By Joe Buff, MS, FSA
The Global Zero Movement and their nuclear disarmament fellow-travelers keep telling Congress and the American people something fundamental, something lovely, some great news about war and human psychology. Alas for global peace and human survival, their claim is about as real as unicorns that fly like Pegasus, eat rainbows, and fart no-cal rocky-road ice cream. The No Nukes crowd keep trying to say that the United States can effectively deter any enemy nuclear attack by threatening to retaliate with conventional weapons only. Unfortunately, this forlorn hope has been gaining some traction in the media and on Capitol Hill — pushed along, no doubt, by adversary foreign influence operatives who would love to see us discard our nuclear Triad.
The neo-pacifist unilateral-disarmament delusion falls apart under the slightest rigorous scrutiny. It is completely undermined by a simple fact of history: Conventional arms don’t even effectively deter conventional attacks. So how could they ever prevent nuclear attacks? Each nuke is 100 to 1000 times as powerful as a piece of h. e. ordnance. Each mighty nuke takes up vastly less space and weight than a puny iron bomb, and needs minimal crewing and very few platforms to deliver with the utmost devastating effect.
The 1000-plane strategic bomber raids of World War Two took a whole army of air crews, ground crews, and support personnel, working hard for weeks, to first mount and then recover from each such operation. A nuclear surprise attack or drastic crisis escalation, in contrast, once an adversary fields a good sized nuclear arsenal, can be accomplished in mere minutes. A difference in degree makes a difference in kind. Never is this truer than with the equipment of war. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Your enemy, unscathed, will make you bleed and die, quickly and from a safe distance.
Don’t preach great patience to someone who has poor listening skills and no impulse control. Don’t preach both-win statesmanship to someone whose whole value system is winner-take-all brinkmanship. And don’t expect anything fair, let alone compassionate, from an amoral sociopath gambler-type who is driven by political/geopolitical desperation or unbridled greed. Above all, don’t try to advocate some radical defense policy that is starkly contradicted by plain facts from actual history.
There’s an old colloquialism, “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” For instance, if you say that all Audi vehicles are reliable, and someone tells you that theirs is always in the shop, you can retort by saying “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” This might work well in a third-grade schoolyard argument but this colloquialism is in fact an oxymoron — a self-contradiction in terms. Such verbal shenanigans have no place whatsoever in high-stakes debate about national defense policy and adequate funding. In factual reality, which is the only reality that actually exists and is the highly compelling one in which we have to survive and thrive, “alternate facts” such as “the exception that proves the rule” deserve immediate relegation back to that third=grade schoolyard.
In any system of rational logic — in line with the incontrovertible decision-making principles of higher (and lower) mathematics — a single exception is enough to utterly disprove any putative rule. There are in pure math no “alternative theorems.” Theorems that are just plain false, but that someone wishes were true badly enough to claim their validity anyway, would not from anyone but a madman or a con-man get the slightest credence. It only takes one counter-example to decisively reject any logical hypothesis. This should especially be true for hypotheses whose advocates want them to be used in national defense policy, in matters of nuclear war and nuclear peace, of life and megadeath.
Academic studies have carefully assessed world military history for the past 200 years to test whether conventional deterrence is even very effective for preventing conventional attacks by major industrial states.(1, 2) Their thoroughly peer reviewed conclusion was that the threat to retaliate using conventional weapons does not effectively deter even mere conventional attacks; it worked at all barely half the time in dozens of test cases. The hypothesis that conventional retaliation alone would somehow serve to deter nuclear attack cannot be tested empirically for obvious reasons. But the above discussion of enemy moods, methods, and motives says it would be much less effective here even than against conventional attacks.
To claim otherwise would simply be the action of a madman or a con-man. QED.
1. Jervis, Robert, Richard New Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein, Psychology and Deterrence, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, 1989).
2. Mearsheimer, John J., Conventional Deterrence, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, 1983).