Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.

datePosted on 15:46, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

Although I had the fortune of being a graduate student of some of the foremost US nuclear strategists of the day (1970s) and later rubbed shoulders with Air Force and Naval officers who were entrusted with parts of the US nuclear arsenal, I seldom get to write or speak about the subject nowadays. However, in this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning, we discuss the evolution of nuclear strategy and the impact of technology on logics of deterrence. It is all-too-brief but I think we got to the gist of the matter.

You can find the podcast here.

6 Responses to “Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.”

  1. Di Trower on September 21st, 2020 at 17:53

    The stuff of nightmares. I hope you are right, Pablo, and that Trump’s handlers have removed the codes from Trump’s direct control so that there is at least one layer of protection from a completely erratic and impulsive POTUS in this particular instance. And the insight provided on different cultural interpretations of rationality was especially interesting.

  2. Sam on September 22nd, 2020 at 12:20

    The whole business of managing nuclear fall out is as underwhelming as Americas covid19 response which has resulted in 200,000 deaths. The whole business of stock pilling anti radiation medications, treatments, even testing, clean up and construction. America cant even maintain the infrastructure its got let alone get a city like New Orleans back up to pre Hurrican Katrina GDP levels. Nuclear war just like corrona is just a trigger for what is an already mismanaged and ineffective American economy just living off of borrowed time.

  3. Pablo on September 22nd, 2020 at 12:34

    Sorry Sam,

    But your distaste for the US blinds you to realities of nuclear strategy and deterrence, which involve Nation-States other than the US. Plus, the US–unfortunately in my opinion–puts great value and priority in keeping its nuclear arsenal in a state of readiness. To be sure, there have been problems with both the ICBM and SLBM fleets, but the broad picture is that those forces are not underfunded, neglected or undermanned. In fact, the conversation featured in this post began because Drumpf disclosed the existence of a new nuclear weapon just a year after withdrawing from the bilateral IRBM Treaty with Russia, which demonstrates the continued importance that the US gives to its nuclear forces.

    It might be worth reflecting on how the PRC, Russia, Iran and DPRK, India and Pakistan, on the one hand, perceive the utility of nuclear weapons vis a vis the logics that underpin French, UK and Israeli strategies. Are they first strike, war-fighting weapons or are they second strike deterrent weapons? Does the strategy change depending on the opponent’s countervailing capabilities? Are there escalatory tripwires embedded in each countries’ logic or is the use of such weapons dependent on circumstances, to include weapons yields and methods of delivery?

    I happen to believe that with technological advances tactical nukes are near-obsolescent and there will come a time when nuclear weapons will lose their strategic utility no matter what logic is used. But that time has not come yet.

  4. Sam on September 22nd, 2020 at 14:24

    Well first of all I believe that low yield nukes, so anything that isn’t an ICBM are second strike nuclear weapons.

    Second is I guess the next thing to say is Now that we live in a multipolar world where last centuries Global Super power, America, can no longer exert the same dominance, doesn’t really indicate anything in the twenty first century.

    Thirdly is the probability of a flashpoint where someone miscalculates and ends up glassing someone. With 2 Super powers (USSR & USA) there’s a 50/50 chance of a coin hitting heads or tail, with a 1 in a million chance of the coin landing on its edge which is like the 1 in a million chance of a first strike.

    But if we have a dice with a side for each nuclear armed rogue state such as Israeli, North Korea and the rest of the first strike wanabes the probability of those rogue states landing on its edge is still 1 in a million.

    If it’s just a straight coin toss between 2 opponents and the coin landed on its edge then we can say that is probably of a human a design because there are two sides and one of them are significantly more unlikely than the other.

    But if we have a dice with lots of rogue states on each side then the probability of a second strike is still 1 in a million. But it could be the case 2 sides of the dice gets significantly closer together, integrating or assimilating or whatever and then you could get a probability of a second-strike nuclear attack of about 1 in 500,000.

    So, the chances of miscalculation could be a coin toss or it could be that the most likely chance of miscalculation is having to sides filled together so not really of a human design just an improbably chaos soup where anything is possible.

    So just announcing the biggest nuclear weapon, are the smartest or whatever could be explained by design ie a coin landing on its edge, it be could be utilitarian indicating a dice or it could. So just tweaking the yields on nuclear warheads could be explained by design or equally it can be explained by chance or utilitarianism.

    So, given any given number the probability of miscalculation is stronger with a coin toss deliberately designed to land on its side than a dice balancing on its edge and coming to a stop which is also known as the gamblers fallacy.

  5. Pablo on September 23rd, 2020 at 14:41


    I think you have spent too much time watching Kenny Rodgers videos.

