Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, analyzes US nuclear strategy and suggests a law and science-based approach as the country moves forward...
“In the end, we still depend upon creatures of our own making.” -Goethe, Faust
On core matters of national security, American analysts should think in terms of intellectual and legal criteria. Ignoring the day-to-day banalities of national and international politics, these strategists and policy-makers ought continuously to bear in mind that such primary standards may intersect with one another, always converging, sometimes in synergistic fashion. In such cases, the “whole” of any examined outcome would more-or-less exceed the sum of its “parts.”
This point should appear obvious to any reasonably-educated US population. American reality, however, has been distressingly different. To wit, during the law-violating and science-flouting Trump administration, tens of millions of citizens sought remedy for broadly complex medical and economic problems in narrowly partisan politics. Most grievously lamentable in this regard was the slow and public-relations oriented Covid-19 response. As was learned later from former White House Covid advisor Dr. Deborah Birx, the American nation suffered more than 400,000 unnecessary pandemic deaths. In essence, these plausibly preventable deaths were the result of a defiling willingness to value “common-sense” thinking more highly than science and law.
Still more worrisome, virtually the same large number of Americans cling to virulent anti-science biases after their much-vaunted leader was defeated in the 2020 election. Oddly, for a time of rationality and scientific explanation, these citizens remain fervidly loyal to a dissembling Trump ideology, one that has correlated pandemic therapy with the injection of household disinfectants and “shining lights inside the body.” Looking ahead, any further faith in such political absurdity could prove more even more glaringly lethal, and not “just” in matters of virology.
Though patently less apparent, a properly science-based and law-based understanding is similarly indispensable for US nuclear strategy.
There are unseen connections. A determinable disease trajectory could itself have a tangible bearing on America’s nuclear posture. It follows, in such cases, that learning more about certain virulent pathogens could also prove useful to enhancing US national security.
Considerable irony can be detected in these overlapping influences. For the most part, today’s US military planners and strategists are impressively familiar with myriad aspects of war and defense; still, they are widely lacking in closely associated and necessary philosophical skills. This inconspicuous deficiency has nothing to do with specifically methodological shortcomings. America’s relevant thinkers are visibly talented in virtually every pertinent area of data collection, data manipulation and analytic assessment. Nonetheless, a pervasively unphilosophical spirit does reflect a lack of acquaintance with philosophy of science and a parallel indifference to authoritative considerations of law.
For any such lack of acquaintance, there will be correspondingly serious policy costs. One such prospective cost is “epistemological.” This means it has to do with willful scholarly detachment from elementary “rules” of concept formation, hypothesis creation, the “problem of induction” and an assortment of closely related intellectual expectations. Going forward, the decipherable consequences of any epistemological detachment, however unwitting, could range from reassuringly trivial to palpably catastrophic.
There are both correct and incorrect ways to commence comprehensive inquiry. In any scientific and law-oriented study of strategic military issues, the inquiry must begin with an appropriate hypothesis. Thereafter, and further to what we first learned from Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Karl Popper, Carl Hempel and various others, this tentative explanation, with its identifiable and testable linkages between independent and dependent variables, would need to undergo deductive elaboration. This theory-directed elaboration would then be followed (wherever possible) by the empirical testing of logically “entailed” propositions.
Inter alia, the hoped-for result of such prescriptively systematic efforts must be a detailed network of deductively interrelated propositions; that is, an intellectual construct generally known as theory. Without suitable theoretical guidance, strategic and jurisprudential thinking is necessarily ad hoc, partial and problematic. A “good” example of defective strategic reasoning is former President Donald J, Trump’s post-Singapore Summit conclusion that North Korea would instantly “denuclearize” because the respective national leaders had “fallen in love.” On its face, this political statement revealed utter indifference to both science and law. In this case, still, more regrettably, these twin failings seemed to be mutually reinforcing. They proceeded to undermine vital US interests “hand-in-hand.”
Now what? To optimize their difficult and conscientiously non-political work, US strategists will need to begin at the beginning, acknowledging that global anarchy, the unchanging legal context of all subsequent inquiries, is never just idiosyncratic. As these strategists should learn to recognize, anarchy and chaos are deeply rooted in the codified and customary foundations of modern world legal order. More than anything else, these jurisprudential and geopolitical structures point to still-expanding conditions of chaotic regional disintegration.
