Hand in hand with the age of fraud in which we live, our age is also an age of faddish hysteria. Witness, for example, a recent push in some quarters to have the United States adopt a policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons. Egged on by the brainless, Mammy Yokumesque1 left, Obama’s certainly thinking about it.2 I expect the push to rise to a crescendo of progressive self-righteousness and millennial ignorance rather soon now. And, although the press has, as usual, twisted the implications of what Trump’s said on the matter, his comments that he’s not going to launch a first strike but can’t take anything off the table are merely a restatement of the American position for the last three generations.
Unfortunately, the discussion is a bit muddled by confusion, perhaps deliberate but perhaps merely ignorant, about terms that arose during the Cold War, which terms have specific meanings currently being lost in the rush to hysteria. Two of those are important here, “First Strike” and “First Use.”
First Strike was the term for an out of the blue nuclear attack on an opponent’s nuclear arsenal, command and control capability, means of delivery, etc., possibly along with taking out some or much of his conventional capability. The objective of a first strike was to disarm him so thoroughly that he either would not retaliate for fear of what would happen to his civil infrastructure, indeed, his entire civilization, or, if he did, that his retaliation would be weak enough to be survivable, while the initial striker would then extinguish him. This kind of attack was called a “counterforce” attack. While it seemed to dominate the minds of Hollywood lefties and academia throughout much of the Cold War, the other theoretical kind of first strike, called a “countervalue” attack, didn’t make much sense: “Hey, I’ve got an idea; let’s attack the Soviet Union’s cities without warning, killing over a hundred million of their civilians, using our entire arsenal, but leaving his ability to blast our cities into the stone age intact.”
Anyone catch what’s wrong with that? Yes, you over there in the back.
“He’d have had no reason not to, and lots of hate to drive him to, obliterate our civilization in return.”
Correct, countervalue first strike was silly, the fantasy of academic madmen, pacifists too lazy and phobic to study the issue, and B-grade movie producers.
The other approach, first use, now being dishonestly conflated with first strike, was actually quite different. Whereas first strike was a war fighting and war winning strategy, presuming it could be made to work,3 first use was a deterrent strategy, designed to keep war from breaking out at all. The short version of first use was either:
- “We will not attack. If you attack conventionally, we will fight you as long as we can. If it looks like we’re losing, we’ll use nuclear weapons on your armies in the field, and probably key logistic hubs, thus making it impossible for you to win the conventional victory you seek. So why bother?” and,
- “If you use biological, and possibly chemical, warfare against our armies, we will nuke your armies,”4 or
- “If you use biological warfare against our civilian population, we will nuke yours.”
There were, by the way, some definite problems with first use, ranging from “What will the Germans do if we start tossing nukes around the Federal Republic?” to “Can we really believe the Russians won’t escalate to a strategic exchange if we blast the 3rd Shock Army out of existence with nukes?” As with many aspects of the Cold War, though, things that looked like problems were, in fact, often enough just uncertainties, while uncertainties tended to have a deterrent effect, which deterrent effect suited to a T our strategy of holding the Soviets in place while their preposterous intellectual cancer of a system imploded. This used to be called, “calculated ambiguity.”5
It would be useful at this juncture to look briefly at some of the strategic differences between the world of the Cold War and the world as it is. In the first place, of the three weapons of mass destruction at play, colloquially “nukes, bugs, and gas,” we no longer have bugs. That’s right, then president Richard M. Nixon unilaterally ended our biological warfare program in 1969, which program was completely obliterated, barring only some capability for defensive research, by 1973. Thus, in the face of a biological attack, we cannot retaliate with biological warfare; we just don’t have the capability. Could we develop one again? Maybe; maybe not. Oh, yes, in an ideal world, with lots of time, we could, surely. But what if an attack also has the effect of attacking our ability, through sheer destruction of our population, to develop a capability?
Gas? We used to have quite a bit of “gas,”6 in the form of precursors, separate agents, binary agents, loaded shells, and the ability to make more. We signed onto the treaty against it, and long ere now have begun destroying what we had. It’s almost all gone now and should be entirely gone by 2023.7
Thus, we cannot or soon will not be able to reprise or retaliate, like for like, for an attack against us, our troops, or our allies, that involves the use of biological or chemical agents.
So imagine the following conversation, somewhere on the Korean Peninsula, in the not too distant future:
“Damn, the North Koreans just drenched 1st of the 9th with a mix of VX, GB, and high explosive. There’s now a three mile-wide gap in our defense. The Norks are pouring through en masse.”
“Wow; bad day for the Manchus. Hmmm…what to do, what to do? We don’t have any bio to hit back with, and it would be too slow anyway.8 Chemical…anything left on Johnson Island?”
