FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Return of Limited Nuclear War?

Recent news has brought nuclear weapons back into the political picture, just as a new report suggests that the United States will have difficulty denying nuclear weapons to regional powers that seek them.

Sen. Hillary Clinton recently confirmed that as president she would be willing to use nuclear weapons against Iran if it were to launch a nuclear attack against Israel. In an interview Mrs. Clinton affirmed that she would warn Iran’s leaders that “their use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States.”

And  last week the Bush administration told Congress that North Korea was helping Syria build a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor before Israel bombed the site last September.

Such news assumes that efforts at preventing nuclear proliferation will be, at least partially, unsuccessful. This is why a new report from the RAND Corporation says, “prudence dictates that the United States and it allies prepared for the possibility that they might, in the not-too-distant future, confront regional adversaries with deliverable nuclear arsenals.”

The monograph, “The Challenge of Nuclear-Armed Regional Adversaries” released April 15, 2008 was written by RAND analysts David Ochmanek and Lowell H. Schwartz. Ochmanek is a former Air Force officer and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy from 1993 until June 1995. Before coming to RAND, Schwartz was a former business analyst at The Boeing Company.

The authors take exception to the view that deterrence is still a valid strategy, as it was against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They argue that deterring the use of nuclear weapons by threatening retaliation could be “highly problematic in many plausible conflict situations involving nuclear-armed regional adversaries for the simple reason that adversary leaders may not believe that they will personally be any worse off for having used nuclear weapons than if they were to forgo their use.”

The authors write that for different reasons—Kim Jong Il out of a sense that he has little to lose and Iran’s leadership out of nationalist ambition fueled by religious-revolutionary zeal.Both countries may be willing to accept a great deal of risk once conflict breaks out.

The monograph points out North Korean and Iranian leaders have compelling reasons to consider using nuclear weapons. It notes:

The prospect of the United States forcibly overthrowing them is not an abstract proposition. Both of the U.S. national security strategy documents released by George W. Bush declared that the ultimate goal of the United States is “ending tyranny.” And both North Korea and Iran are cited as examples of the types of regimes about which the United States harbors grave concerns.

And, given that the leaders of such “regional adversary states” recognize that their military forces are locked into a position of marked inferiority against U.S. conventional forces they cannot prevent large-scale U.S. forces from deploying to their regions or mounting an attack. The report states if diplomacy fails, over the next 10 years, they could field between a dozen and three dozen fission weapons.

In fact, they might even be tempted to use them early on in any conflict. This would be a scenario the United States has never before confronted. The monograph states that in certain circumstances U.S. leaders can not be confident of deterring regional adversaries from using their limited arsenals, even if the United States maintains its nuclear superiority.

Politically, such a conclusion is likely to bolster the support for hard-liners in the Bush administration and Congress who argue against trying to negotiate with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.

The monograph states that the United States and allied leaders confronting nuclear armed adversaries will want “military capabilities that offer far greater assurance than do today’s that adversaries can be prevented (as opposed to deterred) from using nuclear weapons.”

This means forces that can locate, track, and destroy nuclear weapons and their delivery means before they are launched, as in a pre-emptive attack  and, above all, active defenses, meaning missile defenses, that can destroy delivery vehicles after they have been launched. The monograph calls for fielding effective defenses against theater-range missiles, not ICBMs.

But the report notes that even theater defenses have limitations. The Patriot air defense system, for example, has a small footprint, making it impractical to defend large populated areas with such systems. And any thin deployment of missile defenses can be overwhelmed by modest-sized (10-to-20 missile) salvo attacks.

For policymakers, the monograph’s conclusions mean a return to tradition for U.S. leaders. It states that:

unless the United States and its allies can develop and deploy capabilities that can prevent regional adversaries from employing nuclear weapons (as opposed to trying to deter them from doing so), future power-projection operations will likely revert from the post–Cold War model of “decisive defeat” back toward concepts incorporating elements that were prevalent in military planning during the Cold War: limited war and escalation management.

Such language sounds more innocuous but it isn’t. It was Cold War theories of “limited war” that caused the United States to develop tens of thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War in an effort to maintain “escalation dominance” while avoiding a full fledged nation destroying nuclear war with the Soviet Union. This is one tradition the United States should reject.

DAVID ISENBERG is an analyst in national and international security affairs. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. Isenberg can be contacted via e-mail at sento@earthlink.net.

The views expressed are his own.

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:
August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omaorosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
Dean Baker
Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker on Medicare-for-All
Weekend Edition
August 10, 2018
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Militarizing Space: Starship Troopers, Same As It Ever Was
Andrew Levine
No Attack on Iran, Yet
Melvin Goodman
The CIA’s Double Standard Revisited
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Grifter’s Lament
Aidan O'Brien
In Italy, There are 12,000 American Soldiers and 500,000 African Refugees: Connect the Dots 
Robert Fantina
Pity the Democrats and Republicans
Ishmael Reed
Am I More Nordic Than Members of the Alt Right?
Kristine Mattis
Dying of Consumption While Guzzling Snake Oil: a Realist’s Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
James Munson
The Upside of Defeat
Brian Cloughley
Pentagon Spending Funds the Politicians
Pavel Kozhevnikov
Cold War in the Sauna: Notes From a Russian American
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail