Michael KreponMirror Imaging

Quote of the week:

“The U.S. should be willing to adopt the concept that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to negate nuclear weapons, and make it national policy not to use nuclear weapons first, but only in retaliation for use by some other nation.” — Herman Kahn, On Escalation

Mirror imaging can be defined as seeing your own truth in the mirror of someone else’s behavior. When applied to matters of nuclear weapons and doctrine, mirror imaging can have serious analytical defects. No one has a monopoly on it; Doves as well as Hawks practice mirror imaging. Doves see in Moscow’s behavior what they want to believe, while Hawks see what they fear and seek to emulate. Hawks practice mirror imaging more than Doves, if for no other reason that Moscow, like Washington, periodically behaves badly. Let’s take a walk down memory lane before coming to the problem at hand.

U.S. strategic force levels were essentially set during the Eisenhower administration and built out during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The number of launchers needed to be topped off or else whey would forever grow, so Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara endorsed a formula, called assured destruction, to place limits on new construction. For example, rather than placing 10,000 Minuteman missiles in silos, as some in the Air Force wanted, he chose to stop at 1,000 — a nice round number. This number proved not to be a ceiling, but a baseline for warheads atop launchers with the advent of MIRVs.

The Soviet Union was on the wrong side of the missile gap in the 1960s and so the Kremlin ordered Soviet missile design and production bureaus to work overtime. The missiles they produced were bigger than their U.S. counterparts, and some were very big bruisers, indeed, leading to a wide differential in missile “throw-weight.” Throw-weight is the lifting capacity of missiles, capacity that can be translated into higher-yield warheads and large numbers of them.

Why did the Kremlin and the Soviet General Staff do this? Did this reflect shortcomings in the fine arts of modern missilery, or purposeful intent? Was the Kremlin overcompensating for weaknesses in the other two legs of its Triad? Or did the Kremlin not support “assured destruction,” seeking instead war-winning capabilities?

Doves gave the Kremlin the benefit of the doubt. They assumed that Soviet leaders were human beings that understood the consequences of a general war with nuclear weapons and were practicing deterrence in the best ways available at that time. Not so, said Hawks. Here’s how Paul Nitze characterized Soviet behavior in a pamphlet he penned against SALT II:

“It is a copybook principle of strategy that, in actual war, advantages tend to go to the side in a better position by expanding the scope, duration, and destructive intensity of the conflict. By the same token, at junctures of high contention short of war, the side better able to cope with the potential consequences of raising the stakes has the advantage.”

In other words, the Kremlin and the Soviet General Staff weren’t playing for a tie in the event of a nuclear war; they would play to win. Missile throw-weight advantages could be transformed into “prompt hard-target kill capabilities,” enabling them to be in a better position to dictate the scope, duration, and destructive intensity of the conflict.

Nitze and those who thought like him scuttled ratification of the SALT II Treaty — with a final assist by a rump group of the Politburo that decided to keep Afghanistan in the “friendly” column by invading it. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see this as a massive blunder, but at the time, the Soviet move into Afghanistan reinforced Nitze’s view.

Nitze’s analysis of Soviet nuclear war-fighting doctrine was the mirror image of the war-fighting capabilities he sought to strengthen U.S. deterrence. The best way to deter Soviet designs in this view was to mimic and one-up them. Not only by deploying a larger mobile missile to plus-up the Minuteman force, but also with spreading hard target kill capabilities across all three legs of the Triad.

Nitze and his co-believers weren’t playing for a tie, either. In their view, the best way to out-maneuver the Kremlin in a deep crisis or in the event of war would be to possess war-winning nuclear capabilities, sometimes politely characterized as having war-fighting capabilities “second to none.” Mirror imaging was and is a reflection of want as well as anxiety.

Mirror imaging is never out of fashion; it is alive and well today. A case in point is Joint Publication 3-72, “Nuclear Operations,” briefly released to the public on June 11, 2019, and then withdrawn. Thanks to the Federation of American Scientists,  this document can be accessed here.

One key takeaway from “Nuclear Operations” is the following:

“Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

This sounds much like a doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” that U.S. government officials and intelligence agency experts attribute to Moscow. It’s the rationale behind changing out some launch tubes aboard Trident submarines to become delivery vehicles for tactical nuclear weapons, a decision that only slavish followers of Herman Kahn’s escalation control ladders embrace.

Never mind that the Kremlin insists that it does not place credence on escalating to de-escalate, or that Soviet doctrine, revealed when the Cold War ended, propounded quite different objectives. When it comes to mirror imaging, public statements that are meant to be authoritative can either be taken at face value or rejected as a ruse. For those who believe in the utility of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, the United States must have additional options for delivery at sea because the Russian General Staff thinks that it might achieve what U.S. strategists hope to achieve.

This is dangerous folly. The probability is slim that first use of a nuclear weapon in U.S.-Russian warfare would create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Far more likely, first use would create conditions for subsequent nuclear use and escalation, including the possibility of uncontrolled escalation.

As long as there are nuclear weapons, there will be plans to use them. These plans reflect the way planners think and the way planners think an adversary thinks. These working assumptions are deeply suspect because strategic planners operate in isolation from constructs that appall most of their fellow citizens. Then there is the gulf between how strategic planners think and how their political leaders think.

On top of this, we know with certainty that even the best-laid plans require modification once a war starts. If this is true for conventional war, imagine how flimsy these assumptions must be for nuclear warfare.  Mirror imaging is a very poor basis for nuclear planning, which is one more reason why we rely on political leaders to keep these plans in locked safes.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “we rely on political leaders to keep these [nuclear war] plans in locked safes.” That’s the plan for nuclear safety? No political leader will ever unlock that safe? We need a better plan.

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