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Guest Blog: Elbridge Colby on “The Evolving Nuclear Landscape in the Western Pacific”


The remarks below were given by Elbridge Colby at the “Counter Anti-Access Area Denial Symposium” held on December 5, 2012, at the Sheraton, Pentagon City.  Bridge Colby is Principal Analyst and Division Lead for Global Strategic Affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses.

“The Evolving Nuclear Landscape in the Western Pacific”

This conference is tackling a tremendously important subject – how to develop, procure, and deploy U.S. forces to counter the emerging challenges of anti-access and area denial [A2/AD] capabilities in the hands of unfriendly powers.

The vast bulk of the discussion has – rightly – gone to considering how to do this with conventional forces.  Needless to say, the United States and its allies and partners are best served if we have non-nuclear options to counter any adversary’s anti-access and area denial options. It thus makes sense for the great majority of discussion, analysis – and, ultimately, effort and resources – to go towards the non-nuclear arena.

But I would like to focus in my presentation on why we would be ill advised to ignore the nuclear realm entirely.  And, more than that, on why we are likely to need to pay increasingly focused – only partial, of course, but still concentrated – attention on the nuclear echelon if our counter-A2/AD posture is to be truly effective.

During the Cold War, the United States and its allies faced an adversary in the Soviet Union whom the United States could not confidently best at the conventional level in all relevant scenarios, and thus Washington relied on the threat to escalate to the nuclear level in at least a semi-rational fashion to deter Soviet aggression and coercion, especially in Europe, where the military balance was most troubling.  The Soviets also had a multiplicity of nuclear options that could force a conflict to the nuclear level.

During this period, then, U.S. strategists and defense planners had to grapple with the question of how to relate conventional operations to the nuclear level, since conventional warfare could always spill into a nuclear confrontation, and how nuclear weapons might be employed strategically – that is, in ways that were at least not wholly irrational – either by us or by the enemy.  This also compelled the U.S. to consider how to limit conflict while still achieving its objectives in a war.

Focus on nuclear escalation and limited war faded with the end of the Cold War, however.  Without the Soviet Union, no power on earth stood a chance in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s of stemming U.S. conventional operations over anything the U.S. really cared about.  Russia was a decrepit conventional power that could barely keep its country together and was tied down in Chechnya for much of this period.  China was only in the beginnings of its military buildup and hardly able to project power.  And rogue states like Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea could only hope to bloody but not stop U.S. forces, whether directly or indirectly through threats to the U.S. homeland.  With a few exceptions for things the U.S. would not have wanted to do anyway (like invade large nuclear-armed countries), across the globe U.S. forces could operate essentially without fear of the adversary escalating in a way that could truly blunt or stop U.S. action.  Escalation control, in other words, was not a problem for us, since the U.S. had no problem with escalating.  In fact, we counted on full conventional escalation as our preferred way of war in this period.  Operation Iraqi Freedom was perhaps the perfect demonstration of this era.

But, as this conference itself attests, we are no longer in a position in which we can expect such unfettered American conventional dominance to continue.  I use the word “unfettered” advisedly, since we surely have good reasons to hope that American conventional superiority can be sustained.

Nonetheless, the growth of [potential adversary] A2/AD and other high-end capabilities is posing a challenge to the U.S. ability to effectively wage conventional war, primarily in the Western Pacific and in the Gulf region, as experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and elsewhere have explained.  While I would not at all want to overstate the extent of any shift in the conventional balance in these regions, what does seem clear is that – particularly in the Western Pacific – the United States is at the very least going to find it harder to effectuate its conventional warfighting plans, is going to have less discretion in how it goes about implementing them, and, in some extreme cases, these efforts might actually fail to achieve objectives in ways that policymakers find acceptable.  These factors are going to increase the salience of nuclear weapons because of the propensity for escalation they entail.

Let me explain what I mean a bit.

The “existential” aspect of nuclear deterrence is a familiar concept to most people.  That is: if you invade my country and intend to put us under the boot, you can expect us to use nuclear weapons to make it too costly of a proposition.  If France in 1940 and Stalin in 1941 had had nuclear weapons, we can all see that Hitler would have been a lot more chary about invading France and the USSR.

