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 Post subject: The Nuclear Game (One)
PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 11:19 am 
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When a country first acquires nuclear weapons it does so out of a very accurate perception that possession of nukes fundamentally changes it relationships with other powers. What nuclear weapons buy for a New Nuclear Power (NNP) is the fact that once the country in question has nuclear weapons, it cannot be beaten. It can be defeated, that is it can be prevented from achieving certain goals or stopped from following certain courses of action, but it cannot be beaten. It will never have enemy tanks moving down the streets of its capital, it will never have its national treasures looted and its citizens forced into servitude. The enemy will be destroyed by nuclear attack first. A potential enemy knows that so will not push the situation to the point where our NNP is on the verge of being beaten. In effect, the effect of acquiring nuclear weapons is that the owning country has set limits on any conflict in which it is involved. This is such an immensely attractive option that states find it irresistible.

Only later do they realize the problem. Nuclear weapons are so immensely destructive that they mean a country can be totally destroyed by their use. Although our NNP cannot be beaten by an enemy it can be destroyed by that enemy. Although a beaten country can pick itself up and recover, the chances of a country devastated by nuclear strikes doing the same are virtually non-existant. [This needs some elaboration. Given the likely scale and effects of a nuclear attack, its most unlikely that the everybody will be killed. There will be survivors and they will rebuild a society but it will have nothing in common with what was there before. So, to all intents and purposes, once a society initiates a nuclear exchange its gone forever]. Once this basic factor has been absorbed, the NNP makes a fundamental realization that will influence every move it makes from this point onwards. If it does nothing, its effectively invincible. If, however, it does something, there is a serious risk that it will initiate a chain of events that will eventually lead to a nuclear holocaust. The result of that terrifying realization is strategic paralysis.

With that appreciation of strategic paralysis comes an even worse problem. A non-nuclear country has a wide range of options for its forces. Although its actions may incur a risk of being beaten they do not court destruction. Thus, a non-nuclear nation can afford to take risks of a calculated nature. However, a nuclear-equipped nation has to consider the risk that actions by its conventional forces will lead to a situation where it may have to use its nuclear forces with the resulting holocaust. Therefore, not only are its strategic nuclear options restricted by its possession of nuclear weapons, so are its tactical and operational options. So we add tactical and operational paralysis to the strategic variety. This is why we see such a tremendous emphasis on the mechanics of decision making in nuclear powers. Every decision has to be thought through, not for one step or the step after but for six, seven or eight steps down the line.

We can see this in the events of the 1960s and 1970s, especially surrounding the Vietnam War. Every so often, the question gets asked "How could the US have won in Vietnam?" with a series of replies that include invading the North, extending the bombing to China and other dramatic escalations of the conflict. Now, it should be obvious why such suggestions could not, in the real world, be contemplated. The risk of ending up in a nuclear war was too great. For another example, note how the presence of nuclear weapons restricted and limited the tactical and operational options available to both sides in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In effect neither side could push the war to a final conclusion because to do so would bring down nuclear attack on the heads of the "winners". Here, Israel's nuclear arsenal was limiting the conflict before it even started. Egypt and Syria couldn't destroy the country - all they could do was to chew up enough of the Israeli armed forces and put themselves in the correct strategic position to dictate a peace agreement on much more favorable terms than would be the case. But, the Israeli nucear arsenal also limited the conflict in another way. Because they were a nuclear power they were fair game; if they pushed the Egyptians too hard, they would demand Soviet assistance and who knew where that would lead?

So, the direct effects of nuclear weapons in a nation's hands is to make that nation extremely cautious. They spend much time studying situations, working out the implications of such situations, what the likely results of certain policy options are. One of the immense advantages the US had in the Cold War was that they had a network of Research Institutes and Associations and consulting companies who spennt their time doing exactly this sort of work. (Ahh the dear dead days of planning nuclear wars. The glow of satisfaction as piecutters are placed over cities; the warm feeling of fulfillment as the death toll passed the billion mark; the sick feeling of disappointment as the casualties from a given strategy only amounted to some 40 million when preliminary studies had shown a much more productive result. But I digress). This meant that a much wider range of policy options could be studied than was possible if the ideas were left in military hands. These organizations, the famous think tanks had no inhibitions about asking very awkward questions that would end the career of a military officer doing the same. This network became known as The Business. We're still out here.

