The Changing Nature Of Nuclear Deterrence

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by Tyler Durden
Monday, Jun 17, 2024 - 02:10 AM

Submitted by Tuomas Malinen of GnS Economics

Issues discussed:

  • Tactical vs. strategical nuclear weapons.
  • Mutually asserted destruction (MAD) as the foundation of nuclear deterrence.
  • The shaky foundations of modern nuclear deterrence, and growing risk of a tactical nuclear strike.

When I was around eight years old, my baby-sitter let me watch a documentary on nuclear war. Unsurprisingly, it shook me to the core. It’s kind of hard to know what went on in her head, but those images of nuclear detonations never left my head. Looking back at it now, this ‘incident’ starts to make sense, kind of. This is because over the decades I’ve read a lot on nuclear deterrence and on nuclear war simulations. I have had this graving to understand nuclear warfare and deterrence basically throughout my adult-life.

Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 became something of a case study on nuclear deterrence to me. This was in no small part because of the magnificent movie, Thirteen Days (published in 2000), documenting the crisis through the eyes of President Kennedy and the White House. I have also had the privilege to grow with a highly objective lecturer of history, my mother, who has always questioned the current knowledge on history. One of her best quotes is, “According to how history is currently written”. It summarizes all you need to understand about research of history. We simply do not know all the facts and politics plays a major role on how history is being written.

In the movie Thirteen Days, there’s a scene where Bobby Kennedy (played memorably by Steven Culp) and Special Advisor Kenneth O. Donnell (always great Kevin Costner) arrive to Russian (Soviet) embassy, where they are burning secret documents in preparation for an evacuation. I vaguely remember that I would have talked with my mom about this scene and that she would have confirmed that such a thing (burning of documents) actually happened, but I cannot vouch for that. In any case, it was a beautiful movie trick, intensifying and underlining the gravity of the situation the world faced. Unfortunately, we are very close of such a situation, again.

During the Cuban crisis, the ‘Doomsday Clock’, kept by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, was set to seven minutes to midnight. Currently, it stands at 90 seconds to midnight, closest to midnight it ever has, and I am expecting that it will be moved to 60 seconds to midnight during the next 12 months. While the Bulletin, quite unnecessarily, recently mixed “climate change” to the setting of the clock, the unprecedented warning on the close proximity of a nuclear holocaust should be taken extremely seriously.

I have been pondering the growing nuclear threat since basically the onset of Ukrainian conflict in early 2014. It has become very pervasive in my thinking during the past few weeks mostly due to strikes of Ukraine to Russian early-warning system.

During my academic studies, I have taken two courses in game theory. One during graduate and the other during post-graduate studies. During those courses, I read also on game theoretical simulations of nuclear warfare. I cannot help to think that I did this, because of the misjudgement of my baby-sitter all those years ago. Past week, I started to build game theoretical model on a tactical nuclear first strike to understand the situation better.

In this entry, which is likely to start a short series on nuclear deterrence and war, I go through the basic building blocks of modern nuclear deterrence starting from tactical nuclear weapons. Then I explain the foundational principle of nuclear deterrence, mutually asserted destruction, or MAD, and lastly I go through the weak spots of modern nuclear deterrence. All detailed information on nuclear weapons and deterrence is based on recent research by several scholars, only few of which I will detail (link) here. My model describes in more detail, why deterrence is so close of failing, and I return to that later. In the conclusions I also comment the recent steps of escalation, i.e., the Russian flotilla just off the Floridan coast and fresh U.S. sanctions to Russian financial sector.

Tactical nuclear weapons

I have to start with a notion that there actually is no universally accepted definition for a ‘tactical nuclear weapon’. Some scholars of nuclear deterrence, and some military leaders, even argue that such distinction makes no sense. For example, both "strategical" and "tactical" nuclear weapons can have either a low or a high yield, measured in kilo- and megatons. Low yield nuclear devices are generally thought to produce an explosion between one to 10 kilotons, while high yield nuclear weapons, and especially so called hydrogen bombs, yield an explosive power of dozens of megatons.1 To note, the biggest ever created nuclear explosion occurred on 30 October, 1961, when the Soviet Union tested ‘Tsar Bomba’ yielding an explosive power of 50-58 megatons (difference between U.S. and Russian measurements). Reportedly, the test implied a new construction of a hydrogen bomb able to produce “practically unlimited power”.

