Nuclear Deterrence Theory

On 6 and 9 August 1945 the world witnessed the advent of a new kind of weapon; capable of an incredible amount of destruction. The events that took place on those days have changed the way statesmen, military leaders, and other strategists think about waging war. The events that are alluded to are of course the dropping of two atomic bombs, the infamous Little Boy and Fat Man, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. Before said bombing, the 2nd World War had already claimed the lives of millions of people. Yet the destructive force of the atomic bombs still came as a shock, and after the bombing of Nagasaki the Japanese were quick to offer their unconditional surrender (Quinlan, 2009: 6).
Since then, no nuclear weapons have ever been used again against a civilian or military target. Nonetheless, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marks a turning point in the field of warfare and strategic thinking. In 1870, Wilkie Collins already speculated about the advent of such a destructive weapon. The following quote from Collins illustrates this point:
I begin to believe in only one civilising influence–the discovery, one of these days, of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation, and men’s fears shall force them to keep the peace (Baker & Clarke, 1999: 344).
It is exactly this point that constitutes the defining feature of nuclear deterrence. Inevitably, the presence of nuclear weapons forces us to think differently about warfare.
Historically, states have been preoccupied with guaranteeing their security and how to win wars. There is no central authority in the international system that tells states how to behave (Mearsheimer, 2001: 30). As a result, states are especially concerned about the security and survival of the state. The decision to go to war can, for the most part, be seen as a calculation of costs and benefits. If a certain country deems that that the costs of war will outweigh the possible gains, it will probably refrain from going to war (Waltz, 2013a: 5). Vice versa, war will become more likely if the apparent gains outweigh the costs. The introduction of nuclear weapons fundamentally alters the cost-benefit calculation. While conventional wars have produced truly horrendous results, often claiming hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives, total annihilation has never been the end result. The ability to wipe out a city with a single missile or to rain utter destruction upon a country changes the outlook of war. Such a weapon provides a powerful deterrent. In that case, what chance does a country have of truly winning a war and how can benefits outweigh costs? Kenneth Waltz offers a more detailed view on the effects of deterrence:
“War remains possible, but victory in war is too dangerous to fight for. If states can score only small gains, because larger ones risk retaliation, they have little incentive to fight.” (Waltz, 2013a: 6).
Additionally, history has shown that in conventional wars countries have often made errors in their cost-benefit-calculations. At the eve of the First World War France, the United Kingdom (UK), Russia and Germany each determined they would have a reasonable chance of success in winning the war, or that they could at least successfully defend themselves (Fotion, 2008: 130-131). The war lasted 4 years and claimed much more lives than the participants had foreseen in their cost-benefit-calculation, so that in retrospect it is difficult to see how the benefits could have possibly outweighed the immense costs of that war. When nuclear weapons become part of the calculation it radically changes the chance of victory. With so many lives at stake a country should and most likely will avoid war. The prospect of intolerable losses, due to the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, can leave no room for calculation errors. Or as Bernard Brodie (1945: 76) puts it: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them”. Avoiding war is the key element here.
According to Michael MccGwire (2006: 771), there is a widespread belief in the West that nuclear weapons provided peace and stability during the Cold War. However, there is considerable debate on the effects of nuclear deterrence. But can it provide stability in the contemporary and future security environment? To attempt to answer these questions a detailed analysis of the concept of nuclear deterrence is needed.
2.1. The Concept of Nuclear Deterrence
Deterrence itself is nothing new under the sun. To say that it saw the light at the same time nuclear weapons made their infamous debut, would be factually incorrect. It has been present ever since humankind has waged war. The Roman proverb ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum ’ has been ubiquitous throughout history (Quinlan, 2009: 20). Before going any further, it is necessary to provide a definition of deterrence.
“Deterrence is the threat of force in order to discourage an opponent from taking an unwelcome action. This can be achieved through the threat of retaliation (deterrence by punishment) or by denying the opponent’s war aims (deterrence by denial)”. (Rühle, 2015).
