Michael KreponThe Logic of Nuclear Superiority

Quotes of the week:

“You show me a Secretary of Defense who’s planning not to prevail [in a nuclear war] and I’ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.” — Caspar Weinberger, New York Times, August 24, 1982

“Strategic flexibility, unless wedded to a plausible theory of how to win a war or at least insure an acceptable end to a war, does not offer the United States an adequate bargaining position before or during a conflict and is an invitation to defeat…

… an intelligent U.S. offensive strategy, wedded to homeland defenses, should reduce U.S. casualties to approximately 20 million, which should render U.S. strategic threats more credible.” — “Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, “Victory is Possible,” Foreign Policy, 1980.

Matthew Kroenig has written an unapologetic case for a “robust” U.S. strategic posture, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters. The purpose of nuclear superiority, in Matt’s view, isn’t to fight and win – it’s to avoid fighting. His core argument is that crises between nuclear-armed states are the substitute for war and that “a robust nuclear force reduces a state’s expected cost of a nuclear war, increasing its resolve in high-stakes crises, providing it with coercive bargaining leverage, and enhancing nuclear deterrence.”

In Matt’s view, “Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate instrument of military force and they are still, therefore, essential tools of great power political competition.” From this baseline, his logic train is straightforward: Superiority matters because, “Deterred from engaging in direct combat, nuclear powers attempt to coerce opponents by playing games of brinkmanship. They initiate or escalate crises, intentionally raising the risk of nuclear war in an attempt to force less resolute adversaries to capitulate.” Superior nuclear capabilities provide the United States with the upper hand in crises and brinkmanship. Robustness requires nuclear war-winning capabilities.

Matt synthesizes the twin logics of superiority and brinkmanship to explain why assured retaliatory capabilities haven’t stabilized the U.S.-Soviet/Russian nuclear competition. Instead, Washington and Moscow have remained committed to oversized, counterforce-infused nuclear capabilities to seek advantage and to avoid disadvantage. Under these circumstances, he argues that U.S. “nuclear superiority, not nuclear parity, contributes to more, not less, strategic stability.” Why? Because no one would dare challenge U.S. nuclear superiority.

This provocative book constitutes a direct rebuttal to Robert Jervis’s The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (1984) in which Jervis argued that, “Superiority without the ability to protect one’s civilization does not give either side much leverage.” Matt holds the opposite view – that superiority is the essence of leverage and in worst cases, damage limitation and victory in nuclear warfare. Matt’s book is also a rebuttal to Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (2017) by Todd Sechser and Matt Fuhrmann, who have found little evidence in past cases that nuclear weapons have determined crisis outcomes.

Matt looks at many of the same cases and finds otherwise. I am not a political science wonk, and am therefore unqualified to comment on weaknesses of methodology. What I can say with certainty is that conclusions regarding the utility of nuclear weapons, the nuclear balance, and brinkmanship rest or fall on just a few key cases – and they don’t include the Congo or Angola. My short list of cases that matter are those where risk-taking behavior was most evident and where there were direct stakes involved for the nuclear-armed contestants.

By these criteria, the most important cases are the Cuban missile crisis, the 1969 Sino-Soviet border clash, and the 1999 war between India and Pakistan in the heights above Kargil. To this short list we might add the 1973 Arab-Israeli war because Washington and Moscow were very much engaged in nuclear signaling on behalf of the actual contestants. I don’t see how we can include cases like the 1983 Able Archer alert when the Reagan administration failed to appreciate how anxious some in the Kremlin were about the prospect of a surprise nuclear attack. If signaling isn’t recognized because of ideological blinders or other reasons, a genuine crisis can go unrecognized.

As for the much-studied Cuban missile crisis, it’s still hard to be sure whether U.S. nuclear superiority was more decisive than local disparities in conventional capabilities. And yet even in this case, while enjoying both nuclear and local conventional superiority, Washington’s win was conditional on removing missiles from Turkey and leaving the Castro regime in place.

I’m not well versed in the Sino-Soviet clash, but my sense is that Matt is on thin ice in scoring this as a victory for Moscow because “Mao submitted to Brezhnev’s demands and agreed to negotiations.” While Beijing agreed to talks during the crisis, the Soviet Union’s massive nuclear superiority did not force local Chinese concessions, nor did it prevent the fissure in Sino-Soviet relations. A border agreement was eventually reached, but only 22 years after the clash.

As for the Kargil war, Matt assumes that Indian advantages in nuclear weapon capabilities figured in Pakistan’s embarrassing retreat and the re-imposition of the status quo ante. His analysis rests heavily on David Albright’s estimate of the nuclear balance at the time of the crisis. The weakness of David’s calculations — which I think he would readily acknowledge — was that they were based on estimated stockpiles of fissile material that could have been turned into warheads if those in charge saw fit to do so.

In reality, no one in a decision making capacity could confidently assume what the nuclear balance was at the time of the Kargil war. A few wise analysts in India, led by K. Subrahmanyam, surmised that Pakistan was ahead, but others – politicians, defense scientists, and Indian Administrative Service-types — couldn’t envision this. Nor could they imagine that Pakistan was in a position to test nuclear devices so soon after India. This mindset was reflected in Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s public comments warning Pakistan to back off on Kashmir after the Indian tests. His warning was most likely based on the presumption of Pakistan’s nuclear inferiority.

