Small Wars Journal

United States Nuclear Strategy: Deterrence, Escalation and War

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 9:01am

United States Nuclear Strategy: Deterrence, Escalation and War

Louis René Beres

War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.

--Sun Tzu, The Art of War


On January 23, 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist's Doomsday Clock - a respected visual metaphor of current nuclear dangers - was moved in a worrisome direction.  More exactly, the hands of the clock were changed from two minutes to midnight to 100 seconds to midnight.  In their correspondingly released press release, Bulletin editors explained soberly that they had moved the clock 20 seconds closer to midnight  ("closer to apocalypse than ever before")  for the following reason: "A new willingness of political leaders to reject the negotiations and institutions that can protect civilization over the long term." Ominously, the release continued: "....board members are explicitly warning leaders and citizens around the world that the international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War."

These were not by any means just casual assessments. For the United States, North Korea and Iran currently represent the most obvious nuclear threat hazards, although Iran is not yet nuclear.

Iran does remain capable of fighting a genuinely massive conventional conflict. It could at some point bring the United States to consider using some of its own nuclear forces. At the same time, certain Sunni Arab states increasingly worried about an impending "Persian bomb" could soon seek a countervailing nuclear capacity for themselves.[i]  In this significant connection, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia come most immediately to mind. So what happens next?

To reply meaningfully, fully continuous US attention must be directed toward ongoing nuclear developments in Russia and China. As we are very plainly in the midst of  a second Cold War (i.e., "Cold War II"), these ongoing Russian and Chinese nuclear developments effectively provide the broader systemic context for "nuclear" developments underway in Pyongyang and Tehran. In essence, "Cold War II" represents the comprehensive systemic structure within which all contemporary world politics must be assessed.[ii]

In other words, current Great Powers' disposition to war is background.

Accordingly, what explanatory theories and scenarios should best guide the Trump administration in its many-sided interactions with North Korea, Iran, China and Russia? Before answering this basic question with adequate and clarifying specificity, a "correct" answer - any correct answer - must depend upon a single overarching assumption. This is the inherently problematic assumption of adversarial rationality.

It follows, among other things, that a primary "order of business" for those American strategic analysts and planners focused on this most urgent set of security problems will be reaching informed judgments about each pertinent adversary's expected ordering of preferences. By definition, only those identifiable adversaries who would value national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences would be acting rationally.

Rationality, Irrationality and Madness

Some further basic questions now arise. First, what are the relevant terms or inclusive vocabularies? In the study of international relations and military strategy, decisional irrationality never means quite the same as madness. Nonetheless, residual warnings about madness should still warrant serious policy consideration. This is because both "ordinary" irrationality and full-scale madness could have comparable and consequential effects upon any relevant country's national security decision-making processes.

Sometime, for the United States, understanding and anticipating these more-or-less ascertainable effects could display an authentically existential importance. In these considerations, words matter. In normal strategic parlance, "irrationality" identifies a decisional foundation wherein national self-preservation is not summa, not the very highest and more typically ultimate preference. A prospectively irrational decision-maker in Pyongyang, Tehran or elsewhere need not be altogether "mad" in order to become  troubling for our designated leaders in Washington. Such an adversary needs "only" to be more conspicuously concerned about certain discernible preferences or values than about its own collective self-preservation.

An example would be expressed preferences for  outcomes other than national survival.  Normally, such behavior would be unexpected and counter-intuitive, but it would by no means be unprecedented or inconceivable. Moreover, identifying the specific criteria or correlates of any such considered survival imperatives could prove irremediably subjective and/or indecipherable.

Whether any examined American adversary were deemed irrational or "mad," US military planners would have to input a generally similar decisional calculation. The analytic premise here would be that the particular adversary "in play" might not be suitably deterred from launching a military attack by any American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be fully credible and presumptively massive. Any such prospective failure of US military deterrence could include both conventional and nuclear retaliatory threats.

