US Must Plan for Nuke Wars

In a world where the barriers to nuclear weapons proliferation are breaking down, military planners must prepare to fight on the battlefield one day after a nuclear explosion in a radioactive environment facing the prospect of second nuclear strike. This scenario is so complex and so costly that it renders obsolete many basic tenets of U.S. military power projection, says CSBA in a new report.

Perhaps more than any other open-source outfit, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has put serious intellectual muscle into examining the implications of waging war in an environment where potential enemies don’t just threaten to use nuclear weapons, they actually detonate a nuclear device.

While nuclear disarmament remains a noble aspiration, the world is going in the other direction, that is, more states with more nukes, says CSBA President Andrew Krepinevich in a new report, US Nuclear Forces: Meeting the Challenge of a Proliferated World. From four nuclear states in the 1960s, there are now double that number (adding China, Israel, India and Pakistan) and we may soon reach ten (North Korea and Iran). Potential enemies have learned they can’t survive a conventional war in the face of the U.S. precision strike arsenal. In their strategic calculus, the only means of deterring U.S. military action is a nuclear weapon.

He describes the “Second Nuclear Regime,” where proliferation has moved from advanced industrial powers, centered around the U.S. and Europe, to emerging Asian states, such as India, Pakistan and North Korea, with more to follow: Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. A nuclear armed Iran would likely be a proliferation “tipping point,” where the barriers to proliferation disappear altogether, producing a domino-effect as Arab states wanting “peaceful” nuclear power, what Krepinevich calls the “starter kit” for nuclear weapons, accelerate weaponization efforts.

In such a world, strategists and military leaders must go further than just ruminating about how deterrence theory can be jerry rigged to fit a larger set of nuke wielding actors. Military planners must prepare to fight on a day-after-nuclear-explosion battlefield, he says, a warfighting environment (including radioactive contamination and potential second strike) of such complexity and potential cost, it renders obsolete many basic tenets of U.S. military power projection. How for example, do you locate your primary fighter strike force at bases in the Gulf, such as Doha, within easy range of Iran’s nuclear tipped missiles?

After having observed the importance American commanders placed on “force protection” when faced with guerrillas armed with roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where those same commanders would send troops into harms way against a nuclear armed opponent. Yet, as Krepinevich points out, if, as is likely, proliferation becomes reality, the U.S. cannot be frozen out of options by the threat of nuclear strike. Somehow, policymakers and military commanders must be provided options for strategic maneuver, even with the threat of nuclear attack hanging over their heads.

Planning for a campaign against a nuclear armed regional adversary must include some combinations of missile defenses, long range strike assets to take out nuclear weapons and special operations, or larger, forces that can seize and render a safe a hostile state’s nuclear arsenal. Of course, in a proliferated world, an added danger is that some terrorist group gets their hands on a nuke. In such a world, the ability to “track back” a nuclear detonation, to identify “nuclear fingerprints,” will be absolutely vital.

“Would the United States be confident that it could definitively identify the source of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile launched from along the Iranian-Pakistani border? Or that preparations for missile strikes under way along the Iranian-Pakistani border could be clearly identified as the actions of one state and not the other? What about a nuclear weapon aboard a transport ship that is detonated as the ship comes into port?”

Krepinevich describes a proliferated Middle East as a place of extreme instability as competing intelligence agencies constantly scour neighbor’s territory for weapons; since nuclear arsenals would be very small, the discovery of such weapons would likely invite a prompt attack to instantly shift in the strategic balance.

The report is intended to “raise awareness” of the need to reexamine many of the underlying assumptions of strategic logic regarding nuclear weapons that have not moved much beyond Cold War era thinking, Krepinevich says. The march to a world with zero nuclear weapons will not be a straight line. Making the right decisions during that long march demands a well-crafted strategy that does not currently exist.