When the average person thinks of nuclear weapons, they may imagine hundreds of weapons being unleashed on every city and target in the country at once. However, in reality, the people controlling these weapons on both sides likely see them as tools. Devastating and decisive tools, but tools just the same. But like any hammer, screwdriver or hand saw, tools are designed for a specific purpose and are best suited for specific tasks. So, what tasks are nuclear devices designed to accomplish? In order to get a better idea, one needs to know what the designers are trying to build. In military terms, this design is called strategy, in this case, nuclear strategy. And what they are trying to build is national policy to keep their country safe.
Currently, there are nine countries which are known or suspected to have nuclear weapons. Many of these countries regularly face off against each other and their military planners have spent years developing nuclear attack/defense doctrines and strategies based on scenarios with their most likely foes.
This article attempts to look at general nuclear strategy and how a country might “think” as they prepare to launch their weapons.
The nine countries are:
- United States
- United Kingdom
- North Korea
There are also five other countries which have nukes owned by the U.S. for the defense of NATO. They require U.S. arming codes in order to use the weapons and theoretically cannot launch without U.S. approval.
- The Netherlands
This article will NOT go into detail on the types of nuclear weapons available in various arsenals around the world, size comparisons between tactical and ballistic weapons, or the general effects and impacts of specific weapons on people or infrastructure. This article is about strategy and policy.
Nuclear Strategies and Attack Theor
Countries do not develop nuclear weapons simply for the challenge to see if they can accomplish it. They spend the time, money and effort to develop and build these weapons as part of their military strategy and warfare scenarios. The country’s political goals also play significantly into the type of weapons and delivery systems they build. This article explores some of the potential ways these weapons might be deployed against a country’s enemies.
First Strike (Pre-emptive Nuclear Strike)
The idea of a first strike is to attack an enemy before they attack you. Essentially, “get the first punch” with the hopes of finishing the fight quickly or hurting your opponent enough that they cannot effectively hurt you. The key to successfully executing this strategy is to eliminate the enemy’s ability to strike or retaliate. Targets of a first strike would include enemy missile sites, weapon stockpiles (especially nuclear weapons), command and control centers, and launch facilities.
Looking at nuclear military forces around the world, one can see a number of techniques which have been employed to counter this first strike strategy. In the United States, land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) sites are located in the middle of the continental land mass, in places like North and South Dakota and Kansas. The added distance from enemy launch points to impact points gives the U.S. a cushion of time to launch a counter-strike in the event the U.S. detects a first launch by an enemy. A rapid reaction to launch U.S. missiles out of the silos before incoming missiles impacted was part of the MAD doctrine of the 20th Century (detailed below). It basically guaranteed a massive retaliatory strike on any aggressor.
In the former Soviet Union, their military strategy involved keeping a significant portion of their nuclear arsenal mobile using portable launchers. These are essentially large semi-trucks designed for hauling and launching ICBM weapons. This mobility and unpredictability denied the U.S. military a stationary target on which to focus their weapons. The theory was, once a U.S. launch was detected, the Soviets had 20-40 minutes to simply drive away from the targeted impact point.
Submarines are a mobile, first strike strategy all their own. They are silent and deadly and one of the most feared weapons in the nuclear arsenal. As an example, Washington, DC is less than 300 miles flight distance from deep water where a Russian submarine might sneak in to launch. Assuming we knew and reacted the instant a submarine missile was launched (unlikely), it would impact the capital in less than 30 minutes. The same can be said of most major U.S. cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Charleston, New Orleans, Houston, New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)
Throughout the Cold War, the major nuclear players (U.S. and the Soviets) had a nervous standoff which came to be called MAD. This was an agreed upon balance where both sides know their enemy, once attacked, will retaliate with everything in their arsenal. This philosophy states, if one combatant attempts a first strike, they are assured they will receive a full-scale retaliation which would obliterate their own country. The idea was to ensure no one from either side would pull the trigger first because it would mean certain death for both sides 20-40 minutes later.