Note that Rühle makes a distinction between deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. According to Mitchell (2015) deterrence by denial is achieved through a strategy that makes it more “physically difficult” for an opponent to achieve his objective. It aims to “make aggression unprofitable by rendering the target harder to take, harder to keep, or both” (Mitchell, 2015). In contrast, deterrence by punishment is achieved by threatening the enemy with a credible and lethal retaliatory strike; against which the enemy has no way to defend (Mitchell, 2015). Such a strike not only puts the enemy’s military forces at risk, the population of the opponent is equally at risk. The fear of suffering a disproportionate amount of carnage constitutes the main element of this strategy.
Kenneth Waltz has a slightly different view. He states there are two ways to dissuade an opponent from attacking. The first option encompasses a strategy of greatly strengthening one’s forces and “building defenses so patently strong that no one will try to destroy or overcome them” (Waltz, 2013a: 5). This defensive ideal somewhat resembles the ‘deterrence by denial’ strategy. The second option is to build or maintain “retaliatory forces able to rain unacceptable punishment upon a would-be aggressor” (Waltz, 2013a: 5). So Waltz makes a distinction between ‘dissuasion by defense’ and ‘dissuasion by deterrence’; the two are not to be confused.
Essentially, a deterrent strategy gives a country the option to coerce its opponent to refrain from taking a certain action or to coerce its opponent to pursue an alternative course. While the basic principle of deterrence remains more or less the same, the advent of nuclear weapons gives it an eminently more destructive dimension. Quinlan (2005: 10) notes that:
“The technological expansion of military capability exemplified by nuclear weapons convinced most people that the need to avoid war, rather than have to wage it, had acquired a new and special cogency”.
It is easy to confuse coercion and deterrence. However, they are not exactly the same. Schelling (1966: 67) argues that deterrence can be viewed as a passive action in which a certain threat serves as a warning to dissuade an opponent from doing something. Thomas Schelling then introduced the concept of compellence, which he thought to be more in correspondence with coercion. While deterrence relies on a passive threat, compellence is based on actively forcing an opponent to withdraw or collaborate by threatening him with the use of force (Petersen, 1986). In summary, deterrence works as a red line that will solicit a response when the opponent crosses that line (Petersen, 1986: 282). In the case of compellence, if the opponent does not respond to the threat, punishment can be applied until he complies (Petersen, 1986: 282). So while deterrence is not the same as coercion, they are definitely related. It seems deterrence constitutes “the most significant outcome of the coercive quality of nuclear weapons” (Paul, 1998: 20). However, the compellent power of nuclear weapons seems to be a less effective due to the credibility problem (Paul, 1998: 28).
First, because of non-use or no-first-use policies nuclear weapons have very limited compellent power. Second, because there is a “lack of proportion between means and ends (Jervis, 1984). The immense destructive power of nuclear weapons raises question about the credibility of the threat (Jervis, 1984: 23). Using nuclear weapons as a deterrent to protect one’s own country is arguably justifiable; the same cannot be said about using them as a compellence strategy. In other words, one can hardly justify using such weapons to actively coerce an opponent when the survival of your territory or an ally’s territory is not at stake. For example, it would have been difficult for the US to compel Nicaragua to stop supporting rebel activities in El Salvador by threatening to destroy Managua with a nuclear strike (Jervis, 1984: 23). The level of destruction would have been completely disproportionate in relation to the goal. Moreover, this act would most likely be viewed as unacceptable by the American public as well as the US’ allies. Nonetheless, Evans (2013: 92) notes there is a pervasive belief among states that nuclear weapons can greatly increase a country’s coercive bargaining power. All of the above serves as a reminder that winning a war is no longer the chief objective of countries. Instead, the emphasis has increasingly shifted towards the art of coercive diplomacy. If coercive diplomacy is the new norm, it is no wonder states believe nuclear weapons to be the central element of that strategy. Faced with such a powerful weapon it is understandable that countries abandon the objectives that are deemed undesirable by the deterrer.
