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The Fallacy of Major Conventional War in the Nuclear Age by George Simmons Roth

Part One: Introduction

For over two generations now, mankind has lived under the thermonuclear sword of Damocles. However, for two generations no nuclear weapon has exploded in anger. On August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was the first city in history destroyed by a nuclear weapon; and three days later, Nagasaki became the last. Since then, no nuclear weapon was ever used again in warfare. This moratorium on the use of nuclear weapons has convinced many people that nuclear weapons should no longer be counted in the calculus of national power, and that all future wars will inevitably remain conventional. In the United States, this belief has evolved into a military doctrine, which holds that nuclear weapons exist for only one reason; and that reason is to deter other nations from using nuclear weapons. Furthermore, deterrence is the only function nuclear weapons can possibly have, and thus, assuming rational enemies, they will never actually be used! This doctrine understands that nations have their differences, and occasionally, in the absence of world government, will resort to war to settle them. But this doctrine has an unshakable faith that all wars will remain conventional. It also understands that all such wars must be limited to some degree. It would be irrational for any nation to use nuclear weapons except for one glaring exception. That exception would occur in a “total war” like World War Two. If a nuclear armed nation’s very existence was at stake, then it might well use nuclear weapons as it would have nothing to lose.

In response to this, The Conventional War Doctrine holds that all wars must be limited, both in goals and methods. Nuclear armed nations must not be threatened with total defeat, and all weapons must be used so as to minimize civilian causalities. This conventional war doctrine is further buttressed by the pledge of "no first use"! This is a pledge by the United States Government, that it shall never in any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons in war! To repeat, the conventional war theory maintains that nuclear weapons have only one purpose, and that is to deter others from using them; hence they probably never will be used and play no real part in national security strategy. Wars will be settled, as they always have, by conventional weapons alone.

This doctrine favors the United States, because it is the world’s only superpower in conventional arms. Indeed, the US has almost as much conventional combat power as all the rest of the world's nations combined! Not since the Roman Empire has the world seen such economic, technological, and military power concentrated in one nation. Just as the Romans ruled the known world, or Pax Roma as it was called; the United States politically dominates the world order by a Pax America.

This "conventional war doctrine" is today generally accepted without reservations by almost everyone in the US government. This view is basically conservative, as it maintains that nuclear weapons have not essentially changed military strategy The history of the world since Nagasaki would seem to support this doctrine. One final piece of evidence for the conventional war doctrine; is that poison gas was never used in World War II, even though both the Allies and the Axis powers had stored thousands of tons of it. The fact that both sides were deterred from using these weapons of mass destruction, and fought a purely conventional war, is considered by most as the final proof of the validity of the conventional war strategic doctrine.

Unfortunately, this doctrine is absolutely and fatally wrong!!

Part Two: Logical Fallacy of Conventional War

The fallacy of the conventional war doctrine rest on the twin pillars of both logic and history. This part will consider the argument for the logical fallacy of the conventional war doctrine. Ignoring the obvious fact that not all actors in a conventional war are rational, there are several major reasons why the conventional war theory of war is fundamentally flawed.

(1) Any attempt to limit war in effect turns the contest into a game; a violent game to be sure, but nevertheless still a game. All games must have rules which all the participants have agreed to, either formally or at least tacitly. A violent contest without rules is the very essence of what war is all about. Indeed it is the very definition of war. Here we have the first fallacy of conventional war doctrine: and that is not all nuclear nations have adopted the “no first use rule”. Today there are seven declared nuclear powers. The major declared nuclear powers are the United States and Russia, which have between them better than 95 % or the world’s nuclear weapons (about equally divided between them). The five minor declared nuclear powers in descending order are; China, France, Great Britain, India, and Pakistan. Israel is certainly a nuclear power (on about the same level as Great Britain), but it is not a declared nuclear power. Israel has never officially admitted to having nuclear weapons. North Korea, on the other hand is currently, probably, a faux nuclear power. Its first attempt at exploding a nuclear weapon failed completely, and the second test detonated with a yield of only about 200 tons of TNT equivalent, or only about 1/20 th it’s designed yield ( and only 1 % of the Nagasaki bomb). North Korea’s third attempt, on memorial day of this year; now appears to be an elaborate ruse. There was a large explosion to be sure, but it was probably nothing more than around 2000 tons of conventional explosives detonated underground to fake a nuclear blast. The unmistakable proof of a nuclear detonation, is the detection of some residual radiation and noble gas, yet none was ever detected by US sensors.

