MARCH 16, 2023: I AM TOLD BY A RELIABLE COLLEAGUE THAT THE QUOTE ABOUT TRIGGERING NUCLEAR WAR, NOW ITALICIZED BELOW, IS PROBABLY INACCURATE. APOLOGIES TO GENERAL COTTON FOR THE MISTAKE.
On Thursday, Air Force General Anthony Cotton, the head of the US Strategic Command, the service in charge of nuclear weapons, argued in testimony before Congress for more nuclear weapons, specifically a sea-launched cruise missile or SLCM-N. Back in the nineties, we pronounced this “slickem.” All things old are new again.
General Cotton referred to a “strategic gap or challenge in the availability of low-yield, non-ballistic nuclear weapons that do not generate a radar signature.” Nuclear weapons of this type, he said, “could be used without reaching a threshold that could trigger nuclear war.”
It’s easy to get down in the weeds of getting Leopard tanks to Ukraine or when the spring offensive will come, but I want to draw back to a bigger picture.
Vladimir Putin, or Russia, depending on how you look at it, is determined to bring Ukraine back into their sway. The shelling of civilians, a war crime, makes that point clear. The concern about NATO is not entirely rhetorical.
Putin and his cronies, particularly Dmitri Medvedev, dragged out the nuclear threats early. They have damped them down recently. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, has consistently clarified to something like “existential threats to Russia itself,” a phrase from Russian doctrine that has been parsed over the years. It is now more unclear with Putin’s ceremonial welcome of four Ukrainian districts in which the war continues.
I’m finding it hard to write lately because there are so many shockingly bad takes. Twitter provides a continuing flutter of them, like this morning’s wet snowflakes, and points to worse op-eds. It’s mostly the war, but the decisions to declare the pandemic over contribute.
Dan Nexon tweeted last week that all discussions of whether NATO should have embiggened are discussions of priors. So are discussions of possible nuclear weapon use and many other things. Last week we had the no-fly zone. Yesterday got the week off to a masculine start with discussions of impotence and muscularity in US foreign policy. Mainly from old white men, and that’s consistent with my priors as well as theirs.
The question of nuclear weapons, on the battlefield or otherwise, keeps coming up. A number of disappointed (and poorly informed) people keep asking why Russia isn’t deterred from attacking Ukraine but the US is deterred from attacking Russia if nuclear weapons exist, which slides into the mistaken idea that Ukraine once had a full-up nuclear arsenal or (Russian propaganda warning) is building one now. I’ve dealt with that here.
Nancy Pelosi says that she “spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.
I can tell her the available precautions, and I hope Milley did too: NONE
The President has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. He is not required to consult anyone else, nor is there provision to force him to.
This situation came about because back in the Cold War, it seemed plausible that the President might not know about a nuclear attack until the missiles were on the way. That gave him a half-hour or less to decide. It was also assumed that we would elect only presidents capable of doing the job.
Nuclear strategists have pressed Congress to change the situation, but so far Representative Ted Lieu’s and Senator Ed Markey’s bill has gone nowhere. Maybe the next Congress will see fit to consider it.
No, there wasn’t a workaround when Nixon was wandering the corridors of the White House, drunk, talking to the portraits. We were lucky.
Nancy Pelosi can’t do a workaround with Mark Milley. That would be tantamount to a military coup, and I think that Milley is not interested in a military coup right now.
If this is a concern, Speaker Pelosi, and I think it is, then bring articles of impeachment to the floor of the House. NOW.
There is a small industry around a bizarre idea. Nuclear weapons are known to emit a powerful electromagnetic pulse when they explode. So grifters, cheap novel-writers, and proponents of moar defense spending push the idea that a random bad actor would detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitude over the United States and WIPE OUT ALL OUR ELECTRONICS!
This is a dumb idea, for many reasons. I have debunked it many times. The group referred to as “Nuclear Twitter” regularly mocks it.
I did not want to write about nuclear weapons use policies the day before Christmas Eve, but here we are. The issue and the way it is discussed has bothered me for a long time, but I have mostly stayed out of it. I’m not going to link to the other arguments. They can easily be found, including in today’s edition of a major paper. I’m not going to link because that shatters the argument into a thousand tiny subtopics. Read More
If you want to know what the next nuclear war will be like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
Nuclear weapons have been used only once in war, by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Nuclear war was imagined many times, however, through the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the two countries’ nuclear arsenals grew, the common understanding became that in a nuclear war, hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear weapons would be exploded, and the direct damage would destroy the countries involved. Most of us would die immediately, more in the aftermath. It looked like the end of civilization. Read More
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!”
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read More