News & Politics

The Nuclear Option

US intelligence warns to prepare for atomic battles among nations.

Photo Courtesy

Nuclear weapons, once a nation’s presumed weapon of last resort, could become a feature of modern warfare. But their use doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the world. So says one alarming section of a new government intelligence forecast, which predicts that future conflicts among nations “will most likely involve multiple forms of warfare,” of which nuclear is one. 

Nukes are seen not as a doomsday weapon for utterly vanquishing an adversary, but rather another tool in a nation’s arsenal, one that would be used in concert with conventional military capabilities—ground forces, aircraft, naval forces, etc. The report worries most that Russia would try this approach, but it also finds that India and Pakistan could resort to a nuclear exchange as part of a broader war. China, North Korea  and the Middle East are on the intelligence community’s nuclear radar, too, and the United States fears the regional proliferation of nuclear weapons should Iran build a weapon of its own. 
The government report isn’t the only recent forecast to have raised the nuclear specter. The noted defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich has a new paper in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs that urges the U.S. Defense Department to prepare for potential nuclear war. (emphases added) 
Despite the desire of many powers in the developed world to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons or even eliminate them entirely, such weapons retain their popularity. Russia’s military doctrine has increased the country’s reliance on nuclear weapons to help offset its weak conventional forces. China retains a strong nuclear force. Pakistan is building additional nuclear reactors to produce fissile material for its expanding nuclear arsenal to offset India’s advantage in conventional forces. Iran is driving to a nuclear capability, which could spur an additional proliferation cascade in the Middle East. In light of all this, the Defense Department needs to undertake a comprehensive nuclear posture review that addresses multiple plausible contingencies of nuclear use, coming up with practical policies for how such uses might be prevented or, failing that, how a nuclear conflict might be terminated on acceptable terms once begun.

As a child of the twilight of the Cold War, whose imagination of a nuclear war was largely shaped by the apocalyptic made-for-TV movie The Day After, it’s hard for me to imagine a nuclear conflict being ended on any kind of terms, much less acceptable ones. But apparently it’s the best estimate of our intelligence agencies that a nuclear battle might not—and need not—end in global conflagration. And the countries that dare deploy these weapons might even avoid using them to kill people, the new intelligence report finds, at least not directly. 

Countries with nuclear weapons could be tempted to explode a nuclear device to wipe out their opponent’s ability to maintain [communications] connectivity. Many current systems cannot operate in a hostile electromagnetic or radiated environment. In this instance, nuclear first use would not be used to harm humans as much as to deny opponents use of electronic systems. Space, ocean, and near coastal bottlenecks could be areas of nuclear use with little human collateral damage.