So. What were nuclear weapons good for? It sems they are more of a liability than an asset. To some extent that's true but the important fact remains, they do limit conflict. As long as they are in place and functional they are an insurance policy against a nation getting beaten. That means that if that country is going to get beaten, its nuclear weapons have to be taken out first. It also means that if it ever uses its nuclear weapons, once they are gone, its invulnerability vanishes with it. Thus, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is a lot more effective and valuable than the likely results of using those weapons. Of course, this concern becomes moot if it appears likely that the NNP is about to lose its nuclear weapons to a pre-emptive strike. Under these circumstances, the country may decide that its in a use-it-or-lose-it situation. The more vulnerable to pre-emption those weapons are the stronger that imperative becomes.

This is why ICBMs are such an attractive option. They are faster-reacting than bombers, they are easier to protect on the ground and they are much more likely to get through to their targets. This is why modern, advanced bomb designs are much more desirable than the older versions. In the 1950s the Soviet Union had a nuclear attack reaction time of six weeks (don't laugh, that of the US was 30 days). The reason was simple, bomb design in those days meant that the bomb, once assembled , deteriorated very quickly and, once degraded, had to be sent back to the plant for remanufacture. Bomb assembly needed specialized teams and took time. This made a first strike very, very attractive - as long as the attecker could be sure of getting all the enemy force. It was this long delay to get forces available that made air defense and ABM such an attractive option. In effect, it could blunt an enemy attack while the assembly crews frantically put their own bombs together and got them ready for launch. As advancing bomb design made it possible to reduce assembly time, this aspect of ABM became less important.

What this also suggests is that large, secure nuclear arsenals are inherently safer than small, vulnerable ones. A large arsenal means that the owner can do appalling damage to an enemy, a secure arsenal means that no matter how the enemy attacks, enough weapons will survive to allow that destruction to take place. Here we have the genesis of the most misunderstood term in modern warfare - MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. (Another point of elaboration here - MAD is not a policy and has never been instituted as a policy option. It's the effect of policies that have been promulgated). Its widely believed that this suggests that both sides are wide open to unrestricted destruction by the other. This is a gross over-simplification. What the term actually means is that both sides have enough nuclear firepower to destroy the other and that the firepower in question is protected in such ways that no pre-emptive strike can destroy enough of it to take away the fact that the other country will be destroyed. MAD did not preclude the use of defensive systems - in fact it was originally formulated to show how important they are - but its misunderstood version was held to do so - with catastrophic results for us all. One implication of this by the way is that in spite of all the fuss over the Chinese stealing the W88 warhead design, the net beneficiary of that is the United States; it allows the Chinese to build a much more secure deterrent and thus a more stable one. Also, looking at things purely ruthlessly, its better for one's enemy to make small clean bombs than big dirty ones.

Aha, I hear you say what about the mad dictator? Its interesting to note that mad, homicidal aggressive dictators tend to get very tame sane cautious ones as soon as they split atoms. Whatever their motivations and intents, the mechanics of how nuclear weapons work dictate that mad dictators become sane dictators very quickly. After all its not much fun dictating if one's country is a radioactive trash pile and you're one of the ashes. China, India and Pakistan are good examples. One of the best examples of this process at work is Mao Tse Tung. Throughout the 1950s he was extraordinarily bellicose and repeatedly tried to bully, cajole or trick Khruschev and his successors into initiating a nuclear exchange with the US on the grounds that world communism would rise from the ashes. Thats what Quemoy and Matsu were all about in the late 1950s. Then China got nuclear weapons. Have you noticed how reticent they are with them? Its sunk in. They can be totally destroyed; will be totally destroyed; in the event of an exchange. We had a Chinese Officer here once on exchange (billed as a "look what we can do" session it was really a "look what we can do to you" exercise). We got the standard line about how the Chinese could lose 500 million people in a nuclear war and keep going with the survivors. So we got out a demographic map (one that shows population densities rather than topographical data) and got to work with pie-cutters using a few classified tricks. We got virtually the entire population of China using only a small proportion of the US arsenal. Our guest stared at the map for a couple of minutes then went and tossed his cookies into the toilet bowl. The only people who mouth off about using nuclear weapons and threaten others with them are those that do not have keys hanging around their necks. The moment they get keys and realize what they've let themselves in for, they get to be very quiet and very cautious indeed.