This national policy states that a country will only build and maintain enough nuclear weapons to “deter an enemy aggressor”. In other words, “you can hit me first, but I will end the fight quickly and decisively.” China has traditionally used this philosophy with respect to nuclear weapons. They maintain an arsenal large enough to significantly hurt an attacker, without escalating it into a costly arms race of sheer numbers.
This strategy allows a country like China to maintain a much smaller nuclear force. They can also minimize their efforts to modernize their systems because they aren’t necessarily trying to get their weapons through a primary defense shield. They merely have to be able to survive the first strike and hit soft targets in response to an attack. One known difficulty of this strategy is the ability to estimate an attacker’s willingness to take damage. In some circumstances, an attacker may be willing to take “acceptable loses” in an effort to achieve their aims. Another key difficulty to this strategy is arms reduction negotiations. When a country, like the U.S. or Russia, has an overwhelming number of weapons, it is easy for them to agree to eliminate 10% of their stockpile, knowing they will simply discard and dismantle all their old 40-year-old warheads, which were probably scheduled for destruction anyway. However, if the strategy involves maintaining only a specific number of critical weapons, then any reduction could allow your arsenal to slip below the level of effective deterrence to an enemy. This is why you rarely see China join the nuclear disarmament discussions.
The minimal deterrence strategy also has an impact in keeping smaller, regional conflicts conventional. If an attacker knows ahead of time that the defender has a small nuclear stockpile, they will likely do their best to keep any conflicts contained. This self-imposed escalation threshold by the attacker it is hoped would keep the defender from pulling the trigger on a nuclear device.
Battlefield (Tactical) Nuclear Weapons
These are “smaller” nuclear weapons designed to be used in a limited battlefield scenario. Tactical nukes are designed to be delivered by short-range artillery, airplane dropped gravity bombs, torpedoes, or short range ship-to-ship missiles. There are even reports of very small nuclear devices which can be delivered by commando teams to specific targets.
Tactical nukes are most likely to be used by the ‘losing’ side in an attempt to swing the battle their way quickly and decisively. For example, if India were to invade Pakistan with overwhelming air and ground superiority, the attacking force could quickly take large portions of Pakistan’s territory. However, seeing this drive, the smaller Pakistani force might request a tactical nuclear strike in order to “pause” the advancing line. This attack, focused on armor or aviation units, would temporarily cripple the attacking force and give the Pakistani army time to bring in reinforcements and beat back the assault.
In a similar move, if the Indian army were to be forced to rapidly retreat, they might use tactical nuclear weapons as a delaying strategy, taking out major bridges, mountain passes, or airfields in an attempt to give themselves time to escape and regroup.
Tactical weapons are definitely part of the attack and defense plans on both sides of the Korean standoff. If the North Koreans were to launch a massive invasion of the South, there simply aren’t enough soldiers (Korean or American) on the peninsula to act as anything other than a speed bump. Therefore, nuclear weapons have always been part of the defense plans of South Korea. Within minutes of a massive invasion, American soldiers would likely use long-range nuclear artillery to delay the attack while American assets were rushed to the region.
As mentioned, India and Pakistan have both focused their nuclear development around tactical battlefield weapons. This is why they are a significant threat to each other but do not usually make the headlines about threatening the rest of the world even though both are nuclear powers.
Terrorists would love to get a nuclear weapon. Owning and using one would allow any group to immediately become the premier terrorist organization in the world. Plus, assuming they could imply to the world that they owned more than one of these devices, they could likely demand nearly anything they wanted from nearly any country in the world with a high level of certainty that their wishes would be seriously considered. After all, they would have shown they have the weapon and are willing to use it. Their initial strike would also have disabled their largest perceived enemy, whether that is the U.S., Russia, Israel, or Great Britain. This terrorist organization could also take credit for changing the face of geopolitical politics and relationships overnight. It would be unprecedented in the world of terrorism up to that point.
