Rethinking Cold War nuclear deterrence in light of new evidence: MAD, nuclear primacy, and the role of the U.S. nuclear arsenal today

New research that looks at the impact of technology on counterforce missions has been bringing to light new information about the Cold War deterrence dynamics between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The new argument is that MAD or mutual vulnerability was not a stable or static condition, but in reality much more fluid and subject to political considerations and technological capabilities situation. Groundbreaking research couched in rigorous archival work pictures MAD not as the inevitable cage of mutual vulnerability both sides are trapped in - as the conventional International Relations has it - but as a malleable place where possibilities existed of escaping it. From the 1980s onwards, technological advancements in intelligence gathering as well as nuclear targeting made mutual vulnerability questionable and nuclear superiority a realistic objective.30 In more detail, it has been argued that the primaiy goal of Cold War U.S. strategy was to use its strategic nuclear arsenal to control escalation once tactical nuclear weapons were used in Europe in defense of allies.31 U.S. conventional inferiority pushed U.S. strategists towards thinking of ways of unpunished use of tactical nukes against the Soviet Union. By holding hostage critical nodes of the Soviet nuclear arsenal - in essence threatening a pre-emptive strike that could decapitate and hence deprive the Soviet Union of a credible retaliatory strike - the U.S. sought to solve its infamous Cold War dilemma that asked it to ‘sacrifice LA for Berlin’.32

Put differently, recent research makes the claim that the U.S. during the Cold War period never accepted mutual vulnerability vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and

Through a crystal ball, dimly 131 drastically sought ways to escape MAD, aspiring at enhancing the credibility of its nuclear umbrella.33 The development of new and successful intelligence collection techniques worked towards this direction. Unknown until now, scholarly research reveals the possibility that the U.S. had sufficient information that could have credibly threatened the Soviet Union with a decapitation strike.34 In other-words, this evidence suggests that the defense-dominated strategic environment of the Cold War defined by mutual vulnerability was in fact an offense-dominated one, which explains massive nuclear arsenals disproving arguments of bureaucratic pathologies. Examined under this light, accumulation of warheads and delivery systems is viewed as a rational behavior of the two sides that were caught in a trap of an action-reaction spiral and in pursuit of a credible retaliatory strike capability against their adversary.

The idea of using intelligence that promises the destruction of Soviet second-strike capabilities impacted heavily the strategic thinking at the time; albeit differently in the think tank and scholarly communities compared to the military circles. For strategists at RAND, war fighting doctrines and damage limitation ideas sprung from the need to avoid total genocides and to make even nuclear war a more rational and controlled type of endeavor.35 Counterforce targeting instead of counter-value, which would also target important locations in a country other than just military targets, became the objective which was enabled by promising intelligence.36 The idea was a ‘turning the screw' type of strategy that would hold hostage more and more counterforce sites which could be targeted and eventually hit based on negotiations and the adversary’s behavior - compromise or not.

For the military, counterforce and decapitation - with a pre-emptive blow rather than damage limitation through a ‘turning the screw’ strategy - was needed because they deemed that U.S. command and control (C2) centers were not capable of absorbing a first strike before retaliating.37 In fact, it was exactly this piece of information that separated the think tank world from the military when the former asked for a calibrated counterforce strategy, and the latter advocated for an all-out counterforce approach; both enabled by intelligence collection and the conviction that the Soviet Union hidden nuclear arsenal could be pinpointed and targeted. What the brilliant nuclear strategists in the think tank and academia did not take into account was the striking vulnerability of the U.S. C2 centers to the extent that the U.S. second strike capability was doubted after a Soviet nuclear surprise attack.38 It was this piece of information on the vulnerability of U.S. communications that convinced U.S. military leaders that the best shot they had was to engage in an all-out nuclear war, where the whole Soviet arsenal needed to be destroyed in one massive U.S. nuclear strike.

Counterforce strategies were embraced by both communities for another reason; the highly assertive nature of the Soviet regime over its military which convinced U.S. strategists of the low prospects of pre-delegation of the use of nukes to regional commanders. Based on recent evidence, Soviet strategists were aware of their vulnerability and constantly sought to establish mutual vulnerability with the U.S. through a range of options from redundancy of C2 posts, to the conception, development, and deployment of a doomsday machine, the Perimetersystem, widely known as the ‘Dead Hand’.39 The Dead Hand would be activated by a number of factors such as seismic or thermal waves sent in the event of a nuclear attack. If the Soviet leadership was decapitated, Perimeter would send a number of missiles that would overfly nuclear sites and activate delivery systems mated to nuclear warheads.40 The existence of Perimeter became known recently, paradoxically, because the Soviets were scared of a U.S. counter-innovation destined to neutralize its effect.

Recent evidence and a more careful look at Cold War deterrence makes one think that MAD was more of a rhetorical device driven by political reasons rather than an unquestionable reality that defined the relationship between the two dominant nuclear arsenals. Fear from both sides for a pre-emptive decapitation strike led to pre-delegation policies both in the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. For the U.S., recent evidence suggests that the concept of absolute presidential control over the nuclear button is an over-simplified idea that only scratches the surface of the empirical record.41 In reality, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were deeply worried about the survivability of their C2 centers which directly questioned their capacity of a second strike, let alone of a carefully calibrated nuclear warfighting plan.

That said, the examination of the Cold War nuclear balance asks for a more nuanced approach that reconsiders the sources of mutual vulnerability. New research openly questions the explanatory power and empirical veracity of the existential deterrence theoretical wave showing that two nuclear states are not pre-determined to enter a defense-dominated system. Nevertheless, one can argue that the Cold War system was, in fact, dominated by mutual vulnerability; C2 mutual vulnerability rather than second strike mutual vulnerability. C2 vulnerability is highly destabilizing given that it gives the advantage to the attacker and creates first strike incentives if one is sure that its first strike will incapacitate the enemy’s retaliatory strike by disrupting, and not necessarily destroying its retaliatory mechanism. Therefore, the Cold War was far less stable than many scholars perceive. On the contrary, it consisted of an endless action-reaction chain where the Soviet Union sought to establish its nuclear punishment strike in a credible way against U.S. actions that kept holding it hostage.

New evidence on the Cold War interaction between the two main nuclear powers and the pillars of deterrence promise to help us revise our traditional thinking and re-formulate middle range theories that are more empirically validated thanks to newly de-classified archives. At the same time, understanding the past helps us ask better questions about the future. Based on the recent scholarly work, U.S. modernization can be examined through the light of newly offered scholarly arguments on the U.S. concerns and fears for the survivability of its C2 centers, along with its propensity towards counterforce as a way to control escalation and reinforce the credibility of its nuclear umbrella. The Cold War environment has changed dramatically but some of its features have persisted. The U.S. still needs to reassure its allies of its commitment - in East Asia, especially, given the rise of China - and one cannot help but wonder to what extent the U.S. feels more confident about the survivability of its C2 centers today given the rise of other domains of war such as cyber warfare. Modernization choices will probably be highly affected by the two just-mentioned questions while at the same time keeping an eye on another competitor’s behavior. U.S. choices to deal with China, either by downplaying or emphasizing the political relevance and/or military utility of nuclear weapons in the relationship, will potentially impact our future theorizing of deterrence and ‘compellence’ in great power relations given China’s distinctly different approach to nuclear weapons.

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