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A winnable nuclear war: Trump revives his generals’ dreams

Republican presidents always want ‘small’ nukes for use, not deterrence. What’s worrying is that US military chiefs are thinking the same way.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 July 2019
Person holding model of nuclear missile while wearing a Donald Trump mask
It's OK, he says he doesn't want to do it
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Omer Messinger/SIPA USA/PA Images. All right reserved

This week’s White House visit by Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, was a step towards ending the 18-year war between the Taliban and the US. The diplomacy was overshadowed, however, by President Trump’s remarkable assertion that the US could end that war in a matter of days. As he put it:

If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I would win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. Does that make sense to you?

Reinforcing the comment, he added:

I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be over literally in 10 days. I don’t want to go that route.

For a number of commentators, this had to mean the use of nuclear weapons, a prospect that seems incredible with the Cold War era now thirty years in the past.

In reality, though, it is not so far-fetched. The idea of fighting ‘small nuclear wars in far-off places’ has been a feature of US nuclear planning for well over half a century. This is also true for the UK: go back to the end of the 1950s, when Britain first developed its own nuclear weapons, and you will find open reference to using tactical nuclear weapons in a possible conflict with China.

One of the very early columns in this series, published in 2002, covered this ‘small nuclear wars’ issue. Soon after the end of the Cold War, it noted, there were studies about the potential value of small nuclear weapons in conflicts that might fall well short of world-wide war.

Back in 1991 the US Strategic Air Command had commissioned one such study, which became known as the Reed Report. The final version was toned down, but the leak of a draft gave some indication of the line of thinking. As I wrote then:

… it stated the belief that the growing wealth of petro-nations and newly hegemonic powers is available to bullies and crazies, if they gain control, to wreak havoc on world tranquillity. The study itself called for a new nuclear targeting strategy that would include the ability to assemble a Nuclear Expeditionary Force...primarily for use against China or Third World targets.

This period also saw US weapons laboratories working on designs for small nuclear warheads. Some of the thinking behind this was revealed in a paper that two staff members of the Los Alamos laboratory wrote for Strategic Review, titled ‘Countering the Threat of the Well-Armed Tyrant: A Modest Proposal for Small Nuclear Weapons’.

This work was curbed after the election of Bill Clinton as US president in 1992, only to come back centre stage when George W. Bush succeeded him eight years later. To quote my 2002 openDemocracy piece:

When Bush came to power, he brought with him very hard-line security advisers, some of whom had worked in think-tanks that had been diligently investigating new nuclear strategies that were uncannily like those of the early 1990s. Once in power, they were given their head, with the results that have been reported so widely this week.

What has surprised most people is the apparent willingness to consider using nuclear weapons first, using them on a small scale, and doing so on the assumption that this is a reasonable component of an international security policy.

Eight years later the new Obama administration downgraded this approach once again, only for it to re-emerge with Trump’s presidency. Just last month the US Joint Chiefs of Staff published the latest thinking on nuclear strategy in a paper called ‘Nuclear Options’, which showed that the possibility of using nuclear weapons on a ‘small’ scale was once more on the agenda. In the view of the Joint Chiefs:

Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.

Not surprisingly, this caused plenty of comment and the Pentagon took the document off the open web within a few days. Before that, though, the Federation of American Scientists had downloaded it and posted it on its own site, so it remains freely available.

At the root of the approach is the belief that small-scale use of very powerful weapons could end a conflict on US terms. It fits with the long-standing NATO policy of flexible response – although that policy envisaged the first step in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union in terms of ‘demonstration shots’, intended not to kill millions but to shock Moscow into holding back from a conventional attack. The ‘Nuclear Operations’ view is much more one of ending a war in a more Trumpian manner.

There is history to this, too, which dates back to the years after the first Iraq war in 1991. After that war it became clear that Iraq had developed a limited but potentially potent force of chemical and biological weapons. One result of this was a development in US nuclear thinking illustrated by the ‘Global 95’ wargaming exercise. conducted under carefully controlled conditions at the US Naval War College. As an Oxford Research Group briefing a couple of years ago reported, it had been:

… a ‘twin crisis’ exercise centred on Korea and the Persian Gulf. Within the terms of the exercise both crises escalated to the use of chemical weapons against US forces, but a resurgent Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq went further, using biological weapons to devastating effect against US military forces and Saudi civilians. The United States responded with a nuclear attack on Baghdad, ending the war. The wargame was reported in the US military journal Defense News ([Theresa Hitchens ‘Wargame finds US short in biowar’] 28 August 1995), as raising a number of critical issues:

"The United States has virtually no response to the use of such potentially devastating weapons other than threatening to use nuclear weapons, a Joint Staff official said Aug. 22. But it is unclear whether even nuclear weapons would provide a deterrent, unless the US was willing to take the difficult moral step of destroying a city, he said. On the other hand, if the United States did launch a nuclear attack in response, ‘no country would use those weapons for the next 100 years’ the official said."

Replace Iraq with Iran or Afghanistan and it all comes a bit too close to home, but there is another element to this. If the US did kill millions in a small nuclear war it would not prevent any further nuclear attacks for a hundred years, as Theresa Hitchens argued. The new certainty would be the direct opposite: any such US nuclear use would prompt clandestine attacks on US cities within a few years at most.

This all seems more like Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ than the world of today. But the very attitude is not many miles away from that of Donald Trump and, far more worryingly, fits in uncomfortably with official US nuclear strategy as illustrated by ‘Nuclear Operations’.

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