Michael KreponThe Well Read Wonk

Mastery of technical detail without an understanding of history is like learning to ride a bicycle without wheels. Ergo, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy by Lawrence Freedman is must reading for aspiring wonks. The paperback on my bookshelf dates back to 1983; help yourselves to the third edition.

Freedman acknowledges that “strategy” and “nuclear weapons” fit uncomfortably in the same sentence. If we use Basil Liddell Hart’s definition of strategy, as Freedman does – “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill ends of policy” – then we find ourselves in a quandary. When an adversary also possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, even after absorbing terrible blows, strategy becomes a hostage to devastating retaliation.

Freedman’s history of attempts by brilliant strategists to escape from being pinned on the horns of this dilemma is essential reading because escape attempts are never-ending – whether by missile defenses, futuristic space-based fixes, limited applications of force, or abolition.

Shorn of iron-clad solutions to the Bomb, we are left with what Freedman calls “the muddle of nuclear strategy itself.” In the introduction to the first edition, he asks whether “’nuclear strategy’ is a contradiction in terms.” What does it say, fellow wonks, when you dwell in an oxymoron?


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    “When an adversary also possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, even after absorbing terrible blows, strategy becomes a hostage to devastating retaliation.

    …escape attempts are never ending – whether by missile defenses, futuristic space-based fixes, limited applications of force, or abolition.”

    I don’t see how you can include nuclear abolition in this list. The others are war strategies, seeking unilateral dominance, or at least to prevail in conflict by the use of violent force. Abolition is not a strategy for war and unilateral dominance, it is a strategy for peace and survival.

    I am not aware of abolition proponents who argue that once we get rid of nuclear weapons the US will be free to go to war against China or Russia and have its way by the use of superior non-nuclear weaponry.

    Rather, abolitionists recognize that nuclear powers are presently in a situation where avoidance of war is essential to any rational strategy. Abolition will not change that. Lawlessness and violence between powers technically and economically capable of nuclear weapons production would only lead to nuclear rearmament, and if fighting had not yet terminated or had changed the status quo in ways unacceptable to some nuclear-rearmed states, nuclear war would likely follow.

    Abolition does not assume the absence of conflict in the future, but only that conflict will be managed, limited and resolved short of war — as nuclear weapons have already forced us to recognize that it must be. The fact that the technology can’t be uninvented implies that abolishing nuclear weapons doesn’t mean abolishing nuclear deterrence. It just means walking back from the precipice and building a safer world for our children.

    • FOARP (History)

      Yes, disarmament is to be considered a military strategy. Why? Because you are trying to acheive a political end (“world peace”) through military means (disarmament – either unilateral or multilateral) and therefore falls within BH Lidell-Hart’s definition. Nice-sounding talk about ‘abolishing conflict’ does not change this fact.

      The advantages you cite for abolition (“conflict will be managed, limited and resolved short of war [one assumes this means nuclear war since you have already stated that conflict cannot be avoided]”) are exactly the same as those cited for the other postures in Krepon’s list by their respective advocates. There is nothing all that special about nuclear abolition – it does not even absolutely remove the danger of nuclear war as the potential for making nuclear weapons will always remain. It is for this reason that we have the discussion seen occasionally on this site about “virtual deterrent” and “virtual arms limitation”.

      This kind of argument smacks of “but we’re the nice guys are the rest of you are all war-mongers” rhetoric. In reality the people who advocate, say, missile defence, are not Buck Turgidsons dreaming of world conquest (though this appears to be you characterisation of them) but people who wish to avoid a nuclear attack on their country. This doesn’t make them – or you – right, but it should teach you to avoid false characterisations of your position and the position of others.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I beg to differ here, Foarp.

      You can call disarmament or arms control or nuclear abolition (which are 3 different, overlapping categories) “military strategy” if you want, but the distinction I made should be clear enough to anyone making an honest effort to grasp it. Nuclear abolition is not a strategy to impose one’s will on others by the use of force (including “defensive” force by which to negate the others’ weapons). As is generally perceived, it is a strategy in the opposite direction from the others.

      That conflict must be managed, limited, and resolved short of war is not my claimed “advantage” of nuclear abolition, it is the imposed requirement for survival in the nuclear age. As I wrote, abolition will not change this (“virtual deterrence”). You belabor this point as if you did not bother to read before firing back.

      As I recall, Turgidson was not dreaming of world conquest, he was just a bombastic fool who could get carried away with his enthusiasm for the ability of a B-52 to underfly radar before thinking what this meant.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)


      Let’s put some hypothetical numbers on your abolitionist proposal. Between 1850 and 1950 France and Prussia/Germany had three conventional wars. Absent help from allies, France lost all three wars.

      Suppose nukes were invented in 1850. Both France and Germany have them and France threatens their use to deter conventional defeat from Germany. As a result, two of three conventional wars are deterred, but one war still takes place. Suppose there is 2/3 chance this one war goes nuclear in a big way. Two conventional wars are deterred, but in exchange there is 2/3 chance of nuclear war. This is a ratio of three conventional wars averted per big nuclear war created — a very bad ratio.

