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Could America Win a Nuclear War Against Russia?

During the Cold War the US was ready to sacrifice 40 million Americans to destroy Russia

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The first time I read about the First Strike Capability and Nuclear Primacy was in the year 2000, when I was doing some research for an essay on American Foreign Policy. (At the time I was doing a Masters in International Relations at the Dublin City University).

Researching and studying literature on the topic, I also came across two books - On Thermonuclear War and Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy - that have had a lasting impression on me and my notion of the impossibility of a nuclear war ever since. I grew up putting my trust into the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). It was clear to me that egoism of mankind would prevail and prevent the adversaries from pushing the button, since both sides knew that in an all-out nuclear war – regardless who starts first – both would be annihilated. It would be a form of mutual suicide!

I soon realized that the concept of MAD that safeguarded peace in the nuclear age was just a period that started in the early 1960s. In the 50s and early 60s, it was the US that had nuclear primacy over the Soviet Union. Some scholars and analysts have argued that after the Cold War ended the U.S. has sought and achieved nuclear primacy over Russia again.

In their essay in Foreign Affairs (published in 2006), two historians and experts on military matters, Lieber and Press, argued that the U.S. has achieved a so-called first strike capability, giving the U.S. the potential to inflict such damage to the Russian nuclear arsenal in a disarming surprise nuclear first strike that only limited retaliation would be possible, if any, thus limiting its own losses and winning a nuclear war! It is worth mentioning that the U.S. Department of Defense reacted to the essay by Lieber and Press by publishing a response in Foreign Affairs, claiming that the assumptions of Lieber and Press were full of errors and that the US never sought and for that matter never achieved nuclear primacy.

Those times of ‘Imbalances of Terror’ - Lieber and Press use this term to describe a state where one nuclear power has nuclear primacy over the other and the notion of mutual deterrence no longer applies - are inherently unstable and the risk of nuclear war increases. This is mainly due to two assumptions, as Pavel Podvig (a nuclear weapons analyst and author of the book Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces) also describes in his article ‘Reducing the risk of Nuclear War’ (published in Science and Global Security in 2006), which argues:

The risk that a nuclear power with first strike capability launches a nuclear attack in a crisis that is perceived to endanger its national interests increases, since the ‘retaliation-deterrence’ doesn’t exist or is very limited.

The risk of a pre-emptive strike of the [inferior] nuclear power increases, since the own nuclear arsenal is perceived to become useless (or only ‘useful’ in the air after a launch) after a first surprise strike of an adversary with first strike capabilty.

The history of belligerence between North Korea and the United States and the mutual threats surrounding it seem to support the above-mentioned risks.

But what strategic benefits can be derived from having nuclear primacy anyway, if any? And where are we today? Does the ‘Imbalance of Terror’ still exist as postulated by Lieber and Press?

US Nuclear Primacy of 50s and early 60s

Even though the U.S. had - during the Eisenhower-Dulles administration in the 50s - nuclear primacy over the Soviet Union, the nuclear doctrine was not based on a first strike capability in order to win a nuclear war. The U.S. nuclear doctrine, announced by the then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1954, was one of ‘massive retaliation’. The doctrine was supposed to send a message that the United States is willing to use nuclear weapons (as it had already proved in Japan) in case the Soviet Union used its conventional forces to invade Western Europe. At that time the conventional forces of the Soviet Union were larger than those the West.

At the end of the 50s and beginning of the 60s influential groups in the U.S. political establishment, led by the then influential RAND Corporation (a U.S. think tank founded after the WWII with close ties to the U.S. military), started to criticize this – in their opinion – inherently defensive strategy in the nuclear age. According to them a nuclear war should be seen as a realistic possibility and preparations for such a war should be made in order to win it! It was one reason for what later turned out to be the false identification of a ‘missile gap’ at the end of the 50s - an argument that John F. Kennedy won the presidency on, beginning an era that experienced a massive increase in U.S. military spending.

Probably the most prominent proponents of this group that didn’t think nuclear war necessarily means mutual suicide, at that time, were Henry Kissinger and Herman Kahn. In their books‚ Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (Kissinger) and On Thermonuclear War (Kahn), they advocated a more ‘active’ nuclear strategy in order to more effectively defend the national interests of the United States. They argued that a new military strategy and doctrine should be based on assertions that:

  • Nuclear war is possible.
  • A nuclear war can and should be won, although a new definition of the level of ‘acceptable losses’ is needed. For Kahn even 40 million dead Americans would have been ‘acceptable losses’. (At that time the U.S. had a population of 200 million.)
  • A nuclear first strike capability would enable a disarming surprise attack, thus limiting the retaliation possibilities of the adversary.
  • Limited nuclear war should be part of military strategy (this last point wasn’t really new, since, during the Taiwan Strait crisis, Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons as ‘bullets’ to destroy Chinese army bases).

