Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 1  /  

Nuclear Strategy – A Tale of Consequence

Nuclear Strategy – A Tale of Consequence Nuclear Strategy – A Tale of Consequence
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To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Nuclear Strategy – A Tale of Consequence,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring 2020, pages 6-10.

Nuclear strategy

It is tempting, perhaps seductive even, to believe that the awful innovation of the nuclear weapon comprises the real authority in the concept and the physical reality under discussion here. However, in time this belief is near certain to be proved incorrect. It is even possible that weapons development has attained an ironic near perfection of form, or at least effectively such, in the widening gyre of nuclear weapons seemingly of all dimensions and many specialized purposes; at least if we take as authoritative what the Russians are telling both themselves and us these days. Without necessarily doubting Russian sincerity about their technical military-nuclear prowess, however, there is ample ground for doubt concerning the strategic sense in the past decade of Vladimir Putin’s apparently nuclear-bent military achievements. The beginning of wisdom for us needs to be an urgent return to theoretical, conceptual basics. In the rather dubious team-like twinning of nuclear and strategy, it is really important not to allow oneself to become confused as to the relative significance of the noun and the adjective. It may well be that the nuclear weapon is certain to remain a permanent menace to the human race and our whole adventure in statecraft and its ancillary strategy, but I find such an attitude to be historically less than satisfying, true though it would appear to be from our current, but necessarily temporally limited perspective. I am not, at least not quite, saying that given time even the great nuclear revolution of the Twentieth Century will age into irrelevance, though I suspect it will be found less helpful in the future than it was for the half century following World War II. The principal reason why this is likely to be so will be readily locatable in what functions as the ‘bible’ of our subject, if, for once, in this instance I may be excused the exceptional irreverence in this instance. It is advisable, indeed necessary to turn to the pages of On War (of course), somewhat aware of the apparently permanent truth in Clausewitz. Also, we should be ready enough to understand and by and large accept reasonable evidence-based argument covering the whole unduly exciting passage of modern statecraft and strategy since his death in 1831.[i] The dominant argument in On War is to the effect that war must always be about politics. When this condition appears not to be authoritative, the use of force must be about some other condition or quality, though even that will likely have political meaning. Clausewitz theorized both about very great warfare and also small. We cannot know what sense, if any, he would have made of nuclear weapons for strategy, but he bequeathed the skeleton, at least, of one which remains relevant even for today. By far the most important argument in On War holds, then as now, that political purpose must always strive hard to control events.[ii] The great Prussian understood all too well that war and its warfare is an uncertain enterprise, and he witnessed and survived the appalling phenomenon of war as a gamble that may not pay out as it might.[iii] Indeed almost certainly he would have endorsed the characterization of war as chaos, the preferred ‘call sign’ of the outstanding U.S. Marines’ general, James Mattis. It shouldn’t have escaped the notice of readers of these pages of Military Strategy that our core topic here, nuclear strategy, is likely to prove notably unfriendly to the idea that warfare is a gamble. Nuclear warfare could be a product of policy error and prove to approximate more closely Jim Mattis’ understanding of ‘chaos,’ than any recognizable semblance of an orderly plan. It is necessary to mention that even where orderly and apparently well prosecuted military plans are carried into action, war seems to have multiple ways to avoid discipline. Is it likely, we certainly should ask, that actual warfare with nuclear weapons would prove a different story to the entire grim machine of known history? – I suspect not, rather do I suspect that nuclear warfare today would resemble a larger and more consequential narrative than we have more than adequate grounds to suspect would be the most probable case, were any of us to survive such a catastrophe. However, all may not be lost, despite serious grounds for occasional doubt to the contrary.

Strategic Common Sense

We need never to forget that the true meaning of strategy is consequence.[iv] Nuclear strategy is all about the consequences of tactical and operational choice with respect to the threat or use of nuclear weapons. Excellent seeming theoretical reasoning is critically and rather desperately short of empirical support. What, after all, do we really know about the military value of nuclear weapons as enforcers of political choices? Fundamentally, what do we think we know about both the threat and the actual use in war of these weapons? We may be tempted by the attractive promise of what could be understood, not unreasonably, as a pre-emptive surrender of strategy and statecraft by an adversary polity. However, we could not reasonably anticipate such a rational, almost moral, collapse on the part of an enemy. The political pressure to stand firm, at least briefly perhaps, would, very much sooner than later, fuel argument for holding the line and the like. Although the war machinery of a nuclear armed state will be the product of thousands, decisions to fight, or not, will always be the product of a very small number of people. Nineteenth Century Europe invented the practice of defense preparation in peacetime for the occasion of war. This phenomenon we have come to accept simply as strategic commonsense – we will be ready contingently for whatever security hazards erupt in the near future. This simply is prudent. All too easily understood, of course, we pay a price that could prove heavy indeed, in defense readiness. Prudent defense preparation might, quite easily, though inadvertently, assume a menacing character in the understanding of other states, with consequences in political choice that could be seriously adverse for the security of all interested parties, including ourselves.

