Bolts from the Blue, Monsters Under the Bed, and the Pursuit of Absolute Security

October 17, 2017

Widespread concern about North Korea’s nuclear capability may be novel, but Americans’ visceral response to the threat of nuclear attack is far from it. For nearly the first five decades of the nuclear age, the fear of surprise nuclear attack loomed large in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. There was nothing that American nuclear war planners feared more. A massive, sudden nuclear attack, they believed, could come totally without warning, even absent a crisis or dispute, leaving the United States disarmed, radiating, and impotent before its new Soviet masters. This worst-case scenario thinking informed how presidents and military officers approached nuclear issues throughout the Cold War.

Since the end of the Cold War, this fear seems to have attenuated — but why, exactly, is unclear. Was it America’s nuclear strength at work? A new evaluation of opponents’ interests? What caused Washington’s long-standing fear of surprise attack to recede? The answer is vitally important. As the United States advances its ongoing Nuclear Posture Review, and presses on with nuclear modernization, it will need to decide what role, if any, the old fear of bolts from the blue should have in 21st century U.S. nuclear policy.

A Cold War Obsession

In one sense, the famous nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter started it. His 1958 RAND paper on the ‘Delicate Balance of Terror’ argued that the bomber force on which the United States then relied for deterrence was shockingly vulnerable to a Soviet surprise attack. While Wohlstetter assumed the Soviets were much more capable than they actually were, the fear that his argument evinced proved persistent.

Yet in another sense, Wohlstetter had merely provided analysis that extended the existing fears of early Cold War America. The Soviets had developed atomic weapons far sooner than anyone ever expected. Soon after, communists had invaded South Korea in what some feared was a prelude to possible next moves by the Soviet Union” in Europe. Even after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev continued to press the United States in Europe, maintaining a near continuous Berlin crisis from 1958 through 1962. Where would this aggression end? Faced with what seemed to be an unremittingly hostile adversary, America steeled itself against the one thing that it feared most: an atomic Pearl Harbor.

This fear persisted throughout the Cold War. For nearly 30 years, an unbroken chain of U.S. Air Force generals remained airborne — ready to command nuclear forces in case most of the country below was obliterated. Bombers flew airborne alerts and sat strip alerts, ready to scramble at the first sign of an attack. With the dawn of the missile age, hours of potential warning of an attack were cut to mere minutes — the “fantastic compression of time.” Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) crews stood ready to launch on warning of incoming missiles so that their weapons would not be destroyed before they could be used.

Just Relax Already

Contrast this state of affairs with the present day. For most of the first 45 years of the nuclear age, the fear of sudden, surprise attack loomed large in U.S. nuclear policy. Then it receded into the background — both within the popular imagination, and as the central driver of U.S. nuclear operations. Certainly, the United States never lost the ability to respond quickly and massively to nuclear attack. But contemporary U.S. nuclear war plans are far more flexible than ever before. Missiles can be rapidly re-targeted in an evolving crisis. Because of this flexibility, the need to rapidly execute launch orders — while still important — is no longer the sole factor animating U.S. nuclear employment policy. In short, the job of nuclear launch crews is different now than it was during the Cold War.

Consider what might happen if contemporary ICBM launch officers or submarine crews suddenly received an order to send their weapons to targets. If the world seemed placid and they had been given no instructions to prepare for a launch order, there is a good chance that they would consult their chain of command, or look for signs of an attack before turning their keys or pulling their triggers. Because most days an American mistake would seem more likely than an enemy first strike, it is difficult to imagine that the military would respond with blind, unquestioning obedience to a “launch order from the blue.” And that is wise.

What’s Next?

What caused this change? First, let us be clear about one thing: It has nothing to do with who occupies the White House. The U.S. military would surely follow a nuclear launch order — even an “order from the blue,” once confirmed as genuine. Bearing this in mind, two general hypotheses present themselves.

The first centers on a change in how the United States evaluates threats. No state would ever be so bold as to launch a first strike out of the blue, the argument goes. The risks are too great and the benefits too uncertain. While use of nuclear weapons is far from unthinkable, an enemy bolt from the blue is. Just as children outgrow their fear of monsters under the bed, perhaps Americans simply outgrew an irrational fear of surprise nuclear attack.

The second hypothesis centers on U.S. capabilities relative to its adversaries. According to this school of thought, a bolt from the blue remains plausible enough to deserve attention, and nuclear strength is the prescription. And throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, U.S. nuclear strength only increased. America’s nearest competitor — Russia — was in decline. At the same time, American confidence in the highly survivable submarine leg of the nuclear triad grew as the highly accurate, counterforce-capable Trident II D5 missile permeated the fleet throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. According to this argument, the improved capabilities of our most survivable nuclear forces — not any new outlook on geopolitics — has kept the fear of a bolt from the blue at bay.

Which of these two hypotheses captures more of the truth? The answer is unclear, but very important. Today the world is entering a new era of great power competition. Simultaneously, the United States is in the midst of a Nuclear Posture Review, and has begun a massive cycle of nuclear weapons modernization. Decisions made in the present and near future will inform what we can and cannot do with our nuclear forces for decades, much as decisions taken in the 1970s and 1980s generated the nuclear forces we own today.

An evolved new perspective on the threat of surprise nuclear attack would let the United States remain somewhat relaxed about its future posture, even if it could not obviate the need to replace and upgrade aging weapons. However, if America’s civilian leaders pursue absolute security against a nuclear 9/11 or atomic Pearl Harbor, through reliance on prompt first strike counterforce, then the confluence of multi-polar nuclear competition and the fantastic compression of time could make the future very scary indeed.

 

Timothy P. McDonnell is a PhD candidate at MIT where he is a member of the Security Studies Program. He can be reached at Tim_McD@MIT.edu.

Image: U.S. Air Force