“If there are enough shovels to go around…”

“…everybody’s going to make it.” – Thomas K. Jones, 1982

Counterveil vs. Countervalue

Decapitating strikes…

Winning a protracted nuclear war…

Nuclear calculus…

These, and other topics were points of not just mere discussion, but deep, serious study and analysis in the early 1980’s by, among others, a small cohort of graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School.  Leading the charge was a civilian professor, a recent PhD and acolyte of one of the advocates for this “new” way of thinking about nuclear warfighting.  A young LT, fresh from his first sea tour was part of this cohort, not so much by an inclination towards that line of thought as by the nature of his particular studies – focused as they were on the growing INF crisis in Europe.  To be sure, the President had (then) recently signed NSDD-32 (National Security Decision Directive 32) – “U.S. National Security Strategy” into effect which formalized planning for fighting and winning a protracted nuclear war (ed. NSDD-32 was recently partially de-classified and made available to the public.  You can read it for yourself here. – SJS) :

“The United States will enhance its strategic nuclear deterrent by developing a capability to sustain protracted nuclear conflict…” (emphasis added) – “Nuclear Forces”, NSDD-32

Being classified ‘Top Secret’ at the time, the document was not immediately available to the cohort – yet its directives were well known.  The cohort itself was very much heads down in the deep, complex study of this field which clinically blended nuclear physics, probability, advanced calculus, strategy, history and culture.  They were a collection of Strategic Planners, Intelligence Specialists and Area Studies graduate students in the National Security Studies program – the LT himself a Soviet/East European specialist.  The professors were an eclectic lot – and formed two factions; one that was very much inclined in this prolonged war-fighting advocacy and the other holding what best may be described as a healthy appreciation of the destructive effects of nuclear weapons and preference to either “traditional” approaches to deterrence or looking at new methods and strategies to defeat the Soviet/Warsaw Pact threat in Europe, one of which was an emerging school centered on maneuver warfare.  Age and experience in both groups ran the gamut – from the physics professor teaching the elements of nuclear weapons construction and effects who, when he was our age, was a young scientist working on the Manhattan Project, to veterans of ground combat in Korea and Vietnam, an emigree who escaped Prague Spring and fresh-cheeked PhD’s who’d spent the bulk of their young adult life in the Ivory Tower.

The study of nuclear weapons and employment of the same forces one to a state of detachment from reality.  One focuses on hardening and Pk; sterile equations like  TKP = (SSKP) X [(Pc X Pl)(Pf x Pg x Pw)(1-Pa)]  fill the page and the mind, crowding out the enormity of the task one is set about doing.  In the quiet lab the destruction of nations is reduced to the scratching of No. 2 pencils on graph paper, aided by trusty HP-47CV calculators.  Variables of nature and man are introduced, whether it be prevailing wind patterns or the probability of successfully surmounting enemy air defenses to place a 250 kiloton weapon on target.  More weapons committed increased the odds, in a simple model, of a particular target being destroyed and before one realizes it, what took a solitary 20kt weapon to destroy at Hiroshima now demands no less than six 150 kt weapons to ensure destruction.  Overkill is born.  Fallout patterns plotted to prevailing winds give mute testimony to the destruction rained down upon those unfortunate enough to not have been at any one of the multiple Ground Zeros, and do little to hint of the poisoned land that will remain uninhabitable for years, decades, centuries to come.  Civil Defense, fallout shelters – holes, dug deep in the protective earth and covered with three feet of dirt atop would preserve the populace from the initial attacks – or so the wizards of Armageddon would say (cf. Thomas Jones quote above).  Driven on, one reminds oneself that on the other side there is someone else, equally engaged, measuring twice and cutting once the burial cloth for home and allies.  Paul Warnke had famously written of “apes on a treadmill” the previous decade and some who began to step back from the myopic calculations were stirred for it seemed the allegory was all too true.

At the end of a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon one student pushed back from the computer in front of him where he had spent the past thirty-six hours building a complex series of spreadsheets using a new program picked up from the computer store the previous week – PeachCalc, and into which he had laboriously plugged formula, and conditions, forces and scenarios.  The goal had been to highlight the dangerous instability introduced by a new generation of intermediate forces in Europe, begun with the deployment of the SS-20.  Ten minutes.  That was the flight time of the Soviet first strike with SS-20s against key NATO sites – including those dedicated to INF elements.  Ten Minutes.  Flight time of a Pershing II from West Germany to Moscow.  Ten minutes and the simulated detonation of hundreds of missileborne warheads over Europe would repeat the results of Operation Carte Blanche exercise results of  almost  two decades ago – but the populace of 1983 Europe was so much greater than that of 1955.  In the gathering gloom of the study he examined the pile of printouts and the skepticism he had inherited from his peers grew.  Decisions were made and a revised course plotted for the thesis still in work.  Another way had to be found – there had to be another solution that did not rely on the employment of nuclear weapons – especially those so close to the frontlines of the prospective battle…


The public and private debate grew during the course of the first half of the decade.  An extraordinary series of public letters were exchanged between then SECDEF Weinberger and Theodore Draper, a historian and social critic in the pages of the New York Review of Books that highlighted the principle elements of this debate.  Public protests at home and abroad grew and President Reagan began to publicly voice his belief that a nuclear war was not winnable and should never be fought.  Pershing II’s and GLCMs were deployed to Europe, as promised but by December 8th, 1987, the US and Soviet Union signed a first of its kind treaty, one that both banned an entire class of weapons and established an intrusive inspection regime to verify compliance – and in so doing, helped establish the climate for the next iteration of strategic arms control.

And a thesis was written and published1, detailing the historical steps and strategies taken by two nuclear powers in Europe, an analysis of the “as is” and “to be” INF in the context of a first-exchange model, and which advocated the removal of tactical nuclear weapons and adoption of maneuver warfare to counter the mass of the Warsaw Pact forces.  Well received by some (including, thankfully, the thesis advisors and department chair) – not so by others…

Today we find ourselves curiously peering over the threshold of employment of nuclear forces again – different contexts and precepts, but when all is said and done, ultimately the same net effects.  As we have written elsewhere, it will be incumbent, vitally so, for the next Administration to conduct a thorough review of future American nuclear policy.  In so doing, one hopes that past lessons and experience will inform and shape the direction of this policy – along with a healthy dose of skepticism.


1Dossel, Carl W. Between Scylla and Charybdis: Theater Nuclear Forces in Europe. U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, March 1985. Available through the NPS online library.