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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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The Transition Beyond Strategic Nuclear War

The Transition Beyond Strategic Nuclear War

The world is now well advanced in transition to the age beyond strategic nuclear weapons. It may be, from the standpoint of military descriptors, a transition to the age of cyber weapons. Equally, it may be too early to say. But rarely in history are such great watersheds so visible, except in hindsight; watersheds which affect all of the world’s human population.

We are entering such an age of cratometamorphosis: the total reorganization of society. It is beginning to be recognized as such. The extent of the change remains unexplored, and part of this change is the transition beyond the age of nuclear weapons.

There is always a tendency to see the future solely in terms of the immediate past, whereas it is almost certain that the coming decades will only partially — and perhaps then only visually, or superficially, in some respects — appear to have great continuity with the past. Old buildings still stand; vehicles of an earlier technology ply the streets.

Priorities change. Where once railroads were the vanguard of pro- gress, they gave way to aircraft; crossbows gave way to the arquebus; telegraph to the internet. And technologies and methodologies — process — help re-shape priorities.

Human values, therefore, change with technology, with location, with wealth, with competition, with education. The young are today unaware how different this present world already is from the world of a few decades past. The older, too, are cushioned from the reality of change by the persistence of the structures of their youth. But even for the present generation of youth, the emerging changes will be profound; the sense of permanence, such as it is, given to them by their parents’ generation, is giving way to change. It will result in new weapons; new ways of fighting wars; new enemies; new allies; new opportunities; new frustrations.

New sociological and technological developments transform the doctrine and some goals of warfare, and the evolution of technologies inevitably causes older weapons to be overtaken by superior weapons.

What was significant about the past mini-era was that the age of nuclear weapons saw only two instances of their actual use, and then most importantly for demonstration purposes — psychological warfare — to effect political outcomes with minimal force; particularly to constrain continued aggressive actions by the Emperor of Japan and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The impact, then, of nuclear weapons for the next seven decades or so was in their deterrent, psychological power. The early “nuclear club” states — the US, UK, USSR, and France — saw the implicit prestige and authority which nuclear exclusivity gave them. For the most part, they resisted the spread of nuclear weapons ownership on the basis (consciously for this reason or not) that proliferation would implicitly reduce the prestige and authority — the strategic projection power — of the original nuclear club members.

But in order to retain the prestige and authority of nuclear weapons, it was necessary to sustain the myth of their strategic military (ie: warfighting; indeed war-ending, victory-ensuring) potency. This was always a mythological power of nuclear weapons, not necessarily a physical attribute. Certainly, nuclear explosives have great destructive capacity in immediate, kinetic terms, but victory — in the true and strategic sense — is not about the short-term physical destruction of opponents and their infrastructure; it is much more than that.

If, then, nuclear weapons are about psychological goals — deterrence of potential attackers; the creation of a prestigious umbrella of perceived power under which offensive political-military goals can be pursued — then it is worth asking whether the economy-distorting acquisition of military nuclear capabilities survive a cost-benefit analysis in a world in which such weapons can be seen to be less than “ultimate weapons” or even guarantors of survival.

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The most remarkable feature of nuclear weapons is not their technology — now readily, if expensively replicable — but how the psychological aura around them enabled nuclear club members to dissuade others from joining. It required a stunning audacity of hypocrisy and a suspension of logic to achieve this.

None of the emerging post-nuclear warfare technology spells the disappearance of the reality that nuclear weapons can still be powerfully destructive if they can be used, or be seen to be credibly usable. Crossbows, and, indeed, thrown rocks, can still kill, but their credibility has gone as weapons of choice today. As a result, just as dreadnoughts-cum-battleships retained a declining potency during their twilight years because countermeasures — air power, primarily — constantly improved, so, too, will the technologies which constrain nuclear weapons need to be sustained until the cost-benefit analysis makes nuclear weapons unsustainable. That means that, for nuclear weapons to disappear, the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technologies which reduce the efficacy or certainty of nuclear attack (using ballistic missiles) be sustained. Defenses against cruise missile-delivered nuclear weapons, too, would need to be sustained and improved (and we are not yet at the end of supersonic and hypersonic cruise missile development for the effective delivery of — mostly — tactical nuclear warheads).