In fashioning America's nuclear strategy vis-à-vis nuclear and not-yet-nuclear adversaries,[iii] US military planners must include a mechanism to determine whether a pertinent adversary (e.g., North Korea or Iran) will more likely be rational or irrational. Operationally, this means ascertaining whether the identifiably relevant foe will value its collective survival (either as a state, or as an organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Always, this early judgment must be based upon defensibly sound analytic principles; they should never be affected in any tangible way by what the particular analysts might "want to believe."[iv]

Pretended Irrationality, Escalation Dominance and Dialectical Thinking      

A corollary US obligation, depending in large part upon this prior judgment concerning expected enemy rationality, will expect strategic planners to assess whether a properly nuanced posture of  "pretended irrationality" could  enhance America's nuclear deterrence posture.  On several occasions, it should be recalled, President Donald Trump had openly praised at least the underlying premises of such an eccentric posture. Was such praise intellectually warranted or justified?

US enemies include both state and sub-state foes, whether singly or in various assorted forms of collaboration. Such forms could be "hybridized" in different ways between state and sub-state adversaries.[v] In dealing with Washington, each recognizable class of enemies could itself sometime choose to feign irrationality. In principle, this could represent a potentially clever strategy to "get a jump" on the United States in any expected or already-ongoing competition for "escalation dominance."[vi]  

Naturally, any such calculated pretense could also fail, perhaps even calamitously.

There is something else. On occasion, these very same enemies could "decide," whether consciously or unwittingly, to actually be irrational.  In any such innately bewildering circumstances, it would become unalterably incumbent upon American planners to capably assess which particular form of irrationality -  pretended or authentic - is underway. Thereafter, these planners would need to respond with a dialectically orchestrated and optimally counterpoised set of all possible reactions.

In this context, the term "dialectically" (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato's dialogues) is used with very precise meanings. This is done in order to signify a continuous or ongoing question-and-answer format of relevant strategic reasoning.

By definition, any instance of enemy irrationality would value certain specific preferences (e.g., presumed religious obligations or personal and/or regime safety) more highly than collective survival. For America, the grievously threatening prospect of some genuinely irrational nuclear adversary is prospectively most worrisome with regard to North Korea and at least possibly (in the now rapidly closing future) Iran.[vii] Apropos of all such credible apprehensions, it is unlikely that they could ever be meaningfully reduced by way of any formal treaties or agreements.[viii]

Here it is well worth remembering seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' classic warning in Leviathan:  "Covenants, without the sword, are but words...."

Preemption Options, National Security and Asymmetrical Military Power

How should the United States proceed? At some point, the very best option could seem to be some sort of preemption; that is, a defensive non-nuclear first-strike directed against situationally appropriate North Korean hard targets. Yet, it is already very late for launching any operationally cost-effective preemption against that country, and - even if it could be properly defended in law as "anticipatory self-defense"[ix] - such action would come at too-substantial human and political costs.

In specific regard to current and potentially protracted US-Iran enmity, the American side must carefully consider how, if at all, its nuclear weapons could be leveraged against that adversarial state in virtually any still-identifiable war scenario. To be sure, a rational answer could never include any actual use of such extraordinarily destructive weapons. Rather, the only pertinent questions for US planners should now concern the calculable extent to which an asymmetrical US threat of nuclear escalation could sometime be made credible.

Once again, by definition, as long as Iran remains non-nuclear, any US nuclear threat must necessarily be asymmetrical.

By applying all available standards of ordinary reason and logic (there are, after all, no usable historical points of reference in such literally unprecedented situations), Washington could best determine that  certain nuclear threats against Iran would serve American security interests only when Iranian military capacities, though non-nuclear, were still convincingly overwhelming. Such a daunting scenario, though perhaps difficult to imagine, might nonetheless be  conceivable -  especially if Tehran were ever to escalate (a) to massive direct conventional attacks upon American territories or populations, and/or (b) to the significant use of biological warfare capabilities.