One anayst from The Business was asked what Saddam Hussein would have done if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons in 1990. He replied that he didn't know what he would have done but he did know what he would not have done - he would not have invaded Kuwait.

[Quote Author: IanRay (9/27/00)

Thanks Stu for a really interesting essay. I have a couple of questions:

(a) Is it possible for our NNP to go back? The reason I asks, is that over the next decade or so several new NNP will develop, to my understanding. Now these countries are likely to have a very limited nuclear weapon capability, but will have all the problems that you have mentioned. Therefore, it would seem possible that getting ride of the nukes would make sense.

(b) On Russia, we know that their nuclear weapon capability is lower than what it should be. This is partly due to the lack of uranium ore. Now considering this and the US NMD is their a change the Russian could believe that their ability to massive destruct the USA and its allies will be lose? If so, what actions could Russia take? Would it be in the West best interest to help Russia with maintaining its nuclear weapon level?

As a side note. I am very interested in what you do. I know from previous post that you read/review a lot of material on defence related matters, in particular air-defence systems. But what do you do with this info? Do you game it or do you write computer codes? On something like the Thailand carrier, I believe this was seen to be a better choice than MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft). How was such a decision made? Was it say like a small good made up of people form different fields. One working out the cost, others operational capabilities etc. Then a comparison made why possible. [/quote]

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The South Africans are a unique case. They had a window of opportunity in which they had nuclear weapons, thought through the problems and realized the conundrums but nobody knew they had them. So they had the opportunity to stick the genie back in the bottle. The Russians know very well that any attack on the US is national suicide for them; so they won't. Their policy on strategic weapons is up to them and our best course is to leave them to it. In most cases, the best course of action is to have another drink and go to sleep.

I'm what's called a systems analyst for want of a better term. I look at defense programs, try to work out what they are supposed to do, how they are supposed to work, what their objectives are and how they fit into the general scheme of things. I work for an independent Research Association (better known as a think-tank) that does nothing else other than that. The Thai Carrier, the Chakkrinareubet, was something I actually worked on so I know some of how the decision got put together from the inside. In the final analysis what we do is to look at all the various possibilities and try to come up with logical answers. Back in the 1980s I did a lot of work for a different company that was heavily involved in nuclear strategy. We did a lot of studies on planning nuclear attacks and how nuclear weapons are used.


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I know about South Africa, but could have their undertaken such an action if it was know that their had nuclear weapons. I did not mean to imply that Russia would attack the USA. Thou since I live in Australia, it really does not overly concern me. What I was trying to ask, would Russia feel concern that its nuclear force is possible becoming too small and therefore unsecured to possible external threats. In so doing Russia undertake an action, that it feels it must, to gain access to the resources that it needs to maintain its nuclear force.


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What about the terrorist that is a nuclear power, but owns no country as his (or at least no country he cares about in the final analysis) to be defeated? Doesn't his strategy boil down to finding the most opportune target(s) and attack schedule(s), and not much else, since he only ever acquired the weapon(s) in the first place in order to use it(them)?


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The problem with missiles is this; once they are fired, they are on their way. Nothing can stop them (in the sense that the launch decision is final; contrary to many people's opinion, ICBMs do not have a destruct system - ones fired on range testing do but operational ones do not) and nothing can prevent them striking their targets. The other problem is that they are very fast-moving and give the forces on the other side very little chance to decide what is happening and why. If a launch is detected now, the President has less time to make his decision over future action than most people to chose their meal at a restaurant.

