GBSD Nuclear Weapons Stability World War

An Introduction

The title’s not-so-subtle reference to another website about military matters barely hints at a more specific purpose, which is responding to progressively more obvious societal attitudes in America that could reverse decades of learned geopolitical stability.  The passage of time has a way of making even foundational lessons seem distant and antiquated.  The reasons underlying the fact that the United States has not engaged in a total no holds barred war since 1945 are starting to be lost to a new reality shaped by complex forces both well-intentioned and otherwise. 

The American art of war, from the beginning, has always created visible and consequential innovation.  This is true when speaking of tactics and strategy but also of technology.  From Civil War Gatling guns to the Trinity detonation, America arguably has the unglamorous distinction of being one of the top warfare innovators in history.  Perhaps as a by-product of being overmatched (at least it appeared so) in the War of Independence, America has come to rely on innovation in one form or another to ensure its objectives could be met.  The next stage in America’s pursuit of military supremacy is more interesting when viewed in light of recent great power competitions coupled with particular technologies emerging on the horizon. The disruptive power of advances in automation and machine learning technologies has the potential to change the global hierarchy in ways that humanity is unable to predict. As pointed out here, technology plays a dominant, if sometimes underappreciated, role in society.  Almost everything we do is modulated by technology–from navigation, transportation, and military affairs to remote offices, social media, and financial transactions. Each of these is underpinned by a vast assortment of technological capabilities made possible by wireless communications, networking, and computation. Especially since the Industrial Revolution, the development and effective deployment of technology has become one of the primary determinants of national power. Technology is also cumulative since virtually nothing is “un-learned,” and complexity accumulates in a sort of exponential manner.  In a very real sense, a nation’s success is determined by how well their constituent societies leverage new technologies to their advantage. On this front, credit must be given to the United States, which historically excels at ushering in the latest technologies to accomplish the goals of empire.The first rule of arms races is that participation is not optional.  You must either participate to survive or somehow change the game. The development and use of technology operates in the same way whether we like it or not. We play in this nonstop game or we inevitably face decline and disruption. Participation is not voluntary if America desires to maintain its current global standing.

Another interesting thing about technology, besides the fact that it is always changing, is that it is constantly putting society in novel situations.  The old Mark Twain adage about history rhyming seems true to most people but the Ancients didn’t deal with anything like airline travel or massive scale social media. Likewise, nuclear weapons have forever changed how nations deal with each other and what sort of warfare is permissible.  In particular, nuclear weapons have been categorized as the manifestation of how intelligent life is doomed to destroy itself or as an example of science and engineering without a moral foundation. Whether or not you agree with these ideas, humanity has created them and now must deal with them.  In some ways, the advent of nuclear weapons has had a strangely positive effect. The assertion here is that this is due in large measure to the counterintuitive peace-imposing impact of nuclear weapons. By increasing the stakes of war to the point where existential threats to state and even civilization can happen within an hour, nuclear-capable nations have established systems of interlocking restraints to ensure that no side is incentivized to use nuclear weapons. In other words, a global system is currently in place under which a potential nuclear attacker does not have an advantage because there is no effective defense to a counterattack. While this system of mutually assured destruction assumes that all parties subscribe to a rational self-interest policy, it has thus far managed to maintain unprecedented stability.  It also places constraints on conventional war, since any nuclear state cannot be existentially threatened without the possibility of igniting a nuclear response.  This system is by no means perfect, but it has thus far prevented catastrophically destructive global warfare.  Despite the relative stability of the past, there are definite and identifiable challenges ahead both technologically and politically. American Art of War will dive into these challenges in a three-part series of articles.

1.       The existing nuclear deterrent enterprise and how it promotes stability (mostly)

2.       Challenges to the current nuclear deterrent enterprise

3.       Ways in which the current nuclear enterprise must change and not change