The recent Pentagon report on China’s military modernization spent several paragraphs harrumphing about purported new ambiguity in China’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons, given the remarks of one Chinese general Zhu Chenghu that a non-nuclear clash in the Taiwan straits might lead to a Chinese nuclear response.
His remarks had been quickly disavowed by the Chinese government as a piece of over-the-top saber rattling.
Yesterday, the authoritative arms control website Arms Control Wonk went the extra mile to pursue this issue and debunk a misleading and inflammatory representation in the Pentagon report of a statement by a Chinese academic on China’s nuclear first use policy, thereby eliciting our profound admiration and earning Arms Control Wonk a spot on the blogroll.
In contrast, there’s no real ambiguity about America's doctrine on nuclear first use.
We’re all for it.
U.S. nuclear doctrine has moved well beyond the simple and straightforward Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. Our thermonuclear arsenal includes pocket-sized “dialable yield” nukes designed to fit on cruise missiles, and not just the megaton monsters the US, China, and Russia are accustomed to putting on top of their ICBMs and in their strategic bombers.
First use of tactical nuclear weapons, ostensibly to counter the decisive conventional superiority the Soviet Union would wield blitzing its massive tank forces across Germany in a confrontation with NATO, was never renounced by the United States.
Now that the shoe is on the other foot in Eastern Europe and American forces are safe from the specter of swift and catastrophic defeat in the heart of free Europe, the nuclear doctrine has been recast.
America’s nuclear superiority is too powerful and seductive an advantage to abandon merely on the grounds that there are no foreseeable missions that could not be plausibly accomplished with conventional forces alone.
Therefore, nuclear and conventional weapons are integrated into our new, offensive and “pre-emptive” strategy.
The new thinking is enshrined in Joint Publication 3-12 “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations”.
Thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, who writes Arms Control Wonk, this doctrine is pretty much a matter of public record.
Using that sophisticated open source intelligence tool, Google, Dr. Lewis accessed a public server at the Pentagon last year and downloaded draft copies of Joint Publication 3-12, which subsequently propagated all over the Internet.
Joint Publication 3-12 is meant to direct military commanders in the “joint” employment and integration of conventional and nuclear weapons in those limited conflicts for which the standard 21st century total war manual—the Book of Revelations—offers little useful guidance.
In place of the old strategic triad of pounding the enemy with bombers and missiles with the promise that the third leg—nuclear submarines—would survive any exchange, there is a new triad.
It consists of the old gang of offensive nuclear weapons; new defenses (think Star Wars); and something called “Infrastructure”, which looks like it was put in there by the suits in Secretary Rumsfeld’s office just to make sure President Bush didn’t feel shortchanged that he only got a Diad while Bill Clinton had a Triad.
More significantly, the nuclear doctrine includes as its mission (beyond deterrence and elimination of WMD threats) “decisively defeating the enemy” in conventional conflicts.
The conclusion to the Executive Summary states:
US nuclear forces deter potential adversary use of WMD and dissuade against a potential adversary’s development of an overwhelming conventional threat.
As a reading of the document makes clear, the overwhelming conventional threats under consideration are not strategic threats that could entail total and final US defeat.
The threats that Joint Publication 3-12 believe might merit a nuclear response are tactical "theater" threats, ones which might lead to American defeat or retreat in a local encounter, not the loss of the whole war.
For military planners, the holy grail has been to achieve sanction for use of lower-yield nukes in conventional battle situations.
They’ve argued that a tactical nuclear weapon is just another great big bomb and the enemy is not going to escalate to a strategic nuclear response just because his soldiers have been nuked instead of shot, shelled, howitzered, chain-gunned, napalmed, willy-peted, claymored, MOABed, had their innards vacuumed out their nose and shot across the battlefield by a fuel-air bomb or whatever.
Of course, in what I think will be remembered as the signature phrase of Joint Publication 3-12, "this perception cannot be guaranteed".
However, we may get the opportunity to test this attractive theory.
Battlefield commanders can now take the initiative to request a nuclear strike if they think conditions warrant, including, quoting from 3-12, situations such as:
(e) For rapid and favorable war termination on US terms.
(f) To ensure success of US and multinational operations.
In other words, use of nuclear weapons can be a matter of tactical convenience, not existential need.
The doctrine states (emphasis in original):
…like any military action, the decision to use nuclear weapons is driven by the political objective sought. This choice involves many political considerations, all of which impact nuclear weapon use, the types and number of weapons used, and method of employment.
