Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.
I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!”
His second question and answer are good.
Question 2: Why doesn’t the United States have more faith in nuclear deterrence?
Answer: Because threat-inflators are more numerous than threat-deflators.
It’s easier in today’s Washington, DC, to say “We don’t know that Russia/China/North Korea isn’t beefing up their arsenal so as to get an advantage on us” than it is to work out what the situation most likely is in a real world with real constraints. So you’ll see again and again that North Korea could have 60-80 nuclear weapons ready to go. That derives from a statement of estimated fissile material, divided by the amount that might be needed for a bomb, both very uncertain numbers. It ignores the time and facilities it takes to build the weapons. I did a more realistic estimate a while back.
There’s also a macho edge that we have to have more/better than anyone else, exacerbated by Trump’s insecure masculinity. Chest-pounding is IN.
Walt’s article is longer than mine, but very worth reading.
Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.