For the first time in decades, the specter of nuclear- and heavy-blast related electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) damage to infrastructure and lives is being resurrected. Indeed, the option of using EMP blast as a primary — rather than secondary — effect of strategically-delivered nuclear weapons is now being revisited as a weapons option. This, indeed, is part of the bridge between the nuclear and cyber weapons age, because the effect is now designed primarily to destroy communications and electrical infrastructure. In other words, the desired effect is exactly the same as for a “conventional” cyber attack. The question then facing strategic planners is whether the financial and military costs of a strategic EMP attack can be justified in an age of lower-risk, lower financial cost cyber weapons to achieve the same outcome?

Several factors are critical:

(a) Space-detonated EMP weapons require the delivery of the systems by heavy ballistic missiles. This is financially expensive, and vulnerable to interception from terrestrial- or space-based ABM capabilities;
(b) Space-based strategic-level EMP detonations are indiscriminate; they potentially can destroy much of earth’s low-orbiting satellite systems, including those belonging to the state initiating the EMP attack. This, then, becomes strategically suicidal, bearing in mind that a nation-state capable of the significant and sophisticated launch of strategic ballistic missiles is also a state which, almost by definition, relies heavily itself on low-earth orbit satellite systems;
(c) Ballistic missile-delivered (or even cruise missile-delivered) theater EMP weapons may cause less “own goal” damage to the originator of the attack than a space-based blast, but such an attack is still (i) expensive to achieve; (ii) vulnerable to ABM defenses; and (iii) immediately identifiable as to the attack originator, thus inviting rapid retaliation.

Even so, there is evidence that some “strategic planners” in the PRC, the DPRK, and Iran still think in terms of the viability of nuclear weapons used in an EMP mission — while others in their own countries work patiently away at cyber capabilities — and are preoccupied by the equation which shows that there are more nuclear warheads in the US arsenal than in theirs. As a result, the temptation is to think in terms of using one, or a few, nuclear warheads to attempt to destroy the US electronic infrastructure without even the need for a precision strike. Indeed, there are even US military planners who think in terms of EMP weapons and doctrine. These — under whatever flag they fly — are “latter-day battleship proponents” who think that EMP can be strategically cost-effective (clearly, EMP has a battlefield rôle, not necessarily requiring nuclear weapons). There is a school of thought that EMP is a new type of asymmetrical deterrence under which a “poor power” could launch only a few ballistic missiles and still devastate a major enemy (such as the US). Such thinking shows a poor grasp of the growing efficacy of ABM systems and surviving major power retaliatory capability.

Perhaps more realistically, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) appears to continue with its thinking that EMP and nuclear weapons might be viable in a theater-strategic conflict to assume control of Taiwan from the Republic of China (ROC). One student of PRC military posture noted: “We should not underestimate Beijing’s desperation to ‘reunify’ with Taiwan even if this means use of force. The surge in nationalism and chauvinism — now directed at Japan — is an explosive Genie nobody can put back in the bottle. If pressure grows on [incoming Pres.] Xi Jinping because of domestic-corruption issues, and the PLA becomes restive because of the corruption and very valid economic abuse accusations, then Xi could be very tempted to go for Taiwan. Moreover, if he was to move on Taiwan, Xi would probably gain backing from [former Pres.] Jiang Zemin and the [Chinese Communist] Party’s old guard.”

The same source noted: “A very senior Russian General visiting Beijing very recently received a ‘theoretical presentation’ from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers about EMP, and it was a presentation which scared him because he concluded that his PLA briefers were convinced that EMP was some kind of an anti-American magic panacea.”

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But in the longer term (ie: within a decade or so), the trend is clear. The false maxim of the British Government in the 1930s that “the bomber will always get through” is paralleled by the reality that missile-delivered nuclear weapons will also not necessarily “get through” the defensive countermeasures. We would have been at this point two- plus decades ago had the USSR and its gang of “willing idiots” in the West not successfully opposed, for their own strategic reasons, the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), conceived by Dr Stefan T. Possony and embraced by US Pres. Ronald Reagan.

