who, under duress, can rationally devise complex systems that the basest among us come to command without understanding and at the threat of our collective doom.

          I wonder if the reality of the danger really penetrates the the unctuous balloon inflated around the likes of Dollary Clump.

          They have all the outward earmarks of believing their own BS.

          1. JTMcPhee

            That was what the whole “Star Wars” initiative was supposed to be all about — satellites stuffed with sensors and millions of lines of Perfect Code. to detect “launch signatures” and automatically intelligently calibrate the great spasm, orgazim, of destruction (“defensive,” of course) — http://science.howstuffworks.com/star-wars-program.htm

            What could possibly have gone wrong? What is still cued up to also go, for the various species that inhabit and make up the biosphere at large, so very wrong?

  4. Disturbed Voter

    The only way to win is not play – War-games

    Why would the elites not want to win, compared to the first 70 years of the nuclear age?

    1. fajensen

      Why would the elites not want to win, compared to the first 70 years of the nuclear age?
      They are like 70-80 years old, geriatrics already, soon diaper-cases. All thes powerful people are in a desparate race with time to “set things right”, before they lose all of their faculties (or start smelling of poo so no-one invites them anymore).

  5. Jim A

    Even more troubling, Russia has adopted a military doctrine that favors the early use of nuclear weapons if it faces defeat in a conventional war, and NATO is considering comparable measures in response. The nuclear threshold, in other words, is dropping rapidly.

    Of course this is the exact mirror image of the US policy during the Cold War. We relied on the threat of “theater nuclear war” to deter the huge Soviet conventional forces that NATO had little chance of stopping with conventional forces. Of course the Germans joked that the definition of a “theater” nuclear weapon was one that went off in Germany.

  6. EoinW

    Sad that even at NC you get articles with an anti-Russian slant. Perhaps I read it wrong, however the author seemed to be implying that NATO was simply reacting to reckless Russian nuclear policy. Like the idea Russia would use tactical nukes because they had inferior conventional forces. Sorry wrong! The whole prospect of Russia using nukes is due to neo-con policy that the US can win a first strike nuclear war. The Russians are being forced to entertain such actions because of the wackos running NATO and the US government.

    As for lowering the threshold, I’d say that was successfully done by western politicians a decade ago when it was suggested to be okay to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Holy Fukishima! this was treated like a perfectly reasonable action. Yet another threshold lowerer, is the naked aggression and disregard for international law that the US and NATO has shown. We’ve attacked and invaded twice as many countries as Hitler did prior to September 1939. And Hitler’s aggressions were mostly bloodless, while all ours are very bloody! No reason for the Russians to ever feel threatened if America wasn’t trying an annual regime change on whatever country Washington doesn’t like. And they have made their dislike of Putin and Russia perfectly clear!

    Spare me the trigger happy Trump talk. If the author is truly concerned about nuclear war then all that matters is that Trump would talk to the Russians, while Clinton demonizes them.

  7. Gaylord

    Whether by nuclear armageddon or by the effects of global warming, humans will soon go extinct. In either case, it will have been self inflicted.

  8. ex-PFC Chuck

    The “president’s finger on the button” meme is wildly off the mark, to use a phrase made infamous by one Hilary’s recently converted supporters, Paul Wolfowitz. (a fact that tells you all you need to know about the Democratic candidate’s foreign policy inclinations.) It is insidiously misleading because the president’s finger is not the one on the button. In fact there is not just one button; there are many, probably some where in the low or middle three digit range. And the fingers that are authorized to press them when called upon to do so are attached to the arms of military officers ranging in rank from O-2 to O-6. That is from First Lieutenant to Colonel in all services except the Navy, where the comparable ranks are Lieutenant Junior Grade to Captain.

    There are two responsibilities the president has with regard to nuclear weapons. The first is to direct the overall thrust of foreign policy both in the long term and in day to day matters. The nature of the policies he or she pursues, the skill with which s/he does so and the responses of other players in the arena determine level of readiness the nuclear components of the military maintain at any given moment in time. These levels are known as defense conditions, or DefCons in Pentagon speak. The lower the number the higher the state of readiness. Think of the DefCon levels as a group of serially connected safety locks on a gun. In DefCon 5 (no potentially nuclear conflict on the horizon) all the locks are engaged. Each step up the readiness ladder disengages another safety lock, until you get to DefCon 1, which means that nuclear combat is imminent and launch codes could be received from higher up any minute.

