“The Bomb: a Life” by Gerard DeGroot (2)

DeGroot’s book “The Bomb: a Life” includes a fascinating analysis of the strategies for the use of nuclear weapons. Much of it reads like some surreal game and this is precisely how it was viewed by all concerned parties.

The nightmare of the American military planners began when the USSR successfully detonated their first Bomb in 1949. At that stage the US had a handful of deliverable nuclear weapons – enough to dent the Soviets but not to obliterate them. With the Cold War in full swing, the hawks in the US Army considered using all their nukes in a preemptive strike against the USSR. They estimated that the attack would kill 10 million people and knock out up to a quarter of the Soviet manufacturing capacity. But, during WW2, the USSR lost some 20 million citizens, had to either write off of relocate 60% of its industry and still went on to beat the Germans. A preemptive strike would not be a killer blow and might in fact serve to harden the Soviet resolve so the idea was dropped.

In a decade or so the rules of the game changed. The US nuclear arsenal was more impressive but the USSR had also in the meantime acquired a respectable punch. While the US had enough nukes to knock out their rivals there was a new angle to consider. In those pre-missile times all nuclear bombs had to be delivered by bombers which took many hours to reach their targets. The first wave would not be enough to king-hit a country the size of USSR so two or three round trips were required. This would have taken about two days, giving the Soviets enough time to strike back. Some of the Soviet bombers would have got through the US air defenses to deliver their deadly load. This was deemed unacceptable by the US military planners so new approaches to the problem were sought. What followed were decades of confused thinking and reckless brinkmanship on both sides of the Atlantic. It appears to me that the military strategists were trying to find a rational approach to an essentially unsolvable problem. I will now go through some of the theories employed at various times during this unsettling and dangerous period.

The central issue was the so called first-strike capability, understood as being able to knock out the opponent cold before they were able to retaliate. The ICBM’s (intercontinental ballistic missiles) reduced the effective response time for retaliation to approximately half an hour. Any land-based nuclear weapons not deployed before the opponent’s missiles hit were dogs breakfast. So, one side would launch a surprise, massive and co-ordinated strike while the attacked would adopt a use-it-or-lose-it response by launching all their ICBM’s and bombers. Assuming the retaliation could not be stopped, the attacker would land a killer blow but also cop a massive counter punch. This way an equilibrium developed in which no winning strategy existed for either side. So far so good.

Please note that first-strike and retaliation phases have different objectives and so employ different means. A first-strike attack has to be powerful, unexpected and co-ordinated. The weapons themselves do not need to be concealed or hardened. What is critical, though, is that the opponent’s intelligence be denied any information on the decision to launch them. An ideal first-strike weapon is ICBM’s. They are numerous, cheap and connected by wired command links. First-strike weapons target the opponent’s missiles, airfields and command centres – cities can be finished off later using bombers.

The requirements for retaliatory weapons are different. Most importantly, they have to be survivable, ideally stealthy. Timing of the counter-strike is not critical, unless (like in the case of non-hardened ICBM’s or bombers on the ground) the weapons themselves are vulnerable to a first-strike attack. Retaliatory weapons target cities – they are a terror weapon intended to make the first-strike option too costly for an attacker to consider.  An ideal vehicle for nuclear retaliation is a missile equipped submarine. They are hard to detect and so invulnerable to first-strike attacks. Subs can afford to take time to assume a firing position and may deliver a punishing blow weeks or even months after the initial exchange. While they cannot send or receive messages when submerged this does not affect their effectiveness as a revenge weapon.

So, in the absence of a winning first-strike game plan both the US and USSR settled for deterrence – meaning reliable retaliation. This, in time, developed into MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) strategy. While scary-sounding MAD was a stable equilibrium position. Who, in their right mind, would consider launching a nuclear strike if a devastating retaliation was sure to follow? But the Soviets upset this balance by changing their definition of a win in the game. Instead of avoiding the counter strike they were prepared to absorb it and settle for an objective of basic survival. To this end they installed a ring of anti-missile defenses around Moscow and invested heavily in nuclear shelters. So, in essence, they accepted that most of their population could fry as long as the leadership and a bunch of others in Moscow had somewhere to hide. In a few weeks they would emerge from the shelters and have a go at re-building the society.

These scenarios defy any notion of humanism. But looking at the whole issue as a game all responses had to be considered and a suitable counter-strategy identified. The US simply kept adding warheads to their nuclear arsenal to make sure that the USSR would remain a radioactive wasteland for decades after an all-out attack. The Soviets were more inventive. They built the Typhoon class of submarines. These monsters could lie on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean for up to two years after the initial nuclear exchange, their crews enjoying amenities like swimming pool, gym and sauna. They would then reactivate and shower the survivors in the US trying to re-build their lives with a fresh volley of missiles. This is so sick the words fail me.

I also want to mention the additional complexity introduced to the game by the nuclear arsenals of UK and France. The UK missiles were de facto under the US command but France excluded its nukes from NATO. From the French viewpoint there was a danger of the US trying to quarantine a nuclear conflict in Europe. They might for example drop dozens of tactical (small) nuclear warheads on the advancing Soviet tank armies but shy away from strategic strikes on the USSR mainland. In this scenario the Soviets might decide not to strike the continental US so the only areas wrecked by the war would be the Central and Western Europe. The French openly claimed that the purpose of their nuclear arsenal was to up the stakes by drawing the US into an all-out nuclear exchange with the USSR. Knowing that in time of trouble France would bomb the Soviet cities the US might as well give up on the idea of a limited nuclear war in Europe and go straight for the Soviet jugular.

THE END

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