When is nuclear deterrence effective? This is a crucial question that needs to be answered. Yet it is a difficult one to due to the speculative nature of deterrence theory and nuclear weapons. Despite all the theories, models and structures pertaining to the use of nuclear weapons, one can’t actually proof that nuclear deterrence definitely works; it is “in a strict sense speculative” (Quinlan, 2009: 13). Henry Kissinger explains exactly how difficult it is to prove this.
“Since deterrence can only be tested negatively, by events that do not take place, and since it is never possible to demonstrate why something has not occurred, it became especially difficult to assess whether the existing policy was the best possible policy or a just barely effective one. Perhaps deterrence was even unnecessary because it was impossible to prove whether the adversary ever intended to attack in the first place” (Kissinger, 1994: 608).
Be that as it may, scholars and scientists can still put forward a whole range of arguments, hypotheses, and theories that make a good case for nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, there are many voices that question the presumed deterrent capabilities of nuclear weapons. Regardless of the considerable disagreement about this topic, nuclear weapons do exist. Therefore it is crucial that their effects be examined, that theories and concepts are put forward, and that we develop policies concerning these weapons (Quinlan, 2009: 14-15).
There are a couple of important elements that are needed for effective deterrence. First off, it requires that an adversary is able to recognize the capability of the deterrent (Quinlan, 2009: 23). For example, during the cold war the U.S. and the Soviet Union both possessed an enormous amount of nuclear weaponry. In 1977 the US possessed 25 542 nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union possessed 23 044 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy each other multiple times over (Norris & Kristensen, 2010: 81). The strategic concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) entails that in the event of a nuclear strike from one superpower, the other superpower would have such a large nuclear arsenal that a first strike would be unable to completely destroy it. The idea behind this concept was that both sides would have the option to launch a second strike against the initiator, leading to an unacceptable amount of casualties (MccGwire, 2006: 772). The capability to destroy was thus clearly present. This second-strike capability is linked to Waltz’ condition that a country’s nuclear arsenal must give the impression that it is at least able to partly withstand an attack, and that it is ready and able to launch a strike of its own (Waltz, 2013a: 20).
Second, the enemy must be aware of the will of the deterrer to use a nuclear weapon if necessary (Quinlan, 2009: 23). This, of course, seems to be quite a paradox, since nuclear weapons serve to avoid war by deterring aggression. Yet as Quinlan (2009: 25-26) notes, a difference can be made between deterrence and use, the two are however “not wholly disconnected”. More precisely, a state must retain the option to actually use the weapon in order for it to have a credible deterring effect. If the option to possibly use the weapon is taken away it loses its deterring effect. The will or resolve to use nuclear weapons is connected to what a deterrer considers to be a vital interest. It should come as no surprise that communication constitutes a vital part of a deterrence strategy. The notion of ‘vital interest’ leads to some difficult challenges. For starters, it is not always clear, certainly not for outsiders, what is seen as a vital interest or when vital interests are at stake. Consequently, the concept of vital interest is prone to ambiguity (Sauer, 2011: 12). What does it refer to? Protecting one’s territory seems to be reasonable interpretation. Protecting allies could, in some cases, also be included as a vital interest. Nonetheless, the vagueness of the concept persists.
The 1982 Falklands War shows how the latter undermined deterrence theory. While the Falklands were considered an integral part of the UK by the British government, Argentina did not perceive it as a British vital interest (Sauer, 2011: 13). The Argentineans did not expect the UK to put up much of a fight, since they were convinced the Falklands were just a peripheral interest of the British. At first glance it seems that nuclear deterrence failed in this instance. But upon closer examination, it seems faulty communication by the British was at fault (Paul, 2009: 151). Argentina was not oblivious with respect to the UK’s nuclear capabilities. However, before the war they had obtained information that in the case of an invasion the British would probably break diplomatic ties and impose economic sanctions, but that a military intervention was not considered as an option (Paul, 2009: 151). Since capability and will/resolve are needed for credible deterrence, it is not hard to see why deterrence came up short in this case.