Pakistani military leaders and strategic analysts generally assumed that India was in the lead after the nuclear tests, one reason why they put pedal to the metal while India was resting on its laurels. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Pakistan was in more of a hurry than India back then – and may still be today, since the military stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities continue to take the Bomb very seriously as an instrument of warfare, while India’s political leaders do not.

What does all this suggest with respect to the thesis that nuclear superiority mattered during the Kargil crisis and war? This remains a hard case to make because nuclear warhead totals and the nuclear balance were opaque. Moreover, perception and reality were very jumbled.  It’s quite possible that India, which Matt presumes to have possessed nuclear advantages, was actually lagging behind Pakistan, which nonetheless embarked on a bold initiative to change the status quo. What is incontestable is that India, despite its lax nuclear posture, turned the tide because of its ability to bring conventional capabilities to the fight, while Rawalpindi was handcuffed by the fiction that Kargil was a jihadi and not a military operation.

There is one interesting common thread between the Kargil war and Cuban missile crisis — the element of surprise. Both crises began with a surprise attempt to change the status quo in dangerous ways. And in both cases, the state that sought advantage by acting surreptitiously found itself on the defensive as the crisis played out. I wouldn’t say that this was the most important factor in the crisis outcome, but neither was it incidental.

Matt’s book carries forward longstanding critiques of arms control and its preoccupations with constraining counterforce capabilities and missile defenses. He offers an updated version of the utility of nuclear superiority that, to be fully embraced, requires a radical departure from over four decades of agreements between Washington and Moscow premised on accepting nuclear sufficiency and rough strategic equivalence. Some of the particulars of Matt’s paean to the virtues of a nuclear war winning posture will be too unvarnished for public support, but neither is the public enamored with strategic arms control and reductions. As Tom Petty (R.I.P.) would say, here we stand, gazing out at the great wide open.


  1. John F. Chick (History)

    Good piece Michael. During the Taiwan Straits crises in the 1950s, Mao was dismissive of nuclear weapons, calling them “paper tigers”, and concluding that China’s population would only be dented in a nuclear strike. Perhaps his views had changed by 1969, but I’d agree that it’s unlikely a Soviet nuclear superiority had much to do with the outcome.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Matt’s book severely understates the global catastrophe from nuclear winter. Modern (post-2000) studies indicate an India-Pakistan nuclear war with only 100 “small” nuclear detonations would cause a nuclear “ice age” and kill 1-2 billion people worldwide from starvation. The impact of a U.S.-Russia nuclear war would be far worse, blocking sunlight and shutting down world agriculture for at least 10 or 20 years. presumably causing mass starvation in every country and a complete end to modern civilization. His book neither mentions these studies nor provides any rebuttal.

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Another puzzle: Kennedy estimated odds of nuclear war of between 33% and 50% during the 1962 crisis, but continued to demand removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba. Matt argues that maintaining U.S. nuclear superiority was quite valuable, that’s why Kennedy was willing to instigate such a huge risk of nuclear war. This reasoning is quite circular and has no objective basis.

    At best, removing the missiles from Cuba delayed the onset of Soviet nuclear parity by several years. Is it really true that delaying Soviet nuclear parity by 10 years would be worth a 40% chance of nuclear war in 1962, even if we imagine there would be no nuclear winter? I suspect most people would say no. I do not see an answer in Matt’s book.

    • Bill (History)

      I’m wondering where the information about Kennedy’s estimate of a 33 to 50 percent risk comes from. Is this something that Kroenig claims?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Kroenig states: “After the crisis, Kennedy estimated that the risk of nuclear war had been ‘somewhere between one out of three and even.'[12]” (p. 84) Footnote 12 on p. 218 cites: Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 705.

      Matt does not state whether he agrees or disagrees with Kennedy’s estimate. Implicit in Matt’s argument about the desirability of nuclear superiority is that life at the nuclear brink is a relatively safe activity. This presumably requires very low odds of nuclear war, substantially lower than 33%.

  4. Hass (History)
  5. RAJ47 (History)

    From this article it seems that Matt is a proponent of Pakistan’s nuclear thought process.

    “Deterred from engaging in direct combat, nuclear powers attempt to coerce opponents by playing games of brinkmanship. They initiate or escalate crises, intentionally raising the risk of nuclear war in an attempt to force less resolute adversaries to capitulate.”
    This is what exactly Pakistan wants to do.

    But what Pakistan and here Matt refuse to understand is that no country can protect its civilisation
    from nuclear invasion especially if it is MAD or massive retaliation. India’s and its leaders’ resilience to hit back after accepting certain human and material losses is what becomes the strength of its nuclear policy.

    Assumptions that Indian leaders considered Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities inferior are not based on facts available. Indian tests in 1998 were in fact preponed knowing fully well what the Pakistan’s scientist were upto in Chagai Hills.