Inter alia, all this should now imply a primary obligation for the United States (c) to focus continuously on steady incremental enhancements to its implicit nuclear deterrence posture; and (d) to develop a wide and nuanced range of possible nuclear retaliatory options. The specific rationale of (d) above, is a counter-intuitive understanding that the credibility of nuclear threats could sometime vary inversely with perceived levels of destructiveness. In  foreseeable circumstances, this means that the successful nuclear deterrence of Iran could actually depend upon nuclear weapons that are deemed sufficiently low-yield or small.

Washington should also continue to bear in mind any US nuclear posture's imperative focus on prevention rather than punishment. In absolutely any and all circumstances, using its own available nuclear forces for vengeance rather than deterrence would miss the principal point - which, invariably, must be to optimize US national security. Accordingly, any American nuclear weapons use based on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, even if only as a residual default option, would be not only purposeless, but also irrational.

There is more. America's nuclear deterrent must always be backed up by recognizably robust systems of active defense (BMD), especially if there should be any determinable reason to fear an irrational nuclear adversary. Although it is well-known that no system of active defense can ever be entirely "leak-proof," there is still good reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard both US civilian populations (soft targets) and American nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets).[x] This means, inter alia, that technologically advanced anti-missile systems must indefinitely remain as a steadily-modernizing component of this country's nuclear deterrence posture.  Plausibly, especially following recent test successes in Israel, this means continuously expanding emphases on certain laser-based weapon systems.

Offense, Defense and US Nuclear Deterrence

While it may at  first sound annoyingly obvious, it must still be remembered that in the nuclear age, seemingly defensive strategies could sometime be viewed by uneasy adversaries as offensive. This is because the secure foundation of any system of nuclear deterrence must be some reasonable presumption of mutual vulnerability.

"Everything is very simple in war," says Clausewitz, in On War, "but the simplest thing is still difficult."

To progress in its most vital national security obligations, American military planners must more expressly identify the prioritized goals of this country's nuclear deterrence posture. Before any rational adversary could be suitably deterred by an American nuclear deterrent, that enemy would first need to believe that Washington had capably maintained the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for relevant forms of aggression (nuclear and perhaps even non-nuclear), and also the requisite will to undertake any such uniquely consequential firing.

About the first belief criterion, it would almost certainly lie "beyond any reasonable doubt."

The second expectation, however, could sometime prove problematic and thus more-or-less "fatally" undermine US nuclear deterrence

In more perplexing matters involving an expectedly irrational nuclear enemy,[xi] successful US deterrence would need to be based upon distinctly credible threats to enemy values other than national survival.

America may also need to demonstrate, among other things, the substantial invulnerability of its own nuclear retaliatory forces to any enemy first strike aggressions. More precisely, it will remain in America's long-term survival interests to continue to emphasize its assorted submarine-basing nuclear options.[xii] Otherwise, as is reasonable to contemplate, even America's land-based strategic nuclear forces could potentially present to a strongly-determined existential enemy as somehow "too-vulnerable."

For the moment, of course, this is not a significantly serious concern, though Washington will want to stay focused on any still-planned deployment of submarines by its Israeli ally in the Middle East. The point of any such focus would be on strengthening Israeli nuclear deterrence, which - in one way or another - would simultaneously be to the overall strategic benefit of the United States.[xiii]

Continuing "Deliberate Nuclear Ambiguity" or Increasing Disclosure

Increasingly, America will have to rely on a multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In turn, like its already-nuclear Israeli ally,[xiv] specific elements of this "simple but difficult" doctrine could sometime need to be rendered less "ambiguous." This complex and finely nuanced modification will imply an even more determined focus on prospectively rational and irrational enemies, including both national and sub-national foes.

To deal most successfully with its presumptively irrational or non-rational enemies, this country will need to compose an original strategic "playbook." Here, once again, it could become necessary for Washington to consider, at least on occasion, feigning irrationality. In such cases it would be vitally important for the American president not to react in any ad hoc or "seat-of-the-pants" fashion to each and every new strategic challenge or eruption, but instead to derive or extrapolate specific policy reactions from a suitably pre-fashioned strategic nuclear doctrine.