Fortunately, the Pentagon assures us there will be no messy legal or moral questions involved in choosing where or when to drop the Bomb, whether it’s to save the lives of US troops, “shock and awe” the enemy civilian population, or just to give the president the excuse to fly to an aircraft carrier and declare “Mission Accomplished” (once again, emphasis in original):
International reaction toward the country or nonstate entity that first employs weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is an important political consideration. ..Nevertheless, while the belligerent that initiates nuclear warfare may find itself the target of world condemnation, no customary or conventional international law prohibits nations from employing nuclear weapons in armed conflict.
Whew! I feel that anxiety about first use of nuclear weapons lifting already. Thanks, Joint Publication 3-12!
I’m sure everybody can think of at least one limited-war or "theater" nuclear scenario under this doctrine involving China right away.
It is difficult to think of an ally as unnecessary, equivocal, war-averse, and unfit to serve as a pretext for World War III as Taiwan.
I don't think Armageddon's on the agenda for the Taiwan Straits--but limited war certainly is.
And if it comes to that, we want our nukes.
If we’re going to go to war with China in a limited way over Taiwan, it’s understandable that we would still want to bring our overwhelming nuclear power to bear and avoid repeating those irritating Asian stalemates and quagmires that seem to beset our military planners whenever politics, strategy, or moral qualms place the nuclear option out of reach.
Lowering the bar significantly to enable nuclear first use against our pesky regional competitor in a limited war may very well be necessary pre-condition for a confrontation with China over Taiwan.
However, it is unlikely to serve even as a military panacea.
Incinerating China’s Taiwan strike force with a nuclear strike, while avoiding the costs, risks, and uncertainties of a protracted conventional war, would leave us a bigger problem: a pissed-off China, with an infuriated population rallying around an intact anti-American leadership.
Which might tempt the US up the ante and consider the second nuclear scenario: the threat of a “decapitating strike” against the Chinese leadership sequestered in hardened bunkers near or in heavily-populated civilian areas, in order to get the Chinese Communists to cry uncle, sue for terms, and acquiesce to a catastrophic defeat that would presumably spell the end of their now implacably anti-American regime.
But this doesn’t look very plausible.
Despite America’s well-advertised infatuation with the surgical strike and bunker-busting nuke, and the seductive image of an implacable warhead burrowing deeply and accurately into Hu Jintao’s secret location to destroy evil at its source while the liberated peoples of Beijing fill the streets in ecstatic partying throngs overhead, we’d be looking at something a lot messier and nastier.
Something like a nuclear warhead thudding no more than 50 feet in the ground, followed by an ugly, irradiating blast rendering the center of China’s ancient capital largely uninhabitable while destroying thousands of people and cultural artifacts, but with the leadership probably surviving in some other bunker we didn’t know about.
The obvious objective of the joint nuclear operations doctrine is to convince the Chinese both of its plausibility and the fact that any US attack would be overwhelming and fatal to the regime.
However, it looks to me that the dream of an accurate, precise, and infinitely calibrated nuclear response is a dangerous mirage.
Once the instrument of total war is used in a limited conflict and atomic warheads become just another item on the tactical menu, survivability is an option, and the effectiveness of nuclear attack becomes hostage to political factors both on the attacker’s and the enemy’s sides.
So I wonder if the message that the Chinese will extract from Joint Publication 3-12 is the one that America’s military planners expect.
I think their military planners will look at the new strategy and decide that an invasion of Taiwan resisted by the United States with a tactical nuclear response would not be fatal to the Chinese Communist regime.
It would be politically survivable for the Chinese leadership—but perhaps politically fatal for America’s leadership.
China would unite behind its regime.
On the other hand, if domestic and international opinion decided that the US had executed the nuclear option with criminal recklessness and incompetence—that the nuclear strike had not cleanly and efficiently ended the conflict, and instead had exacerbated and extended it in the most dire and unfamiliar fashion, US political leadership might not survive.
Because nuclear war is the ultimate and most dangerous terra incognita, which we enter at our own--and the world’s--peril. Absent the vital vindication of a decisive, unambiguous triumph, it’s simply not worth the costs and risks.
3-12 acknowledges the danger, with a dismissive shrug:
Executing a nuclear option, or even a portion of an option, should send a clear signal of United States’ resolve. Hence, options must be selected very carefully and deliberately so that the attack can help ensure the adversary recognizes the “signal” and should therefore not assume the United States has escalated to general nuclear war, although that perception cannot be guaranteed.
Ah. “…that perception cannot be guaranteed”.
I can imagine a soldier hastily painting a message on the nosecone of a nuclear-armed cruise missile targeting the Zhong Nan Hai leadership compound, conveniently located just off Tian An Men Square:
“This is not escalation to a general nuclear war. Surrender now and gratefully acknowledge your new Caucasian overlords. The peoples of China and the world will recognize this as a new dawn of freedom, peace, and democracy… …although that perception cannot be guaranteed.”