With the second US-North Korea summit having come and gone with no discernible sign of Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, the topic of nuclear weapons remains at the forefront of discussions in national security and defense policy circles. And yet these discussions routinely treat nuclear weapons as a monolithic category of unthinkably destructive power, rather than acknowledging the graduated scale that extends all the way down to the tactical level. Even the Army’s institutional knowledge on the topic has drastically—and dangerously—eroded.

President George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the early 1990s resulted in the withdrawal and dismantlement of the Army’s short-range, ground-launched nuclear weapons (like artillery-fired projectiles and missile warheads). As a consequence, the wider Army has assumed that these weapons have been relegated largely to history, and allowed its intellectual culture to atrophy accordingly. Most leaders in the Army today would likely struggle to even explain what a STRIKEWARN message is, let alone what it consists of and what they need to extract from it to protect their units.

A consequence of this larger institutional ignorance, however, is a great number of misconceptions that now haunt our attempts to re-engage with the topic. A recent article by Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox, and Adam Taliaferro, for example, embraces many of them as it argues that the Army’s plans for future war do not adequately take into account the role of nuclear weapons. In particular, the authors seem to overlook the great deal of work that was done throughout the 1980s to adapt the Army to the nuclear battlefield under AirLand Battle. Their article also doesn’t accurately contextualize the scale of nuclear weapons effects’ or the larger role nuclear weapons have played on the global stage.

“Ending Great Power War with This One Weird Trick”

It’s safe to say that the concept of a “nuclear peace” is well-established within US defense circles. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review makes several references to the notion. In this regard, the authors are embracing what amounts to defense orthodoxy when they argue that nuclear weapons “[explain] the historically unprecedented absence of major land invasions between great powers since 1945.” This assertion is not an uncommon one. In a way, this vision is almost perversely utopian. By developing and deploying a powerful new technology, the world has managed to figure out how to prevent violent and destructive great-power conflict. It’s an alluring vision.

It is also deeply flawed. A more sober look at the data shows that the gap in great-power conflict is statistically irrelevant. If one considers the history of armed conflict with any degree of statistical nuance, one will observe that casualty rates in war are cyclical, with periods of comparative calm punctuated by periods of intense bloodletting. On top of this, the amount of great-power conflict has declined in frequency steadily since the 1500s. But that doesn’t preclude a bloody great-power conflict. It merely lets us know that they’re not an annual occurrence.

Of course, if this view of nuclear weapons sat in isolation it would perhaps be harmless. Yet it has enabled the rise of some bad readings of Russia’s actions in its near-abroad. The obsession in Western circles with so-called “hybrid warfare” is in many ways tied to this view of nuclear primacy. After all, if a war runs the risk of leading to nuclear annihilation, then surely states must adapt to find a way to advance their policy goals below the threshold of war. In a world where nuclear weapons make interstate conflict unlikely, the argument continues, “hybrid war” must be the best course, with irregular forces and low-level cross-border fires being the go-to tools.

The problem is the current examples of hybrid warfare have been decidedly conventional. As Michael Kofman points out, in the case of Crimea a Russian naval brigade that was already in place on the peninsula secured ports of entry, and was reinforced by thousands of troops from additional units. There was nothing “hybrid” about this. In the case of Ukraine, the closest thing to a hybrid approach, with lower-level conventional Russian units partnering with local rebels, failed. The breakaway regions were secured by a conventional combined-arms assault by multiple brigades and supported by robust fire-support assets. These attacks look an awful lot like traditional ground combat operations, exactly the kind of thing the US Army is preparing to counter.

As for Russian nuclear signaling, it is by no means clear that signaling is what precluded a Western intervention. Ask yourself this: If Russia’s nuclear weapons had suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke, and the world knew it, would NATO have then committed itself to a lengthy and bloody ground war to stymie Russia’s revanchist ambitions? Given that many NATO member states at the time had allowed their conventional military capabilities to atrophy (something many of those states are now attempting to correct), and considering Russia’s ability to strike Europe conventionally, the answer should be obvious.