      Now suppose nukes are abolished and no nukes exist in peace time. As a result, one of three conventional wars is deterred, but two wars still takes place. Because France is occupied, there is only 1/3 chance that French rebels can build a nuke. Unoccupied Germany secretly builds ten nukes, just in case. In the event French rebels build a nuke, there is only 1/3 chance the rebels are stupid enough to drop it on Germany. This makes 2/9 chance (2 wars x 1/3 x 1/3) of limited nuclear war. One conventional war is deterred, but in exchange there is 2/9 chance of nuclear war. This is a ratio of 4.5 conventional wars averted per limited nuclear war created — a much less bad ratio.

      Even though I rejected the assumption that potential nukes deter just as much as actual nukes, the numbers of this example still favor abolition. Abolition beats nuclear business as usual.

    • FOARP (History)

      @Mark –

      “That conflict must be managed, limited, and resolved short of war is not my claimed “advantage” of nuclear abolition, it is the imposed requirement for survival in the nuclear age.”

      Again, I assume by ‘war’ you mean ‘nuclear war’, since you have said that conflict is unavoidable. Very obviously war per se is not now unavoidable since we continue to fight them. If the case is otherwise, you are essentially saying that human kind will not survive.

      “Nuclear abolition is not a strategy to impose one’s will on others by the use of force (including “defensive” force by which to negate the others’ weapons). As is generally perceived, it is a strategy in the opposite direction from the others.”

      This appears to be a case of semantics where ‘general perception’ is decided by you alone. At any rate, it is easy to argue the other way – are you not arguing that the motive to disarm is a threat? Is not this threat driving your case for disarmament?

      One must also ask how abolition is to be acheived. We have already seen wars that were supposedly started over the development of weapons of mass destruction by a country. It is a very simple and obvious fact that an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons without a system of inspection and enforcement would be worthless.

      Jonah – Change the numbers – which appear to have been picked out of thin air – and the case changes.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “Change the numbers – and the case changes.” What alternative numbers, or alternative example, do you regard as more reasonable?

      The numbers I selected were reasonable for the illustrative example I posited. Different numbers would not alter the basic conclusion for the following qualitative reasons:

      1) Just as nuclear weapons are magnitudes more explosive than conventional weapons (see this page for sample calculations, including some ballpark estimates from “FOARP”), nuclear war can be expected to be substantially more damaging than conventional war.

      2) The ratio of conventional wars averted to nuclear wars created must be very high to justify the risk of nuclear war which comes from having hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons lying around just waiting to be used.

      3) Under abolition, the risk of nuclear war is low, because there are zero to few nuclear weapons around waiting to be used. Also, depending on the details of abolition, their possession would likely be illegal and their actual use a serious war crime.

      4) In the event of nuclear use, the resulting nuclear act or nuclear war is likely to be limited, hence less damaging than nuclear war under current conditions.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    —A thought no one should like: what if the big difference between the “good old days” of 1916 warfare and the world of 2013 is not nuclear weapons, but the delivery systems of missile and airplane? If you can conqure time and space to deliver conventional weapons, then how many M.O.A.B. carrying b-52s does it take to equal one Hiroshima?

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    “On 11 September 2007 the Russian military announced that it had tested what it called the “Father of All Bombs”. Described as the world’s most powerful non-nuclear air-delivered munition, the Russian military claimed it was four times more powerful than the American “Mother Of All Bombs.” While the Russian bomb was reported to contain 7.8 tons of “thermobaric” explosive, compared to the more than 8 tons of explosives in the American bomb, the Russian bomb was said to use more highly efficient explosive, with a yield equivalent to 44 tons of TNT. The bomb was reported to have a blast radius of 300 meters, double that of the American bomb, while the temperature at the epicenter was also reported to be twice as high.”

    —-Although skepticism of the Russian Federation claims is required here, 44 tons of TNT would be roughly three times the Hiroshima bomb.

    • kme (History)

      Err… no. The yield of Little Boy was about 16 thousand tons of TNT equivalent, so still more than 350 times greater than the notional yield of this Russian bomb.

  4. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    @Bradley Laing:
    Actually, 44 tons of TNT would be roughly 0.003 times the Hiroshima bomb (which was around 13000 +/- 2000 tons TNT equivalent).

    • FOARP (History)

      Absolutely correct – Laing seems to have a decimal point problem here. However, this doesn’t tell you the number of FOABs or MOABs needed to equal the destruction wrought by Little Boy on Hiroshima.

      If a FOAB has a ‘blast radius’ (Q: what is this really? I’m going to have to assume it means the area in which an over-pressure of 5 PSI was seen) of 300 meters, that works out at a grand total of Pi X 0.3^2 = ~0.3 KM^2 “blasted”. By contrast, Little Boy “blasted” (i.e., created an over-pressure of 5 PSI) a circle 1.6 KM in radius (according to Wiki), which works out at an area of Pi X 1.6^2 = ~8 KM^2.