Without such a thoughtful doctrine as guide, pretended irrationality could become a "double-edged sword," effectively bringing more rather than less security harms to the United States.[xv]

There is one penultimate but still critical observation.  It is improbable, but not inconceivable, that certain of America's principal enemies would be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. While irrational decision-makers would already pose special problems for US nuclear deterrence - by definition, because these decision-makers would not value collective survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences - they might still be rendered susceptible to various alternate forms of deterrence.

For example, resembling rational decision-makers, they could still maintain a fixed, determinable and "transitive" hierarchy of preferences.

This means, at least in principle, that "merely" irrational enemies could still be successfully deterred.

Mad or "crazy" adversaries, on the other hand, would have no such calculable hierarchy of preferences, and would therefore not be subject to any strategy of American  nuclear deterrence. Although it would likely be far worse for the United States to have to face a mad nuclear enemy than a "merely" irrational one, Washington would have no foreseeable choice in this matter. This country, like it or not, will need to maintain, perhaps indefinitely, a "three track" system of nuclear deterrence and defense, one track for each of its identifiable adversaries that are presumptively (1) rational (2) irrational  or (3) mad.

For the notably unpredictable third track, special plans will be needed for undertaking certain potentially indispensable preemptions, and, simultaneously, corresponding/overlapping efforts at ballistic missile defense.

Naturally, there could be no assurances that one "track" would always present exclusively of the others. This means, significantly, that American decision-makers could sometimes have to face deeply intersecting or interpenetrating tracks and that these complicated simultaneities could even be synergistic.[xvi]

There is one genuinely final observation. Even if America's military planners could reassuringly assume that enemy leaderships were fully rational, this would say nothing about the accuracy of the information used by these foes in making their particular calculations. Always, it must never be forgotten, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain designated preference or values.

It says nothing about whether the information being used is either correct or incorrect.

Prudence, Humility and America's Nuclear Strategy

Fully rational enemy leaderships could still commit serious errors in calculation that lead them toward a nuclear confrontation or even a nuclear war. There are also some related command and control issues that could impel a perfectly rational adversary or combination of adversaries (both state and sub-state) to embark upon various risky nuclear behaviors. It follows, prima facie, that even pleasingly "optimistic" assessments of enemy leadership decision-making could never reliably preclude authentically catastrophic outcomes.[xvii]

For the United States, understanding that no scientifically accurate judgments of probability can ever be made about unique events (by definition, any nuclear exchange would be sui generis or precisely such a unique event), the best lessons for America's president should favor a determined prudence and a very deliberate posture of humility. Of special interest, in this connection, is the erroneous presumption that having greater nuclear military power than an adversary is automatically an assurance of bargaining or diplomatic success. While Donald Trump has said on several occasions that both he and Kim Jung Un have a "nuclear button," but that his button "is bigger," the president wholly overestimated the US advantages of any such US-favorable asymmetry.

Why? Because the tangible amount of deliverable nuclear firepower required for deterrence is necessarily much less than what could ever be required for "victory."[xviii]

Now, for Washington, in the largely-unpracticed nuclear age, ancient Greek tragedy warnings about excessive leadership pride are not only still relevant; they are palpably and irrefutably more important than ever before.

For the United States, these classical warnings about hubris, left unheeded, could bring forth once unimaginable spasms of "retribution."[xix] The Greek tragedians, after all, were not yet called upon to reason about nuclear decision-making. None of this culminating suggestion is meant to build gratuitously upon America's most manifestly reasonable fears or apprehensions, but only to remind everyone involved that competent national security planning remains a bewilderingly complex struggle of "mind over mind."[xx]

Always, these are fundamentally intellectual problems, challenges requiring meticulous preparation[xxi] rather than just a particular "attitude."[xxii] Above all, such planning ought never be just a calculable contest of "mind over matter,"[xxiii] never just a vainly reassuring inventory of comparative weaponization or presumptively superior "order of battle." Unless this point is more completely and quickly understood by senior US strategic policymakers, the next change of hands on the "Doomsday Clock" (at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) could take place at three seconds before midnight.[xxiv]

End Notes

[i] For earlier conceptualizations of this capacity, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983) and Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of U.S. Foreign Policy (1987).