    Here is an explanation that I gave to a friend that sums up my view of the state of play:

    There is no need for gigantic nukes anymore. Targeting accuracy (measured as CEP–Circular Error Probable, which is the width of the circle around a target in which a warhead will fall) has improved to the point that after a flight of 3000-6000 miles an ICBM warhead can land within 10 meters of the target. Same for sea and air-launched munitions. This obviates the need for massive nuke explosions that generate huge radiation clouds that damage everything downwind for hundreds of miles. And because modern deployment systems are either MIRVed or MARVed (Multiple Re-Entry Vehicles or Maneuverable Re-Entry Vehicles), with anywhere from 6-12 warheads in each nose cone, a target can be subjected to multiple lower yield strikes or several targets can be hit with individual warheads across a significant amount of distance. So there is no longer any need for the “overkill” weapon, especially since we no longer wage wars of annihilation.

    In fact, since the mid 1970s there has been no such thing as the infamous “MAD” doctrine, at least amongst the major powers. That is because with such accurate targeting and improvement in warhead and delivery system technologies, the move has been made to something known as flexible response whereby nukes are aimed at so-called “hard” targets like command, control, communications computing and intelligence coordination bunkers, underground military installations, naval bases etc. while cities are held hostage to second strikes. After all, why would you target cities first and leave the military and C4I assets standing? The thinking now is to hit the opponent’s hard assets, disable him, then negotiate with the political leadership in cities as to a resolution. Only smaller nuke powers with more primitive technologies and delivery systems (ones that use fission as opposed to fusion weapons, for example), like Pakistan or the DPRK, still adhere to a “MAD” view, but that is because their weapons are seen as deterrents rather than as first-strike options. For larger powers the range of options available to them makes their nuke arsenals both a deterrent and a war-fighting option.

    At this point sea-launched ICBMs (SLBMs) are the preferred second strike weapon, with land-based ICBMs a first strike option (because they are fixed targets for opponents, so need to be used pre-emptively) and airborne bombs and missiles a second and third strike option (since they are easiest to shoot down). So the spectrum of force can be escalated or de-escalated depending on the adversary response. To which can be added intermediate range nukes carried by missiles or artillery shells, “tactical” nukes deployed on planes, land and sea, “neutron” bombs etc.

    The idea is to have a range of nuclear options upwards through the spectrum of force from battlefield to strategic level, thereby adding escalatory layers between the “all or nothing” MAD options.

    Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that the era of the gargantuan nuclear bombs is long past. Plus, with cyberwarfare and internal destabilization/influence operations undermining opponent’s morale and cohesiveness from within, who needs to bomb them into submission? Sheeeet, you can even get a puppet elected as president in some places and he will do your bidding anyway, so nuking is both costly and counterproductive!

  6. Sam on September 24th, 2020 at 02:29

    Firstly if anyone saw my last comment it was trash and lets just forget about it for a sec. Secound is. Well, I still believe there are unexplored ways of sanatising the surface of the earth, perhaps some space miner way off in the middle of next century straps a couple of epstein drives to an astroroid and pushes it towards earth, on a miners wage no less. Guess we might ask the dinosaurs how that goes.

    No, I guess the problem is how do we get America and China to give each other space because morally where does this all go when we are causing harm in an intentional way all the time and there must be different categories of harm and deaths ending with MAD at the top.

    So what do we do with all this anxiety, I mean do we go into these kind of like city state nuclear fall out bunkers so the question is where does nuclear weapons lead and why do we think it’s good?

    So another question is why would we think the utility went up living in a MAD wet dream because there really doesn’t seem to be any good reason to think that. And I guess why we would assume that’s good or bad is another question which is kind of a utilitarian argument y’know will people be happy or sad living like that?

    Another problem is will there even be any deaths from nukes that don’t specifically target whole cities because we will kind of need to talk about that, I guess another way of saying that is by talking about threshold deontology.

    So obviously the victors would derive some sort of pleasure from setting off a nuke and cause some one else to suffer but then there’s some sort of cross over where it’s wrong to rob people of there human rights and I know some people who like to draw there normative ethics on a graph and so this is exactly where it cross over. It’s hilarious, they don’t calculate the cross over point but it’s just a theoretical model their ethics, or yours, or mine and so on.

    So where threshold deontology comes in is if you don’t have a natural instinct for utilitarianism where some general derives pleasure from saving his men’s suffering by setting of nukes or something and you don’t have an instinct for that because you think its wrong. So that would be the kind of person that doesn’t have utilatarin instincts. And that’s a lot of people because no sane person would say oh setting off nukes is a good idea.

    Then there is also deuntology. So lets make it easy and assume that your sole deontological commitment is to not commit murder. So is it always wrong to murder someone, okay? so lets say we keep calling up the badness from not murdering someone. So its like:

    What if you murder this guy and save one? people would probably be like no.

    is saving 15 peoples lives good enough to murder 1 person. Probably not.

    But what if you are trying to save all 8 billion of us and people will likely be like okay lets murder this one guy.

    So the nice thing about threshold deontology is it finds a middle ground where we don’t have to bite the bullet on either of those reductios. At some point the utilitarian argument breaks down where people are no longer satisfied with there living standards and the threshold deontology kicks in and so if you’ve got the 2 largest economies kind of respecting each other and some nobody comes along then we can SAS them by putting a vent in his head no problem. The Problem is of course how do we get America and China kinf of, ( I dont really know how) to make them abide by the rules based order.

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