In order to deter a state must communicate, and to some degree be transparent, about capabilities, deployment patterns, and the conditions that will induce the use of nuclear weapons (Adamsky, 2014: 92) . According to Quinlan (2009: 23), a deterrer must clearly communicate in advance which actions will be perceived as unacceptable. At the same time Quinlan (2009: 24) argues “deterrence does not require a precise specification of what form the non-acquiescence will take.” In other words, it is not necessary to over specify the actions that are deemed undesirable or unacceptable. While at first glance this seems contradictory, there is an explanation for this. Over specification could actually undermine effective deterrence (Quinlan, 2009: 24). In the case of too specific thresholds, an opponent might take aggressive action which stays just below the proverbial ‘red line’, so that it can avoid a response by the deterrer (Quinlan, 2009: 24). Nuclear weapons are hardly suitable to deter conflicts at lower level. Because of this, nuclear weapons cannot be the sole instrument of military deterrence (Quinlan, 2009: 22). Therefore, nuclear weapon states (NWS) have adopted a more flexible stance. In practice, this means declaratory policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons can be somewhat vague; highlighting terms such as “extreme circumstances” and “to protect vital interests” (Gerson, 2010: 8). This form of declaratory policy is also known as “calculated ambiguity” (Gerson, 2010: 8). Perhaps then, deterrence can be seen as a tacit safeguard rather than a threat to a specific action. Or as Gray (2003: 1) puts it:
“Furthermore, deterrence may work most efficaciously when it can rely not upon the potency of explicit threats, but rather upon the fears of publicly undesignated deterrees who are discouraged from taking action by their anticipation of the threats that adventurous behavior would bring down upon their heads. Deterrence can be so internalised by policymakers that it will be at work for our security even when it is nowhere visible, at least in the form either of vulgar threats or even of subtle hints of superpower displeasure”.
In that sense, deterrence would act as the looming sword of Damocles, reminding possible deterrees to act cautiously at any given time, so to avoid punitive action.
Third, and this is more of an assumption than a proposition, deterrence requires that an opponent is believed to be a rational actor (Sauer, 2011: 11). The argument is based on the assumption that rational actors will not behave in a reckless way or take certain actions that may elicit nuclear retaliation (Sauer, 2011: 11). However, this presupposed notion of rationality has generated considerable disagreement amongst scholars. One cannot escape the fact that nuclear deterrence theory is by large a creation that has sprouted from the minds of Western theorists. As an example, Payne (2011: 397) addresses the problem that U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy and experiences during the Cold War perpetuated, and might still perpetuate, the assumption of a ‘rational-actor-type’ construed by Western standards. In other words, countries such as China or India might assess threats differently due to a difference in their strategic and cultural doctrine. Michael Quinlan rejects this argument. He acknowledges the fact that different countries have different value-systems (Quinlan, 2009: 30). On the other hand, having a different value-system does not mean that those countries have no value system at all; so that it is difficult to imagine an adversary who would have no concern for the survival of its people or the survival of its regime (Quinlan, 2009: 30). This is a compelling argument; indeed, the prospect of nuclear annihilation is enough to instill fear at a limbic level. For Quinlan (2009: 30), only the truly insane would not be deterred by the threat of nuclear weapons. While intuitively this statement seems to make a lot of sense, it also appears to have the characteristics of a ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’.
