Montag, April 21, 2008

Escalatio, Superiority, Usability, Stupidity ... and Danger

After finally having come up a tad for air, I read this.

I'm not going to go into enormous detail, since that'd put most to sleep.

But the author of this, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, are dangerous fellows.

Not so much because they know so much: that's not what makes them dangerous.

Rather, because they are what is called "owls", dedicated disarmament proponents.

Nuclear strategy and thinking about nuclear strategy has gone way, way downhill from the heyday of the Cold War. Hermann Kahn's "Thinking the Unthinkable" desperately needs to be updated and rewritten for the 21st century, but remains the best work in this area, as does Clausewitz (in my thinking, if you haven't read Clausewitz, then you haven't done your homework...).

There are only two reasons for acquiring nuclear weapons. One is the obvious: to use them in a military conflict when you really, really, but really want to hurt someone, regardless of the price. That's the military side, where nuclear weapons are very, very useful when you want to put a lot of hurt on the greatest number.

But nuclear weapons are and remain also political tools. They serve to intimidate, to scare, to show competence (that your country can build them), and they serve to deter. They are the ultimate threat, one that results in the death of millions and destruction of entire cities when used, hence the problem of believability and survivability.

Believability is that you would actually use them. Given the inclination to paint your opponent in the worst possible, preferably sub-human, colors, the mere possession of nuclear weapons gives credence to the idea that you would use them: after all, they are, despite being very useful militarily, rather a pain to acquire, and aren't the result of any sort of benign accident, but rather must be built (barring the ability to buy them).

So, politicians being what they are, they'll believe their own propaganda and believe that the other side will use them under a set of given circumstances. Knowing that these circumstances are enables you to make your own strategic plans to avoid placing your opponent in such circumstances.

Now, that's not always possible...

Survivability was the underlying principle that led to strategic equilibrium: if you couldn't ensure that the other guys' nukes were destroyed, then you didn't start tossing them. Just one of their arriving really ruins your day as commander-in-chief, and hence if you're gonna have any nukes, you need to have them survivable. Otherwise, if the other guy thinks that he can take them out, and it comes to a push-and-shove situation, he will: just like in the move Aliens, the best option is to nuke them from orbit (i.e. destroy them at no risk to yourself...).

Now, the Cold War is over. The US has reduced its arsenal significantly, but at the same time has applied lessons learned with conventional weapons to nuclear weapons, such as increasing accuracy significantly and improving targeting abilities. This has transformed sub-based missiles, previously the core of deterrence (almost impossible to find and capable of busting lots and lots of cities) into a weapon of relative accuracy. They've also moved the yield way up - quadrupling the yield is the same as making the missile 16 times more accurate - and are now approaching the ability to actually surface-hit the target being aimed at, meaning that you're talking about the ability to take out, literally, any hardened target with a single warhead.

You see, the calculus of deterrence established the fact that it took dozens of warheads to ensure that you could take out a single hardened target. Hence the massive numbers of warheads in the inventory during the Cold War: this has not only been reduced, but has actually not become necessary.

What does this imply for escalation theory (what I call escalatio after Tom Lehrer)?

Two things: one, that this makes planning vastly simpler (one shot, one kill), but that it changes the equations significantly. Under the old rules of deterrence, missile defense was "easily" overwhelmed by a saturation attack, but you also had the warheads to spare. Under the new rules, with few warheads, missile defense becomes paramount, since there is no other way to defend: this is important! Your hardened targets are now easily destroyable - nothing can stand being hit 10 meters away by a surface-detonated 15 kton nuke, let alone a 400+ kt nuke - and either you must deter or you must intercept (the folks up above see a third alternative that simply isn't one: launch on warning, which makes nuclear war random, rather than deliberate. No one is going to seriously switch over to launch-on-warning unless there already is a war going on and they are afraid that there will be an attack on their assets: this would include any sort of non-nuclear attack as well, as the end effect is the same. Basic case of "use it or lose it", but I have yet to see a situation where that would occur out of the blue.

Now, this increase in strategic ability - the ability to reach out and touch someone where it really hurts - under the current conditions reflects the fact that the US has, effectively, created a situation of strategic superiority in any major conflict involving classic use of military force. This, on top of the tactical superiority of US troops, means that under the current circumstances, any major conflict will be shortly resolved in the manner most pleasing to the US, with extraordinarily dire circumstances if someone decides to nonetheless go forward with plans to attack US interests despite this knowledge.

