Chutes and Nuclear Escalation Ladders
This is the 25th installment of 774: Weekly lessons from history about science, technology, and the miscellaneous.
Who Needs Stupid Books?
Chutes and Nuclear Escalation Ladders
In 2020, Admiral James Stavridis and combat veteran Elliot Ackerman released 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. Based on geopolitical trends, anticipated technological advances, and their combined military experience, the authors spell out the way an international conflict could unfold, 14 years in the future. The conflict that they outline starts as a naval one when China attacks a U.S. fleet in the South China Sea. A large technological advance by China hamstrings the U.S. Navy’s response and forces the form of escalation to be nuclear. One nuclear bomb is dropped on China. Then two on the United States. Three more careen towards China before a new world power flexes their geopolitical muscle and brings the conflict to a halt.2034 is entertaining but frightening. Throughout the story, real cities, fleets, technical capabilities, and international beefs are sprinkled in. The book was not a work of science fiction, but a preemptive cautionary tale.
The nuclear strikes in 2034 were not the doomsday weapons we come to think of when we hear about nuclear bombs. The bombs in 2034 are tactical nukes. Tactical nukes have a smaller explosive force and they are utilized in battlefield situations when the user is trying to destroy a “close-by” enemy territory without damaging their own forces.Strategic nukes are larger; dropped on a country’s interior to prevent them from continuing to fight a war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were strategic nukes, meant to destroy Japan’s ability to support a war effort. Dropping Little Boy and Fat Man on the Japanese fleet would have been a tactical strike. Don’t let that difference diminish the lethality of tactical nukes. The “low-yield” of tactical nukes returns them to the firepower of America’s first nuclear bomb. A tactical nuke dropped on Seattle is still going to kill everyone in Seattle, they just aren’t human-race ending weapons when used in proportion.
The race for nuclear weapons that began in the 1940s has changed drastically over the years. Initially, the goal of each country was to get a nuclear bomb. Once they had a nuclear bomb, they would want more nuclear bombs. Once they had more nuclear bombs, they would want more powerful nuclear bombs. This series of events is predictable. The escalation resulted in the theory of mutually assured destruction: if two opponents sling nukes back and forth, they’ll both completely destroy each other. This assured destruction would hopefully dissuade both sides from initiating a nuclear war. This also means that if a country with nukes is hit with a nuke, they have two options: “suicide or surrender.” This binary changed the race for nuclear weapons: countries now want nukes that are devastating, but small enough that an enemy who only has strategic nuclear weapons would be escalating the conflict to a doomsday event by responding with nukes. The presence of “small scale” tactical nukes theoretically lets a country skate by mutually assured destruction while leaving an opponent with the “suicide of surrender” choice. Russia’s nuclear policy has long been to obtain tactical nukes, and the Department of Defense’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review outlines arming with better tactical nukes as a chief defense concern for the United States.
Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy researcher at MIT, outlined the heightened risk that tactical nukes bring to nuclear deterrence.The risk isn’t about what kinds of nukes are being used, but their delivery systems. More technologically advanced tactical nukes are still delivered by the same kinds of rockets and planes that deliver strategic nuclear bombs. This creates what Narang calls a “discrimination problem.” How is a nation supposed to detect an incoming missile heading towards their country and know whether the nuke on board is tactical or strategic? At that moment, the powers that be have to quickly decide on their response, not knowing if the incoming nuke will wipe out a naval facility or kill everyone in a metropolis. The likelihood that they sit around and wait to find out seems slim. Even if the U.S. utilized a tactical nuke meant to minimize the damage, how would, say, North Korea know that Pyongyang wasn’t about to be leveled by the incoming missile, destroying their nuclear arsenal. At that moment, whoever is at the North Korean helm could very well assume the worst, punching back with strategic nuclear weapons. Suddenly a tactical weapon meant to be a “low yield” strike unwittingly unleashes a full-blown nuclear war.
In trying to deter more — and lower — forms of aggression with nuclear weapons and broaden the deterrence spectrum, the Nuclear Posture Review generates real risks of spirals of nuclear escalation in a crisis or war. It tries to reintroduce the idea of a calibrated “escalation ladder” — the notion that in a conflict the United States and the adversary can have various “rungs” of very precise and controlled nuclear exchanges of varying intensities without unintentional escalation. The heroic assumptions made by the idea of such a “ladder” are too numerous to address here. But a primary one is that it erroneously assumes the United States can alone control the climbing of that ladder without the enemy getting a vote. The concept fails to consider how the very existence of ambiguous nuclear systems — is it low-yield or thermonuclear? — can blow up the ladder.