Cold War theories: existential deterrence against nuclear war fighting and damage limitation

When Barnard Brodie called the nuclear weapon ‘the absolute weapon’, he argued that war would never be the same again after the explosion of the atomic bomb.2 The massive destructiveness of the new weapon completely transformed the way states had been fighting until then. Some scholars went as far as to say that war was obsolescence - an argument that was further reinforced by the hydrogen bomb, given that nuclear powers appeared to be able to promise total destraction to their adversary through the use of their nuclear arsenal.3 In other words, the first nuclear strategists of the Cold War era regarded nuclear weapons as capable of deterring both nuclear and conventional threats; just the existence of nuclear weapons in a state’s arsenal was the absolute deterrent of both conventional and nuclear conflicts. The main logic at the heart of the nuclear strategy argument was related to the inlierent escalatory dynamics of every conflict, which after the invention of nuclear weapons, resulted in being prohibitively costly for any given benefit. That said, the first generation of nuclear theorists identified a positive effect of the bomb on state behavior. For Thomas C. Schelling, Bernard Brodie, or Albert Wohlstetter, the bomb pushed states towards self-restraint and bargaining rather than the use of force.

The above-mentioned theoretical insights paved the way for a new generation of scholars that argued for the numerical irrelevance of nuclear weapons as far as their deterrent power is concerned. The stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons is regarded as robust and non-dependent on numerical or technical superiority. The existential deterrence thesis argues that the destructive capability of even just one nuclear warhead is so great, that conventional conflict needed to be avoided even if the prospect of nuclear retaliation appears to be small.4

Middle range theories of deterrence influenced macro-level theories of International Relations. For scholars such as Kenneth Waltz, one nuclear bomb carried enough deterrent power to prevent adversaries from using their conventional or nuclear arsenals against the state.5 Scholarship regarded all nuclear weapons states as having the same deterrent power emanating from a single nuclear weapon or a big arsenal; numbers were irrelevant as much as secured second-strike capabilities were.6 For theorists like Waltz, the nuclear weapon was the absolute force equalizer and the cost imposed by its use exceeded any benefit gained from a conflict. Nuclear weapons have a stabilizing effect on state relations. On the other hand, Glenn Snyder's stability/instability paradox concept provided the theoretical foundation for the pessimists of the debate to argue that nuclearization did not prevent states from initiating conventional conflicts but, on the contrary, created the space for weaker conventionally states to engage in limited warfare under the nuclear umbrella.7 Escalatory dynamics during a conventional conflict pushed thinkers towards concepts of warfighting even between two nuclear powers. The need to capitalize on nuclear weapons and their military usability as well as political relevance, was reinforced by the conventional inferiority of the U.S. vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and the U.S. need to reassure its allies on its commitment to defend them.8 Existential deterrence was challenged by theories of warfighting doctrines and counterforce postures against the enemy’s command and control centers along with critical nodes of its nuclear arsenal.9

In a nutshell, during the Cold War, nuclear strategy theorists and practitioners vacillated between seeing the world through either a lens that put the emphasis on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)/mutual vulnerability thr ough deterrence by punishment, or a lens that focused on damage limitation and denial of retaliatory strikes through counterforce postures. In the immediate post-Cold War environment, however, great power competition faded. The influence of nuclear weapons on world politics seemed to also fade out, and the general trend of continued drawdown between the nuclear superpowers since the latter part of the Cold War has been pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations and Moscow as well. The current U.S. administration’s nuclear modernization plans, however, which include modernizing strategic delivery systems, production complexes, and general force improvement as well as low yield nuclear warheads,10 create questions about the goals the U.S. is trying to achieve through its current modernization and their impact on deterrence and future nuclear politics. In fact, some scholars have argued that innovation in nuclear weapons has transformed nuclear strategy rendering counterforce options much more feasible than in the past.11 In essence, what counterforce advocates have been asking for is a U.S. policy of seeking nuclear supremacy through a series of investments in accurate and prompt delivery systems, new reconnaissance technologies, and smart warheads of flexible yield.12 Counterforce advocates conclude that new technologies make the use of nuclear weapons a real policy alternative given their high accuracy, which translates in low numbers of fatalities and collateral damage.

At the same time, the nuclear modernization plan of the Russian nuclear arsenal puts the emphasis on new ground-based delivery systems, nuclear-powered

Through a crystal ball, dimly 127 cruise missiles, and hypersonic weapons whose objective is to penetrate missile defenses and deliver nuclear strikes promptly.13 The high accuracy of both cruise and hypersonic missiles pushes one to assume that the Russian nuclear strategy is becoming gradually more counterforce-focused than countervalue. Even though the articulated objective of these new weapons is to restore strategic stability with the U.S. after the introduction of missile defenses and deter a counterforce strike from the U.S., the weapons’ offensive potential and uncertainty felt within U.S. military and civilian circles has led many to argue that a new arms race is inevitable.14

While the extent to which counterforce strategies are feasible today is still a topic to be discussed further, one could still wonder how nuclear politics can be theorized in the post-Cold War era where the gap of military capabilities between the U.S. and other nuclear powers keeps getting wider, which motivates states like China and Russia to find ways to catch up in order to counter U.S. advantages.15 In the following sections, we explore possible ways nuclear modernization in the U.S. could influence macro-level along with middle range theories and vice versa. We regard the relationship between theories and policy-making as dialectical and we explore how they can interact within the context of the U.S. nuclear modernization plans, comparing the Cold War to the post-Cold War international environment.

 
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