Returning now to the seven declared nuclear powers, only four have declared a no first use policy. They are the United States, Great Britain, China, and India. The other three, Russia, France, and Pakistan have adamantly refused to declare such a policy. They have instead declared that in extreme cases, when vital national interest were threatened, they reserve the right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Note that "first use" is not the same as "first strike". A "first strike" means an all-out attack against and enemy’s nuclear arsenal, and industrial centers. On the other hand, "first use" means a very limited attack against an economic, or military target; like an oil field or a carrier battle group, etc. Of course such a nuclear strike could very well escalate into a general (i.e., total) nuclear war, though just as likely, it would not. But these three nuclear armed nations, have stated that in extreme circumstances they would take that gamble! They would do so, because being weak in conventional power, they must inevitably lose a conventional war with their most likely enemy. Their strategic aim is not to just deter nuclear war, as the proponents of conventional war doctrine hold, but to deter all war! This strategy which we may call the Limited Nuclear War Doctrine, is the natural strategy for the weaker nation, and should be accepted as real. The French name for their limited nuclear war strategy is called the “ultime avertissement,” or “final warning”! Now we come to the crux of the first logical fallacy: the game that conventional war only can only occur if all participants agree to the rules. Absent that, any attempt at applying conventional war doctrine against another nuclear power can only end in disaster!

(2) The second logical fallacy of conventional war theory, is that the dividing line between conventional war and nuclear war is not as definitive as one might believe. There are several examples of this. (A) First the United States military has a tremendous qualitative advantage over the Chinese military in precision guided weapons. These smart bombs and missiles, guided by advanced computers, are far more accurate and thus effective, than the older so called dumb bombs and missiles of World War II vintage. However, a single large nuclear explosion several hundred miles above the earth in the vacuum of space, can knock out all electronic equipment for more than a thousand miles in all directions. Such an explosion, called EMP (or electromagnetic pulse) will burn out the microchips of all electronic devices. While people are unharmed, everything electronic is affected; computers, radio communications, radar, and precision guided bombs and missiles. The US armed forces, would be extremely handicapped if even one nuclear bomb was detonated in space. On the other hand, Chinese military forces are far less dependent on modern electronics for their operation, and are mainly armed with the old dumb bombs and missiles. This asymmetry of military forces, means that the Chinese would be far less affected than the US would by a nuclear explosion in space. It is precisely this reason that China has declared it would detonate nuclear weapons in space if it gets into a conventional war with the United States. As no nuclear weapons would be detonated on earth, and no one would be injured, the Chinese maintain that such an act would not cross the divide between conventional and nuclear war. The United States maintains the opposite view. But who is right? Are detonating nuclear weapons in space conventional or nuclear war? There is no supreme court to decide the issue. It is reasonable to suppose that the Chinese would ignore US protestations and act according to their own interest.

(2-B) Another reason that the dividing line between conventional and nuclear war is murky, is that nuclear forces can be threatened by conventional forces. This is particularly true in naval warfare. The situation becomes clear if we substitute the word strategic for nuclear. In this sense, strategic weapons may be defined as weapons which would seriously affect the outcome of nuclear war, regardless of whether they themselves were nuclear or conventional. A case in point would be a nuclear armed ballistic missile submarine that was sunk by an attack submarine armed only with conventional explosive torpedoes. This is not just a hypothetical theory. Both the United States and Russia depend heavily on their nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines for their Second Strike Strategy. Second Strike Strategy is the doctrine, that even if an enemy nation were to make a surprise first strike on their nuclear forces, enough would survive for a devastating counter strike. It is this ability to survive and retaliate that is supposed to prevent a surprise attack in the first place, and is the lynchpin of both US and Russian nuclear strategy. The United States depends almost exclusively on its Ohio class ballistic missile submarines (18,000 tons with 24 missiles carrying 4 nuclear warheads each) to achieve a second strike strategic posture, while Russia strategy is based on both submarines and mobile ground missiles for its second strike force. In the depths of the oceans, ballistic missile submarines are considered invulnerable to enemy ASW (anti-submarine warfare) forces. Trying to locate and sink a super quiet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine hiding in several million square miles of ocean in only a quarter of an hour (about how long it would take for a submarine to fire all its missiles), is considered virtually impossible! However, the situation radically changes in the context of an on going conventional naval war. Unlike a "nuclear first strike" scenario, which would only allow a few minutes to locate and sink a ballistic missile submarines; a conventional naval war would allow weeks and probably months to accomplish the same objective. This danger is particularly acute for Russia, whose ballistic missile submarines are much more vulnerable to superior US ASW forces. The US Virginia class attack submarine (6,000 tons), nuclear powered, but only armed with conventional torpedoes would be especially threatening. The Mark 48 wire guided and homing torpedo (with a range of 20 miles) is the most lethal torpedo in the world, even though it packs only a few hundred pounds of TNT. It would make little difference to the Russian High Command if it’s ballistic missile submarines were sunk by nuclear or conventional explosives. In either case they could not allow their ballistic missile submarines, a vital part of their defense, to be placed in jeopardy. In this way, the Virginia class submarine boats are strategic weapons, even though they actually carry no nuclear weapons aboard.

