This post discusses the many sides of nuclear strategy.

Ah, the nuclear weapon. That mushroom cloud sure is iconic. We make jokes of nuking China or Russia and morbidly say that “two nukes aren’t enough” (sorry Japan). Even in the world of strategic thought, nuclear strategy has been debated to death; examined from every angle: economics, military, political, etc. Yet the interesting part of it is that, aside from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has yet to see another nuclear explosion. We may count North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. As such, nuclear strategy remains hypothetical and deductive. We lack the empirical data (fortunately) and information to create sound theories. Most of nuclear strategy is pure speculation; terms such as Mutually Assured Destruction, limited exchange, and second-strike… they’re all hypothetical.

In this day and age, we might say nuclear strategy is dead. That’s almost true, since the world has yet to see another Bernard Brodie or Herman Kahn. But it’s also not so true. You see, the foundations of any future nuclear strategy (hopefully we won’t have to come to that) would rest on the previous groundwork which previous nuclear strategists have already constructed. So, let me present the thoughts of the main nuclear strategists to get a grasp on what nuclear strategy is.

On a side note, you can learn equally as much from science-fiction, pop culture, and games such as Fallout. 

No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it. – Carl von Clausewitz

Let’s go back to the very basics of strategy: Clausewitz. Before starting any war, you have to have a clear idea on what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it. The same could be applied to nuclear war. What do you really want to achieve with a nuclear bomb?

To put things into perspective, here’s what pop culture usually thinks about the destructive power of the nuclear bomb:

That was a clip from the 1980s classic, The Day After. And truth be told, when it comes to nuclear weapons, Hollywood is often telling (or describing) the grim truth. The largest bomb ever detonated, the Russian Tsar Bomba, has a payload of 50,000 kilotons, which is the equivalent of 50,000,000 tons of TNT. If you still can’t visualise the destruction, head on over to NUKEMAP, where you can simulate your own personalised nuclear bomb. In the case of the Tsar Bomba, here’s the simulation of fallout and damage:

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If the Tsar Bomba were to go off in Singapore

According to the simulation, if the Tsar Bomba were to be detonated in Singapore, there would be an estimated 4-5 million casualties and as you can see, the entire southern part of the Malaya Peninsula would be gone. Compare that with the Fat Boy, the bomb the Americans dropped in Japan.

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Yielding only 15 kilotons, the scale of destruction is significantly less than the Tsar Bomba. The island would still be intact and there would only a projected 30,000 casualties. But hey, that’s better than having the entire island wiped out right?

Just a note though, the above simulations are airburst explosions, meaning the bomb goes off in the air, and not surface explosions. That would be more grisly.

So now that you can distinguish the destructive power of nuclear weapons, it turns out that the theorists were way more paranoid than Hollywood. But you do have to give them the benefit of doubt because in the 1950s, they were so shocked and scared shitless of a nuclear war. However, their fears would be more nuanced once you understood how many nukes there were in the world. Sure, one Tsar Bomba wouldn’t do significant damage to the Earth, but imagine 30,000 of them. Russia alone would have the power to destroy the world five times over. Luckily, there’s not that many nukes in the world currently thanks to arms control and non-proliferation. In 2014, SIPRI accounted for a total of 16,300 nuclear warheads.

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Look, I haven’t even begun to discuss nuclear strategy, but I presume now you readers might have a rough idea on nuclear thought. Most ideas on nuclear strategy think of the prospect of nuclear war, how we would fight one, and how we would live after one.

Brodie’s absolute weapon

Bernard Brodie was one of the earliest nuclear strategists who practically built the field. In The Absolute Weapon [e-book], Brodie described the nuclear weapon as the “absolute weapon”. Nuclear bombs represented a major discontinuity from previous methods of warfare. Once, we fought with armies and artillery and strategic bombers. Those methods could deliver punishment, but in a limited sense. The nuke came to change all of that. The nuke could deliver massive punishment instantly and geography won’t save us. The nuke was so fearful, Brodie thought that the armies of the future would have to prevent wars, rather than start them.

Later, in Strategy in the Missile Age, published a decade later, Brodie insisted on waging preventive war to prevent further damage. Preventive war was still relevant as he who strikes first gains an advantage. However, there are also moral and strategic issues in waging preventive war. We would first need to know where the other guy is keeping their nukes and more importantly, how we would dismantle their nukes. However, Brodie did not dismiss the prospect of a nuclear exchange. If that were to happen, we would fight a “broken-back war”. We would still be able to wage war, but both of us would be crippled after the initial mutual exchange of blows.