The US and the Soviet Union had about forty years to fine tune their nuclear strategy. Yet Gray (2003: 20 – 21) claims the two opponents had different views on deterrence theory, so that even the seemingly more stable bipolar power configuration was susceptible to misunderstandings between the two superpowers. The Soviets did not have the same view of stable deterrence as the Americans did; possibly resulting in divergent views even when a nuclear menace was knocking at the door (Gray, 2003: 20 – 21). Nevertheless, in a most basic sense, Quinlan’s argument might be correct. Issues such as misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and the inability to understand actions informed by a different strategic culture are a constant danger. Gray (2003: 21) claims American deterrence theory, and by extension Western deterrence theory, is struggling with a potentially dangerous “confusion of rationality with reasonableness”. Payne (2001: 10) offers a more detailed explanation of this problem.
“If rationality alone fostered reasonable behavior, then only in the rare cases of manifestly irrational leaderships would we likely be greatly surprised. Assuming challengers to be pragmatic and rational, and therefore reasonable, facilitates prediction of their behavior simply by reference to what we would consider the most reasonable course under their circumstances; the hard work of attempting to understand the opponent’s particular beliefs and thought can be avoided. Such an opponent will behave predictably because by definition, it will view the world in familiar terms and will respond to various pushes and pulls in ways that are understandable and predictable. Contrary and surprising behavior would be senseless, “irrational.””
Moreover, it is important to address one’s own biases. Decisions are, at least in some part, informed by a cultural background. In other words, what may look like a logical and rational action by our standards might be perceived as irrational by other standards. There are also further limitations that apply to rational behavior. In an ideal setting, decision-makers are in possession of all the information, can correctly asses the available alternatives, can foresee the possible consequences, and have an adequate amount of time to react to the unfolding situation. Based on this, rational decisions can be made. Unsurprisingly, these ideal settings rarely occur in real-life situations. In practice, this means leaders sometimes have a lack of information, that they lack the time to explore all alternatives, and that cognitive limitations make it impossible to foresee the consequences of decisions (Quackenbush, 2011: 748). Additionally, individuals and states do not always make the most rational decisions (Sauer, 2011: 11). In spite of this, Quinlan’s argument does seem to hold up. While there are different value systems which influence what is seen as rational, Quinlan’s argument is based on a feature that supersedes cultural and strategic differences. Survival is a primordial instinct, hard-coded into every human regardless of cultural differences. Nuclear deterrence thus reminds actor to behave cautiously.
Lastly, nuclear weapons require reliable command and control (C2) (Waltz, 2013a: 20). Evidently, conventional weapons and forces need reliable C2 as well, but due to the immense power of nuclear weapons, reliable C2 are even more crucial. Sauer (2011: 14) identifies three risks: 1) unauthorized use; 2) authorized use after false alarm; 3) accidents. C2 does not rest solely in the hands of one person or government agency. To be clear, the distribution of C2 varies significantly across countries. While authoritarian regimes commonly exert a more central and tighter control on their nuclear forces, democratic regimes are subjected to a certain degree of accountability (Born, 2007: 2). That being said, even in democratic countries, control over nuclear forces partly escapes democratic control (Born, 2007). Unauthorized use poses a constant danger. To prevent such an event, a country must have certain physical and organizational safeguards against it. Miraglia (2013: 842) notes the following:
“Within the academic literature, safe nuclear command and control systems are traditionally defined by three common characteristics. Such systems must be highly assertive – i.e. placed under tight and exclusive civilian control; they must respond to a highly centralised hierarchy; and nuclear weapons must include physical protection against unauthorised assembly or detonation.”
To start, some countries use permissive action links (PALs) or similar/alternative systems to prevent accidents and unauthorized use by terrorists, rogues or madmen (Born, 2007: 3). PALs are electronic locks that protect nuclear weapons from tampering and unauthorized use (Quinlan, 2009: 16). They require a code to unlock them for use . However, the effects of PALs can be partially negated in some instances, for example when the US has several intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on hair trigger alert (Waltz, 2013b: 88). Alternatively, an organizational safeguard of separating warheads from delivery systems, or a further separation of several components can also be used (Narang, 2014: 88). Another central element of nuclear C2 is also described as the “Always/Never dilemma” (Feaver, 1992-1993: 163). In other words, there needs to be an assurance that the weapons will work when it is needed, and conversely, that no weapon will ever be used without proper authorization (Feaver, 1992-1993: 163). This dilemma is also known as the issue of “positive and negative control” (Cimbala, 2001: 2).