Yet, even in chaos, which is never the same as anarchy, there may be certain discernible regularities, a sort of fixed “geometry.” These will then need to be properly identified and carefully studied. This is the pertinent “next step.”
There is more. Out of the bewildering mêlée of what is now unraveling in widely-scattered policy venues, America’s strategic thinkers can still identify a usable tableau for US national survival, but only if they first choose to cast finely-crafted intellectual “nets.” One current arena of paramount concern is Russia’s massive military buildup near Ukraine. During the openly non-theoretic Trump years, Vladimir Putin calculated that the American president was effectively under Moscow’s controlling will (Lenin and Stalin would have called Donald Trump “Putin’s Useful Idiot”). Putin was correct in this calculation, of course, but fortunately for the United States, this corrosive Russian manipulation of an American president no longer obtains.
Some important things remain the same. World and regional politics remain notably multifaceted and bewildering. There can be no genuinely good argument for examining current and future threats to US national security as if each peril were somehow singular. There are always foreseeable interactions between individual catastrophic harms, so-called “synergies.” Prima facie, these interactions could make the potentially existential risks of lawless anarchy and expanding chaos more pressing.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” warned the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Now, assembled in almost two hundred armed tribal camps formally termed nation-states, all peoples coexist uneasily and more-or-less insecurely on a fractured planet. The jurisprudential and civilizational origins of this radically decentralized world lie in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a foundational treaty that ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the still-extant “balance-of-power” legal system.
Now, incontestably, law-undermining anarchy is more portentous than ever before. This enlarged vulnerability owes largely to the manifestly unprecedented fusion of chaos with potentially apocalyptic weaponry. Even worse, such never-to-be-used weaponry is expected to expand or “proliferate.” Accordingly, in the United States, the head of STRATCOM, the country’s top nuclear commander, muses openly about the deterioration of the American strategic triad. More specifically, Admiral Charles Richard worries that the aging Minuteman III ICBM force could be abandoned and that a robust US bomber force would need to take its place as the always-ready leg of America’s nuclear deterrent.
For the moment, only the missile-bearing submarines and ICBMs are ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Russia, of course, has its own nuclear triad; China is progressing along very similar theoretic lines. Today says Admiral Richard, what you have in the US “is basically a dyad.” In 2017, the Department of Defense announced that the USAF was preparing to put back nuclear bombers on 24-hour alert, but this vital step was never actually taken.
What happens next? Will America allow itself to be guided by vacant political rhetoric and bravado (the Trump concept of nuclear strategizing) or take more seriously the law-enforcing imperatives of sound strategic theory? In a plausible worst-case scenario, circumstances will obtain where there will be no safety in arms and no rescues from law-based political authority. In time, recurrent wars could rage until every flower of sustainable culture is trampled and until all things human are more or less leveled in some primal disorder. “The worst,” remarked Swiss playwright, Friedrich Durrenmatt succinctly, “does sometimes happen.”
In world history and law, the “worst” is a very old story. So, too, is anarchy. Chaos, however, is not. There is a meaningful difference between anarchy and chaos. Oddly, chaos and anarchy may even represent opposite endpoints of the same dissembling continuum. Historically, “mere” anarchy, or the absence of a viable central world legal authority, is “normal.” Chaos, however, is sui generis. It is “abnormal.”
There is more. Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can best be described as a system. What happens in any one part of this interconnected world necessarily affects what happens in some or all of the other parts. When a deterioration is marked and begins to spread from one nation to another, the corrosive effects can undermine regional and/or international stability. When this deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or act of unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects would be correspondingly immediate and overwhelming.
These effects would be chaotic.
Aware that even an incremental collapse of remaining world legal structures would impact America’s friends and allies as well as its foes, US leaders will need to heed Durrenmatt’s compelling observation about the “worst,” and advance precise and plausible premonitions of collapse. These fearful premonitions would be needed to chart more durably scientific paths to national security. Presumably, such critical awareness is not yet in place. It is, nonetheless, a meaningful warning.
Looking beyond Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and a legal/political philosophy that formed much of the wellspring of America’s founding fathers, the specific triggering mechanism of our beleaguered world’s incremental descent into chaos could originate from mass-casualty attacks, from similar attacks against other western democracies, from a mass-dying occasioned by disease pandemic or even assorted synergies between these causes. Alternatively, it could draw literally explosive nurturance from the belligerent use of nuclear weapons in seemingly distant regions. If, for example, the first military use of nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were initiated by North Korea or Pakistan, Israel’s nuclear survival strategy could then have to be re-considered and aptly modified.