Further, consider why Russia relies so heavily on its nuclear weapons. The first major change in Russia’s nuclear doctrine came in 1999, after NATO’s conventional campaign against Kosovo. Russia realized that it had to rely more on its nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional shortfalls. And while the Russian military has expanded its conventional capabilities significantly in the past two decades (though perhaps not as much as some might think), nuclear weapons still play that compensatory role in Russia’s strategy. A balance exists, however asymmetric that balance might be. But to maintain it, the United States has to in turn maintain its conventional superiority.

Nuclear weapons aren’t magic. States a century ago were no strangers to the idea that going to war invited destruction. But they did so anyway, and 1914 is more relevant than ever. Would that mean that Russia will automatically use nuclear weapons in the case of war? While Moscow certainly wishes to project this image, it isn’t guaranteed. After all, many military thinkers going into World War II felt that chemical attacks would be front-and-center from the battlefield to the homefront. Yet that didn’t happen, largely due to the same factors that are at play today: deterrence is a two-way street.

AirLand Battle: Both Conventional and Nuclear

But let’s say we’re wrong, and a conventional conflict did spiral into the use of theater nuclear weapons. If we use AirLand Battle as a starting point, are we prepared for this eventuality? In their article on MWI, Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro argue that “the US Army has continued to perpetuate an amazing fiction—which gained traction with AirLand Battle doctrine in 1984—where intensive ground wars against Russia or China may occur beneath the nuclear threshold.” This is indeed amazing. By this narrative, when considering war with two nuclear-armed adversaries, the United States Army apparently sidestepped the responsibility of accounting for the use of nuclear weapons. This would have seemed to be especially amazing to the intellectual authors of AirLand Battle, who in actual fact had thought long and hard about the role of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Rather than dismissing them, the authors felt that nuclear weapons had to play a central role in the new doctrine.

In the lead-up to the writing of the AirLand Battle 2000 operational concept, for example, the Nuclear Systems Program Review at Fort Sill in December 1979 developed a concept known as the “Integrated Battlefield.” In this concept, Army units expected to plan for the use of nuclear weapons as an isolated contingency, and nuclear fires had to be adapted to fit seamlessly with ongoing conventional operations. A nuclear release from the president, even if the enemy opted to use nuclear weapons, might come quite slowly. It might not even come at all. Or it might arrive only to be then revoked. As such, the Army had to build its doctrine around an idea that would work for either a nuclear battlefield or a conventional one. In short, the idea of a non-nuclear battlefield wasn’t central to AirLand Battle doctrine, it was assumed to not exist at all. As Gen. Donn Starry would write, AirLand Battle reflected a recognition of Soviet military doctrine: “mass, momentum, and continuous land combat with conventional weapons at the outset, but with tactical/theater-level nuclear weapons should the conventional initiative fail.”

This observation is unsurprising given Starry was a nuclear weapons effects instructor at the Military Intelligence School in the late 1950s. FM 100-5—the Army’s operations manual published in 1982—had entire sections dedicated to fighting under nuclear conditions. Indeed, there was an understanding that the doctrine contained within had to be applicable to both conventional and nuclear operations. It argues that “the destructive effects of nuclear weapons will increase the tempo of decisive combat. Engagements will be short and violent. Decisive battles may last hours instead of days or weeks.” However, the text recognized that the same tools necessary to manage conventional ordnance had to scale upward to be able to accommodate nuclear weapons, or the Army simply wouldn’t have time to transition to nuclear operations.

Compare this to Active Defense, which Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro credit with taking a realistic approach to nuclear weapons. As AirLand Battle’s forerunner, Active Defense, largely glossed over the topic of nuclear conditions, and the “How to Fight” section of operations field manual that incorporated Active Defense into doctrine refers to nuclear weapons only once. The manual states that “the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons will significantly influence every phase of the battle, to include purely conventional operations,” but then does little to actually expand on what that means. Active Defense makes the same mistake we see in the Army today, by focusing almost exclusively on the conventional battle and relegating nuclear weapons to the periphery. Like all too many wargames from the past and present, Active Defense simply jerks to a halt when the nuclear threshold is reached. Rather than take a realistic look at how nuclear weapons changed the battlefield, Active Defense wished the problem away.

