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The Role Of Nuclear Weapons
And Its Possible Future Missions

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Chapter III. Can The Nuclear Deterrence Be Improved?

Nuclear deterrence policy is still high on the list for politicians and military thinkers in both the East and the West. It seems that this policy has successfully survived the end of the Cold War. Will it survive the years coming - if no one will really see the "Cold Peace" and the situation will keep improving? One will hardly put under doubt the assessment that in the nearest future neither participant of the recent "nuclear deterrence" race will eliminate its nuclear forces - and even the very success in strategic arms reduction when sides do nothing with total elimination of those arms support this prediction.

Then what are the criteria for determining the acceptable size and composition of future "peaceful" nuclear deterrence forces? If the old deterrence criteria no longer hold good, what might replace them? All this questions are to be answered - and the earlier, the better. Let us begin with one element - the possibility of improvements aimed to "soften" nuclear deterrence, make it appropriate for the current conditions. This will be the first step in the study of possible future roles and tasks of nuclear weapons.

Despite improvements in relations between Russia and its main recent "nuclear opponent" - the USA, it is too early to speak about the demise of nuclear deterrence policy. To be sure, the best option for the Russia-US nuclear dialogue would be to evolve towards the model existing in the relations in the nuclear weapons-related field in the US-Britain-France triangle, if it were not for the 70-odd years of pointed confrontation that turned nuclear after the World War II. It saw only one short, half-hearted reversal during the fight against Nazism and is certain to have long-term influence upon the mentality of leaders of the both sides. Russian-American relations, therefore, are likely to keep in the rut of mutual nuclear deterrence for years to come. In this connection it would seem advisable adjusting the deterrence doctrine to minimize the negative effect it is having on the Russian-American intercourse.

Assured destruction was the brainchild of a team of experts working under the US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the early 1960s, who suggested it as the last in a series of possible moves that could be threatened to deter the putative Soviet aggression against the US and its allies. The Soviet Union accepted the US deterrence model as it took to planning its own strategic nuclear forces (SYaS - Strategicheskie Yadernie Sily, the Russian for "strategic nuclear forces") and their strategy in line with the assured destruction principle which thus became the principle of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

In the opinion of McNamara, deterrence could have effect, if the Soviet leadership was assured that 25 to 30 per cent of the USSR's population and 50 to 70 per cent of its industrial potential would perish in a US nuclear retaliatory strike. For this to happen, McNamara's experts estimated it would be enough to deliver on targets in the Soviet Union nuclear weapons of cumulative yield of 400 megatons of the TNT equivalent.

But the flews of the minimal deterrence doctrine became apparent to military experts as early as the second half of the 1970s. In the last few years, for example, the Soviet military were no longer set the objective of destroying the United States with the help of the Soviet SYaS. Should it come to the crunch, the SYaS were to cause as much destruction to the US war economy as to assure that America would be unable to restore its military potential to the pre-war level before 10 to 15 years. By all appearances, the US military planning was based on similar approaches. And yet either side kept the MAD rhetoric in political turnover just for bluff.

The possibility of mutual assured destruction is, therefore, a thing of the past, with both Russia and the United States effectively adding by a milder deterrence model than the MAD. The events of the last four years make it possible for them to admit as much publicly and stop invoking MAD in order to deter each other. But it does not cancel the nuclear deterrence principle per se.

One could conventionally describe the current deterrence model as a sort of "mutual assured engagement", where the make-up and size of nuclear deterrence forces on the both sides was measured up to objective of crippling (actually destroying) the backbone of the enemy's military and military industrial potential with emphasize on the latter. But even this strategic sufficiency criterion seems to be excessive with regard to highly-developed countries, both in the present post-Cold War environment and in a hypothetical case of relapse into new Cold War.

Deterring countries like the United States of America may well be based on the undeservedly forgotten principle, which was formulated in the early 1920s by the man who is now clearly out of favor with the public in the current Russia but who contributed a lot to establishment of the Soviet Russia: "The imperialists must know that after a war and as a consequence of a war against us they will enjoy worse living conditions than those they had before the war and could have without the war" (Vladimir Lenin).

In other words, the deterring effect can and must arise from a feared plunge in living standards, which will cause the loss of what is accepted as habitual and normal. Applying (with understandable reservations) the principle of non-lethality to nuclear deterrence is definitely not the worst of ideas for today.

In fact, can one imagine a US administration that would risk escalating a conflict with Russia if it knew for sure that the surviving US cities would be plunged in darkness, food supplies would grow erratic across the nation and on top of it tens or even hundreds of thousands of American lives would be lost in an instant? What responsible leader will allow developments to take such a turn? And won't he do all in his power to resolve the conflict without recourse to nuclear weapons?

In the latter case one will be in a position to say that the mission of nuclear deterrence - primarily one helping to head off a full-scale nuclear exchange - has been successfully accomplished. The world will be a much quieter place to live in were it dominated by the non-lethal model of nuclear deterrence, both due to reduced number off neuroses in ordinary people and in fact that in conflict situations the politicians would be able to work in a less nervous atmosphere and thus adopt more weighted and sound decisions.

But one may take the matter a step further, putting the above question in a different way. Will the President and administration of the United States risk an intercontinental exchange if they knew that the probability of the described dramatic drop in living standards was to amount to 50 per cent? And what if it were 30 per cent? Or 15 per cent? Deterrence itself is a fine politico-psychological mechanism that can hardly be described in formal terms. Nevertheless, there is sufficient reason to believe that, faced even with a very low probability of nuclear response, the US leaders will not put in jeopardy the prosperity of the United States and its people, choosing to settle the conflict rather than escalate it.

People hold back from running across railway tracks in front of a moving train not because they are sure there will be a trouble, but because they don't rule out it may come. To put it differently, it is not at all inconceivable that in planning their nuclear forces the sides may renounce not only the principle of destruction (let alone "engagement") but also the hitherto firm bedrock foundation of deterrence, the inevitability of retaliation.

In the meantime, a change-over from deterrence by inevitable retaliation to a "presumed deterrence" model will impact on the organization and composition of the strategic nuclear forces. And this will happen not only because their size could be considerably smaller than it is today. Changes in the opponent's combat potential, even if they take place on larger scale than today, will fail to create unacceptable security hazards for a country that has chosen to accept the presumed deterrence model.

The stimuli for participating in the strategic arms race, nuclear included, will be reduced accordingly. Strategic nuclear forces planning will become the business of each particular state to a much greater extent than it is in the present situation of continuous action and counteraction. Needless to say such "independent" approach to force planning would contribute a lot in saving defense money. And this could be the factor "last, but not the least" in the current conditions of serious difficulties with finding money for defense, which are encountered practically by all major military powers, including those involved in nuclear deterrence.

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