The arms control definition has been to disentangle weapons according to their range, where strategic nuclear weapons have intercontinental range, while tactical have short- to medium-range. This is questionable, because some nuclear powers do not even have intercontinental-range weapons, but it would be hard to argue that they would not be able to conduct “strategical” nuclear strikes. Moreover, strategical nuclear weapons can be used in a tactical manner, i.e., strikes to military or critical infrastructure targets. Thus, the distinction between strategical and tactical nuclear weapons, and strikes, is fuzzy, to say the least.

In the model I am building, I classify tactical nuclear weapons as short- to medium-range nuclear weapons with relatively low yield used for surgical strikes to military installations or critical infrastructure. I classify strategical nuclear weapons having an intercontinental range with a high yield used to inflict wide-spread damage to military and civilian infrastructure. I think this is a proper description of the weapons based on their strategical capabilities, for modelling purposes at least.

Mutually asserted destruction, MAD

If we assume the worst-case view to nuclear warfare, we have been on a road towards a nuclear conflict since the U.S. conducted her first nuclear bomb test, the Trinity test, on July 16, 1945. Just two months later, the world witnessed first nuclear strikes with the U.S. dropping nukes on cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August. These strikes effectively ended the Second World War, but started the nuclear armament race.

Right after the first nuclear strikes, nuclear weapons were seen, by the military planners, only as a new means of warfare, but with unprecedented destructive power. For example, General MacArthur advocated for using nuclear weapons, in tactical capacity, in the Korean conflict fought between 1950-1953. President Truman fortunately refrained from this, but the idea was floated. The idea of nuclear deterrence started to develop only after the Soviet Union created her own nuclear weapons, with the first Soviet nuclear bomb test conducted on August 29, 1949. Yet, only the arrival of intercontinental bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, led to the creation of the concept and policies of nuclear deterrence, by removing distance as a factor shielding from a nuclear attack.

The grounding idea of MAD, and thus nuclear deterrence, has rested on the assumption that using nuclear weapons in a conflict against a nuclear power would automatically lead to a nuclear war and thus mutual destruction in a nuclear holocaust. However, developments in nuclear weapons and their interception capabilities has changed the terms and possibility of nuclear conflicts, and thus nuclear deterrence.

The shaky foundations of modern nuclear deterrence

Some scholars argue that nuclear deterrence is a moot point, because no weapon system is created for deterrence.2 I would argue that recent developments imply that nuclear deterrence plays a definite role still. This is one conclusion that can be drawn from the response to recent drills of the Russian fleet, including a nuclear submarine, in the Atlantic reportedly at times just some 25 miles off the Floridan coast. It also looks that the two strikes to Russian early-warning system have yielded a strong back-room response to Ukrainian leadership from the Biden administration. When the U.S. administration is publicly “concerned”, it usually implies that behind closed doors, there has been hell to pay (see also this). In any case, this is good news. We at GnS Economics have not yet lifted the warning of a nuclear strike in Europe, but I would argue that it’s likelihood has diminished, for now at least.

When we look at general developments, a worrying picture starts to emerge. Even Hellan Larsen has published an interesting study entitled: Deliberate nuclear first use in an era of asymmetry: A game theoretical approach. Asymmetry, between two or more nuclear powers, in Larsen's study arises from two factors:

  1. Asymmetry in damage limitation and secure-second-strike capability, and
  2. Asymmetry in conventional warfare.

The former implies imbalances in the capacity of nuclear forces to counter nuclear strikes, essentially to repel strategic bombers and ICBM's, and in the capacity to deliver a secondary strike after the first strike by the enemy. The latter implies inferiority in non-nuclear forces with the prospect of sustaining catastrophic losses in a conventional warfare. In this case, the weaker party uses nuclear weapon as a coercion tool. In the former, the stonger party may see it “rational” to issue a deliberate nuclear first use (DFNU), in certain conditions, because it assumes it can repel most of the secondary strike of the weaker party. In the latter, the weaker party launches a nuclear strike to compensate her weakness in the battleground (with her troops in a possible risk of being over-run). Currently, there are clear asymmetry in tactical nuclear weapons between the two leading nuclear powers: the U.S. and Russia.

