By Stephen Peter Rosen

Natural scientists study complex systems by breaking them down into simpler parts before analyzing them.  By holding some factors constant, we think we can isolate the impact of changes in other factors.  This method works in many cases, but not for strategy.  The proliferation of nuclear weapons and of precision strike weapons are parts that form a whole that must be studied as such.

First, the presence of nuclear weapons in a hostile country will affect operations involving non-nuclear precision strike weapons, even if the nuclear weapons are never detonated.  Consider the problem of command and control.  Attacking the command and control systems of an enemy with precision weapons has become a routine part of war.  Given the fact that nuclear weapons will be deployed on dual capable missiles, what will happen when the command and control system controlling nuclear weapons may be affected by attacks on networks controlling non-nuclear systems?  Will the attacker be able to distinguish, reliably and in time of war, between the command networks for nuclear weapons and those for non-nuclear weapons, particularly if the adversary tries to hide his nuclear armed platforms among his non-nuclear armed platforms?  Will the attacker want to cut the links between national command authorities and the commanders controlling nuclear weapons, or will the attacker be self-deterred by the prospect of creating a situation in which nuclear weapons cannot be controlled by the political leaders of a hostile country? If the attacker is not so deterred, what will the battlefield dynamic be like when both sides have deployed nuclear weapons that are no longer under the control of the national command authority?

Second, nuclear weapons deployed on dual capable delivery vehicles will affect maneuver forces on land and at sea.  Mobile nuclear armed systems may conceal themselves to avoid becoming the target of precision strikes.  Hostile countries may want to conduct military operations in areas that may contain deployed, concealed nuclear weapons delivery systems, but they may not wish inadvertently to destroy enemy nuclear weapons and put the enemy in a “use them or lose them” position.  Will areas be denied to maneuver forces because of the fear of inadvertent escalation?  Or will conventional warfare inadvertently threaten or destroy enemy nuclear weapons?

Third, will the networks of networks supporting longer range precision strike weapons operate in an environment in which even one nuclear weapon has been detonated, deliberately or by accident? The first order assessment is “no, they will not.”  What will warfare look like when the United States and its adversary both lose their intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems and their command and control links in the theater, and perhaps globally?  Will the United States have an advantage because our military has a practice of devolving operational responsibilities to lower levels of command than is found in other militaries?  Or is the United States more dependent on modern communications than its adversaries?  If so, will it be more crippled than its enemy by nuclear detonations that disrupt those communications?

The United States government, civilian and military, appears to be operating on several problematic assumptions in this area. First, we appear to assume that nuclear proliferation will not proceed further.  Second, if it does, the effects will be confined to nuclear arms competitions, for example, between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  While that is not a happy outcome, the consequences will be limited because “no one will use nuclear weapons.” Third, implicitly, the United States government is acting as if nuclear weapons do not matter as much as other military requirements.  We are cutting our spending on nuclear weapons, and on capabilities that mitigate the consequences of nuclear weapons use.  A study of the strategic future that includes the proliferation of both nuclear weapons and precision strike weapons suggests that the United States government may wish to revisit those assumptions.

Stephen Peter Rosen is Senior Counselor at the Long Term Strategy Group and the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University.