Wohlstetter’s balance of terror

Wohlstetter addresses the “missile gap”, which we now know was exaggerated. Basically, Wohlstetter was concerned that the US was lagging behind in the Soviets in terms of warhead possession. Wohlstetter advocated for increasing the amount of missiles (hence, “missile gap”) so the US could still maintain an edge over Russia. He was a firm believer of numbers. Deterrence was the capability to strike back whenever an attack was imminent. If the US had more missiles, they would be more capable of delivering a better counterstrike.

Hence, the “balance of terror” [paywall] could also be understood as the equal capacity to lay waste to one another. In a way, Wohlstetter’s line of thought can be considered as offensive-fatalistic. Once the nukes were out there, ALL had to go. If they want to hurt you, you should at least retaliate with full force as well.

Herman Kahn: life post-nuclear war would suck, but not that much

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An image of Fallout 4

I’m pretty sure Kahn [e-book] was the one who laid out the foundations of the Fallout series. Unlike most theorists who were worried about the prospects of nuclear war, Kahn just goes out there and says nuclear war is not impossible and even feasible, since everyone has nukes anyway. But, Kahn’s writing is more on life after the bombs drop. He considered how the preparations prior to war, the way the war started, and the course of military events thereafter would affect life in the Fallout universe. Sure, life would suck, but it won’t be terrible. He also presents calculations on how many years it would take to recuperate from a nuclear war. He considers all the resources of different nations and how they would survive. The post-nuclear world might be terrible, but we would still live, just like in the Fallout world.

As you have seen from the NUKEMAP simulations above, a single bomb might wipe out a few thousand people and flatten a lot of HDBs, but Singapore would still live. Unless it was a Tsar Bomba.

The Second Nuclear Age

We have moved past the nuclear age where weapons were held solely by states and both superpowers were involved in a nuclear arms race, to an era where even psychopaths like Kim Jong have them and possibly non-state actors. In the Second Nuclear Age, as Walton [book] puts it, there is a degree of unpredictability, since rogue states and non-state actors could potentially have nukes and we don’t whether they can use them responsibly. There is also horizontal proliferation, where nukes have spread to less powerful states according to Cold War standards. India, China, Israel, and Pakistan have nukes too, which spreads out the balance of nuclear power.

The Second Nuclear Age is also marked by a certain scepticism towards nuclear weapons. As Mueller outlines in Atomic Obsession [book], there are a number of limitations that nuclear weapons have. They might not be the “absolute weapon” anymore.

  • There is no technological imperative to have nuclear weapons anymore. Many states do not feel compelled to have them, especially in light of non-proliferation treaties and arms control. That being said, most states don’t even have the technology to sustain and maintain a nuclear weapons delivery system, let alone refine weapons-grade uranium.
  • There is limited prestige to having nuclear weapons. Although they might be great for conventional deterrence, nuclear weapons have little value beyond that. What good is a toy if you’re not going to/can’t play with it? In this day and age, other states respect you not for nukes, but for other aspects, such as economic development. The fact that you have nukes might even earn you demerit points in international society.
  • Nukes are a money sink. Having nukes is not just about having a missile. You need an entire system: from refining uranium to payload delivery. Most states don’t have the spare cash to even give a shit about nukes.

The bells ring…

To wrap up, here’s a simple timeline of nuclear strategy thought. In the 1950s, the popular strategy was massive retaliation, or “any aggression shall be retaliated with nukes”. In the 1960s, we relaxed a bit and settled for flexible response. In the 1970s, we came up with mutually assured destruction and arms control. In the 1980s, we came up with the Strategic Defence Initiative, or missile defence, to develop immunity from nukes. Now, we live in the Second Nuclear Age, marked by psychopaths and more states having nukes. Non-proliferation is limited, but luckily, there is an increased scepticism towards nukes.

Nuclear thought from the 1950s also showed degrees of evolution. Once, we thought nukes to be so frightening to the point where wars would be one of total annihilation. We began to deduce, based on game theory and economics, on how to wage nuclear war. Should we do “tit-for-tat” or “spam the nuke button”? Later, we also thought about life in a post-nuclear world. It would suck, but it won’t be unlivable. Now, in the Second Nuclear Age, though the number of warheads have indeed decreased, we still need to ponder the question: is victory still possible in a nuclear war?


Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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