    This brings us to the second presidential responsibility regarding nuclear weapons, namely the authority which he or she alone has to order those valid launch codes to be sent to some or all of those junior and mid-level officers whose fingers are on the buttons.

    With regard to Michael Klare’s post there is a glaring omission. I confirmed this when, to make sure I hadn’t missed something, I did F searches on the text for terms such as “Cuba,” “Clausiwitz,” “fog of war,” ‘snafu,” etc. The unseen elephant in the room can be expressed in some phrases I frequently heard while putting in my two years fighting the Cold War from behind a desk: there always somebody who doesn’t get the word; no battle plan survives the first shot; shit happens; etc.

    Most of us who were more or less sentient adults in October of 1962 vividly remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a scary time. But given the information about those times that has come to light in the past quarter century, we weren’t nearly terrified enough. I’ll briefly mention three such pieces of information with a tl/dr summary and a reference or link for each one.

    First off the intelligence estimate the USA side was working with was that there were no nuclear warheads on Cuba at the time but that they were expected to arrive soon. In the early 1990s, during the brief window openness following the collapse of the USSR, a seminar was held in Russia to which senior players during the crisis were invited to share information about what had happened. Among the revelations new to the US side were first that there were in fact about 80 warheads on the island, and furthermore that about fifteen of them were tactical tactical ones that were mounted on missiles with a range of about 100 miles. These wouldn’t have reached into the US much beyond Key West or Miami, but they could have destroyed most of the US fleet closing in for a possible landing on Cuba. Can you spell casus belli? More details can be found in an appendix to one of Robert McNamara’s books, In Retrospect.

    Then there’s the story of USSR submarine B-59, which was shadowing the US Navy task force centered on the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. When the commanding officer learned of its presence he ordered that the sub be forced to the surface with training depth charges, that is ones with just enough explosive to be detected but not nearly enough to seriously damage a sub. The submarine had one nuclear armed torpedo, and the captain’s standing orders were that if the ship was out of communication with higher headquarters the torpedo could be launched only with the unanimous agreement of the captain and the two most senior other officers on duty at the time. When a sonar man detects the “plop, plop, fizz, fizz’ of a depth charge entering the water he can’t tell whether it’s a training unit or the real thing. Captain Savitsky thought it was the latter and that war had been declared. He ordered the torpedo to be armed and prepared for launch. As the author of The Guardian piece notes, the US response would have been in accord with the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) which called for the delivery of 5,500 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons onto targets in the Communist countries. The USSR would have responded with all they had at the time, which was no more than an order of magnitude less, but even the few score that got through would have been devastating. Most of us living at the time who weren’t fortunate enough to have been killed outright or died soon thereafter from radiation and other immediate effects would likely have suffered lingering deaths from malnutrition and hypothermia during the decades of nuclear winter that would have followed. That those of us who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis episode are here and that we have been joined by those who were born since is due to the fact that a young officer named Vasili Arkhipov refused to concur with his captain and the other officer on duty.

    Finally there was a cruise missile base on the Japanese island of Okinawa with 32 cruise missiles assigned to targets in China, North Korea and the eastern Soviet Union. On October 28 the crisis was at its peak and the alert level was at DefCon 2, when a message came down with the valid launch code attached in line to a routine weather report. This was unusual in two ways. First the senior officer present, one captain William Bassett, expected that a launch order would only be issued if and when they were at DefCon 1, and secondly he thought it odd that the code was attached to a routine message rather than as a stand alone transmission. Therefore he sought to clarify and confirm the order before proceeding. However a lieutenant in another, connected underground launch control bunker who had received the same message had no such doubts about launching the missiles for which he and his colleague were responsible. An order is an order. When Bassett learned of this he dispatched two airmen with sidearms to go through the tunnel connecting the two bunkers and enforce, with deadly means if necessary, his order for the lieutenant to stand down until he, Bassett had confirmed the order they had received. It took him several exchanges before the major higher up realized that he had seriously f**ked up and issue a countermand to the order. Thank you, Captain Bassett, for the fifty four years of life I have enjoyed since your day in the sun, even though you were deep inside an underground bunker on Okinawa.