[ii] In late June 2019, Russia announced that current US policies concerning bilateral nuclear treaty termination and prospective US anti-missile deployments in eastern Europe could threaten "another Cuban missile crisis." This suggests that Russia is important in military nuclear terms not only for its shaping of Cold War II context, but also as a direct and increasingly immediate nuclear threat to the United States.

[iii] For a very recent analysis of deterring not-yet-nuclear adversaries in the case of Israel, see article co-authored by Professor Louis René Beres and (former Israeli Ambassador ) Zalman Shoval at the Modern War Institute, West Point (Pentagon):

[iv] Recall here the classic statement of Julius Caesar: "Men as a rule believe what they want to believe." See: Caesar's Gallic War, Book III, Chapter 18.

[v] This "hybrid" concept could also be applied to various pertinent ad hoc bilateral state collaborations against US strategic interests. For example, during June 2019, Russia and China collaborated to block an American initiative aimed at halting fuel deliveries to North Korea. The US-led cap on North Koreas fuel imports has been intended to sanction any continuing North Korean nuclearization.

[vi] On "escalation dominance," see recent article by Professor Louis René Beres at The War Room, US Army War College, Pentagon:

[vii] See, also by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School):

[viii] See, for example, by this author, at Yale: 

[ix] For a pertinent Israeli example, see, by this author:

[x] On the prospective shortcomings of Israeli BMD systems, from which certain authoritative extrapolations could be made about US systems, see: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, "The Limits of Deterrence," Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iran," Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack," Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[xi] See, on deterring a prospectively irrational nuclear Iran, Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely deter a Nuclear Iran? The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, "Israel; and Iran at the Eleventh Hour," Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. Though dealing with Israeli rather than American nuclear deterrence, these articles authoritatively clarify the common conceptual elements. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[xii] On the Israeli sea-basing issue, see Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney, "Israel's Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing," The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney, "A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel," Washington Times, September 5, 2014. Admiral Edney was NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[xiii] See, in this connection, by Professor Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, Israel's Nuclear Strategy and America's NationalnSecurity;

[xiv] See, by this author (who was Chair of Project Daniel for Israeli PM Ariel Sharon):  See also:

[xv] This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: "Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction"?

[xvi] See, for example, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal:

[xvii] In this connection, expressions of decisional error (including mistakes by the United States)  could take different and overlapping forms. These forms include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and internal dissonance generated by any authoritative structure of collective decision-making (e.g., the US National Security Council).

[xviii] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press: 

[xix] For much earlier similar warnings, by this author, see his October 1981 article at World Politics (Princeton):

[xx] Clausewitzian friction refers to the unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning strategic uncertainties; on presidential under-estimations or over-estimations of US relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence and enemy intent "as it actually is." See: Carl von Clausewitz, "Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst," Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[xxi] Or "thorough study," in the language of Sun-Tzu (see epigraph, above).

[xxii] The meaningless bifurcation of "attitude" and "preparation" was expressly invoked by Donald Trump before going off to his first summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. In that curious distinction, the US President had openly favored the former.

[xxiii] This vital reminder is also drawn from the strategic calculations of ancient Greece. See, for example, F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (University of California, 1962).

[xxiv] Perhaps the best metaphor concerning nuclear war is its representation as "final epidemic" or "terminal disease." See, for example, Eric Chivian, Last Aid: The Medical Dimensions of Nuclear War (W H Freeman, 1982) and, by this author, Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980).  Significant, too, as nations navigate the "Trump Era," is the April 14, 1982 Camp David Address comment by US President Ronald Reagan: "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

Categories: strategy

About the Author(s)

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Some of his pertinent publications have appeared in JURIST; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon);  Armed Forces and Society; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Tel Aviv);  INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); The War Room (USA War College); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); International Security (Harvard); and World Politics (Princeton).



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 7:32am

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