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article imageOp-Ed: New US nuke doctrine— Careful what you wish for

By Paul Wallis     Jan 11, 2018 in Technology
Washington - The idea of new, more “usable” nukes isn’t a Trump administration idea. It’s been around, for a while, including micro-nukes for tactical, less destructive operational use. This idea could be a massive own goal.
The main idea of the new nukes is to make them more flexible in military contexts. That does make sense, if you assume that nukes are applicable in the many new military contexts emerging. That’s where the easy talk has to stop.
In fairness to the overall theory before I criticize the hell out of it, the current situation is hardly ideal:
1. The old ICBM arsenal has a finite shelf life. Changes will inevitably happen.
2. The big systems could be ridiculously clumsy in a war, and static targets are much easier to hit.
3. Big missile systems are extremely expensive and potentially unwieldy in many theories of modern warfare, which includes multiple levels of engagement.
4. The mobile US missile platforms can be very effective strikers and hard targets. Smaller nukes could be more efficient in many ways.
5. Small nukes with low/zero yields might be LESS destructive than the very heavy loads of ordnance used on targets like Islamic State strongholds and Vietnamese targets, where Agent Orange and other deadly chemistry has played merry murder for decades after the war.
Timeline of major North Korean nuclear and missile tests
Timeline of major North Korean nuclear and missile tests
Laurence CHU, AFP
The technical negatives
Having said all of which:
1. Nukes are by definition long life hazards after being used. The tech to clean up and make safe these areas doesn’t yet exist. Mortgaging the future is NEVER a good move.
2. What if someone misses and makes a large city or whole country uninhabitable? If Chernobyl is anything to go by, a vast area could be off limits for millennia. The dislocation of population and infrastructure could be massively costly and very hard to manage.
3. At what point does using nukes in a tactical environment become justifiable on a purely military basis? That’s not clear, and it’s THE key working principle for the more usable nukes idea.
4. Does using nukes add risks to your own military operations? It might. It might also kill very large numbers of service people through toxic effects and disease a few decades later.
The radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986
The radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986
, Graphics/AFP
The bottom line in all these points is that the unforeseeable is going to be part of the outcome. Few military experts would agree that’s a good starting point for any operational methods.
When the US is not technically superior, the game changes
The other, potentially lethal, problem is that the US is no longer technically superior in armaments. There are innovations, sure, but nothing out of reach of America’s enemies. Thanks to the insane profiteering and mindless bean counting of the US military industrial complex, tech has gone nowhere useful in decades. Eisenhower was right; the military industrial complex is nothing BUT a liability, in military terms.
General of the Army  Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1940 s.
General of the Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1940's.
US Army author: Signal Corps
That’s a very bad scenario. The US military, contrary to urban myths and mindless policies, has always had an advantage in innovation much more than any other factor. Advances in technology and tactical/strategic thinking have been winners. For D-Day, the US and UK invented the technologies for the largest single amphibious operation in history. Now, innovation is a sort of poor relation of bigger bangs and much bigger bucks.
To briefly mention the obvious – Escalation as a result of new nuke systems is inevitable. Nor is innovation in weapons an exclusively American prerogative any more. China, Russia, and other nations have the technology and industrial capacity to develop any type of nuke, including simply copying US weapons. If Iran and North Korea can develop effective nukes in the face of major obstacles, why wouldn’t the bigger nations?
Real wars need real solutions
What’s called “complex” warfare, like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Syria, and other charming exercises in mass murder for no useful reason, isn’t a simple context, even in theory. Nukes might clear areas, but do they win these types of war? It’s highly debatable, at best, and a potentially fatal escalation to full scale nuclear war at worst.
The United States military is famous for its doctrine of overwhelming firepower and material. That doctrine worked in World War 2, the Iraq wars, and it hasn’t worked in any other military context at all, since. It’s designed for a type of war rarely fought any more. More to the point - It didn’t work in Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, and it won’t work in these bitchy, vicious little local wars.
Adding nukes, however enchanting and adorable, to the mix in a global Vietnam, for example, would be futile. The Vietnamese would simply have created more, smaller targets to use up the nukes, and kept coming, as they did in the face of massive bombing campaigns.
Since the start of Syria's war in 2011  numerous diplomatic attempts to halt the conflict have ...
Since the start of Syria's war in 2011, numerous diplomatic attempts to halt the conflict have stumbled
Delil souleiman, AFP
Using nukes on smaller targets has a point of negative returns on investment. They can’t be relied upon for tactical advantages if the enemy changes tactics. You can only hit so much with any weapon.
In effect, the new nukes could simply be more problems to add to the mix, both militarily and after the engagement. The US has long made a calling card out of a chronic inability to adjust doctrines to tactical realities.
Even when winning, doctrines from the past are intruding in to military environments where they’re simply not even relevant any more. These doctrines are in effect losing wars. I hate to say this, because I’ve read a lot of American military history, about both the people and their many innovations. I’ve read all the way from the early pre-Revolution colonial wars to now, but – The nukes idea, in its current theoretical form, has a nasty taint of “we have no new ideas, we’re just reinventing the wheel” to it. That’s a recipe for failure in every war in history.
I’d suggest the US military, and absolutely NOBODY else, go over this theory with a forensic approach, and really nail down risks and benefits. These systems could need a whole new infrastructure. Technical assessments, particularly for delivery and cyber risk, counter tech considerations, need to be meticulous. The new nukes could be a massive commitment, and that commitment MUST be done well. If a real war blows up, having the wrong tools for the job could be catastrophic.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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