Nuclear Strategy in a Dynamic World Analysis

Donald M. Snow

Nuclear Strategy in a Dynamic World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

An impressive number of books on nuclear issues have appeared recently and many more are reportedly coming out this year, a clear reflection of the growing debate over nuclear strategy. Interest in the strategic posture of the superpowers is no longer confined to the relatively small community of policymakers and military and academic experts in the field. A larger sector of the general public has become more fully aware of the indescribable horror of a nuclear holocaust. Also, many people are apparently disconcerted over the Reagan Administration’s military buildup program, the tough confrontation talk, and statements about “limited” nuclear war. Donald M. Snow’s book provides a comprehensive treatment of the problems relating to nuclear strategy. It is a timely and welcome work, for it makes this technically and theoretically complex subject matter more widely accessible.

Deterrence, that “elusive art,” underlies United States strategic force planning. The incredibly powerful American nuclear forces are intended to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies by threatening catastrophic retaliation in return. Strategic nuclear weapons, along with American and allied theater nuclear weapons and conventional forces, are also to deter nonnuclear attacks, especially a large-scale attack on Western European NATO allies. Imperative to successful deterrence is the mounting of a credible retaliatory threat; however, what might be considered sufficient force to deter attack may not be seen the same way by the adversary. For this reason, the United States has insisted upon “essential equivalence” with the Soviet Union in strategic nuclear forces. This means that the strategic nuclear forces of the two superpowers are to be equal and that Soviet advantages in some categories are offset by American advantages in others.

The key to a stable nuclear deterrence system is the maintenance of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). In implementing MAD, the United States relies on an incremental force configuration of three elements, the “Triad,” consisting of land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. The resultant strength, diversity, and survivability is to ensure that the adversary does not have any incentive to launch a first strike. According to the Pentagon, the United States refrains from deploying the kind of forces that would directly threaten the Soviet capability to retaliate. Although that claim is arguable, the United States primarily seeks to remove incentives to strike first and to sustain relative stability for the deterrence system. From the American perspective, a commensurate Soviet restraint has been notably lacking of late.

The deterrence system’s capacity to deter is undermined by the dynamism of the arms race, subject to quantum leaps in capability. Both sides relentlessly develop their war-fighting nuclear technology. New delivery systems, more accurate warheads, improved guidance systems, better data processing and advanced targeting capabilities follow one another in never-ending spirals. Other developments are in the offing, which render deterrence more fragile than ever. These include charged particle beams, hunter-killer satellites, and submarine detection technology, potentially affecting the survivability of the nuclear submarine fleet. Deterrence is the product of capability and credibility. To achieve it, the volatile and destabilizing arms race has to be brought under control.

Experts and theoreticians are attempting to come to grips with the problem, but their task is all the more difficult because of uncertainty regarding the problem’s theoretical formulation, not to mention the disagreements regarding basic concepts. In the course of his analysis, Snow refers to two prominent conceptual devices dealing with nuclear strategy matters. One of these is the action-reaction phenomenon approach. Within its context, for example, the American deployment of Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) was a response to Soviet efforts to develop the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system. MIRVs, however, constituted a potent new offensive weapon system in Soviet eyes and spurred an arms buildup on their part, leading to the current quantitative imbalance.

The other approach comes from game theory. Specifically applicable to the strategic...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)

Nuclear Strategy in a Dynamic World Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 1607.

Library Journal. CVI, May 1, 1981, p. 979.