Michael KreponThe Covid-19 and Nuclear Plagues

Poem of the week:

“Roaming in thought over the Universe, I saw little that is Good
Steadily hastening towards immortality,
And the vast all that is call’d Evil I saw hastening to merge itself
And become lost and dead.” – Walt Whitman, “Roaming in Thought”

Will this wretched virus help us to take more effective preventive measures against plagues of this magnitude?  The crisis and constraints of hospital care and the strains on caregivers as a result of Covid-19 pale in comparison to the consequences of just a few nuclear detonations close to urban areas. Regional powers that possess nuclear weapons have three-digit-sized nuclear arsenals. What can they do with all of them? The United States and Russia have four-digit-sized nuclear arsenals. How many of these weapons can be detonated without plague-like consequences?

These questions are usually not asked because they undermine deterrence. We are told that size matters. Size reinforces deterrence.

But deterrence fails. What good does size do then? Deterrence has no bite unless the weapons are ready for use, married up to targets. And then what? Too much nuclear use would be a crime against humanity.

The dilemmas of deterrence are tolerable as long as there is no use. Once the nuclear threshold is crossed, the dilemmas quickly become intolerable. It has been this way since Stalin got the Bomb. Deterrence was the best we could do, since back then, U.S. Presidents rejected preventive war and preemptive strikes. That was what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t the American way of war.

The requirements of nuclear deterrence downsized dramatically after the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia experienced a Great Depression. Another change was that the guardians of the U.S. nuclear arsenal acknowledged that the use of nuclear weapons, like other types of weapons, be governed by the laws of warfare.

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines humanitarian laws of warfare as prohibiting “all means and methods of warfare which
• fail to discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as civilians, who are not, the purpose being to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian property
• cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, and
• cause severe or long-term damage to the environment.”

The Department of Defense’s Law of War Manual lays out the following conditions for the use of force:

“Military necessity justifies certain actions necessary to defeat the enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. Conversely, humanity forbids actions unnecessary to achieve that object. Proportionality requires that even when actions may be justified by military necessity, such actions not be unreasonable or excessive. Distinction underpins the parties’ responsibility to comport their behavior with military necessity, humanity, and proportionality by requiring parties to a conflict to apply certain legal categories, principally the distinction between the armed forces and the civilian population. Lastly, honor supports the entire system and gives parties confidence in it.”

The concepts of deterrence and targeting categories didn’t change after the Cold War ended. So how can the Pentagon claim that the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a failure of deterrence will conform to the laws of warfare? The singular use of a low-yield weapon away from a populated area to signal the urgent need to stop a military offensive could qualify. But if the reasons for a military offensive are also deemed urgent, one might reasonably expect retaliation in kind if not more.

If retaliation in kind does not occur, then the entire foundation for deterrence collapses. Then the issue becomes how many mushroom clouds are required to accomplish national objectives.

The answer depends on what national objectives are. Do decision makers decide to fight for a tie, fight for advantage, or fight for victory?

It’s conceivable that fighting for a tie in nuclear warfare can happen, and that fighting for a tie can be carried out within the humanitarian laws of warfare. This would depend on how few nuclear weapons are detonated, what their yields are, and where the detonations occur.

How likely is this scenario? It depends, of course, if escalation can be controlled once the nuclear threshold is crossed. This has always been a very questionable assumption: that weapons locked and loaded would remain holstered once mushroom clouds appear, and that there would be exquisite command and control. Another assumption is that nuclear enclaves that feel obliged to build three- or four-digit-sized nuclear arsenals believe in fighting to a tie.

Three conclusions stare us in the face from this scenario. The first is that fighting a nuclear war for advantage and for victory are inconsistent (to put it politely) with the humanitarian laws of warfare. Proportionality and discrimination are the first casualties of nuclear warfare involving even a very small fraction of the arsenals possessed by regional and major nuclear powers.

The second conclusion is that no use is a far safer option than first use. The safest method of escalation control involving nuclear weapons is not crossing the nuclear threshold. There is no higher national security objective than protecting the homeland and its citizens. The use of nuclear weapons doesn’t protect; it will plague the homeland and its citizens.

The third conclusion is that the size of existing nuclear arsenals exceeds national needs and is utterly inconsistent with humanitarian laws of warfare. Downsizing requires state-centric recognition and collective action.

As bad as Covid-19 is, its consequences pale in comparison to the battlefield use of even a small fraction of existing nuclear arsenals. So, which national leader, even in the depth of a crisis, is willing to be the plague starter?


  1. Phil Tanny (History)

    You write, “Another change was that the guardians of the U.S. nuclear arsenal acknowledged that the use of nuclear weapons, like other types of weapons, be governed by the laws of warfare.”

    What relevance do the laws of warfare have to any event the scale of a nuclear war? It seems that to the degree we focus on laws, treaties, doctrines, moral pressure etc we are not understanding nuclear weapons. Which actor considering making the leap in to nuclear war will be deterred from doing so by any such devices?

    Doesn’t any use of nuclear weapons put the national survival of all parties on the line? And when the survival of any nation is on the line don’t all rules go out the window? Isn’t any use of nuclear weapons equivalent to a knife fight in an alley?

    QUESTION: Why are activists and experts investing their time in a discussion of rules, treaties, laws, moral principles etc? What do such things have to do with nuclear weapons??

    The rational response to 75 years of failure by politicians, experts, activists and the public who pays their salaries is to question everything we assume to be true.

  2. cinecalidad (History)

    This disease has made us all crazy, I think this is a new shekel, a new era of the national and international market is being born with this virus, all the stock markets are stopping worldwide because the only vaccine that is available for the covid-19 is, do not move from home, every day I think what life will be like in these next years with the world crisis