The precise “spillover” impact on the United States of any nuclear weapons use by North Korea or Pakistan would depend, at least in part, upon the specific combatants involved, the expected rationality or irrationality of these combatants, the yields and ranges of the nuclear weapons actually fired and the aggregate calculation of civilian and military harms suffered in the affected areas. These would be intellectual/jurisprudential calculations, not political ones.
Any chaotic disintegration of the world system would transform the American system. Recalling Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, such a transformation could ultimately involve total or near-total destruction. In anticipation, the US will soon have to orient its basic strategic planning to an assortment of worst-case prospects, thereby focusing far more deliberately on science than politics. Per previous discussion, such a re-orientation is already underway at STRATCOM with respect to America’s strategic triad.
The State of Nations remains the State of Nature. For the United States, certain prominent but time-dishonored processes that are conveniently but erroneously premised on allegedly “scientific” assumptions of reason and rationality will have to be renounced. For Americans, the fragmenting situation in post-US-withdrawal Afghanistan will represent just a beginning. Here, wider patterns of “Westphalian” anarchy, chaos and disorder are more-or-less inevitable. What might still be avoided by proper intellectual and legal attention, however, is mega-destruction.
Such avoidance will require more than just good luck. It will demand a distinctly primary and antecedent awareness that in our current world politics, as in any other primordial state of nature, survival ultimately demands resolute courage, an openly intellectual imagination and the determined conviction that any huge short-term national losses are preferable to long-term collective disappearance. Any such awareness would represent a fundamentally intellectual and legal challenge, not just an operational one.
Historically, a science-based correlation of forces approach to strategy has been applied as a tangible measure of competitive armed forces, ranging from quantitative considerations at the subunit level and extending to variously clarifying assessments of major military formations. It has also been used to compare resources and capabilities at operational levels of day-to-day strategy and at the much higher levels of “grand strategy.” At times, moreover, this particular application has been related to the similar but less comprehensive strategic notion of “force ratios.”
Presently, facing a conceivably broader and more ominous variety of existential security threats than ever before, perils originating from both state and sub-state adversaries, the United States must undertake substantially broader and more complex correlation of forces assessments. In this new and determinedly scientific search, President Biden’s appropriate planners must consciously employ more than the traditionally “objective” yardstick for scientific measurement of adversarial forces. Though US defense strategists routinely compare all available data concerning the numerical and qualitative characteristics of relevant units, including personnel, weaponry and equipment, field commanders will also need to cultivate certain newly subjective kinds of understanding.
Such an unorthodox recommendation may appear to fly in the face of the usual military science emphasis on tangible facts, but – in war as well as in peace – these “facts” are often the result of personal and particular interpretations.
There is more. In exploiting a suitably improved concept of a science-based strategic theory, President Biden’s senior planners will seemingly have to reject a basic axiom of “geometry.” They will need to recognize, among other things, that certain critical force measurements must not only remain imprecise but that such imprecision may also include important forms of strategic and legal understanding. A particular enemy’s consuming dedication to certain presumed religious expectations, its utterly uncompromising strength of will, could sometimes resist any traditional sorts of measurement, but would still remain determinative.
In science-based strategic assessments, just as in various judgments of human psychology, there are ascertainable variables that will remain refractory to measurement, but still be of considerable explanatory importance.
History and international law will deserve a primary pride of place. Several emerging hazards to America’s national security will be shaped by a durably “Westphalian” geometry of chaos. In this delicately unbalanced and largely unprecedented set of imprecise calculations, the “whole,” paradoxically, may turn out to be more (or less) than the sum of its “parts.” It follows, looking ahead, that US strategic planners will need to bring a still more nuanced and intellectually unorthodox approach to their science-based work. This means, especially, an original awareness that proper planning could sometimes presume enemy irrationality and that such planning must also be able to distinguish between authentic enemy irrationality and pretended enemy irrationality.
How can the American military planner recognize the difference between real and contrived irrationality? This is an increasingly urgent question; it cannot be answered by any standard references to more traditional modes of strategic analysis. Nor can it ever be answered by an American president who would value “attitude” over “preparation,” claiming, as did former President Donald Trump, that the risks of a nuclear war had disappeared simply because two national leaders “fell in love.”