But deterrence against total invasion is not the only nor, in reality, is it the most relevant way nuclear weapons become implicated in a conflict.  Rather, more plausible is that a more limited conventional conflict intensifies or expands – whether deliberately or not – and begins either to implicate deeper strategic interests or involves the threatening of strategic assets, which in turn presents one or both sides with a “use or lose” impetus.

During the Cold War, for instance, even though there was a lot of focus on developing ideas for a conventional relief of Berlin should the Soviets and East Germans block off the city and, later, for conventional defense of West Germany, most people thought that efforts to keep a conflict in Germany solely conventional were unreliable at best and possibly delusional.  Once the “balloon went up,” the fog of war, the increasing attrition of C3 [command, control, and communications] and ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] leading to diminished situational awareness, and the chances of one side or the other seeing its vital interests or credibility as a great power on the line could individually or all lead to a decision to use nuclear weapons.

This was a familiar problem even in the pre-nuclear era.  World War I presents an example, for instance, of a conflict in which few, if any, of the participants wanted a full-scale war of the kind that developed, but yet it developed anyway because of fears of preemption, reputational stakes, and so forth.

Wars begun on one level, in other words, have the inherent propensity to escalate.  This is particularly the case with high-intensity wars that implicate combatants' C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and significant reputational considerations.

The A2/AD landscape presents this kind of a challenge, especially in the Western Pacific.

Let me unpack this a bit. The counter-A2/AD challenge is not a “march to Berlin” approach.  Rather, it seeks to enable American access and, ultimately, defense of U.S. interests and allies forward through the taking of the steps necessary to degrade, deny, or defeat an adversary’s battle networks.

But to do this, the United States is presumably going to need to hit an adversary harder, faster, deeper, in more places, and with greater intensity than before, when the U.S., because of its conventional advantages, had the luxury of approaching an opponent more on our own terms, and thus with greater consideration for political or other non-military factors. The whole point of a counter-A2/AD approach, however, as I understand it, is to confuse and blunt an opponent such that he can’t find you, can’t figure out what exactly you’re doing, and doesn’t know what you’re going to do next.  And all these indices go up as the adversary’s capabilities get better and the conventional military balance becomes less lopsided.  Thus, as our opponent’s A2/AD capabilities get better, so our challenge gets harder and our range of options for how to pursue it gets narrower. We have less of a spectrum of options for how, when, and to what extent we pursue a counter-A2/AD campaign because we need to focus more simply on making it work.

Now, counter-A2/AD efforts are all to the good, and they clearly need to be done if U.S. power projection is going to be sufficient to underwrite our global posture.  But it also presents the fundamental problem that, if you do those things and you do them well, you’re also putting your adversary in a position in which he has little to no idea what you’re doing, has no idea what you’re about to do, and may very well think that you’re going to do something to him that he really doesn’t want.  In fact, the better you do these kinds of things, the more he has reason to worry.

Now, you may say, well, that’d be an unreasonable or unfair inference – but: (a) we don’t get to choose what the other guy thinks; (b) this thought process would be happening under the intense psychological strain of war; and (c) in all fairness, would you consider the United States particularly restrained after Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya?  There’s plenty of evidence that these lessons have not been lost on our potential adversaries.

If your opponent doesn’t have nuclear weapons, though, this isn’t too much of a problem, because what is he ultimately going to do?  No one wants to be on the receiving end of a North Korean chemical weapons barrage but that’s still quite distinct from a nuclear strike – especially a nuclear strike on the continental United States.

But if he does have nuclear weapons – and especially a survivable nuclear force that is capable of reaching U.S. allies and even the United States itself – then the situation is very different.  At any point, he can decide to use nuclear weapons either against your deployed forces and allies or against the U.S. homeland itself, and he likely can do so sequentially, giving him not only prewar and counter-invasion deterrence but also, possibly, intra-war and counter-escalation deterrence.  In fact, the adversary has a very strong incentive to at least make us think that he has not only the ability but also the will to use nuclear weapons against us under certain conditions – such as, for instance, a very effective, blinding, disabling counter-A2/AD campaign.  (In point of fact, we sometimes do this to adversaries when they talk about hitting certain very vulnerable but important parts of the U.S. strategic posture.)