An illustration of how this might occur can be shown by the nature of ASW. Once at sea, as already stated, a nuclear submarine has virtually no chance of being detected. The only reliable method for detecting submarines uses sound or sonar. Sonar (often called passive sonar) is simply a sophisticated method of listening for submarines with hydro phones. There is also an active sonar which uses high frequency sound beams to detect subs, however it has a very short range and can be heard by a silent sub at five times the range of the active sonar allowing the submarine to ambush its purser and/or take evasive maneuvers. Although many types of vehicles can be used for ASW (i.e., airplanes, helicopters, destroyers etc.), the nuclear-powered fast attack submarine is the ideal platform for using sonar. As a comparison, a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine is sort of like a heavy bomber, while a nuclear powered attack submarine, armed only with torpedoes, is sort of like a fighter plane in aerial warfare. Other methods have been tried to detect submarines (i.e., like infrared, magnetic, lasers, radiation, and/or surface wave motion detection), but have proven to be virtually useless. It fact, the US Navy has a little joke about this: it goes, “any technique which does not use sound to detect a submarine, is an unsound technique.” However, modern submarines are now so quiet and the oceans so vast, that there is little danger that a ballistic missile submarine could be detected by enemy ASW. Unfortunately, the ballistic missile submarines have one weakness which can be exploited by enemy attack submarines. Attack submarines can lay in wait outside the ports that ballistic missile submarines are based. When the ballistic missile submarines come out to start their war patrol, attack submarines can try to trail them. If a ballistic missile submarine was being trailed by an enemy attack sub when war broke out, it could probably be destroyed. United States ballistic submarines are to quite to be trailed. On the other hand, Russian nuclear submarines are somewhat noisier, and were often trailed during the Cold War. Originally, their submarines (the Delta 1 and Delta 2) were very noisy, and the Delta 3, which came later, moderately noisy. Now, however, the Russians deploy the Delta 4 and the Borey class ballistic submarine which are almost as quiet as the American submarines. A typical war patrol last more or less around 10 weeks, and yet modern quiet ballistic missile submarines are usually able to break trail in one or two days. Thus in peacetime conditions, modern ballistic missile submarines have little to fear from enemy trailing submarines. However, in a conventional naval war, the situation would be radically altered. Once war broke out, attack submarines would no longer have to trail their quarry, but instead could torpedo the ballistic missile submarines as soon as they exited from port. Under these circumstances, the somewhat less effective, but still dangerous, Russian Akula class nuclear attack submarines would also now become a danger to US ballistic missile submarines. Once conventional naval war broke out, both sides ballistic missile subs would become far more vulnerable than before, and under such circumstances, it ridiculous to imagine a conventional naval war would not rapidly escalate to a nuclear conflict. There are many other ways in which conventional war and nuclear war would overlap, but I think the point has been made.

(3) A third reason why the idea of conventional war is illogical is the ever present danger of accidental escalation to a nuclear conflict. By accident, I mean that the first use of nuclear weapons would not be authorized by legitimate authorities; and in that context, it must be stated that, unlike American and British attack submarines, Russian attack submarines are armed with tactical 12-kiloton nuclear torpedoes (equal to 12,000 tons of TNT, or equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb). Most military forces are disciplined professionals, however, in the fog of war and under unbelievable emotional stress, it is not impossible that some sub commander might initiate the use of nuclear weapons on his own; after all, what would you not do to save your life!