In candor, any such presidential claim ought to have elicited myriad howls of execration, not widespread public acquiescence or silence.
Ipso facto, the strange “romance” could never override the usual drivers of world politics.
Any such presidential claim was expressly caricatural, not intellectual.
And this ought already to have been perfectly obvious by definition.
Still, it was the open and never-modified claim of US President Donald Trump following his June 12, 2018, Singapore Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
These same issues of rational decision-making will have to be looked at from the standpoint of optimizing America’s capacity to project more purposeful images of strategic nuclear policy. Reciprocally, US planners will have to decide when (if ever) this country would be better served in its deterrence and war-fighting capabilities by some deliberate projections of limited or partial irrationality. Naturally, any such projection would be problematic, and strategists would need to remain ever-mindful of pretended irrationality as a double-edged sword. Brandished too provocatively, various strategic preparations could unexpectedly encourage enemy preemptions. In this regard, such preparations could also undermine peace-maximizing expectations of pertinent international law.
By its improved use of science-based strategic thinking, the US president would need to seize every available operational initiative, including appropriate intelligence and counterintelligence functions, to best influence and control a particular enemy’s matrix of values and expectations. This is a tall policy order, of course, especially as multiple enemies could include both state and sub-state adversaries, (“hybrid” enemies), often with substantial and subtle interactions taking place between them. Moreover, at some point in an age of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the consequences of assorted strategic planning failures spawned by politics could become overwhelming. The only foreseeable remedy for such intolerable failures must be an antecedent national focus on science, intellect and law.
More precise strategy/legal questions should now arise. In greater detail, with new and particular uncertainties arising, what should be the more holistic US concept of a correlation of forces? Always, this is a proper question for science, intellect and law, not for politics.
There is more. This concept must take careful account of all enemy leaders’ intentions as well as capabilities. Such an accounting is always more subjective than more traditional assessments of personnel, weapons and logistical data. Any such accounting will also need to be thoughtful and nuanced rather than based exclusively on behavioral profiles.
It will not be enough for US planners to judiciously gather and examine hard data from all of the usual sources. It will also be important to put American planners directly into the “shoes” of each relevant enemy leader, president, king or terrorist, thus determining, among other things, what US capacity and vulnerability look like to them. In the formal language of philosophy of science, such a perspective is most commonly identified as “Verstehen.”
Next, expanding more precisely what has just been discussed, any properly scientific and legal correlation of forces concept must take close account of enemy leaders’ presumed rationality. Any adversary that does not conform to the rules of rational behavior in world politics might not be deterred by any US threats, military or otherwise. This is the case even where this country would possess both the capacity and resolve to make good on deterrent threats.
Where an enemy state or sub-state would not value its own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, the standard logic of deterrence could be immobilized. Correspondingly, all bets would then be off concerning probable enemy reactions to US retaliatory threats. What then?
Insofar as assassination/targeted killing may be considered a particular form of preemption (“anticipatory self-defense” under international law), it is plausible that the United States could sometimes abandon any operational plans for more standard and recognizable forms of defensive first-strike, but still remain more or less willing to selectively target enemy leaders or even nuclear scientists. In essence, viewed from the standpoint of an expanded and science-based strategic orientation, this could mean a more formal inclusion of assassination and sabotage within this country’s law-based strategic doctrine. It goes without saying that any such inclusion would be fraught with legal and operational difficulties.
There is more. US strategic planning assessments could also need to consider the organization of changing enemy state units; their training standards; their morale; their reconnaissance capabilities; their battle experience; and their suitability/adaptability to the prospective battlefield. Traditionally, these sorts of assessments are quite ordinary, and not exceedingly difficult to make or innovate on an individual or piecemeal basis. But now, suitably creative policy planners will be those who are best able to conceptualize such ordinarily diverse factors together, in tandem, and with appropriate considerations of relevant law. Recalling Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, one vital purpose of this proposed strategic/legal holism should be to avoid protracted warfare. The ancient Chinese strategist’s observation that “No country has ever profited from protracted warfare. . . .” remains meaningful to American strategic thought. This is because the longer a particular conflict proceeds, the greater may be the compelling national incentives to escalate toward progressively higher forms of military destructiveness.