What does this mean for usability? Will it be more likely that the US uses nuclear weapons?

Hardly. The weapons are first and foremost political weapons (and if you don't think that is the case, then you're up against more than 60 years of praxis and theory...), and the actual use of nuclear weapons means one of two things: a) that a President really mucked things up and got the US in a situation where the only real alternative would be a significant strategic defeat and b) that a President really mucked things up by letting an opponent believe that the US lacked the political will to use the weapons. Such are the things of Clancy novels.

The authors ut supra talk about various scenarios as well: given the US ability to take out a relatively small nuclear deterrence force (18 ChiCom missiles, each with a single 4MT warhead) with a very, very degree of certainty, this means that the US can, in all likelihood, prevent the Chinese from, say, attacking Taiwan, because they know that they cannot win in a military conflict, even if it fails to go nuclear. They're worried that this means that the Chinese will start an arms race.

That's stupid.

First of all: if the Chinese were to massively expand their nuclear forces, we're back to the days of the Cold War and all which that implies. Unless they reach technical parity with the US - which is not only conceivable, but even likely - the situation remains as it was during the Cold War, a strategic stalemate.

If they were to gain the same ability as the US, then both the US and China have an incentive to ensure a draw-down, as nuclear weapons then lose importance, rather than gain in importance, since there is no such thing as a hardened target any more, merely targets.

But what is really regrettable is that they don't think that US superiority Is A Good Thing.

I've capitalized that for two reasons.

One, nuclear and hence strategic superiority deters wars. Nothing less, nothing more. If China is convinced that the US would come to the aid of a mass attack on Taiwan, then they won't attack Taiwan, regardless of their desire to integrate Taiwan into Greater China, since the costs would be vastly greater than the benefits. Hence: no war.

Second, if the Chinese leadership believed that the US is a paper tiger and won't go to war over Taiwan, the US can disabuse them of this notion very, very quickly by using highly accurate small-yield weapons that removes the Chinese ability to threaten to destroy LA if US carriers enter the China Sea, meaning that the conflict will be carried out over China, not the US, and that Chinese will die, not Americans.

If you don't see the sense of that for any American government, then I strongly question your reasoning abilities.

Now the authors lack imagination: they see only two paths for the Chinese. Either massively deploy new, mobile weapons and warheads, or shift to launch-on-warning.

That is too short-sighted and not Chinese at all (I won't profess to understand the Chinese government, but I have read The Art of War): if the Chinese know that they can't risk military force, then they will try other means, such as political intrigue leading to a breakdown of any independence movement in Taiwan, or explore non-military solutions to their problems and policy goals.

That is where the authors fail to see that a Pax America doesn't mean an end to conflict, but it does mean an end to wars as we have known them. No country is going to go up against the kind of American military force that took apart the Republic Guard in a matter of hours in the middle of a sandstorm: that way lies destruction.

So if you are opposed to US policies and operations, you go after US interests in other ways: guerrilla war, economic warfare, assassination, covert operations, etc. Which, of course, is what we are currently seeing in the Middle East.

Again: US nuclear and strategic superiority means that no one will challenge the US here: they will challenge the US in many, many other ways, and will ensure that there will be no targets for the US to hit. That is, however, a completely different topic altogether.

What makes these two fellows dangerous is that if the US were to further disarm as they would have it - scrapping the most advanced weapons, rather than the oldest and least useful - this would make war more likely, and not less: it would aid US opponents, reducing US opportunities and tactics, reducing the ability of the US government to take the war to the enemy by using, in their example, 50 low-yield warheads to destroy the Chinese ability to kill 18 US cities with something on the order of 100mn people.

That'd be a better situation?

To quote the authors ut supra: reducing US superiority would weaken ...

... U.S. coercive leverage in crises involving nuclear-armed adversaries, and they would leave future presidents who find themselves in dire circumstances with few palatable counterforce options—meaning options that wouldn't kill millions of civilians. On the other hand, these steps might avert an arms race with China and prevent a dangerous spiraling of events during a crisis.

That is an academic trade-off at best and sheer stupidity at worst.

Giving up the concrete abilities of preventing any sort of war for the mere possibility of avoiding an arms race with China and preventing a war during a crisis is a demonstrably bad idea.

They're not trying to think the unthinkable, but rather arguing for the inarguable.

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