Thrown into that is the inevitability of the whole thing; a missile fired means a target hit. Unless the wretched thing malfunctions of course but nuclear weapons are not a good place to start relying on luck. So the simple fact that a missile is on its way means that a country is about to have some fairly catastrophic damage inflicted on it. But is that all? Is that first missile the start of a salvo? Is it aimed at the deterrent forces on the ground - so that any response will be ragged? Without going too deeply into the dynamics of the decision (that would take a book rather than an answer to a question on an essay), the odds stack so that if a missile is inbound, it requires immense faith and courage not to return fire. That's step one.

Now we go to step two. The nation that has let one fly either by accident or design. Its government knows that the "other side" has imemnse pressure on it to return fire, that the odds in the decision-making process stack in favor of opening fire. If they hand around and wait to see what will ahppen, the rest of their forces get caught on the ground - and destroyed. So they require immense faith and courage not to continue firing.

Step three - the nation that is being fired on knows that the other guys are working on the basis that the odds stack in favor of continuing firing. That ends it; they know the other guys will open fire so even if they had decided not to, they will reverse that decision. The guys who fired first know that so, even if they had decided not to fire, they reverse that decision.

Everybody fires, everybody dies. More or less. Both sides know it so they don't bother with the question. One flies, they all fly. The only question is the timing.

How does BMD figure into this? It buys time. A single missile inbound can be shot down reasonably easily. So if a single inbound is detected, it can be shot down - stopped from reaching its target. That takes the dreadful time squeeze out - both sides can afford to wait to see what happens. The side that is being shot at can see what developes and also contact the other side and ask. Not a joke - that may be the most important single step. The side that let one fly by accident knows that the other side are going to wait so they can also afford to do so. And the whole situation is a lot cooler.


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If a terrorist group gets hold of one or more devices, that is quite correct - and we have a deadly dangerous situation. All the terrorist has to do is deliver them - that may be more difficult than it sounds. However, the terrorist has to get them first; building one themselves is not really very likely. they should be able to build a gun-configuration device but it would be very heavy and cumbersome. An implosion configuration device would be much more compact but is almost impossible for an outsider to build undetected.

If a state provides a terrorist with a device, that is a different thing. If we capture the device intact then we can trace it to its owner in hours - possibly minutes. Even if its initiated we can get enough information to trace in in a few days. Then the nation that supplied it has a LOT of explaining to do.

How terrorism and nuclear weapons interact is a matter of intense study right now - and very lucrative it is. In very general terms, very general, it seems that the key to the situation is the states that have nuclear arsenals and may be thinking of handing them over to terrorists. It has to be shown to be the case that the result of even thinking about doing that is a terminal mistake for the country in question - and Iraq is a key example in that respect. Arguably, it may be better if SH didn't have an active program - if his destruction was the effect of "might have one" it adds considerably to the deterrent lesson.


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In essence, the world has gotten to be too small for putting up with allowing "plausable deniability" from nations indulging in behind the scenes terrorism. You can put up with the "Red Brigades" backed indirectly by the Sovs cause it's actually a response to, and a way of getting around the nuclear deadlock. The current situation is just the opposit. It appears certain parties feel that by spreading out the sourcing, they can avoid the consquencies. Kaddaffy seems to have woken up to the fact that that is not true. Maybe the recent confession on TV in Pakistan means they have too... but I doubt it. I figure a good 50-50 chance nukes will fly before we are done. I


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I would put the odds a lot higher than that; if you remember, I've been saying this thing will go nuclear before its over from 9/11 onwards. This is one of the reasons behind the treatment of Taliban and Al Quaeda prisoners as illegal combatants - their organizations are not nation states and do not have the rights of nation states. Treating their personnel as if they were, or extending to such organizations the rights of nation states has some fairly nasty implications.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 4:18 pm 
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I didn't know you worked for an independent think tank Stuart. I just assumed you were an analyst for the govt.

That does explain why you know so many things in so many different fields.

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