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3 things the Pentagon worries about using nuclear weapons

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According to nuclear deterrence theory, the goal of military strategists is to make the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield untenable on either side and to avoid escalation into full-scale nuclear war.

Considering this goal particularly timely and poignant as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to rage after six months, China is stoking tensions with Taiwan and North Korea is taking aggressive action.

Conventional nuclear integration is an ill-defined term used by military strategists as the basis for internal theater planning, when considering the employment and use of nuclear weapons to support troops in the field.

Strategists use this concept to plan the use of nuclear weapons in conjunction with or in support of the operations of traditional forces; conventional nuclear integration aims to reduce any nuclear engagement – ​​whether it is the use of a nuclear weapon by an adversary or a US first strike – to a state of deterrence.

A caveat: many use the term “tactical nukesto describe the types of weapons that can be used on the battlefield in situations involving opposing ground or surface forces. However, this is simply not a useful way of thinking about the use or planning of the use of nuclear weapons, as the word “tactical” implies limited to traditional military forces arrayed against each other as the lowest echelon of the war. Moreover, any use of nuclear weapons has strategic implications, the highest echelon of warfare.

Much more important distinctions include how nuclear weapons are employed, for what purpose, and the explosive warhead yield.

If the United States, the other side, or both sides have used a nuclear weapon, the United States’ goal is to return to a nuclear deterrent state as quickly as possible. To do this, the United States has three basic response options:

— An intentional escalation (as a show of force or as a punitive strike).

— A response in kind (returning a nuclear weapon of similar yield on a similar target).

—A proportional response (which may or may not involve a nuclear weapon).

Unboxing response options

Each of these three response options carries different risks that must be considered to achieve the US goal of returning to a state of nuclear deterrence.

It is worth exploring these options to illustrate the complexities of using one or more nuclear weapons on the battlefield and to increase understanding of American options in such a scenario, where the objective is to avoid a full-scale nuclear war. In reverse order, then:

1. How can an American response be proportional if it does not include the use of a nuclear weapon? Again, how did the adversary use the weapon, for what purpose and what was the yield of the warhead?

If an adversary’s tactical unit employed a low yield nuclear weapon against a purely military target, perhaps responding with another nuclear weapon against a similar target would not be an effective response.

If the goal is to return to deterrence, using conventional weapons in response – to achieve a similar effect on our adversary’s military – may be more effective than responding with a nuclear weapon.

The United States could also claim a “swift” response and garner domestic and international support for the perceived restraint in not responding with a nuclear weapon.

2. With an in-kind response, the United States would execute a nuclear strike on the nation that attacked us first, using the same weapon yield against the same type of target.

At first glance, the option of an in-kind response seems attractive. But it is often the least desirable option, especially when the US goal is to return to a state of nuclear deterrence.

This option also assumes that the US response can find a similar target and have a similar impact, and that the US can communicate this intent to the adversary.

A nuclear strike as an in-kind response could escalate or normalize the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. An escalation to full-scale nuclear war would mean an adversary using nuclear weapons against non-military targets, including US cities and infrastructure.

This does not mean, however, that an in-kind response is always a bad option. Against an adversary like North Korea, this might be a better option for a US president than against China or Russia. North Korea not only has a limited nuclear arsenal, but its delivery systems are unreliable.

If North Korea were to use a nuclear weapon against South Korea with limited success, it might be reasonable for the United States to respond with a low-yield weapon to demonstrate the United States’ willingness to use its own nuclear capability. , but not gradually. In this scenario, it seems reasonable that such a response could have a deterrent effect.

3. Responding to Adversary Use of a Nuclear Weapon with Intentional Escalation may seem like the most provocative option, but it might be the most appropriate response in some scenarios.

Russia has a stated policy of “escalate to defuse.” In a US response to a Russian nuclear strike, a show of force and punitive strike element could be effective in returning to deterrence.

This would be especially true if the US response was more than a nuclear strike and included elements of cyberspace and space targets to demonstrate that America holds the upper hand in any possible nuclear engagement and could cripple Russian options.

Such a US response could make it clear to Russia that maintaining the capability it possesses is a better option than a continued escalation that could remove Russia’s parity in the nuclear arena.

It’s not just about nuclear weapons

Although conventional nuclear integration is only one element of nuclear strategy, it is important to understand the concept.

A conventional nuclear integration assessment (i.e. examining the use of a nuclear weapon as part of a holistic assessment of the larger situation) is much more efficient than trying to classify a nuclear weapon as “tactical”, since “tactical” is an artificial distinction with no real bearing on strategy.

Any attempt to classify a nuclear weapon as “tactical” or “strategic” is an exercise in futility that does not lead to a better understanding of the scenario in which the nuclear weapon was used. It also limits the ability of the US military to formulate the appropriate response to return to the desired state of deterrence.

It’s also important to understand that America’s options include more than responding with our nuclear arsenal. Conventional nuclear integration involves blending nuclear options with other elements of battlefield-level military power and attempting to avoid the use of nuclear weapons on non-military targets.

Thus, any US response to an adversary’s use of a nuclear weapon must consider how best to return to a state of nuclear deterrence.

Communicating the US response is as important as the effectiveness of the response. This is also true in the three broad categories of options described above.

If the United States were to conduct a non-nuclear response proportionately, it would be important to ensure that the adversary does not see this as a reluctance by the United States to use our nuclear arsenal if necessary. If we were able to respond with purely conventional weapons and achieve a military objective similar to what the adversary has used nuclear weapons to achieve, that could send a powerful message.

But this approach requires that the United States clearly communicate to the adversary, the American public, and other nations the intent behind our response.

What America must go through

To prevent an in-kind response approach from escalating, the United States must accompany it with two messages.

One message would convey the desire of the United States to return to a state of nuclear deterrence and the other would indicate that the United States is willing and able to make a more devastating response if pressed to do so.

If the United States responds to an adversary’s use of a nuclear weapon with an intentional escalation, we must first successfully demonstrate that the response could cripple the adversary.

But the United States must also communicate its desire to return to a state of nuclear deterrence, or the risk that the adversary will calculate that it must empty its nuclear arsenal before losing the ability to retaliate.

Make no mistake: the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield is a terrifying proposition. But it is important to understand that the scenario of limited nuclear exchange does not necessarily have to lead to full-scale nuclear war.

Understanding US options and clearly communicating possible responses to a nuclear adversary is essential to returning to a state of deterrence.

To do this, however, America must retain flexible nuclear options and a military edge in cyberspace and space systems.

The ultimate goal of the US military is to deter adversaries from taking action contrary to the interests of the United States or its major allies.

Once we realize that deterrence at all levels is linked, America’s nuclear posture becomes significantly more important as part of our overall military power.

The concept of conventional nuclear integration is only one element. But if the United States fails at this point, it greatly increases the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used on the battlefield – and the risk of all-out nuclear war.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here should be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation.

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