Chills ran down my spine while reading the sober explanations of Kissinger and Kahn about the different scenarios of nuclear war and the tables, listing the numbers of the immediate dead, the mid-term dead, the dead from long-term sufferings, the injured, the contaminated, the survivors, the radiation effects and other devastating consequences of a nuclear war, are still engraved in my memory. The suggestion by Kahn to feed the elderly with contaminated food, for their life expectancy would not exceed the time it would take them to die as a consequence of contaminated food, took my notion of cynicism to a new level.

I think you might understand why Kahn and his book inspired Stanley Kubrick to produce Dr. Strangelove. After he had read Kahn’s book he also had some interviews with him in order to study the possible consequences of a nuclear war.

The table below shows possible ‘postwar states’. Listing American losses and the economic recuperation period. 40 million dead Americans and a 20 years recuperation period, for Kahn, would have been ‘acceptable losses’, where the survivors wouldn’t envy the dead!

Source: On Thermonuclear War, Herman Kahn

The nuclear primacy of the U.S. in the 50s and the early 60s had some strategic advantages for the United States.

According to some analysts and scholars, the U.S. derived from this ‘Imbalance of Terror’ some strategic benefits: the Berlin crisis, the Austrian crisis and the crisis in the Taiwan Straits were resolved favoring the United States. The Soviet Union accepted a western controlled West Berlin and a ‘neutral’ (basically western oriented) Austria.

The fact that neither side achieved strategic geopolitical advantages after the Soviet Union reached nuclear parity with the U.S. supports these assumptions.

Kissinger and Kahn, but also their supporters in the administration and military, toned down their rhetoric later in the 60s and 70s, faced with the sobering reality of mutual destruction in case of a nuclear war.

As much as I’d love to think this was because they became wiser, it seems that, faced with the painful truth of a MAD dawn, they were forced to acknowledge the reality of mutual destruction, even after a surprise first strike. The Soviet Union had managed to increase its nuclear capacity to such a level that, even after a surprise first strike by the U.S., it would still be left with enough nuclear weapons capability to launch a massive nuclear retaliation, the results of which would have exceeded ‘acceptable losses’. And as Chruschtschow put it:

Our potential enemy – our principal, our most powerful, our most dangerous enemy – was so far away from us that we couldn’t have reached him with our air force. Only by building up a nuclear missile force could we keep the enemy from unleashing war against us…Our accomplishments and our obvious might had a sobering effect on the aggressive forces in the United States, England, France, and, of course, inside the Bonn [West German] government. They knew that they had lost their chance to strike at us with impunity.

 ‘Imbalance of Terror’ after the End of Cold War

Lieber and Press argue in their essay that the U.S. had sought and gained nuclear primacy over Russia after the end of the Cold War. This first strike capability would enable the U.S. to inflict such damage to the Russian nuclear arsenal in a surprise first strike that only very limited retaliation would be possible. The few missiles left and launched by the Russians in a retaliatory attack would be ‘mopped up’ by the US missile shield. Even though the missile shield of the U.S. is not known for its high efficiency, it would be able to handle this limited retaliation, they claim.

They identified three main reasons for this alleged ‘Imbalance of Terror’ and U.S. nuclear primacy after the end of the Cold War:

1.  ‘Static’ Russian Strategic Triad

While the US had increased the mobility and stealthiness of their nuclear triad after the end of Cold War, the Russian strategic triad deteriorated and became almost static. The mobile ICBM launchers are in their barracks most of the time. This is also the case for the eight nuclear submarines and the strategic nuclear bombers, they claim.

2.   Increased precision of the US arsenal

Even though the US had reduced its nuclear arsenal under different nuclear disarmament treaties, the US managed to increase their efficiency by increasing the accuracy of the ballistic missiles. Accuracy being of paramount importance for First Strike Capability, they increased the ‘probability’ of destroying ICBM silos from 12% to 90% with their ballistic missiles in a first surprise strike, Lieber and Press stress.

3.  ‘Blind Spots’ in the Russian early warning system and the stealthiness of US’s strategic bombers and missiles

Russia, they claim, cannot detect ballistic missiles launched from the South Pacific. And there are some ‘blind spots’ in the North Atlantic too. Russian radars or satellites, they claim, wouldn’t be able to detect a nuclear missile launch from U.S. submarines in those areas. Also the B-2 strategic stealth bombers would be able to reach launch distance without being detected by Russian radars.