Much thought must also be given to the maintenance of reliable computers, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance systems (CISR). Coupled with command, control, and communications systems and intelligence (C3I), this becomes C4ISR (Hayes, 2015: 4). Indeed, early warning and assessment systems, and uninterrupted lines of communication during nuclear crises, are indispensable for avoiding nuclear catastrophes. The 1995 Norwegian rocket incident provides an example on the importance of warning and assessment. A Norwegian/US rocket was launched with the purpose of gathering data for a scientific project. Russian radars in Latvia and Lithuania were able to detect the missile (Forden, 2001: 2). This innocent scientific rocket was believed to be a US ballistic missile equipped with a thermonuclear warhead because it was following the same trajectory as a US Trident missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) able to knock out Russia’s detection systems (Forden, 2001: 2). This resulted in Russian prompt launch forces being put in a state of strategic alert, leaving President Boris Yeltsin with the decision to order a nuclear strike (Cimbala, 2001: 14). Fortunately, Russian early-warning capabilities at the time were able to detect that no ICBM had been launched from the US (Forden, 2001: 2). Of course, nuclear deterrence is not just a theory. NWS’s have to encompass nuclear weapons in a certain strategy. Therefore, the next chapter will provide insight on nuclear postures, and how this influences nuclear strategy and deterrence.
2.2. Nuclear Postures and Strategy
Nuclear weapons, by virtue of their immense destructive power, fall into a different category than conventional weapons. When it comes to security, survival, and war, experts are forced to devise a certain strategy and to formulate policy on the use of force. Therefore, NWS’s have adopted a nuclear posture and related doctrines in order to determine the threats against which nuclear weapons can be used, how such weapons will be used, and by which means nuclear weapons will be deployed during peacetime and also during crises (Shankar & Paul, 2016: 3). Simultaneously, a nuclear posture also serves as a signal; it communicates to external actors what kind of goals these weapons are for. In turn, nuclear posture affects nuclear strategy and the subsequent nature of a country’s deterrent force. Each country’s posture will probably have certain distinctive details. However, with the exception of the US and Russia, Narang (2014) claims nuclear postures of regional powers can be divided in three categories. Although Narang (2014: 14) claims that the US and Russia, due to their massive arsenal and extensive nuclear architecture, don’t fall into what he characterizes as “regional power nuclear posture”, it is still more or less feasible to determine on which posture they tend to rely most. For the purpose of this paper only two categories need to be discussed. Narang (2014: 14 – 20) characterizes them as follows:
A) Assured retaliation: A NWS with an assured retaliation posture aims for a direct deterrence of nuclear attacks and coercion. Seeking third-party intervention is not the objective. Instead, this posture operates on the basis of threatening an opponent with nuclear retaliation. Retaliation implies that the NWS in question has been attacked first. As a result, the presence of survivable second-strike forces able to target crucial strategic centers by certain retaliation, are a sine qua non. Ensuring second-strike forces survive can be done by procedures of dispersion, concealment, and deception. Moreover, technical means can also ensure survivability of second-strike forces. Sea-based systems such as the use of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) make it a lot harder for opponents to successfully launch counterforce strikes . The retaliatory aspect of this posture also means that NWS’s who assume such a posture have incorporated a ‘no-first-use policy’ in their doctrine. While such a posture could enable first use of nuclear weapons, its core element is relies on deterrence by punishment against important targets. Unlike the catalytic posture, which is often highly ambiguous about nuclear capabilities, an assured retaliation posture is more transparent about its nuclear capabilities in order to send a clear message to its opponents that nuclear retaliation is a credible option. However, as mentioned before, deployment patters can and should be secretive to guarantee second-strike survivability.