Nation-states now moving to acquire nuclear weapons status must ask themselves whether the immense cost in economic and political terms to do this is worth the strategic gain. Or whether they might better find strategic power in the next generation of weapons, mostly (it appears) to be built around cyber warfare. Counterbalancing this, to some degree, is the reality that civil nuclear power generation makes the pursuit of nuclear technologies worthwhile, although the potential exists for substantially lower costs in carbon-based fuels (oil, gas, etc., from shale and other sources, including bio-fuels) to undercut the urgency of nuclear power. Similarly, cyber warfare, too, has a societal economic value in the increasing efficiency which computerization and electrification generate.

But while we can see that nuclear weapons might be less-than-efficient in achieving direct military objectives, their psycho-political power in deterrence and prestige have been unprecedented in history. On the other hand, cyber warfare has a discreet — but real — potential for effectiveness in its capacity to hinder or destroy an adversary, but its very discreetness as a weapon minimizes its deterrent and prestige power. In other words, cyber warfare is in many respects the exact opposite of nuclear warfare in terms of strategic potentiality. Put with extreme simplicity, and dependent on circumstances: cyber weapons are very useable to achieve safe outcomes; nuclear weapons are very difficult to use to achieve durable outcomes.

Clearly, the reality that cyber “bombs” may already have been planted within adversary or competitive societies could well act as an unspoken deterrent at policy levels against risky political behavior on the international stage. This move from the very public intimidation which nuclear weapons have implied for the past seven or so decades to the unspoken, business- as- usual discreet cyber blackmail may transform civil societies’ attitudes toward international competition. It may be that we could see a reduction in perceived threats between states.

All of this needs to be considered within the context of the global strategic architecture of the coming few decades. This has been outlined by this writer in earlier reports in this journal, and also in the recent book, UnCivilization: Urban Geopolitics in a Time of Chaos1. However, it is worth reiterating some of the headlines of the terrain of the coming decades, because all of these factors impact on strategic doctrine and the economics and socio-political factors sustaining national power:

Firstly, we will almost unavoidably, in the coming few decades, see the global population peak and begin to fall precipitously, with massive economic and social consequences. Population decline, and lateral population movement, have profound effects on property values and employment patterns. It has often been the case in history that smaller, unified concentrations of populations can perform better than large, diverse populations. What is emerging, however, in some key areas (Western Europe, and North America) is that population size has, for the moment, remained high and growing (through immigration), but also has grown more diverse.

It is likely that, when the effects of population movement (migration) flatten and population decline begins to hit these areas, the citizenry will retain its diverse cultural factors and still be denied the unifying and productive factors of common language and common sense of nationhood. This tendency seems likely to reinforce social and economic stratification.

Secondly, in the coming years and decades, we will see major changes in the viability and power of currencies as well as economies, as well as in the nature of political thinking and voting — and therefore governance — patterns, all of which are now captive to the feeding frenzy which is the urban population concentration. Urban geopolitics and urbanization are the great addictions of our particular time, and they spell the end of the balanced nation. This process is reinforced by economic fluctuations caused by new technologies, political system life cycles, and the effects of economic/trading competition which drives power balance change.

Thirdly, we will see first hand that cultures and civilizations, like individual humans, have lifespans of a fairly predictable nature. We are about to see the impact of geriatric characteristics on modern civilization. What parts of modern civilization, if any, will re-emerge strongly and with vibrancy from the ashes?

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Fourth, as the thesis of this report suggests, nuclear weapons have already been eclipsed by cyber weapons, just as all weapons are ultimately tamed by others.

Fifth, the Westphalian nation-state — and with it our classical concept of democracy — has already been distorted and destroyed by urban city-state power. But, as with Hellenist times and medieval Italy, the city-state itself is vulnerable and will be wiped away by the exercises of sheer power, and we will again begin rebuilding balanced states and empires, similar to the Westphalian state.


Sixth, inevitably within all this, international bodies and alliances are also transforming. NATO no longer really exists as a meaningful entity, and the US and the European powers are no longer looking at the North Atlantic. The Atlantic is now empty, and new global blocs are beginning to form, particularly the first among these: the Eurasian heartland bloc. The United Nations, as with its ancient counterpart, the amphyctiony of Delphi, has ceased to be meaningful even as today’s vestal virgins wail a threnody for global governance.

