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The Logic of Nuclear Superiority

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Quotes of the week:

“You show me a Secretary of Defense who’s planning not to prevail [in a nuclear war] and I’ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.” — Caspar Weinberger, New York Times, August 24, 1982

“Strategic flexibility, unless wedded to a plausible theory of how to win a war or at least insure an acceptable end to a war, does not offer the United States an adequate bargaining position before or during a conflict and is an invitation to defeat…

… an intelligent U.S. offensive strategy, wedded to homeland defenses, should reduce U.S. casualties to approximately 20 million, which should render U.S. strategic threats more credible.” — “Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, “Victory is Possible,” Foreign Policy, 1980.

Matthew Kroenig has written an unapologetic case for a “robust” U.S. strategic posture, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters. The purpose of nuclear superiority, in Matt’s view, isn’t to fight and win – it’s to avoid fighting. His core argument is that crises between nuclear-armed states are the substitute for war and that “a robust nuclear force reduces a state’s expected cost of a nuclear war, increasing its resolve in high-stakes crises, providing it with coercive bargaining leverage, and enhancing nuclear deterrence.”

In Matt’s view, “Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate instrument of military force and they are still, therefore, essential tools of great power political competition.” From this baseline, his logic train is straightforward: Superiority matters because, “Deterred from engaging in direct combat, nuclear powers attempt to coerce opponents by playing games of brinkmanship. They initiate or escalate crises, intentionally raising the risk of nuclear war in an attempt to force less resolute adversaries to capitulate.” Superior nuclear capabilities provide the United States with the upper hand in crises and brinkmanship. Robustness requires nuclear war-winning capabilities.

Matt synthesizes the twin logics of superiority and brinkmanship to explain why assured retaliatory capabilities haven’t stabilized the U.S.-Soviet/Russian nuclear competition. Instead, Washington and Moscow have remained committed to oversized, counterforce-infused nuclear capabilities to seek advantage and to avoid disadvantage. Under these circumstances, he argues that U.S. “nuclear superiority, not nuclear parity, contributes to more, not less, strategic stability.” Why? Because no one would dare challenge U.S. nuclear superiority.

This provocative book constitutes a direct rebuttal to Robert Jervis’s The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (1984) in which Jervis argued that, “Superiority without the ability to protect one’s civilization does not give either side much leverage.” Matt holds the opposite view – that superiority is the essence of leverage and in worst cases, damage limitation and victory in nuclear warfare. Matt’s book is also a rebuttal to Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy(2017) by Todd Sechser and Matt Fuhrmann, who have found little evidence in past cases that nuclear weapons have determined crisis outcomes.

Matt looks at many of the same cases and finds otherwise. I am not a political science wonk, and am therefore unqualified to comment on weaknesses of methodology. What I can say with certainty is that conclusions regarding the utility of nuclear weapons, the nuclear balance, and brinkmanship rest or fall on just a few key cases – and they don’t include the Congo or Angola. My short list of cases that matter are those where risk-taking behavior was most evident and where there were direct stakes involved for the nuclear-armed contestants.

By these criteria, the most important cases are the Cuban missile crisis, the 1969 Sino-Soviet border clash, and the 1999 war between India and Pakistan in the heights above Kargil. To this short list we might add the 1973 Arab-Israeli war because Washington and Moscow were very much engaged in nuclear signaling on behalf of the actual contestants. I don’t see how we can include cases like the 1983 Able Archer alert when the Reagan administration failed to appreciate how anxious some in the Kremlin were about the prospect of a surprise nuclear attack. If signaling isn’t recognized because of ideological blinders or other reasons, a genuine crisis can go unrecognized.

As for the much-studied Cuban missile crisis, it’s still hard to be sure whether U.S. nuclear superiority was more decisive than local disparities in conventional capabilities. And yet even in this case, while enjoying both nuclear and local conventional superiority, Washington’s win was conditional on removing missiles from Turkey and leaving the Castro regime in place.

I’m not well versed in the Sino-Soviet clash, but my sense is that Matt is on thin ice in scoring this as a victory for Moscow because “Mao submitted to Brezhnev’s demands and agreed to negotiations.” While Beijing agreed to talks during the crisis, the Soviet Union’s massive nuclear superiority did not force local Chinese concessions, nor did it prevent the fissure in Sino-Soviet relations. A border agreement was eventually reached, but only 22 years after the clash.

As for the Kargil war, Matt assumes that Indian advantages in nuclear weapon capabilities figured in Pakistan’s embarrassing retreat and the re-imposition of the status quo ante. His analysis rests heavily on David Albright’s estimate of the nuclear balance at the time of the crisis. The weakness of David’s calculations — which I think he would readily acknowledge — was that they were based on estimated stockpiles of fissile material that could have been turned into warheads if those in charge saw fit to do so.

In reality, no one in a decision making capacity could confidently assume what the nuclear balance was at the time of the Kargil war. A few wise analysts in India, led by K. Subrahmanyam, surmised that Pakistan was ahead, but others – politicians, defense scientists, and Indian Administrative Service-types — couldn’t envision this. Nor could they imagine that Pakistan was in a position to test nuclear devices so soon after India. This mindset was reflected in Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s public comments warning Pakistan to back off on Kashmir after the Indian tests. His warning was most likely based on the presumption of Pakistan’s nuclear inferiority.

Pakistani military leaders and strategic analysts generally assumed that India was in the lead after the nuclear tests, one reason why they put pedal to the metal while India was resting on its laurels. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Pakistan was in more of a hurry than India back then – and may still be today, since the military stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities continue to take the Bomb very seriously as an instrument of warfare, while India’s political leaders do not.

What does all this suggest with respect to the thesis that nuclear superiority mattered during the Kargil crisis and war? This remains a hard case to make because nuclear warhead totals and the nuclear balance were opaque. Moreover, perception and reality were very jumbled.  It’s quite possible that India, which Matt presumes to have possessed nuclear advantages, was actually lagging behind Pakistan, which nonetheless embarked on a bold initiative to change the status quo. What is incontestable is that India, despite its lax nuclear posture, turned the tide because of its ability to bring conventional capabilities to the fight, while Rawalpindi was handcuffed by the fiction that Kargil was a jihadi and not a military operation.

There is one interesting common thread between the Kargil war and Cuban missile crisis — the element of surprise. Both crises began with a surprise attempt to change the status quo in dangerous ways. And in both cases, the state that sought advantage by acting surreptitiously found itself on the defensive as the crisis played out. I wouldn’t say that this was the most important factor in the crisis outcome, but neither was it incidental.

Matt’s book carries forward longstanding critiques of arms control and its preoccupations with constraining counterforce capabilities and missile defenses. He offers an updated version of the utility of nuclear superiority that, to be fully embraced, requires a radical departure from over four decades of agreements between Washington and Moscow premised on accepting nuclear sufficiency and rough strategic equivalence. Some of the particulars of Matt’s paean to the virtues of a nuclear war winning posture will be too unvarnished for public support, but neither is the public enamored with strategic arms control and reductions. As Tom Petty (R.I.P.) would say, here we stand, gazing out at the great wide open.

Michael Krepon is the Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on April 18, 2018. 

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