Previously, there was symmetry. In the late 1980s the U.S. held approximately 9000 tactical nuclear weapons, while the Soviet Union (Russia) was estimated to have held anything between 13000 and 22000 tactical nuclear weapons. In 2019, these numbers were around 230 for the U.S. and some 2000 for Russia. Moreover, the capacity of remaining arsenal differs greatly. Russia has developed and modernized a wide variety of platforms capable of launching both conventional and nuclear warheads. Russia has bombers, missiles in ships, subs, aicrafts and helicopters, hypersonic missiles and possibly even artillery capable of delivering tactical nuclear strikes. The U.S. has mostly just aircrafts and guided bombs to do the same. France and Britain have all but eliminated their arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. So, between NATO and Russia, the symmetry in tactical nuclear weapons has turned into a clear asymmetry to the benefit of Russia.

It has been a long-standing concern of Russia whether her nuclear forces would be able to survive from an (strategical) U.S. first strike in sufficient quantaties to deliver a “deep second strike” due to the counterforce capabilities and missile defenses of the U.S. It has even been simulated that if the U.S. would launch an all-out nuclear first strike during a peace time, it could achieve a pyrrhic victory with Russian second strike capabilities seriously hampered. In a crisis, the likelihood of a succesful U.S. first strike would diminish, because of the grown readiness of Russian nuclear forces. As a response to all this, Russia has been pouring money into developing hypersonic missiles and missile defense systems.

The collapse of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February 2019, has created a new threat to Russia, because it creates the possibility to place short- to medium-range nuclear missiles to Europe. Their short fly-time effectively dismantles the nuclear deterrence policy of Russia, which is based on the concept of launch-on-warning, which relies on the missile early-warning system, i.e., the very system Ukraine struck late-May. The system is aimed at providing a warning to Russian leadership of an ICBM launch anywhere in the world, towards Russia, after which Russia would launch a counter-strike (or a second-strike) even before missiles of the first-strike would have struck to Russia and her allies.

Questions have been raised is the U.S. missile defense system effective against hypersonic missiles. Reports, e.g., from Iranian hypersonic strikes to Israel are conflicting, but we know that at least some hypersonic missiles penetrated the ‘Iron Dome’. This is likely to lead to development of more effective, and more pervasive, missile defense system, a “defense race” of sort, as well as to rapid development of U.S. hypersonic missile capacity. These developments would alter nuclear deterrence, yet again.


The problem I see in the Ukrainian conflict is that it’s being waged, by NATO currently, possible to serve the similar aims, like Russia’s Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s. It has been argued that the failed military campaign in the remote Soviet-controlled country, delivered a fatal blow to the Russian economy eventually leading to the collapse of the whole Soviet Union. The difference between Afghanistan and Ukraine is that Afghanistan was like Vietnam, that is, a proxy-war between the U.S. and Russia fought over a strategically relatively unimportant country. Like explained by several notable scholars, including “NATO-hawk” Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and U.S. professor John Mearsheimer, Ukraine has been a definite red line for Moscow for a long time. This brings us to the cross-hairs of modern nuclear deterrence over her territory.

As I am writing these lines, the U.S. has issued another round of sanctions, now aimed at the financial sector of Russia. I don’t think that the timing was a coincidence. The Russian ‘floatilla’ practicing off the coast of Florida was a likely trigger. This, like the flotilla, is just another step of escalation.

The world keeps on moving into two blocks, which is a likely to be the aim, because one needs competing factions to establish deeper escalation. As you notice, I have gone rather deep into the ‘Rabbit Hole’, and I am currently watching these major developments as plays in a global chess game, which are likely to lead us to deeper escalation and towards the scenarios I described in the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I am simply starting to lack any other models to explain this global madness than a some powerful force pushing us deeper into geopolitical chaos. It’s quite possible that I will end this mini-series on nuclear deterrence on a piece in the Apocalypse Scenario (it would be fitting, I guess).

What makes the current situation so daunting is that we are breaking most of the established international rules. This ranges from starting a war to breaking of global financial order through sanctions and confiscation of international assets. If we know one thing from history, it’s that when a rule-based order breaks, destructive wars follow.

What I hope to have established here is a first look on the changing nature of nuclear deterrence and on the risks it entails. Building an understanding through some actual modeling work, even when the model is relative simple, always gives a much wider perspective than simply just reading research. I will keep working with the model, and the academic paper, and I publish updates here on the things I discover. I just hope we (humanity) have the strength to stop this cycle of escalation, before something irreversible happens.

I end this to some notions for paid subscribers on the effects of new Russian sanctions.