The ‘Beheading’ strategy can be used by any size country, but will likely be used as part of a first-strike or retaliation attack. The strategy involves using nuclear weapons to specifically eliminate heads of state including administration and congressional leaders, as well as military leadership. The idea is to remove the leadership of a country, leaving only local governors or administrators who simply don’t have the experience to rally the country in a common defense. This strategy is designed to weaken the defending country’s ability to coordinate an effective response. However, this strategy also makes it difficult to organize a surrender.
If a first strike appears to use a beheading strategy, it is likely that the attacking country plans a full-scale invasion of some or all of the defending country. Using the U.S. as an example, this attack pattern might see an invasion of the west coast up to the Rocky Mountains, with a pause and negotiated truce. The invading force might hope that the remaining U.S., left largely undamaged, would be willing to sacrifice the coast to save the remaining population from a prolonged war on their own soil.
Preparing for the beheading strategy involves a rapid reaction to enemy launch detection. Leaders are quickly airlifted to remote bunkers both inside and outside of target areas. The U.S. President can be expected to be rushed to Air Force One within minutes, and remain aloft and mobile for the duration of the event, ensuring there is always “someone in charge”.
If a country has a limited number of nuclear weapons, then a “hostage” strategy might be used in order to minimize destruction of the defender’s cities, transportation networks, and methods of production, while achieving the attacker’s demands. In this case, the attacker might use one or two nuclear weapons to strike uninhabited or lightly inhabited areas. Then, they send a clear signal to the leadership of the defender that they are willing and able to hit major population centers unless their enemy agrees to their terms. The attacker essentially holds the population hostage under threat of nuclear annihilation until the country’s leaders negotiate. If there is a delay, the attacker (like any hostage taker) may use one of their precious weapons to “make good” on their threats and take out a small city in the hopes it will motivate the defender to capitulate to their demands.
This scenario is the basis for a number of Hollywood action movies, which often involve a single hero saving the day and eliminating the threat. However, in reality, it is a difficult strategy to counter simply because of the variables involved and the unknown nature and demands of the attacker.
This strategy involves a weak opponent challenging a stronger opponent, hence the name ‘asymmetric’ meaning ‘unequal’. The idea is for the smaller country to intentionally escalate a conflict to the point that they use a small (maybe battlefield) nuclear weapon in apparent defense of their country or interests against the larger “aggressor”. Ideally, the smaller country could destroy a carrier group or remote island military base as an example of their willingness to use their weapons. Then, they hold their larger weapons in reserve and tell the larger country and the world, “you might destroy us, but we will make sure and take out one or more of your major cities”. The smaller country hopes that the larger country will not be willing to sacrifice millions of their citizens to take out a small country (or dictator). So, the larger country reaches a stalemate with the smaller country. This strategy becomes even more effective if the smaller country can locate their limited warhead inventory onto ships, submarines or even smuggle them into the larger country.
This is the primary strategy which is likely being used by North Korea against the United States. The North Koreans are not stupid. They know the U.S. can obliterate them ten times over. However, they are betting the U.S. that they can get “one-shot” off and hit a major U.S. city (killing millions) before the U.S. can eliminate their command and control centers. They estimate that the U.S. cannot take that chance and are betting that leaders will be willing to negotiate rather than risk losing a city. It has been theorized that President Trump is playing the “crazy loose cannon” as a way of countering North Korea’s asymmetric strategy. If the Koreans think, “this guy might just be crazy enough to let us attack a U.S. city”, then their entire strategy becomes a fragile house of cards.
When the average person uses a tool to complete a task, they have a vision in mind of what they wish to accomplish. Policy and military planners follow a similar process. They have a vision of keeping their people and their armies safe. In many cases, the tools they use to accomplish this are devastating and decisive, but tools just the same. In order to properly employ these tools, planners have built strategies about when and how they will be used. This article has attempted to briefly lay out some of the common strategies and policies a country might entertain before putting these weapons to use. Hopefully, it will help someone better understand the posturing and positioning that is going on in the world today.