There is more. Always, US assessments must consider scientifically and legally the cumulative capabilities and intentions of America’s non-state enemies; that is, the entire configuration of anti‑American terrorist groups. In the future, such assessments should offer more than a simple group by group consideration. The particular groups in question should be considered in their entirety, collectively, as they may interrelate with one another vis-à-vis the United States.
These several hostile groups might also need to be considered in their interactive relationships with certain core enemy states. This last point could best be characterized as an essential science-based search for prospective synergies between state and sub-state adversaries.
This brings purposeful analysis to “asymmetric warfare.” Today, especially in the Middle East and southwest Asia, crucial asymmetries may lie not only in particular force structures or ratios but also in hard-to-measure levels of determination or strength of will. Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812), speaks of a need for “audacity.” This special quality represents a potentially crucial variable for American strategic planners. Still, by definition, it must always elude any kind of sharply precise or tangible measurement.
Finally, and once again recalling Sun Tzu – this time, his spatial injunction that “If there is no place to go, it is fatal terrain” – US strategic planning judgments should take suitable note of still-ongoing metamorphoses of certain fragmented non-state adversaries into sovereign state foes. To wit, in post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, Taliban elements could rapidly undergo such worrisome transformations. Similar concerns could surface with various Hezbollah elements in a once-again deteriorating Lebanon.
In the inherently bewildering matter of synergies, American strategic planners will need to consider and search for “force multipliers.” A force multiplier is a collection of related characteristics, other than weapons and force size, that may make a military organization more effective in combat. A force multiplier may be generalship; tactical surprise; tactical mobility; or certain command and control system enhancements. It could include less costly forms of preemption such as assassination and sabotage. It could include certain well-integrated components of cyber-warfare, and also a reciprocal capacity to prevent and blunt incoming cyber-attacks.
This particular force multiplier could prove more decisive than any others. Though plainly nonexistent in the earlier times of Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, “cyber-audacity” already represents a core component of America’s broadened scientific approach to nuclear strategy.
There is more. The insertion of certain force multipliers may create synergy. Before this can happen, senior strategists must ensure that their analyses and consequent recommendations are systematically detached from any false hopes. Accordingly, the ancient advice of Thucydides (416 BCE), writing on the ultimatum of the Athenians to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War, should remain instructive: “Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined. . . .” A good recent example of such a perilous leadership contrivance was former President Donald Trump’s dissembling assurance to Americans that North Korea would no longer be a threat because he and Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love.”
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
The overriding objective of any science and law-based strategic nuclear plan must be to inform leadership decisions about two complementary variables: (1) perceived vulnerabilities of the United States; and (2) perceived vulnerabilities of enemy states and non-states. This means, among other things, gathering and assessing crucial bits of accessible information. For current example, this means information about the expected persuasiveness of US nuclear deterrence posture. To endure well into the increasingly uncertain future, such information, and not some concocted series of unfounded political hopes, must remain at the core of US nuclear strategy.
Conceptually, in a world of growing international anarchy and possible chaos, this means that US strategy include (1) recognizing enemy force multipliers; (2) challenging and undermining enemy force multipliers; and (3) developing and refining America’s own force multipliers.
It is routinely assumed that US security from enemy missile attack is ensured by American nuclear deterrence, however opaque. But any such vital strategy of dissuasion must depend upon many complex and interpenetrating conditions and perceptions. Per se, America’s possession of nuclear weapons can never automatically bestow real national security.
A rational nation-state enemy of the United States will always accept or reject a first-strike option against this country or America’s allied states by comparing the costs and benefits of each available alternative. Where the expected costs of striking first are presumed to exceed expected gains, this enemy should be deterred. But where these expected costs are believed to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence would fail. Here, an American ally could sometimes be faced with an enemy nuclear attack, whether as a “bolt from the blue” or as an outcome of (anticipated or unanticipated) crisis escalation.
An example would be a crisis in northeast Asia involving North Korea and pertinent US security guarantees of “extended deterrence” to South Korea and/or Japan. Here, in extremis atomicum, contending states vying for “escalation dominance” could unwittingly find themselves in the midst of an uncontrollable nuclear war.
In thinking about science, strategy and law, an immediate task for Washington will be to strengthen its nuclear deterrent such that any enemy state will always calculate a first-strike attack to be irrational. This means taking all proper steps to convince these enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this overriding and law-enforcing objective, America must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with presumptively calibrated (not “one size fits all”) nuclear weapons.