    The human species is extremely fortunate that the two individuals who were the heads of their nuclear weaponized governments those many years ago were able to resist the immense institutional pressures they were under to throw down the gauntlet. It was a close run thing, as Wellington said of Waterloo. But our species is equally fortunate that Vasili Arkhipov and William Bassett rose to their occasionsl. If one of them had not done so, Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s efforts to keep the lid on things would have failed and they would have gone down as the two greatest villains in history. That is if there had been anyone still around to write it and read it. The fact that the two leaders were each deeply shaken by the experience accelerated the direct, back-channel communications between them that had begun not long after the Berlin crisis of 1961. They both realized that the best way to avoid nuclear war was for the governments to respect each other enough so as to minimize confrontations between them.

    Neither Donald Trump nor Hilary Clinton is a Jack Kennedy, and Vladimir Putin is not a Nikita Khrushchev. But based on what they each say both Trump and Putin appear to share their predecessors’ understanding of the dangers of confrontation. There is nothing at all to indicate that Hilary Clinton gets it.

    1. JTMcPhee

      I’ve told this one before, but in 1979 or 80, I was touring in Japan, staying for a couple of days in Beppu (southern Island) at the huge Suginoi Hotel resort, which had large and luxurious themed public baths. A US missile frigate and similarly armed destroyer were making a port call. The Japanese ordinary people were very exercised then about US ships bringing nuclear weapons into their waters, as noted in this article: “Lying About Nuclear Weapons,” http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/124709.

      I washed and went into the “Hanging Gardens of Luxor” ofuro (right word?) to soak. In come three US Navy fairly junior, definitely younger officers. They put their clothes in a locker and, high-fivin’-white-boy style, jumped into the bath (Olympic swimming pool size) and gravitate to naked me, the only other “gaijin” in the place. Exchange of pleasantries, where you from, why are you here. After they indicated their positions as weapons officers on the ships in the port, my attorney training sort of kicked in and I gently probed and cross-examined them a bit.

      And maybe it was just alcohol-fueled braggadocio, “loose lips sink ships” notwithstanding, but these young fellas, as we discussed the current frictions in the Sea of Japan offered that they had the authority to launch anti-ship and surface-to-surface nuclear-armed missiles on account of the fact that other stupid humans under the Hammer and Sickle had built warships and armed them, also, with nucelar-warheaded anti-ship missiles, so that even with the best radar, the US ships had maybe a three minute warning that, as we used to shout in Vietnam, ordnance was “INCOMING!” With no dugout or bunker to dive into — all there was to do was kill the “Commie bastards” that had fired the missiles that would kill YOU momentarily. These guys maintained that because of the short warning window, procedures gave them the direct authority to fire away, launch those nukes with great elan and grim enthusiasm. Without any kind of chain-of-command “circuit-breaker” but maybe conscience, to stop the “escalation” so rightly derided by WOPR in “War Games”, the line about “Strange. The only way to win is not to play the game.”

      But of course fortunes and careers, and the kinds of sick-personality satisfactions that come from setting deadfalls and IEDs and now for the faceless coders among us, trash our fragile, vulnerable infrastructure with “cyberattacks” and such, are there to be had. And in the runup to “events, my dear,” it all seems to be consequence-free — or maybe there is such a thing as a “death wish.”

      For history buffs, here’s a retrospective of recently released “classified info” on the details and timeline of deployment of US nuclear weapons at sea, http://fas.org/blogs/security/2016/02/nuclear-weapons-at-sea/ I wonder what the current data points on those curves are…

      1. visitor

        Your experience, and the explanations by ex-PFC Chuck on the chain of command bring to my mind a study from the 1980s which was published in the Scientific American in those years (when the utilization of tactical atomic missiles, first-strike policy, and deterrence in the face of ABM/SDI were burning issues, just like they are — or should be — nowadays).

        The article investigated the resilience and reliability of the chain of command regarding nuclear weapons in the USA and the USSR.