(4) Finally, the non-use of poison gas in World War II is a false analogy. Contrary to popular belief neither poison gas nor biological weapons are as remotely lethal as nuclear weapons. During the Second World War, the British and Americans had a few thousand tons of mustard gas, and the Germans the more lethal nerve gases. However, the effects of both types were largely nullified by the gas masks which were carried by all the troops and most of the civilian population as well. These agents lasted for only a few hours at most before sun wind and rain dissolve them, and there were effective antidotes as well. It should also be remembered that in World War One, about 20% of all artillery shells used poison gas and not HE (high explosives). These gas shells caused about 30% of all casualties, but only 2% of all fatalities on the Western Front. Thus gas was not used in World War Two, not because it was so feared, but because it really wasn’t that effective. Finally it would be useful to compare chemical weapons with nuclear ones. VX gas, the most lethal of all nerve gases, and three times more effective than anything the Germans had, wasn’t invented until the 1950's. However, for comparison, it would take one ton of this nerve gas to kill 50% of an unprotected population in an area of one square mile. In contrast, a one-megaton nuclear weapon (equivalent to one million tons of TNT), which weighs about a ton, could destroy an enormously greater area. Such a weapon would kill virtually 100% of a population by blast and fire in an area of 60 square miles, and kill 50% of the population in an area four times larger. When one factors in radiation, such a bomb would cover an area of 1,000 square miles with a 50% mortality rate. Unlike poison gas, there would be no protection by gas mask or rubber suites, and no antidotes. Finally the duration of radiation is not hours, but months. Thus there is obviously no comparison between nuclear and chemical weapons. As for biological warfare: A Japanese Unit with the innocuous name of Unit-731, practiced biological warfare against the Chinese during the Asian land war of World War Two. From 1937 to 1945. Botulism, Small Pox, Anthrax, and Bubonic Plague germs were tried. They distributed their deadly agents by canisters dropped from planes and balloons as well as using infected rats. But it was all to no avail. The records are not clear, but it seems that less than eighty people died from all these exertions (or about ten people per year). Compare the record of biological and chemical warfare with nuclear weapons, shows that only nuclear weapons can be considered weapons of mass destruction. The two atomic nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, killed a total of 200,000 people. Today’s hydrogen thermonuclear bombs are about 50 times more powerful1.

I could go on, but I think the point has been adequately made that the concept of the conventional war doctrine in the nuclear age is illogical, and that nuclear weapons can not be eliminated by the simple expedient of renouncing them!

Part Three: Historical Fallacy of Conventional War

Now comes the second part; the historical proof that nuclear weapons have eliminated major conventional war for all time. The future holds the twin prospects of either living in relative peace and prosperity, or alternatively, being blown up. However, in either case the scourge of major conventional war has now been consigned to the pages of history. The argument for this statement is in two parts.

(A) It has already been noted that there have been many conventional wars since the bombing of Nagasaki, and none have escalated to a nuclear war. At first glance, the statement that nuclear weapons have made major conventional war obsolete appear to be counterfactual. But a second glance is now in order.

All the wars fought since 1945, were between nations that did not have nuclear weapons, or only one nation had them. There has never been a conventional war between two nuclear armed states! This cannot be over-emphasized enough! In the Korean War, the United States (along with its UN allies and South Korea) was directly engaged against the armed forces of North Korea and China. But while The United States was a nuclear power, neither China or North Korea was nuclear armed at that time. The Soviet Union (the only other nuclear armed state), though allied with China and North Korea, was never directly engaged in armed conflict with the United States. Though the Soviets sent tanks, plans, guns, ammunition, spare parts, and advisors to their communist allies, they never sent combat troops. Nor did Soviet submarines attack US carrier battle groups. No land or sea forces of either side ever directly engaged in combat. There were some direct engagements between Russian piloted Mig 15 jets and American F 86 Saber jets. But these aerial engagements were deliberately keep secret by both governments. The public was keep in the dark because nether the Soviets under Chairman Stalin nor the Americans under President Truman wanted to run the risk of escalation to a nuclear war. The two nuclear Super Powers were content to fight each other only by proxy war. Neither during the Korean War nor at any time throughout the Cold War did the United States engage the Soviet Union in direct conventional war.