China and India seem to have adopted such a posture in combination with a ‘no-first-use’ policy. Schneider (2007) claims China’s ‘no-first-use’ policy should not be taken for granted. According to him, there are serious doubts about the sincerity of China’s declaratory ‘no-first-use’ policy. In the case of Taiwan, China has stated that ‘no first use’ is excluded because Taiwan is seen as a province rather than an independent country (Schneider, 2007: 7). To summarize, a credible assured retaliation posture is successful when opponents believe they won’t be able to destroy the nuclear forces of the country in question by means of a disarming first strike, and if the opponents are made aware that a nuclear first strike or conventional aggression that threatens the very existence of the country, will lead to nuclear retaliation.
B) Asymmetric Escalation: This posture specifically aims to deter conventional aggression by enabling a NWS to react by means of swift, asymmetric escalation. This strategy allows for first use of nuclear weapons against military or civilian targets, or possibly both. In this instance, the first-use option aims to deescalate a conventional conflict or deter an outbreak of a conventional attack (Schneider, 2008: 397; Adamsky, 2014: 92). To achieve a credible deterrent effect, the respective weapons “must be operationalized as war-fighting instruments” (Narang, 2014: 19). This posture also implies that the NWS in question employs a low ‘nuclear weapons use threshold’ (Schneider, 2008: 397). Asymmetric escalation requires that nuclear forces can be deployed rapidly, and that certain military personnel are given pre-delegate authority over tactical or strategic nuclear weapons. In theory, asymmetric escalation could include first use of strategic nuclear weapons. However, this posture tends to gravitate towards the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) for de-escalation .
The distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons can at times be quite blurry. It is also not always easy to find an encompassing definition. The next quote should be able to clarify the details and distinction between the two.
“A strategic mission is: Directed against one or more of a selected series of enemy targets with the purpose of progressive destruction and disintegration of the enemy’s warmaking capacity and will to make war. Targets include key manufacturing systems, sources of raw material, critical material, stockpiles, power systems, transportation systems, communication facilities, and other such target systems. As opposed to tactical operations, strategic operations are designed to have a long-range rather than immediate effect on the enemy and its military forces. In contrast, the tactical use of nuclear weapons is defined as the use of nuclear weapons by land, sea, or air forces against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations that contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope, or in support of the military commander’s scheme of maneuver, usually limited to the area of military operations.” (Woolf, 2016: 6).
While this seems to be a very comprehensive definition, some countries might employ slightly different or additional definitions. Moreover, additional distinctions between the two can be made. Without going into too much detail, there are two more important defining features that help differentiate between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. The first is by looking at delivery systems. Strategic nuclear weapons are characterized by their long range and indiscriminate amount of destructive power (Woolf, 2016: 6). They are able to penetrate deep within the enemy’s heartland but are less useful in limited battlefield operations. One might think of ICBMs as a practical example. In contrast, TNWs were smaller and had limited range, but could be more easily deployed alongside troops in the field and were better suited for limited military operations (Woolf, 2016: 6 – 7). A second distinction can be made by looking at the explosive yield of warheads. With the addition of having a longer range, strategic nuclear weapons also carried large warheads with far greater destructive power (Woolf, 2016: 7). They were thus more suitable for “ultimate punitive actions” (Quinlan, 2009: 18). In turn, TNWs, which were traditionally equipped with smaller warheads, were more appropriate instruments for more limited, discrete targets or objectives during battlefield operations (Woolf, 2016: 7).
However, most of these distinctions have become partly obsolete since the end of the Cold War. Technical innovation of weapons, delivery systems, targeting abilities, and so on has partly blurred the difference between the two (Woolf, 2016: 7). However, the recurring element that seems to differentiate between the two is which targets they are meant to be used against. Perhaps that is the most feasible way to distinguish strategic from tactical weapons. Traditionally, this distinction has been relevant for the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. Yet recent reports have shown that newer nuclear powers also possess missiles capable of tactical missions. Pakistan for example, is in possession of NASR (Hatf-9) missiles which could be used in a tactical setting (Narang, 2014: 83) . While Pakistan characterizes all its nuclear weapons as strategic, missiles such as the NASR (Hatf-9) can definitely be used in tactical, battlefield operations (Kristensen & Norris, 2012: 103).