        From my recollection, there were three salient points:

        1) Overall, the chain of command in the USSR was somewhat less prone to mishaps due to a rogue personnel or to errors, because decisions had to be taken both by the military and by a political appointee. In brief, the political commissar and the military commander had to agree on a course of action at every level of the hierarchy. The anecdote with the Soviet submarine in Cuba is an example of that situation. I wonder how things are organized now in Russia in this respect.

        2) Nevertheless, both chains of commands were frightfully unstable and trigger-happy in case of an emergency — precisely when cool heads should prevail, and just as your example of those surface navy officers illustrated.

        3) Under attack, nuclear forces had a counter-intuitive characteristic. If damage to communication infrastructure, headquarters, etc, was slight, then nuclear military units were operational: they could acquire information and carry all orders and confirmations to launch a strike, or countermand one, according to phased, formal procedures. When the damage was heavy, individual units were isolated and thus could take decisions (to launch or not) on their own, as full responsibility would fall back on local command.

        In between those two extremes, damage would be just severe enough to disrupt communications and decision paths so that the entire system would not know what to do. Units would be incapable of acting on their own because the system would not be crippled enough to allow falling back on entirely local decisions, but also confused by orders without confirmations, partial countermands, missing acknowledgments. Everything would be hanging in the air.

        This was 30 years ago, and we are joyfully repeating the same mistakes. It is all insane.

  9. Roland

    The value of ABM does not lie in defense against an enemy first strike, unless that first strike was performed by a very weak nuclear power such as DPRK.

    The value of today’s ABM systems lies in defense against enemy nuclear forces that have already been mostly destroyed and with their command-and-control disrupted. Today’s ABM systems would succeed against a Russian nuclear force mauled by a counterforce first strike performed by the USA.

    Even in the Reagan days, one had to assume that an enemy counterforce first strike could destroy 80% of your arsenal before you had a chance to retaliate. Nowadays, the arsenals are smaller and the targeting is better, which makes first strike more feasible now than it was then. Add in ABM and it’s a cocktail for strategic nuclear instability. Never has first-strike been more attractive to a potential aggressor.

    Most of today’s strategic nuclear weapons, particularly in the US arsenal, are relatively low-yield, and therefore should be employable in a counterforce role, without major global environmental implications.

    That’s why highly accurate low-yield weapons, combined with ABM, present a credible first strike posture.

    That gives the USA escalation dominance, which US leaders could try to use as a power-political tool to impose terms on others, probably without firing a shot.

    Like all aggression, success leads to more of it. Either US will establish a truly peerless hegemony, or they will encounter an opponent determined to fight regardless of the likely outcome of the conflict. In the latter case, affairs become unpredictable.i

    1. JTMcPhee

      Not sure if you are just reading off the doctrine sheets, Roland, or if you are “read in” and all on board for the entire set of madnesses and horrors that what you so blandly and glibly describe represent — whether you are on the inside,” or what. If you really believe what you wrote is feasible and sensible, it’s too bad that I and the people I love have to share a planet and a fate with you.

      Apologies if I incorrectly attribute your facile recitation as your core values and deepest considered thoughts… otherwise—

      1. BecauseTradition

        What Roland says makes perfect sense (i.e. don’t blame the messenger) though it is insane if we can’t live in peace with the Russians or the Chinese for that matter.

        What the hell is the matter with us?

    2. Science Officer Smirnoff

      The line taken is fantasy if it means what it says: China and Russia have no deterrence.

      For starters this assumes Chinese and Russians do not have sub launched missiles. Or that you can find them all.

      The Chinese have been developing sub launched missiles for years.

      China only in recent years has, apparently reluctantly, gone to MIRVed missiles. Their doctrine had been “minimal deterrence”. Would that the rightwing American minds followed that path of maximum stability.

      Others have pointed out that American ABM systems are very much, at best, limited to weak adversaries.

  10. redleg

    The modern US military has been designed to be a cash cow for political favorites. While our weapons can be very deadly, don’t underestimate the amount of graft built into the highest-tech weapons.
    There’s a reason why the F-22 and the new Zumalt destroyers can’t fire their cannon.
    Complexity is not a virtue on the battlefield, but it makes contracts much larger. Ka-ching.

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