    During the Kargil operation, neither was Pakistan handcuffed by false pretence of so called ‘jihadi’ fiction nor did India make any mistake of misunderstanding a proper military operation. Pakistan openly and brazenly supported its NLI troops with mountain artillery and air support. They even used the strela missiles effectively provided by the USA for Afghanistan to be used against the Soviets.

    It was rather the Indian Army and IAF constrained by the strict directions of not crossing the LOC. Even after following these political directions in letter and spirit, Pakistan Army was effectively defeated in Kargil operations and evicted from the high mountains by the brave and valiant Indian Army.

    Agree with ‘Jonah Speaks’ completely on unimaginable effects of US-Russia nuclear conflict. Considering that most of the warheads launched would be intercepted in the midcourse phase over countries who have nothing to do with the conflict.

    Avoiding a nuclear showdown would best be achieved by accepting NFU policy especially by the US and Russia who have the largest nuclear arsenals in the world.

  6. Phil Tanny (History)

    What seems missing from a lot of commentary on these topics is the realization that even a single detonation over a city could have profound psychological impact with unpredictable cultural consequences.

    People get up and go to work everyday at jobs they don’t like based on the faith that investing in their future will pay off. The financial system is based on a similar kind of faith, people trade tangible goods for worthless little pieces of paper based on the faith that this transaction system is stable. Young people go to college and start families based on the faith that they can provide their kids with a world worth living in.

    Faith in the future is the foundation of civilization, and the use of even a single nuke threatens to puncture the bubble of existential illusion we all require to function as productive members of a society. People have to believe in the system for the system to work.

    The hippy movement of the sixties is likely one example of a nuclear weapons fueled social change. People my age grew up in the 1950’s as the world first prepared for mass suicide, which made a philosophy of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” a rational cultural shift from the “keep your head down and work hard” ethic of our parent’s generation. Not a single nuke detonation was necessary to drive this cultural shift, only the awareness of the threat.

    Once any nuclear weapon is used anywhere, we’re in a jump ball situation and literally anything could happen next. “Experts” who think they can carefully plan out how such events will unfold are expert only at being fools.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Your insight is crucial. Couldn’t agree with you more.

  7. Phil Tanny (History)

    Hi Michael, great blog, and thanks for your reply. To expand a bit on the above…

    We could recall the reaction to 9/11. Round the clock media coverage that seemed to never end. To this day images of the towers coming down appear regularly. Two wars costing trillions of dollars. The expansion of a national security state that is vacuuming up everything everybody says to anybody. All this, in reaction to the death of 3,000.

    Even a single nuke exploded will create the biggest media story in modern times. The imagery of vast destruction, charred bodies, kids with their skin falling off, and all the rest of it will be relentlessly pushed in to every corner of global consciousness by a media culture addicted to drama. The story will be endlessly recycled, endlessly commented upon, endlessly shoved in to our brains. And we’ll welcome the process, just as we did with 9/11, as it provides us with some distracting relief from the petty disappointments of our own personal lives.

    This is the psychological shock wave that will continue to reverberate around the globe until everyone who was alive at the time of the event is gone.

    Since the end of the cold war global culture has largely been able to push the existential threat presented by nukes deep in to the psychological background, just as we submerge awareness of our own personal mortality. The nuke event psychological shock wave will rudely open this psychological pandora’s box and shove it’s contents in to our face, much the same way a person’s perspective can radically change upon learning that they have cancer.

    What kind of change will that be?

    On one hand it could be the cultural moment when all other issues take a back seat to the nuclear threat and we finally see what needs to be done, and get about the business of doing it in a large way. There is an argument that the only way to avoid global nuclear war is to have a smaller event which wakes us up without killing us, providing us with the opportunity to adapt.

    On the other hand, who knows? What goes through a person’s mind, a culture’s mind, when it comes face to face with it’s own mortality? We’re so good as human beings at avoiding such encounters that it’s hard to tell. Some of us will probably rise to the challenge, while others will sink in to despair.

    Perhaps that’s the real battlefield of the nuclear era?

  8. Phil Tanny (History)

    You are America with 100,000 nuclear weapons, I’m a nobody with just a few. You have nuclear superiority.

    I set off one of my nukes in Washington D.C. because the brilliant American nuclear war planners have placed the majority of their federal government all cuddled up together in one place where I can decapitate it with a single blow from one of my homemade nukes. FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, Pentagon, Supreme Court, Congress, Federal Reserve, Social Security Administration, IRS, and a bunch of other agencies, all gone, bye bye now.

    You have nuclear superiority. And a country dissolving in to chaos.

    Sure, you’ll find me and strike back sooner or later. I don’t care. I welcome the embrace of Allah. Or I don’t care, because my 3rd world regime is going down the tubes anyway. Or I don’t care, because I have many screws loose. Or I don’t care, because my wife left me and now life is meaningless. Or I don’t care, because the IRS took my house and bank accounts and this will teach them not to screw with me. Or I don’t care, because my drug cartel profits are now safe for the foreseeable future. Or I don’t care, because now that the politicians are all gone I will seize power in a military coup.

    And now that Washington is gone the global geopolitical equations are up for grabs, and a variety of different bad guys decide it’s time to make their big move.

    You have nuclear superiority. And it didn’t really matter.