Nuclear strategy in common with all strategy, is the result of notably human intentions and personal choice. Given the devastating consequences that must follow from the use of nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that unilateral advantage could be secured from their use. Probably, the politically more relevant question pertains to the sheer nerve of policymakers and strategists. Even if we were persuaded that a war might be won, which is to say conducted to a point where significant political advantage would be gained, the nuclear element in the judgment must dampen confidence in any conclusions as to policy. Of course, we could not turn to strategic commonsense for prudent guidance in such a situation, because intelligent statecraft ought not to have been in the dire condition that it was, repeatedly, in the truly dreadful Twentieth Century, now mercifully concluded. Arguably it is somewhat ironic that our nuclear evil is the product of a danger in scientific discovery and exploitation about which we did not know, indeed truly could not have known. Though with mobilization and readiness times suitably adjusted, readers of this journal must notice that even though some flexibility in the mobilization, subsequent deployment and indeed use of nuclear forces on both sides is highly likely in principle, in practice nuclear crisis and war itself might well resemble 1914 rather closely. It may be prudent and just possibly militarily sensible to wage nuclear warfare only slowly and at a relatively low level of explosive possibility, but we cannot ignore the vital matter of critical context. Austro-Hungary, vitally assisted by Russian folly, created what became the near ‘perfect storm’ for statecraft that was Summer 1914.[v] Appalling though that certainly transpired to be, at least to become, it pales into near insignificance when it is compared with the possible, indeed probable, consequences of a truly strategic political crisis in the present or the future. Is there a modest seeming city in Eastern Europe, on the Baltic flank of NATO, just waiting to have its very own Sarajevo moment?[vi]

So, What Do We Do?

Over the course of the past decade the geophysically much reduced Russia of Vladimir Putin has sought some compensation in very high-end technology for the embarrassingly shrunken national geography and size of population. Of particular interest is the achievement of notable military success in ways that should help remarkably the vulnerability that was felt as a consequence of the great territorial and populous shrinkage effected under Mikhail Gorbachev.

It is no exaggeration to argue that contemporary Russia has enhanced greatly its military attachment to nuclear weapons. These have been accepted by the Russian military on a scale and with an apparent enthusiasm entirely alien to NATO. On the shallow evidence of words uttered, exercises conducted, and deployments apparently sometimes mobilized, the Russian armed forces of today and tomorrow are preparing for, indeed anticipating virtually all military activity to be conducted in an actively nuclear environment. Rather ironically, this shift towards nuclear dependency may well largely be the regretted consequence of a process of internationally competitive and generally technically successful arms procurement.

In an endeavour to prove some relevant, credible, and feasible answer to the fundamental question posed as the title for this section, I have selected seven items of political, indeed strategic, advice to take from this analysis. These are selected and chosen admittedly very much from a NATO perspective looking East. I have chosen these magnificent seven nuggets of political and indeed strategic advice according to the dominant need for depth and breadth of analysis.

  1. Nuclear strategy must be considered a political subject to an even greater degree than is required of strategy in all other contexts. Especially in regard to prospective nuclear matters, it is likely that the issue of political meaning may fall by the wayside and be all but lost to the force of relatively unfamiliar perils. It would be essentially important not to allow reasonable nuclear anxiety to overwhelm otherwise sensible policy and its politics.
  2. It will be essential that Putin (indeed any Russian leader, or group) should be denied any credible sense of victory, political or strategic. There is plenty in Russian culture of both recent or distant vintage that feeds on our hopes that the partial Russian revival under the guise of a new surrogate Czar would be moved by self-interest to generosity in the course and particularly the consequences of nuclear happenings. Bearing in mind the dangers of some negligence, it will be necessary for a NATO still ‘in the field’ able and willing to resist, strategically to deny Moscow the policy and to be careful to deny Russia the conviction she actually had ‘won’ in actual warfare.
  3. Russia’s opponents (i.e. NATO) should be restrained in their public political enthusiasm for peace. Adaptively this could prove a ‘killer’ element in a likely weapon, and use control agreement that might have some political traction for a possible settlement. The toxic combination of popular democracy and nuclear menace expressed in provocative style do not comprise a combination in which any confidence could be placed; it would not constitute a promising opening for a textbook on statecraft and strategy, let alone strategy and diplomacy.
  4. The conduct of conventional warfare, local or general in character must not be so executed as to come to risk compromising the mission integrity of so-called strategic forces. Probably above all else it is essential that neither Russia nor anyone else attains a truly competitive position in active warfare that could well tempt a bid for genuine nuclear dominance. The evident contemporary Russian enthusiasm for nuclear escalation in the event of conventional setback should be brutally and convincingly rebuffed unarguably, both by the deployment of suitably relatively low-yield weapons and also by convincing doctrinal argument about the mission integrity of strategic forces.
  5. Nuclear operations against Russia in time of war ought to be conducted with great care to avoid needless intrusion into Chinese space, politically understood. It has to be expected that a nuclear exchange (or two) between Russia and NATO could hardly help but alarm Beijing, assuming, of course, that they had not secretly pre-arranged the military episode(s) at issue. A temptation to deal with the Chinese nuclear menace under the cover provided by a nuclear war with Russia that begins in Europe, should be prudently resisted as needlessly dangerous in a context that already might be more perilous than any of our politicians and soldiers have ever confronted before.
  6. As Imperial Germany demonstrated quite conclusively in 1918, it can be exceptionally difficult to hold public opinion resolute in the face of obvious and undeniable setbacks (e.g. defeated soldiers returning home). It would be unusually challenging to endeavour to persuade the wartime public (such as survive the initial round!) that any political outcome whatever would be advantageous when contrasted with a political settlement of almost any other character. Apparently robust domestic opinion may not be resilient in the face of severe and unanticipated military setbacks. It is hard even to imagine what a ‘good news’ story about nuclear war would look like!
  7. In the design and prospectively the execution of NATO’s nuclear policy and strategy it is truly vital to remember the deep, indeed the truly cultural attachment of Russians to the concept, as well as the reality of national physical geography. Modern Russia exists, and has survived because of this geography. No other polity has a geopolitical history at all like the Russian. While there is great strength in this geography, there is also potentially considerable vulnerability that NATO could and should plan to exploit in a case of severe strategic necessity.


