Wed, Jun 16, 2021

Are dual-capable weapon systems destabilizing? Questioning nuclear-conventional entanglement and inadvertent escalation

Issue Brief by Matthew Kroenig, Mark J. Massa

China Conflict Defense Policy Defense Technologies India Korea National Security Nuclear Deterrence Russia United States and Canada

A US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, conducted a low-level flight in the vicinity of Osan Air Base, South Korea, in response to recent provocative action by North Korea Jan. 10, 2016. The B-52 was joined by a South Korean F-15K Slam Eagle and a US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon. The B-52 is a long-range, heavy bomber that can fly up to 50,000 feet and has the capability to carry 70,000 pounds of nuclear or precision guided conventional ordnance with worldwide precision navigation capability. (US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Benjamin Sutton). https://www.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2001333947/.

FORWARD DEFENSE

ISSUE BRIEF RELEASE

Some fear that dual-capable weapon systems (systems relevant to both nuclear and conventional missions) are destabilizing and can lead to nuclear war. The Scowcroft Center’s Matthew Kroenig and Mark J. Massa examine this argument, challenging the logic and evidence of nuclear entanglement. Entanglement theory rests on the false logic of “use it or lose it.” Indeed, historical evidence shows dual-capable systems have been frequently used without causing inadvertent escalation to nuclear war. Further, there are reasons to believe dual-use systems may in fact contribute to deterrence. 

There are logical and empirical reasons to be skeptical that dual-capable weapons will lead to unintentional nuclear war. 

Nuclear entanglement arguments rely on “use it or lose it” logic, which is questionable. This issue brief argues that it is a false dilemma that a targeted state’s only options are to lose its nuclear weapons or to initiate a nuclear war. Instead, a state has many better choices than inviting a deliberate nuclear exchange. 

This issue brief finds that nuclear entanglement is not supported by the empirical record. The United States and other nations have both conducted military operations with, and conducted strikes against, dual-capable systems without causing nuclear war. 

In fact, dual-capable platforms enhance deterrence. They have been an important part of US conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities for decades. They can complicate disarming first strikes, resulting in ambiguity for the attacker about the precise number of nuclear targets. There may even be “deterrence through entanglement,” where leaders decide that attacking dual-capable platforms is simply too risky.

Key recommendations

The report advances a number of recommendations for the future of dual-capable weapon systems: 

  • The United States should continue to build and employ dual-capable systems.
  • The United States should resist calls to unilaterally shed dual-capable systems, as these platforms continue to advance US national security interests.
  • The United States can plan to target the dual-capable platforms of its adversaries in the event of conflict without undue fear of inadvertent nuclear escalation.
  • While the United States can continue to threaten nuclear retaliation for attacks on its dual-capable space and cyber assets, that deterrent should be augmented by the threat of non-nuclear retaliation and deterrence by denial.

[T]he hypothesized reasons for nuclear escalation in these scenarios are logically inconsistent, lack strategic empathy, and do not account for operational obstacles to nuclear preemption.

Matthew Kroenig & Mark J. Massa

About the authors

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