Archive for September, 2011

Nuclear Irrationality

I was recently thinking about my college studies of nuclear warfare. At the time it seemed like a relevant topic, and I took two courses on it. Like everything, the more you look into it the more complex it gets. The depth of the thinking in nuclear warfare planning was both impressive and appalling.

One of the more interesting cases was driven by the fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In retrospect we know there was never a danger of that, but at the time it was a real concern. The western strategists feared that in a conventional war, the Soviet tanks would rapidly rout the smaller European armies. The use of nuclear weapons, or at least their potential use, was an obvious way to counter this threat.

However, most of the nuclear weapons were in the U.S. It was clear that no U.S. president would launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union in order to forestall an invasion of Europe. The U.S. promised to support Europe, but if the war actually started, a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. could only end in a nuclear counter-attack on the U.S. That would never happen. England and France had a few nuclear weapons, but would their leaders really launch them, knowing that they would face certain death in the overwhelming nuclear counter-attack? A bold and calculating leader of the Soviet Union might be willing to risk that nobody would take the nuclear option, and be willing to gamble that they would win a conventional war (again, this was the fear of the U.S. and Europe, the Soviet Union knew perfectly well that they could not win such a war). How could the U.S. and Europe use nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent to a conventional invasion?

The answer was, as I said, both impressive and appalling. NATO distributed low-yield nuclear weapons throughout Europe (they even had nuclear landmines). In the event of an invasion, complete control over the weapons was handed over to local commanders. The decision to use nuclear weapons would not be in the hands of an elected leader far from the war zone. It would be in the hands of a local colonel facing the immediate loss of his command. The Soviet Union might gamble (so the thinking went) on the reactions of a few political leaders they could study closely. They would never gamble on the reactions of several hundred local military commanders. Although the weapons were relatively low-yield, the expectation was that once a war went nuclear, the only thing that would stop it from escalating would be a quick complete cessation of hostilities.

This is a nice example of achieving your goal by explicitly giving up your ability to act rationally.

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