Returning to Narang’s characterization of asymmetric escalation, several additional factors must be clarified. This posture depends on the manner in which nuclear forces are arrayed, and how they can be credibly used. Moreover, to credibly threaten an opponent, this posture requires transparency regarding capabilities, deployment patterns, and overall conditions of use. Coupled with the requirement of rapid deployment, the asymmetric escalation posture can produce significant pressures on command-and-control abilities, and can strain operational management of nuclear forces. This makes NWS’s who have adopted such a posture more vulnerable to risks of unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. Due to its low nuclear use threshold and first-use option, this posture seems to be the most aggressive of all the postures (Adamsky, 2014: 92; Narang, 2014: 19).
Asymmetric escalation is commonly adopted by states that face severe security constraints. In practice, such a posture is adopted by states that face a conventionally superior foe (Adamsky, 2014: 94; Narang, 2014: 20; Schneider, 2008: 410). Examples of the latter are provided by Pakistan’s posture vis-à-vis a conventionally superior India and the Russian posture vis-à-vis the conventionally superior forces of NATO (Schneider, 2008: 410; Adamsky, 2014: 94; Narang, 2014: 20). The belief that first use of a TNW will deescalate a conventional conflict is a dangerous assumption and a cause for concern. There is no guarantee that such a strike will effectively deescalate a conflict. Even more, it could be viewed as completely unacceptable and draw in other NWS’s into the conflict, possibly leading to a retaliatory strike, especially if the country targeted by the first strike has some sort of security agreement with a NWS or falls under an extended deterrence arrangement of a NWS.
The US and Russia differ from other NWS’s due to the quantity and quality of their arsenals, and due to their historical importance with respect to nuclear deterrence. Though the US and Russia do not fall into a specific posture category, they do adhere to certain doctrines. The nuclear relation between the US and the Soviet Union has been a focal point during the Cold War. The nuclear doctrines used by the two superpowers were not static and have changed notably over the course of time. It is not necessary to elaborate all of these doctrines, yet some of them are historically significant and will be shortly discussed in a later chapter.
The role of the US nuclear doctrine in its defense strategy is defined in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010 and in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The NPR report states that “The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners” (U.S. Department of Defense [DoD], 2010: VII). The QDR provides a more extensive explanation on the role of nuclear weapons:
“Our nuclear deterrent is the ultimate protection against a nuclear attack on the United States, and through extended deterrence, it also serves to reassure our distant allies of their security against regional aggression. It also supports our ability to project power by communicating to potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression”(DoD, 2014: 13).
The 2010 NPR report formulates additional conditions for the US nuclear deterrence doctrine. During the Cold War, US nuclear doctrine allowed for first use of nuclear weapons in case of a large-scale conventional attack by the Soviet Union and its allies (DoD, 2010: VII). Furthermore, nuclear weapons served to deter the use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) against the US and its allies (DoD, 2010: VIII). However, due to US conventional superiority, the contemporary nuclear doctrine has significantly reduced reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conventional and CBW attacks (DoD, 2010: VIII). Additionally, The US will strengthen its “negative security assurance” through a commitment stating that it “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations” (DoD, 2010: VIII).
After observing all of the above, it is apparent that one notable element is missing. While the US does place strong constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and has decreased its reliance on such weapons, it does not exclude first use against other NWS. Even during the Cold War, China and later the Soviet Union made a no-first-use pledge (Paul, 1998: 31). Paul (1998: 31) claims the US did adopt such a pledge, albeit in an ambiguous way. The lack of an unequivocal ‘no-first-use’ pledge

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