The Limits of Battlefield Nuclear Effects

AirLand Battle opted to approach nuclear and conventional fire planning in the same way—but that should prompt us to ask how this is possible. In their article, Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro argue that “in land warfare, [nuclear] weapons provide maximum area-denial capability by empowering both tactical and strategic defenses.” Because of this, they criticize Army doctrine’s argument that enemy nuclear weapons can be mitigated by dispersal and reduced signatures.

Battlefield nuclear weapons, however, are perhaps less impressive than the authors would have us think. Indeed, given that the Army has largely neglected nuclear weapons, the perception of how effective they are has drifted away from reality. This is a trend that I have seen in exercises and wargames for years now. Yet a simple examination of the reams of planning, doctrinal, and technical studies from the period show the limits of these weapons in a battlefield context.

Consider the following product, which was created by the Army Nuclear Agency for students at the Command and General Staff College:

The systems listed on the left constituted the main options available for a battlefield commander when opting to use nuclear weapons. An artillery-fired atomic projectile (AFAP) was projected to destroy a single Soviet tank platoon—three tanks. In other words, you can replicate the effects of a battlefield nuclear weapon with a single volley of cluster munitions from a battery of howitzers, or a single volley of smart munitions from a platoon of howitzers. Indeed, a single defensive operation was projected to use over 136 nuclear weapons in a “pulse,” as is captured further on in the document:

So how is this possible? After all, nuclear weapons are supposed to be incredible area-effect weapons. The answer is in the actual killing mechanisms of a nuclear weapon—for the most part, blast and thermal pulse. But, as it turns out, most armored fighting vehicles and (to a lesser extent) infantry fighting positions are actually quite resilient to heat and blast. Starry and his compatriots understood this quite well, seemingly better than most of us understand it today. “The arrival of tactical nuclear weapons in the middle decades of this century was widely heralded as the death knell of the tank,” Starry wrote. “However, with better understanding of nuclear weapons effects, and upon sober reflection, tanks were deemed probably the very best place to be on the nuclear battlefield.”

As an extreme example, consider the case of the “Atomic Chieftain,” an Australian main battle tank that was placed just five hundred yards from the epicenter of a nine-kiloton British nuclear test in 1953 with its engine running. In the wake of the test, it was found that the tank had taken some damage, but it was repairable. Its engine had stopped, but only because it had run out of fuel. The crew would likely have been killed by the overpressure, but the vehicle was extremely close to the epicenter of a nuclear strike that was far larger than most AFAPs in history. Even then, the vehicle survived, going on to serve in Vietnam (where it also survived an RPG strike). Even a short distance from a nuclear explosion, the crews of these tanks would have been able to recover and return to combat. Armor, as it turns out, is quite resilient to nuclear attack.

Even when it comes to attacking static targets like key logistics nodes, ports of entry, and headquarters, one sees that while nuclear weapons pose an obvious threat to them, so too do sufficiently advanced conventional weapons. Russia and China have both been investing heavily in precision weapons that would allow them to destroy these targets even without nuclear weapons. There is a reason why Russian military thinkers like Vladimir Slipchenko view precision conventional weapons as having nuclear-like effects. When you prepare to fight against modern conventional weapons, you’re already preparing to fight under nuclear conditions.

Nuclear Futures, Revisited

Without a doubt, nuclear weapons are going to remain an important tool in both military affairs and international relations. Yet it is worth remembering that we’ve been here before, and many of the problems that bedeviled the Army then will face us on the battlefield of tomorrow. The nature of nuclear weapons hasn’t changed in the decades since the Cold War ended, but the power of conventional weapons has, and grappling with the value of the former means understanding it in relation to the later.

Nuclear weapons are indeed powerful, and they will remain an important factor to consider in any future war. But we create problems for ourselves when we overestimate the power of nuclear weapons, underestimate both our ability to protect against that power, and miscalculate how that power compares to conventional threats. In the end, nuclear weapons do not eliminate conventional warfare, and planning our future doctrine around such an idea is dangerous and counterproductive.


Luke O’Brien is an Army Reservist and WMD historian. He is also a certified nuclear target analyst, and is currently Mid-Career Cadre at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Nuclear Issues.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


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