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Nuclear Blogtank: Small Arsenals, Grand Strategies

As previously mentioned, blogfriend and nuclear materials expert Cheryl Rofer challenged national security, foreign policy and defense bloggers to game out scenarios for powers with small or limited nuclear arsenals:

 What strategies are available to a country with fissionable material sufficient for 1-5 nuclear weapons, some of which may be assembled? Take into account probable responses, and assume some sort of rationality on the holders of these weapons and material. You may specifically refer to Iran and North Korea, or any other nation, or make the scenario(s) more general. Flesh out the scenario with some support

 Responses thus far have been creative yet highly plausible. Several have tied their scenarios to specific states such as Iran or peoples with aspirations to statehood such as the Kurds. Well and good. As that ground has been properly covered, I will look at the problem from a somewhat different perspective.

The first consideration in this discussion is that despite the worrisome specter of nuclear weapons proliferation, most states have since 1945 opted to refrain from developing arsenals of nuclear weapons. A remarkable state of affairs given that such nuclear weapons are within the technological reach of virtually all first tier, most second tier and even third tier states like North Korea and Pakistan.

The reason most states do not is that nuclear weapons programs are expensive investments ( in terms of money, talent and geopolitical friction) that do not offer a reasonable return for most states, partly because they would be militarily insignificant in light of existing American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Thus some countries like Brazil and Taiwan have abandoned nuclear weapons programs and others like South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have actually disarmed by surrendering or dismantling what weapons they had constructed or inherited. Iraq is a unique case of having it’s nuclear program forcibly “de-proliferated” against the will of it’s rulers by a combination of American military power and international diplomatic and economic pressure after the first Gulf War.

But for a certain class of nation-states, possession  of nuclear weapons, even a crude handful, remains a worthwhile expenditure even at the cost of great national sacrifice ( the ” We will have them even if we have to eat grass!” scenario).  North Korea has starved upwards of a million of it’s citizens to death;  Pakistan is desperately poor, economically backward and has a regime that can only govern only a portion of the territory it claims to rule but both Islamabad and Pyonggyang are nuclear armed today. These states value nuclear weapons because, simply, they desire to be independent powers at the least and dominating hegemons of their neighborhoods if possible. Nuclear weapons are a critical means in formulating strategies to realize these ends, not ends in themselves. If they were then New Zealand and Uruguay would have MIRV’ed ICBMs.

Nuclear weapons programs are intrinsically married to the ambitions of statesmen and the anxieties of generals because they are multipliers of options as well as force-multipliers of lesser, conventional, means by virtue of possession. “Hard cases” of nuclear weapons proliferation like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran can only be properly contemplated with the strategic end goals of these states in mind. Not doing so, whether through an obstinate refusal to negotiate with “evil” governments or childish confidence in diplomatic processes in and of themselves are a waste of time

Assume by a mixture of subterfuge, gray and black markets and fungibility of nuclear knowledge gained through long term participation in the NPT/IAEA regime, we run a state that has acquired a small number of nuclear weapons, perhaps more than a half dozen, perhaps less (after all, we’re probably not 100 % confident that all of them will work). We have the indigenous capacity to make more, at least for a time until we need to replace critical, foreign engineered, equipment but mass producing nukes is entirely out of the question. The world is now aware of or strongly suspects our nuclear weapons capability. How can we maximize the utility of the arsenal we have ?

Our short term objective is to deter intervention by a U.S. led coalition, deter or subvert any international economic or diplomatic coercion aimed at securing our disarmament and gain grudging acceptance in the international community as a member of the “nuclear club”. If successful, then in the longer term we will use our nuclear status as a shield to more firmly press our diplomatic, economic and security interests at the expense of our neighbors or the great powers.

First, our diplomats and our economics ministries must try their hardest to connect to as many other centers of power as possible. The more great powers that benefit from economic connectivity with our country, the more IGO and NGO’s active and engaged in a process with our government, the greater the media attention the more restricted the options of those who seek to isolate us.