Should an enemy state considering an attack upon a US ally be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might then choose to strike first, depending in part upon the particular value or “utility” that it places on the expected consequences of such an attack. It is precisely to prevent just such an “unconvincing” nuclear deterrence posture that the United States should now consider revealing still more specific information about its nuclear forces and infrastructures.
To protect itself against enemy nuclear strikes, particularly attacks that could carry intolerable costs, US defense planners will need to prepare to exploit every relevant aspect and function of their nation’s nuclear arsenal. The success and lawfulness of America’s effort here will depend not only upon its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter value”) but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to enemy states and to their sub-state surrogates. Before such enemies could be suitably deterred from launching first strikes against US allies, and before they could be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any American-supported preemptions, it may not be enough for them to merely know that this country maintains a vast nuclear arsenal.
Regarding US ally Israel, American planners working on a more science and law-based strategic paradigm will need to understand the following: Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Any such calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. From the standpoint of maximizing a science and law-based Israeli nuclear deterrent, IDF planners should proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is just as important as perceived capability. Ipso facto, the more credible Israel’s nuclear deterrent, the more international law-enforcing it becomes.
There are determinable circumstances in which a science and law-based nuclear deterrence strategy would lead American and/or Israeli planners to consider certain preemption options. This conclusion obtains because there could sometimes arise circumstances in which the existential risks of continuing to rely upon some combination of nuclear deterrence and active defenses would become too great. In such perilous circumstances, US decision-makers would need to determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,” would be sufficiently cost-effective. Their judgments would depend upon a number of potentially intersecting and critical factors, including: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost (disutility) of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployments; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected world legal community reactions to US and/or Israeli preemptions.
No doubt, US strategic planners will note that rational American and/or Israeli inclinations to strike preemptively would be affected by the particular steps taken by prospective target states (e.g., Iran, North Korea) to guard themselves against preemption. Science and law-based planners must presume that such policies could sometimes call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles upon receipt of warning that an enemy attack is already underway. By requiring launch before the attacking US or Israeli warheads actually reached their intended targets, any enemy reliance on launch-on-warning processes could carry very grave and expanded risks of catastrophic atomic error.
The single most important factor in rendering science and law-based judgments on preemption must be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike the US or a US ally with nuclear forces irrespective of anticipated counterstrikes, deterrence would cease to work. This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if the enemy leaders fully understood that the US and/or US ally had “successfully” deployed its nuclear weapons in survivable modes; that its nuclear weapons were believed to be capable of penetrating the enemy’s active defenses; and that leaders were conspicuously willing to retaliate.
Also conceivable is that pertinent foes would sometimes be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. While irrational enemy decision-makers would already pose special problems for nuclear deterrence, they might still be rendered susceptible to certain alternate forms of deterrence. This means, much like fully rational enemy decision-makers, that they could still be expected to maintain a fixed, determinable and “transitive” hierarchy of preferences.
Genuinely mad adversaries, on the other hand, would display no such calculable hierarchy of preferences and would not be subject to any ordinary strategies of nuclear deterrence. Although it would be worse for the US or US ally to face a mad nuclear adversary than a “merely” irrational one, Washington would have no meaningful say in such a matter. Conceptually, this means that America and certain of its allies will need to maintain a “three-track” system of nuclear deterrence and defense, one track each for adversaries that are presumed to be rational, irrational, or mad.
A seriously complicating factor in utilizing any such trichotomous distinction would be the practical difficulty of sorting out the correct enemy inclination in actual moments of adversarial confrontation and decision.
Facing variously new forms of chaotic regional disintegration, it is now time for the United States to go beyond its already-expanded paradigm of numerical military assessments to various additional considerations. Within this wider and more self-consciously scientific-legal strategic paradigm, US planners should focus, among other areas, upon the cumulative and interpenetrating importance of unconventional weapons and low-intensity warfare in the region. This is an area of concern that is uniquely complex and increasingly urgent; “geometrically,” it suggests that the “whole” of security threats now facing the US and certain US allies is prospectively greater than the calculable sum of its discrete and more-or-less observable “parts.”
“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in his On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” For America, looking forward, this means an overriding obligation to forge, dialectically and deductively, sound strategic theory – that is, a coherent network of interrelated propositions from which law-enforcing policy options could be identified, rank-ordered, and selected. In more starkly conceptual terms, this means a self-consciously theoretical consideration of (1) all plausible interactions between available strategic options; and (2) all plausible synergies between expected enemy attacks (state and sub-state).