And he can threaten to use these nuclear weapons in a variety of ways, including in tailored fashion – not just against Los Angeles or something like that, but against military targets, U.S. or allied deployed forces, or even in a simple demonstration shot.  He can use them in ways that minimize casualties.  And he can use them in batches so that he maintains intra-war deterrence.

This isn’t merely theoretical.  You can bet that North Korea’s nuclear program is being designed at least in part precisely in order to deter a U.S. campaign in just this sort of way.  This all means that any U.S. political level decision-maker is going to be a lot more anxious about putting the other guy into a position where his finger is going to start to get itchy on the nuclear trigger.

Now let me repeat that this is absolutely not a reason to avoid doing conventional counter A2/AD, and doing it well and aggressively. For a variety of reasons that I’d be happy to discuss, I think we absolutely have to work on these kinds of things to sustain our global strategic posture.

But it is a reason to think about how a counter-A2/AD approach implicates a number of escalation scenarios, including nuclear escalation scenarios, and thus to think about how nuclear forces interact and interrelate with conventional forces and a conventional conflict in an A2/AD environment.

This is not the venue in which to get into detailed scenarios on this issue.  But nuclear weapons can impinge on a conflict in an A2/AD environment from both sides.  From the adversary perspective, an opponent could decide to threaten to use or even use nuclear weapons, including in tailored ways designed to shock the U.S. or its allies or to carve out part of the U.S. military posture, if U.S. counter-A2/AD efforts seemed to threaten its strategic assets, including nuclear forces and leadership targets.  An opponent could also do this if a counter-A2/AD campaign jeopardized its political control domestically in ways that the regime in question found intolerable.

But nuclear escalation could also happen, especially over the longer term, if a counter-A2/AD campaign failed and serious U.S. equities were jeopardized in a way that U.S. extended deterrence commitments as such came under question.  In this case it might be the U.S. that is pressed to consider nuclear use.  This is a longer term challenge but one that cannot ultimately be ignored, especially given that our commitments to allies in the region are, ultimately, nuclear commitments.

In either case, but particularly in the adversary-initiated use case, the introduction of nuclear weapons could be both rational (especially in a limited context) and potentially crippling for U.S. interests if its integration into the broader strategic context had not been adequately thought out in advance.

If, in other words, an adversary could credibly threaten nuclear use or use nuclear weapons in a way that would negate or undermine the effectiveness of a counter-A2/AD campaign, then the incentive to go in that direction could be irresistible – and could be devastating for U.S. interests.  If an adversary can use nuclear weapons against ships or overhead or key bases, etc., and we have no plausible, credible, proportionate response, then we are in trouble.

So what is the upshot of this for U.S. planners?

Well, the upshot is that we need to think about how the nuclear echelon of conflict not just shadows but also potentially intersects with the A2/AD and counter-A2/AD conventional landscape.  And not just in a general way, but also in thinking about specific contingencies and how they could generate or intensify pressures for nuclear use and how the United States could most effectively respond and, even better, deter such use in order to prevent the undermining of its conventional counter-A2/AD campaign.

The best way to deter this kind of adversary usage, in fact, would be to have thought seriously about these scenarios in advance, developed the doctrine and capability to respond in ways that make sense, and to communicate to the adversary that we have such a credible response.

Let me emphasize that this does not mean that all U.S. responses to such threats or use need to be nuclear in character – although in my view those options should very much be on the table and should be good, developed options – but we can’t expect the nuclear taboo to hold just because we might want it to, either for noble reasons of idealism or because it gives us a freer hand in the conventional sphere.  To paraphrase Trotsky, we might not be interested in nuclear weapons, but they might be interested in us.  We’d better think through it in advance, then.

Thank you very much.

-- Elbridge Colby

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