Building Out Capabilities for The Second Nuclear Age

2013-07-21  By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

Paul Bracken has tried to jump start the strategic debate by suggesting that the old thinking and bromides of the first nuclear age have little to do with how the U.S. should shape its policies going forward.

Unfortunately, the strategic community remains in the grips of self-deterrence.  We see things like cyber war, fifth generation aircraft, loose nucs, etc. and instead of embracing new technologies and approaches to the evolving strategic setting, we tend to remain wedded to past thinking.

There is nothing truer to the point than a strategic calculus that would President Obama to propose the kind of cuts he proposed in Berlin with little or no consideration for the kind of military policy necessary to deal with the second nuclear age.

And even though the President has referred to the F-22 as a cold war weapon, the problem really is that the strategic community and notably arms controllers are firmly wedded to the past.

To be clear, strategic arms control efforts played a role – and at times an important one – as part of the U.S.-Soviet relationship.

It plays no such role today, and with the Russians clearly committed to a significant tactical nuclear force, as part of their response to the second nuclear age, simply pursuing the Cold War formula makes no sense.

The question is deterrence; not arms control.

How do you deter smaller nuclear powers, which have little or no vested interest in doing vast strikes against the United States, but do wish to hit the U.S. and certainly to dominate their regions by using their nuclear weapons as part of a political strategy?

It is clear that simply downsizing the U.S. strategic arsenal and pursuing a counter value strategy has little or nothing to do with deterrence in the second nuclear age.  Full stop.

Can anyone tell the North Koreans that they are deterred because I could annihilate them but that is really my only nuclear option?

And if I did that I would reduce my arsenal to the point that I expose myself to Chinese and Russian balance of power imbalances?

Amazingly, one can go to discussions of nuclear deterrence Inside the Beltway and here the names of the original post WW II deterrent thinkers invoked as a rationale for continuing as we have.  Herman Kahn would role over in his grave if he watched the kind of self-deterrence the US is doing to itself in pursuit of a delusional deterrent strategy.

As a thinker who spent his life arguing with and dialoguing with senior USAF and governmental personnel, he would also find it amazing how little such dialogue is going on currently.

A key aspect of any discussion about a viable U.S. deterrence strategy is being able to deal with threats, which can severely affect continuity of government.  In our time in government, a core focus of DOD and national security policy was spent ensuring that continuity of government was not one deep.

It is clear that the Chinese with their extensive tunneling systems understand that continuity of government is a key part of the strategic deterrent. If one can not destroy the adversaries C2 system, deterrence is reinforced.

But from what can see from outside of government, this seems more a Chinese concern and effort than an American one.

Another aspect he would find interesting is the real avoidance of embracing new military technologies as part of the solution set.  One can not imagine Kahn ignoring the opportunities afforded by a fifth generation fleet of F-35s and F-22s as part of the conventional foundation for nuclear deterrence and peppering this fleet with nuclear strike assets as well.

It is clearly time to pick up the challenge placed down by Bracken and moving own beyond the avoidance of the nasty question of how does one deter powers adamant to have nuclear weapons to support broadly their political agendas.

We have seen Al Qaeda with conventional weapons, when they have nuclear ones, it will be interesting to see what we do.  Kahn clearly would have clearly challenged us to think about the unthinkable, and in this case when powers that do not share the globalization is good consensus pursue their own path with nuclear weapons in their kit of goods to gain global influence.

In such a context, one could challenge the notion that rebuilding the US economy is the primary SECURITY problem.  It is not.

Making sure the U.S. has freedom of action to deal with a wide range of nasty characters in a world less characterized by a friendly form of globalization is.

At the heart of the challenge is building, deploying AND using an upgraded conventional power projection force which has the ability to penetrate the air and sea space of Second Nuclear Age powers and being able to dismantle their infrastructure to operate those weapons.

It would not stop there, for the need to have credible non-conventional options, which could be stacked upon the dismantling capabilities, are crucial as well.

We are building a number of tools, which could position the United States to have such a capability, but a slow roll of rebuilding air and naval power will not get us there.  And not fostering serous debate about the problem of deterrence in the Second Nuclear age will not get us there either.

In our next piece, we will discuss some of those tools and how they might be woven together to shape a credible US deterrent strategy for the Second Nuclear Age.

Clearly, the classic distinctions between conventional and nuclear means are in play.

And the question of deterrence really revolves around the capabilities one can bring to the attack and defense enterprise for a 21st century military.

We certainly are not arguing that we have the definitive answer; we do believe we are dealing with the determinate question.


Among other key governmental positions, Ed Timperlake was Principal Director Mobilization Planning and Requirements/OSD in President Reagan’s first term.

Dr. Robbin Laird has worked for many years on nuclear issues and had opportunities to discuss with Herman Kahn during the end of his life and had the opportunity to first meet Dr. Bracken.

See, e.g., Robbin Laird and Dale Herspring, The Soviet Union and Strategic Arms, Westview Press, 1984.

We will further develop inputs to the Second Nuclear Age issues on the Second Line of Defense forum.

For some additional inputs posted so far, see the following:

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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