      Assuming that the definitions of “blasted” here are the same, to “blast” the same area “blasted” by Little Boy with FOABs would require 8/0.3 = ~27 FOABs. Say an even 30 or so with good targetting. In reality this number might be a lot higher because the effects of buildings etc. on FOAB’s blast might be more significant than that on Little Boy’s, but it shouldn’t be higher than 100 FOABs.

      Would it be possible to deliver this weight of bombs? Each FOAB is supposed to contain 7.8 tons of explosive. I don’t know the total weight of a FOAB, but let’s imagine the FOAB has the same explosive weight/overall weight ratio as the British “Blockbuster” (AKA HC) bomb of WW2 – 3:4. This would give the FOAB a weight of 10.4 tons.

      A B52 carries ~30-35 tons of ordinance, however, since the MOAB can only be dropped from a Hercules due to its dimensions, I’m guessing the B52 would have problems fitting the FOAB in its hold also. Let’s say that, even with modification, each B52 can only carry two FOABs.

      Therefore, our Hiroshima-type air-raid made using FOABs carried in B52s would require a minimum of 15 B52s, and a maximum of 50, assuming zero opposition.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    At 1:39 am eastern time a newspaper called the “Shanghai Daily” claimed that the NOrth Koreans had cut the “Hotline” between North And South Korea.

    —The article was then 12 minutes old.


  6. FOARP (History)

    And for you completeness fanatics out there who believe that the statistics given for the FOAB are BS (as they almost certainly are – inflated statistics were also seen in the media for MOAB which were eventually replaced by lower stats), the blast radius for MOAB is given as 137 Metres or 0.137 kilometres. This works out to a blasted area of 0.06KM^2. A minimum of 8/0.06 = 133 MOABs would be required to “blast” the same area in which Little Boy created a 5 PSI over-pressure. Assuming two MOABs per plane, this would require ~66 B52s to carry. In reality you have to assume that imperfect targetting would require at least 30% more – which means that the entire US B52 fleet would be required for the raid.

  7. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I think you all have missed the point of MOABs, FOABs, and MOPs. At the time those weapons were publicised there were very noisy public political/military lobbies in both the U.S. and Russia advocating new classes of tactical nukes, mostly for taking out large, deeply buried facilities; places like Fordow, or more primatively, ‘Tora-bora’, in annoying third-world countries.

    A point that was made by a few prominent leaders, both political and military, following the MOAB test, was that the U.S. and Russia, with heavy lift capabilities, have little need for nuclear bunker-busters, as the massive conventional explosives can be used in any realistic scenario that doesn’t involve a full up nuclear exchange between major nuclear powers.

  8. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Years ago, when Google was still searching the inner contents of copyrighted works, I learned that Freedman’s book discussed Leo Szilard’s ideas on providing warning time for evacuation before bombing of cities. I also found some additional references on the sparse literature discussing Szilard’s ideas.

    In my view, Szilard provided the best Cold-war idea for limited use of nuclear weapons, but his idea on limited war evacuations was ignored by the big-wig nuclear strategists. It was a genuine lost opportunity for nuclear strategy, because the strategists never seriously considered at least half the available strategies. As a result, nuclear strategy was far less rational and humane than it could have been.

    I purchased the third edition of Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, and read most of it. One thing that struck me was that the official view of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy was quite different in each nation. It was national culture or national leadership ideas, not just rationality, that determined these views.

  9. Bradley Laing (History)

    —My apologies for being bad at math. More importantly, I’m glad (at this point) that conventional explosives cannot reach the point where they can match nuclear ones in strength.

    —But what about the delivery systems of air plane and missile, they are not as revolutionary as I feared?

  10. jeannick (History)

    One could think there is some confusion
    nuclear strategy is fighting a war and overcoming the opponent
    in the case of a nuclear armed enemy , that wouldn’t be pretty
    still on could conceive winning a nuclear war
    with “ten twenty millions casualties , top !”
    It’s all a question of ultimate motivation

    nuclear disarmament is a diplomatic concern

    one is a peacetime political concern
    the other a wartime option

    P.S. wasn’t the Russian bomb called the “czar bomba”
    it was supposedly derated with some of the pits replaced by lead ones , due to some concern about letting a too powerful devil loose

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      The “Tsar Bomba,” and I’m unsure who gave it that name, was a three-stage device, with third stage being replaced by lead. One reason for that was if it detonated with it’s full potential, the explosion would destroy the aircraft dropping the bomb.

  11. jeannick (History)

    Thanks for the confirmation
    as for the name , it’s a pretty standard Russia moniker
    in the Kremlin gardens there is the czar bell ( broken)
    and the czar cannon ,a rather monstrous piece of ordinance

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