Seventh, as we look at what we now call “democracy”, we have seen the past few decades transform most Western societies to the point where urbanization has tipped another balance. That is that we are now subject to our governments, when what we had sought, demanded, and created in the preceding couple of centuries was the concept of government being subject to the people. But, then, in UnCivilization I noted that most people — and particularly most urbanized people — eventually, because of their wealth and stability, come to prefer the certainty of oppression to the uncertainty of freedom.

Eighth, and final — and perhaps one of the most important — of these scattered points: we are now, in our urban societies, absolutely, totally, minute-by-minute dependent for our survival on the unbroken delivery of electrical power. This is the enormous vulnerability we face, and structural “hardening” against this vulnerability must be a major goal of civil defense (against natural disasters or accidents) overlapping substantially with counter-cyber warfare defenses.

Most of the transformations in the strategic terrain over the coming decade or two will start to be governed by these eight factors. In the meantime, however, those states clawing for viability as nuclear weapons states — Iran, the DPRK, Turkey, Algeria, and so on — will need to weigh the strategic advantages or otherwise of pursuing the expensive path of nuclear weapons.

The N-Club: To Join, or Not?

One government which successfully acquired nuclear weapons did not see possession of that asset protect it against externally-supported overthrow. South Africa, which successfully developed, test- ed, and built such weapons, surrendered those weapons when they proved useless in defending the state or its government. The USSR, too, saw itself “defeated” in the Cold War and its governmental structure collapsed by 1991, despite having the biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons on earth.

The DPRK and Iranian governments have noted quietly that if Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, or Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, had possessed a credible nuclear force they would not have been overthrown. It is certainly clear that possession of a demonstrated nuclear capability would have helped deter foreign direct military action against them. It was for this reason that the DPRK and Iran have both — in harmony — attempted to prove their nuclear credentials in order to deter foreign attack (ostensibly by the United States and/or, in the case of Iran, by Israel). The DPRK has successfully achieved recognition as a nuclear weapons state, although the US Government attempted for more than a decade to pretend not to notice this reality simply because recognition of it would have meant a transformation of what US political leaders could achieve in coercing Pyongyang.

Iran — which only has imported nuclear weapons at this stage; its indigenous production of such weapons is not yet a reality — has attempted to hint at its nuclear power status, but has been unwilling to do so too bluntly for fear that the US/Israel would move against it before indigenous production of nuclear weapons was achieved. As a result, the US has been free to pretend that Iran does not have a deployed nuclear strike capability, thereby allowing Washington to pursue what would otherwise be risky political behavior in imposing swingeing economic sanctions on Iran.

And yet the reality is that Iran cannot use its nuclear weapons for any practical warfighting purposes, any more than the US can use its own nuclear forces. Nuclear weapons are not in themselves war-winning weapons (unlike, potentially, cyber weapons). If Iran was to unleash a number of nuclear warheads against Israel, for example, and supposing some of them penetrated Israel’s now-demonstrably capable IAI/Elta Arrow 2/Green Pine anti- ballistic missiles (and attendant sensors and command and control), and Iron Dome counter- rocket defense system, what then? Israel would retaliate with its own nuclear weapons, but both sides lack the capability to follow up to achieve strategic victory.

There is strong evidence that the leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran) understands this reality. Certainly, most policy- level officials in Israel recognize it, although the public postures of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Net- anyahu and Iranian Pres. Mah- mud Ahmadi-Nejad deny such an understanding (well, they would, wouldn’t they? This is about psycho-political posturing).

So where are we, if not in a Sargasso Sea of ponderous transition from one era of weapons to the next? It is an era which cannot ignore the past, because it is now when credible countermeasures need to be deployed. But it is an era which cannot deny the direction of the tide, taking us to shores in which nuclear weapons, like edged weapons, have had their day.

By. Gregory R. Copley

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  • Suzanne Scott on January 09 2013 said:
    Greg, you have written a mighty piece here. Yes, the cross bow, then the feared long bow terrified early England's opponents. Today the spectre of nuclear capability and EMP capability has us scurrying. The greatest danger, as you said, is urbanization and dependence on electricity. Simple diseases...cholera, typhus, influenza have the capacity to eradicate half of the world. One day maybe 200 years from now, a tiny nano crystal may be more feared. Time is passing, this civilization has missed the opportunity to conquer what Julius Ceasar did. What will be the legacy of the nuclear world?

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