If truth be told, as it must be here, no-one knows how to conduct a nuclear war, prudently or otherwise. It is probably not helpful to remind readers that when von Trupp reached the Marne in 1914, and indeed even when Rommel crossed the Meuse at Sedan on April 12-13, 1940, they did not and could not know whither the dynamics of war would take them. What matters above all else is that we all, especially our military planners, never forget that a decision to wage war is ALWAYS A GAMBLE and the historical record does not demonstrate that bold decisions for war initiation typically are rewarded with conspicuous success.[vii]

The hazards of nuclear strategy are too obvious to require emphasis; but a few facts of international strategic life do need recognition. It is important for the United States to be able to determine more closely the kind of strategic crimes that could be perpetrated. Ideas are needed for conceptual guidance in nuclear targeting; no matter how disagreeable this may be, there really is no responsible alternative. If a nuclear war has to be waged, its conduct must be led by intelligent choices. Virtually no matter what the strategic circumstances would be, it is hard to imagine a context wherein American targeting choice would not matter. At the very least the United States must always be better served by purposeful targeting preferences rather than apparently near random strikes. Even if we are pessimistic about the relative value of the outcome, it should always be worth trying to secure an improved result.

Formidably challenging though the problems of nuclear strategy certainly are, there is at least one approach to the difficulties raised by nuclear strategy that can help us significantly if we employ it ruthlessly. I suggest that the whole complex subject of nuclear strategy should be organized in our minds, plans, and even our action, as a three-part problem. We can, and ought, to reduce nuclear strategy quite rigorously, to a 3-part problem or challenge and we need to exercise a conceptual discipline in order to deny the truly awesome physical possibilities undue authority over our thought and behaviour. Both at its core and in its core nuclear strategy comprises but three conceptually imperial ideas: war prevention, military action, and – most potently of all – consequences. These three contexts, pre-war, wartime, and post-war, capture the entirety of our subject.

It should come as no surprise for us to appreciate the third subject category, pertaining to the consequences of nuclear warfare, is the one of most important consequence. The consequential context of nuclear war would be extremely likely to dwarf in its significance the behaviour conducted both before and during a nuclear war. Probably it is valid to claim that thought and action about the possible, indeed the probable, context of actual nuclear warfare has nearly always focussed very understandably upon the challenge of war prevention, scarcely at all upon the difficulties near certain to follow as a consequence of actual nuclear use.

My suggestion in this article simultaneously to reduce our focus of concern to just three, war prevention, nuclear warfare itself, and post-war consequences, should encourage interest in the high, even supreme, importance of what I choose to consider the context of (future) consequences. The insistence here upon recognition of the conceptual, indeed the temporal also, unity of the subject of nuclear strategy should help people realize that (nuclear) crisis, warfare, and aftermath truly comprise a subject with a single, nuclear, narrative.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 1976), especially p.81.
[ii] Ibid. That war of any kind must be regarded as an event pregnant with political meaning, was the core belief that underpinned, indeed provided, the meaning, to all the phenomena of which Clausewitz wrote.
[iii] The idea that war is really a gamble has failed to attract the attention it merits.
[iv] This idea is advanced and explored in my Theory of Strategy, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 61-4).
[v] See Lukas Milevski, The West’s East: Contemporary Baltic Defense in Strategic Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[vi] For an exceptionally fine study of the principal military events of 1914 and then of the campaign consequential from it, see Holger H. Herwig, The Marne 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2009).
[vii] For two excellent recent, albeit very different studies of the US challenge regarding nuclear weapons, see US Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, February 2018 (Washington, DC, USGPO, 2018); and Matthew Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018)