The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy
Overview: In 1984, Robert Jervis published a wide-ranging critique of American nuclear strategy, entitled “The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy,” in which he argued that much of the thinking by nuclear strategists and decision-makers within the US federal government had, over the previous decades, been based on a flawed understanding of the nature of both nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. He suggested that the United States need only possess the ability to strike back at Soviet nuclear forces in order to deter them from launching a surprise attack on the US or its allies. Any capability in excess of this was unnecessary and, even more problematically, destabilizing.
For both Schelling and Jervis, threats issued by a state with a numerical inferiority could be viewed as equivalently credible, if not more so, than those issued by one with a larger and thus more destructive capability if the stakes involved were greater for the numerically inferior state. Matthew Kroenig’s recently released, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, is in many ways a direct rebuttal to Jervis, Schelling, and the many scholarly works published since that echo these sentiments. In it, he lays out a detailed argument as to why such an approach is at best incomplete, if not wholly misguided.
Kroenig begins by reviewing the classic logic of the brinkmanship game, which suggests that once each state in a two-player game possesses a second-strike capability, any additional capability should not affect the outcome of the game. If both sides escalate to nuclear war, each player in the game is affected equally (destruction). The winner of the game is thus determined not by whether one possesses more or less capability, but which, as mentioned previously, is more resolute and/or risk-acceptant. Kroenig smartly points out, as he has in previous scholarship, that it is obviously not the case that two states with drastically different sized nuclear arsenals would suffer in the same way in such a situation. Were such an exchange to occur between the United States and China, for example, the comparatively small size of the Chinese nuclear force combined with the US’ ability to destroy much of the Chinese nuclear arsenal before its use would virtually guarantee a US victory.
- To reflect this dynamic, in Chapter 1 he offers his “superiority-brinkmanship synthesis theory,” which suggests that states that possess a superior destructive capability have a distinct advantage in crisis bargaining situations because the potential cost of escalating to nuclear war is less than for those with a numerically inferior force. He also discusses a number of alternate theories, including second-strike, nuclear irrelevance, and nuclear posture, and suggests that his theory is far better at explaining the behavior observed by states during the nuclear era. How should the lack of true consensus on the most effective nuclear deterrence theory shape the US approach to the strategic issue?
- In Chapters 2-5, he sets out to test the strength of “superiority-brinkmanship synthesis theory,” and the alternate theories mentioned previously, using both qualitative and quantitative analyses and finds that nuclear superiority bolsters both deterrence and coercion. Furthermore, he finds that the scale of these effects increases as the disparity in capability between the two parties in a nuclear crisis increases. Do you find Kroenig’s evidence supporting superiority persuasive? How should the US approach maintaining and upgrading its nuclear triad if superiority really does bolster deterrence and coercion?
- The second part of the book (Chapters 6-9) not only attempts to dispel the conventional wisdom that nuclear superiority is inherently destabilizing, but challenges the prevailing logic of the stabilizing influence of nuclear parity. Nuclear parity, he points out, was always considered tenuous because it relied on “mutual vulnerability” between adversaries. If either side in such a relationship ever felt that its adversary possessed or was developing a first-strike capability, the other side might be incentivized to preemptively strike else it risk losing the ability to respond. In this way, there were strong pressures not only to guarantee one’s own ability to conduct a second-strike, but also that of one’s adversary. Situations where preponderances of capability exist, however, are not subject to such tenuous circumstances because it is much clearer, at the outset of a nuclear crisis, who the likely victor would be, regardless of who launches first or second. Thus, this kind of situation is inherently more stable than one in which parity exists. Kroenig further argues that many of the most often cited instability-inducing byproducts of nuclear superiority, arms races, nuclear proliferation, etc., are wholly unsupported by the empirical record. Considering Kroenig’s arguments, should the US seek nuclear superiority? What does seeking superiority mean for the Air Force which is responsible for two legs of the nuclear triad? How will our primary competitors interpret seeking nuclear superiority, and will seeking nuclear superiority lead to another escalating arms race?