To support their claims they simulated a surprise first strike attack on Russia based on the above assertions. According to them the results were devastating for Russia’s retaliatory capability. Since they didn’t simulate first strike attacks on command centers, which certainly are part of U.S. military planning, the inflicted damage by a first strike would be even higher, thus reducing the ability to retaliate even further, they claim.

Compering the 90s and 00s with the 50s and early 60s it can be concluded that the United States derived, again, some strategic benefits due to its nuclear primacy, as contemplated by Lieber and Press. Or as Stephen M. Walt put it in his essay in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2000):

Under Clinton, the United States consolidated its Cold War victory by bringing three former Warsaw Pact members into its won alliance…it asserted the right to intervene in the sovereign territory of other states, even without Security Council authorization. Clinton may cloak US policy in the rhetoric of ‘world order’ and general global interests, but its defining essence remains the unilateral exercise of sovereign power.

This consolidation of Cold War victory continued under the Bush administration: NATO continued its expansion eastwards, the US increased their influence further around the ‘soft Russian underbelly’ (Iraq and Afghanistan) and so on.

Where are we today?

Postulating that geopolitical strategic-benefits in a nuclear era can only be gained if nuclear primacy has been achieved and comparing the strategic benefits gained by the two powers during the different eras in the nuclear age, we can draw some conclusions as to when one power had nuclear primacy over the other. As already mentioned above the U.S. derived some strategic benefits during the 50s and early 60s. And later, after the end of the Cold War, as also mentioned above, by consolidating the Cold War victory. During the MAD era, however, zero sum geopolitics politics prevented the adversaries from realizing any strategic benefits. So we can conclude that it is more than likely that the U.S. had some nuclear primacy over Russia after the end of the Cold War as well.

However, recent developments in international relations and Russia’s assertiveness in defending its national interests, not only in its backyard (near-abroad), Georgia and now Ukraine, but also globally as is the case in Syria, suggest the end of the period of ‘Imbalance of Terror’ and the dawn of a new MAD.

The massive increase in regular patrols and mobility of the Russian strategic nuclear triad and the massive increase of accuracy of the ballistic missiles (Topol-M and Bulawa), the stealthiness of nuclear submarines, the development of S-500 (to officially launch in 2017 but probably already partially operational) suggest that the analysis of a ‘static’ Russian nuclear triad doesn’t hold anymore.

It will be interesting to observe the impact of a fully operational S-500 air defense system on the nuclear balance of power. Having read recently an article by Pepe Escobar, the system seems to have the potential to completely ‘seal off’ Russian air space, because of its speed, altitude and reach, thus destroying incoming ballistic missiles far away from their intended target. This would indeed have a potential for a paradigm change in the nuclear deterrence in the 21st century.

Recent reports also suggest that the so-called ‘perimeter’ system (or as referred to in the West, the ‘dead hand’) is fully operational too. The perimeter system was developed by the Soviet Union, taking into consideration its purely defensive nuclear doctrine based on ‘massive retaliation’ and its inferior early warning system. However, some analysts have argued that the Soviet Union never managed to make it fully operational.

Its basic function is to ensure ‘massive retaliation’ in case of a surprise nuclear attack that would destroy the Russian military and political command centers and leadership: the system activates the launch of nuclear retaliation of the nuclear triad after detecting telltale seismic activity, heat and radiation levels within Russian territory. Pavel Podvig describes this very well in his book Russian Nuclear Strategic Forces:

To guarantee the capability of delivering a retaliatory strike, the battle management system envisages the possibility of issuing an order to use nuclear weapons and the authorization codes in the absence of a direct command from the supreme commander. This requires the fulfillment of several conditions, however. First of all, the equipment of the battle management system must confirm the absence of communications with the supreme commander. Second, the nuclear attack identification system, which apparently includes various detectors recording seismic signals and other effects of nuclear explosions, must record nuclear explosions within national territory. Third, the supreme commander must have given preliminary authorization to deliver this type of retaliatory to the central or reserve command center. The authorization probably would be issued at a fairly early stage of the conflict, most probably at the same time as the preliminary command put strategic forces in a state of maximum readiness.

All of these are powerful and convincing messages to the U.S. and NATO that – although Russia is not preparing for nuclear war, much less a nuclear first strike capability - a nuclear war is not ‘winnable’ for the U.S., and that the ‘Imbalance of Terror’ period is over, if it ever existed.

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