Always, these are proper matters for science and law, not narrowly partisan politics.
Various additional nuclear narratives now demand US scientific/legal attention. Certain terror attacks could draw in one or more of America’s state enemies, or the adversarial terror group itself could become more-or-less independently nuclear. In this plausibly more ominous second scenario, the expected danger would arrive not in the form of any “chain reaction” nuclear weapons attack, but instead as a relatively tolerable “dirty bomb.”
Taken by itself, the dirty-bomb variant of nuclear terrorism would pose no authentic hazards of mass destruction; still, at least in some expected synergies with other kinds of enemy attack, both state and sub-state, the overall security costs could prove considerable.
Actually figuring out a dense amalgam of interrelated propositions (scientific theory) will present US military nuclear planners with a computational task on the highest order of intellectual difficulty. But there exists no other serious option. Whatever else these planners may decide is best in their ongoing assessments, they must never lose sight of the central fact that their most basic task concerns a continuously scientific struggle of “mind over mind,” never merely one of “mind over matter.”
There is one last compelling observation to be made about science, law and America’s strategic posture. It is that this incomparable component of national security planning must include an ever-present and dynamic “avant-garde, a commitment to intellectual “advance” that could progressively enrich US strategic studies. In essence, by embracing this originally military notion of a changing and cross-fertilizing intellectual vanguard, America’s nuclear planners could be best positioned to remain creative and useful in executing variously complex and daunting security obligations.
According to Thucydides, when the ancient Athenian leader Pericles delivered his first Funeral Speech at the start of the Peloponnesian War, he cautioned: “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies is our own mistakes.” It is such imperishable wisdom that should now guide US nuclear strategists in the uncertain years ahead. This means avoiding not merely the most conspicuously worthless kinds of nuclear strategies – e.g., former President Donald J, Trump’s incoherent conclusion at the June 12, 2018, Singapore Summit that North Korea was no longer a nuclear problem because he and Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love” – but also more seemingly sensible and fact-based strategies. These strategies to be avoided would be anti-science orientations and policies founded only upon an apparent “common-sense.”
For the United States, no subject could be more urgently important than nuclear strategy, a kaleidoscopic set of problems that will never yield to visceral intuitions or the related banalities of domestic politics. Going forward in the current Biden Era, America must return to an earlier post-World War II awareness that any such set warrants a response that is conspicuously intellectual. To be sure, recalling Trump’s presidential nuclear promises regarding North Korea and Iran, simplifying phrases of ordinary political discourse could first appear less popularly daunting. Inevitably, however, offering disingenuous palliatives (offers akin to saying that a grave pandemic disease will “disappear on its own”) would prove embarrassing, foolish and very dangerously wrong.
At that date, it would be far too late to elevate a science and law-based strategy over a perpetually shallow domestic politics.
On June 22, 1633, the Inquisition delivered its final verdict on astronomer-scientist Galileo Galilei. “We say, sentence and declare that you, Galileo, by reason of the evidence arrived at in the trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy.” Galileo had gotten in trouble for using scientific observation to support evidence-based Copernican theory that the Earth was in orbit around the sun. More precisely, ruled the Inquisitors, Galileo had believed in a doctrine “false and contrary to divine Scripture” that the Sun (not the earth) is the center of the universe. It was perhaps the quintessential example of humankind’s most refractory inclinations.
What next? Conveniently, for the United States dealing with complex issues of national nuclear strategy, converging expectations of law and science coincide. Going forward, this means that the country’s survival will depend upon a determined willingness to reject the futile promises of politics and politicos, and turn instead toward a thought-based fusion of jurisprudence and analysis. In this connection, the law-violating and science-rejecting Trump Era should serve as an egregious benchmark of what must always be scrupulously avoided.
Recalling Goethe’s Faust, what can be expected in any case are “creatures of our own making.”
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is an Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018). Professor Beres’ strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); JURIST; Daily Princetonian; Horasis (Switzerland); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Hill; The National Interest; and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, American Nuclear Strategy: A Complex Problem of Law and Intellect, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 12, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/05/louis-beres-american-nuclear-strategy/.
This article was prepared for publication by Gabrielle Wast, JURIST’s Deputy Executive Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.