Secondly, no small nuclear power, not even China with it’s massively large armed forces, can win a head to head war against a United States determined to use the full weight of it’s military might (this is purportedly  why Musharraf decided to cooperate with the USG in the wake of 9/11). A direct confrontation with the United States is not desired here. To deter intervention, the nuclear weapons should be of a range of magnitudes and be part of a broad spectrum of tactical options that would make military intervention appear as costly and politically unpalatable as possible to the American elite – especially politicians, media, senior national security bureaucrats, business leaders and other influencers. Bio-Chem-Rad WMDs should be in the mix, not because they have great efficacy on the battlefield but because preparing against them raises logistical and operational difficulties and creates widespread political anxieties in the U.S. So too will our intelligence services be speading RUMINT about sleeper cells of terrorists and saboteurs  being prepositioned in the U.S. in case of war.

Thirdly, while engaging in strategic public diplomacy ( including hiring Washington lobbyists and PR firms) to de-escalate conflict with America ( or the UN or IAEA inspectors) in the eyes of world opinion, it should quietly be made clear to U.S. military planners that U.S. carrier groups or pre-positioned military build-ups of land and air forces in third countries might be subject to a nuclear attack if the United States initiates hostilities – leaving the President the prospect of being able to retaliate with nuclear weapons disproportionately, only by killing millions of our civilians.  More to the point, that any kind of massive ground invasion of our country would face the prospect of a certain nuclear response – a “Samson Option” policy that would mirror the Cold War strategy of NATO attempting to stop a full-scale Warsaw Pact invasion force before it reached the Rhine. Finally, that in event of a Kosovo War/ EBO style air attack to “break the state”, our deeply decentralized, heavily decoyed and widely dispersed nuclear weapons, materials, documents and scientists would be exfiltrated to the greatest extent possible to powers and non-state actors unfriendly to American interests.

Then, at a time when American leaders are preoccupied  with one or more other crisis situations and Washington has been lulled into relative complacency by steady negotiations over relevant minutia and a general lack of antagonistic behavior on other issues of great importance to America, a dramatic nuclear test will present the world with a fait accompli. One coupled with offers to negotiate regarding nuclear controls, responding positively to accomodating diplomatic trial balloons launched by Russia, China and the EU.

At this point, we are in the club.

5 Responses to “Nuclear Blogtank: Small Arsenals, Grand Strategies”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    I elected not to participate this go round because I disagree with the premise.  I don’t think there’s a strategic reason for any country to have a handful of nuclear weapons and an excellent reason not to:  rather than being a deterrent I think it invites a beheading first strike.

  2. CKR Says:

    Hey Dave, that’s a scenario too. I think I’ll include it.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,
    Indeed it does. But if you have other goals in mind – revanchist in nature perhaps – then the strategic reason exists and the debate becomes one of weighing risks, costs and benefits.

  4. Thinking Dove Says:

    The Iranians are working towards nuclear weapons. Can you blame them?It is a defensive move. and a wise one at that.Notice that the only two nations that stand up to U.S. Imperialism are North Korea, and Pakistan. What do they have in common?
    They have nukes.Nuclear Proliferation will restore justice and peace to our world. It will make our nation stop bullying the world. We should support Nuclear Proliferation!Nuclear weapons make war obsolete because they make victory impossible. It was mutually assured destruction that kept the peace between the Soviet Union and the United States. The peace lasted for decades. It is bigotry to think that a hereditary Islamic theocracy couldn’t grasp the concept of mutually assured destruction. When both parties have nuclear weapons it is suicide to attack.  Governments want to stay in power,, they don’t want to be incinerated.
    What government would ever order a suicide attack?The United States needs to step aside and allow the natural spread of nuclear technology. Technology throughout history has always spread. Gunpowder started in China, which was the most powerful, most advanced, and wealthiest nation on earth at the time. Now,, everyone has gunpowder. The most isolated illiterate tribesman carrys an automatic rifle when they go to war. In the future, every Mullah, Generalismo, and War Lord will have access to nuclear weapons. All of them will be able to unleash an atomic fireball, but all of them will know that the same thing will come back at them. As rational beings that will realize this is unthinkable.  Once everyone who wants an atomic bomb has one,, Peace will prevail! Support Iran’s nuclear program. Support Nuclear Proliferation. Help bring forth the new age of Atomic Peace

  5. zen Says:

    A fine parody.

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