2008/10/31

The credibility of nuclear umbrellas

The Cold War time was kind of simplistic - two pretty fanatical blocs were opposing each other. Both were driven by ideology and thought that the other bloc prepared to invade and annihilate them.
War between the blocs was considered as the equal of armageddon.
Everyone was so convinced that the others were dangerous madmen that they would indeed use their nuclear weapons to annihilate hundreds of millions of people (if not mankind) if World War III broke out.
Everyone could read the scenarios that told about less than minutes from pressing triggers to the killing of billions.

That was an environment in which truly everyone believed the other's nuclear deterrence. Some wondered whether a first strike could disarm the others, but nobody was ready to gamble on the possibility that the whole nuclear threat was just a threat and not more - like the chemical weapons threat in WW2.

Those simple times are over.
Today, we still take it as granted that a nuclear attack on a nuclear power would motivate a nuclear revenge.

But does this work for nuclear umbrellas, too?
Many NATO and CIS members don't have own nuclear arsenals because they expect allied nuclear powers to provide such a nuclear umbrella - the deterrence with nuclear weapons to prevent third party nuclear attacks.

Imagine Saudi-Arabia as nuclear power. Including ICBMs hidden below the desert sand.
Imagine that a caricaturist in Copenhagen draws again funny images of Muhammed - and Saudi-Arabia decided to settle that once and for all, nuking Copenhagen with a 150kt warhead. The Arabs would afterward tell the world that the issue is solved in their opinion and they do not intend to attack others (unless someone else becomes offensive...even if only on paper).

Would the United States, the United Kingdom or France really risk a nuclear attack on New York, London and Paris? Would they do it together or only one? Would there be a necessity to retaliate?

This was a scenario that was rather favorable for a retaliation - the bad guys would be known suspects, be considered as irrational and ideologues.

Now imagine a more difficult scenario:
India becomes irritated by Portugal and decides to destroy Portugal's second largest city; Porto. A quarter million dead. The prime Indian minister resigns immediately, there's no madman involved (any more), no ideology - just a rather small dispute about former Portuguese colony Goa and maybe some arrested diplomats or similar stuff.

Would the nuclear powers of NATO retaliate? Would in turn the expectation of retaliation be strong enough to prevent an attack in the first place?
Wouldn't the scenario be too rational, too non-critical for the survival of the nuclear powers (as long as they choose not to retaliate)?
Wouldn't a conventional, possibly even only political reaction be more promising, enticing for the previous nuclear umbrella providers?

I believe that we're still stuck in a Cold War understanding of nuclear retaliation, but the international crisis dynamics have evolved. Maybe the nuclear umbrellas are much less credible today than most people assume.

Sven Ortmann

Disclaimer: No offense intended. I used existing countries and positions for the scenarios only to make the scenarios easy to understand.

1 comment:

  1. So if China decides to nuke some annoying aircraft carriers, would the US retaliate with a nuclear strike on Bejing?
    Pretty good question, going further what if someone creates an extremist group that uses a nuke. Do you nuke the hood of their leader?

    The only option would be retaliating damage. Portugal and Denmark are entitled to build and use nuke after being attacked with nukes. However, just using all your nuclear waste and empty it as a fine dust over the enemy country is enough to make life unbearable there.
    So while someone can use a nuke anytime for a limited strike, he must be as well aware of a retaliation of equal or greater destructiveness.

    The only "free" options for nukes are military targets and electronic systems because any mass-murder will be answered in rage and fury.
    There's just one escape, use a non-state actor for such an attack, but I don't want to be living in the state that's accused as an accomplice.

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