“Not a drop. And Blue Grass Army Depot says the little bit it has left isn’t reliable enough to trust firing it from a cannon.”
“Nukes? Nah, don’t bother answering; that would be first use which we’ve renounced. How about we just bomb them more?”
“We’re already bombing them at max capability. The planes simply can’t do anymore and neither can the pilots. It’s not like we were slacking, after all…”
You may, gentle reader, begin to see the problem with renouncing first use of nukes when we have nothing – and I cannot emphasize this enough – NOTHINGNOTAFUCKINGTHINGZIPZILCHNADA besides nukes to use on either a conventional threat too strong to defeat or in retaliation for the use of non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction on us: “Hey world, let us have it!”
There is also an area – or rather, two of them – where first use and first strike meet. One of these is strategic, the other is tactical or operational. The latter would occur when an enemy, possibly because his attack has been stymied by conventional means, intends, and we have found out from credible sources that he intends, to get the ball rolling again by blasting a few holes in our lines and possibly smashing the ports, Pusan or La Havre, say, on which our armies depend. We – rather the lefties among us – can preen themselves on their moral virtue by their refusal to take out the enemy’s nukes before he can use them, but, speaking as a soldier, fuck the left and its threadbare cloak of fraudulent moral virtue. If I or my men are about to get nuked by an attacking enemy, and we find out about it, I want those nuclear assets gone before they can be used. For that matter, if it’s a chemical attack he’s planned, I want his chemical capability taken out before he can use it, too.
If that is true and reasonable for ground and air forces, how much more so if we should discover a future enemy is planning a counterforce attack with nuclear weapons on our homeland? Shall we let ourselves be violently disarmed in favor of letting idiot intellectuals9 feel good about themselves?
“Ah,” so I hear, “but we can always claim we’ve given up first use and still use it in a pinch.”
Not that simple, friend; both the kinds of weapons and the kinds of delivery systems we field have an effect on whether certain kinds of first use will be effective enough, or will be too much. Already we’ve dismantled the old artillery shells that were a hugely important part of our first use policy, not least because they were tightly adjustable to the desired and necessary effect without excessive and avoidable collateral damage. Atomic demolitions munitions, or ADM, have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, as well. Contemplate the unutterable evil of harming no one while using a small nuke to create an impassable crater in a narrow valley. “Oh, the humanity, the humanity!” right?
And, speaking of humanity, there’s also the first use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both events, now morphed into sticks with which to beat the racist United States, saved, between them, ten or twenty million Japanese lives.
What’s that? Yes, yes, we’ll still have nukes to use first should a future president deem it advisable or necessary. What? You think we can use a 475 kilotons W87 warhead from a (be it noted, old and obsolescent) Minuteman III to stop the North Korean 2nd Proletarian Kim Jong Dead Memorial Armored Horde in close proximity to, say, Seoul? Don’t be greedy, pass over some of what you’re smoking.
There’s also the fact that neither the Russians nor the Chinese, and certainly not the Norks or Iranians, have the means anymore to end our civilization. Hurt it, yes, in the case of the first two; end it, no. This means that first use is less dangerous a proposition than it once was, if we re-adopt the means for it.
So let’s just stop this nonsense now. First use, coupled with calculated ambiguity, is a means not of aggression nor evil, but of deterrence and peace. Those against it would appear to be in favor of war and aggression.
1 “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer!” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/478437160390621212/
2 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/science/obama-unlikely-to-vow-no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons.html?_r=0, https://fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/51-3_12_Sagan_author_proof.pdf, and https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/nuclear-weapons-no-first-use-debate-214300>. With regards to the title of that latter cite, certainly something is pretty damned flimsy and thin.
3 Until the twin advances of extremely accurate missile technology, and Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs, in the parlance; many warheads – three to ten or so – on one missile), counterforce first strike was not practical. Why? Because in situations of rough parity, and given that not every attack would succeed, expending an entire missile, plus, to get an entire missile, maybe, left you in no better position than your opponent, but rather a weaker one.
4 I have some reason to suspect this was not our plan for the First Gulf War, where Iraqi use of chemicals was at least possible.
6 We colloquialize chemical agents as “gas,” but a lot of our chemical stockpile was semi-solid or viscous, liquid, aerosol, and even in the form of smoke.
7 https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/cbwprolif. Nice that the Russians, at least, agree that there were chemical weapons in Iraq.
8 Although it can be used on the military, biological warfare was far more about hitting your enemy’s economy than his armies; think: missed work, wilted crops, dead food animals.
9 Lord, forgive us our redundancies. If you can find the time, go read this: https://www.tomkratman.com/Ranthhour.html
Photo by Romolo Tavani – istock / Getty Images Plus
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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