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On Limited Nuclear War In the 21st Century.

On Limited Nuclear War In the 21st Century

By Jeffrey A. Larsen and Kerry M. Kartchner, editors

Palo Alto, CA: Standford University Press, 2014

312 pages


Consider for a moment that in 2015 a single nuclear weapon has just been detonated in anger. Where did the explosion occur? What actors were involved? What was the goal of such a limited use of nuclear arms? Was this a demonstradon shot, a limited counterforce strike, or perhaps an attack intended to terminate a conventional conflict?

The twelve authors in the volume On Limited Nuclear War in the 21st Century, edited by Jeffrey A. Larsen and Kerry M. Kartchner, want policy-makers to consider and plan for such possibilities. With increasing tensions and opportunities for miscalculation in the South China Sea, a growing North Korean arsenal, unclear Iranian intentions surrounding nuclear weapons, and President Vladimir Putin posting video of himself practicing the launch of Russian strategic forces on YouTube, the authors are correct to argue that the likelihood of nuclear use may be increasing.

In his foreword to the book, the late Nobel-prize winner Thomas Schelling praises this effort to encourage deeper thinking about nuclear use in the present day: "This book is the only one I know that can induce national leaders, or their advisers, to take seriously the prospect of minimizing mutual damage in a nuclear war."

In twelve distinct and diverse chapters, the authors consider the theory, practice, and implications of limited nuclear war. In contrast to the all-out nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union feared during the Cold War, limited war is defined by the authors as nuclear conflict restrained along one or more of five possible dimensions: numbers of nuclear weapons used, scope of the area affected, the duration of use, political objectives of use, and the targeting plan.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first, "Assessing the History of the Cold War," examines the history and theory of limited war from the Cold War to the present. Those seeking to examine the chapters focused especially on the concept of limited war should read Andrew Ross's comprehensive chapter on limited war theory in this section.

The second section, "Managing the Risk of Nuclear War in the 21st Century," provides considerations for how limited nuclear war could occur today. Paul Bernstein summarizes the capabilities and interests of actors most likely to be involved in future nuclear war, while Thomas Mahnken provides five scenarios for potential future limited nuclear use. Such scenario-based thinking surrounding limited war is needed, but any grouping of five potential scenarios risks being both too narrow and far-fetched to readers. Instead, this middle section could have been improved with a chapter exclusively focused on the various theoretical bases for how nuclear weapons might come to be used in the future and then adding accompanying real-life scenarios for each theory. Theories of use are interspersed throughout the book (e.g., demonstration shots in crisis, use for war termination, etc.) but a chapter dedicated to defining a typology of employment would have been helpful for considering the scope of possible use and policy-options for addressing such contingencies.

This middle section also includes a chapter by George Quester on the nuclear taboo and how the sixty-five-year pattern of non-use could be disrupted. Quester touches on the need for the United States to consider how to reestablish this pattern, or tradition, after nuclear use. Greater consideration of this topic would also benefit US policy-makers. After an instance of nuclear use the United States and its allies will have to think quickly through how to ensure the initial nuclear use is not perceived as beneficial for the attacker. In other words, how will the United States work to send the message that nuclear use does not pay? This question is also one in which scenario planning would be beneficial.

The final section, "Confronting the Challenges of Nuclear War in the 21st Century," includes a useful chapter in which Bruce Blair provides a net assessment of US capabilities for engaging in a limited nuclear war, noting areas where US capabilities may need to adapt.

Although there are many well-researched and thought-provoking chapters in this volume, a complete reading of the entire volume will provide the reader with a valuable tutorial on a breadth of topics related to limited nuclear use. Most importantly, perhaps, the book instills an appreciation of the great and sometimes contradictory nuclear challenges facing the United States today: reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in a world where the relevance is increasing for some actors, while maintaining a nuclear arsenal credible to allies and adversaries alike.

Reviewed by Rebecca Davis Gibbons, PhD candidate in International Relations at Georgetown University
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Author:Gibbons, Rebecca Davis
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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