Even though the United States had nuclear weapons while the Chinese and North Koreans did not, the US was deterred from using them because it feared that Russia might counter attack if the US used nuclear weapons on its allies, and so start World War III. The Korean War thus gave birth to the three principles of national defense strategy which have been followed ever since. They were and are: (x) never get into a direct conventional war with Russia (and now any nuclear armed state), (y) never use nuclear weapons, unless they are first used against American territory and/or military forces, and (z) if a conventional war must be fought, it should be as limited as possible in respect to forces involved, war goals, and casualties. The Korean War is a perfect example of this last principle. The Korean War killed almost three million people, including 35,000 Americans. However, World War II killed sixty million people, including 300,000 Americans2. In World War II, the US spent 40% of its GDP on the war. In contrast, the US spent only 4% of its GDP on The Korean War. World War II was an "all out war" fought on two continents and all the world’s oceans in pursuit of total victory. By contrast, the Korean War was confined only to the Korean peninsula to preserve the status quo. There was no naval war at all. Unlike World War Two, where the US and its British and Russian allies were fighting a total war to the death against Hitler’s Germany and the Japanese Warlords; the Korean War had very modest aims for both sides. The Americans were not fighting to rid the world of communism or to conquer China and/or Russia. Nor were the Chinese fighting to destroy US capitalism. All both sides wanted was to preserve their respective client states from defeat and conquest. And both sides succeeded. The United States defended South Korea, and China (and by proxy Russia) defended North Korea. Militarily the war was a draw! In the nuclear age, that was the only outcome possible without risking nuclear war. For the United States, the war was considered a success, but only because its original war aims were so modest. The grand goal of World War Two, that of completely defeating the enemy was never seriously considered. The same could be said for both China and Russia.

The Korean War set the pattern which has been followed since. There have been many wars since the end of World War Two, but in terms of both blood and treasure they have been “little wars”. The Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf Wars, the Falklands War, the Arab-Israeli Wars, and the current war in Afghanistan all fit this mode of war; that of limited effort and military objectives. Furthermore in all the Wars which the United States was involved in, it never engaged a peer power, like it did against Germany or Japan in World War Two.. During the Korean War, only the Soviet Union could be considered a peer power. Unlike today, China was a backward agricultural nation, non nuclear and no match, without Soviet assistance, for the US. Today both Russia and China could be considered as peer powers.

It must also be noted that the purpose of war is to decide some major political issue. This illustrates the basic function of war: War decides the issue, for it is the court of last resort. However, nuclear weapons have now robbed war of that basic function. Limited conventional war can now rarely decide the issue as was the case in pre-nuclear times. The wars of the Middle East have never permanently settled anything nor did the Korean and Vietnam Wars. To be sure, tactically the United States got a stalemate in Korea (though it accomplished its political goal of saving South Korea), and lost the Vietnam War. However, the US won the Cold War! Unlike World War Two, the Cold War was not won by military means, but by social, economic and political power. In World War Two, military power was the principle means by which the allies defeated both the Germans and Japanese. Although not unimportant, military power was only a peripheral cause in the overthrow of the Soviet Union.

There are exceptions to the above statement, but they only prove the rule. First Russia and China did fight some battles along the Amur River in 1969. But they were mere skirmishes. Both sides had a million men along the border, and yet fewer than ten thousand men were ever engaged. The same goes for the skirmish at Kargil, between India and Pakistan in 1999. There have been fairly large wars during the last half century to be sure. Iran and Iraq fought a ground war for eight years during the 1980's, and over two million people were killed. However, nether nation had nuclear weapons, so the principle simply does not apply. Pakistan and India have fought three major wars since their partition in 1947. However, tellingly, none since they became nuclear powers in 1998. The Falklands War, fought in 1982 between Great Britain and Argentina represents a different case. This is the only naval war fought since World War II, and it did reach a conclusion (a British victory), yet remained conventional. But this exception only proves the rule as well. First only Great Britain had nuclear weapons, and thus had no reason to fear a nuclear attack by Argentina. More to the point, it was a very small war fought for essentially trivial reasons. Only about 250 British and 750 Argentinians died in the war. The antagonist fought over the Falkland Islands, yet those islands had only 1800 citizens. The Falkland Islands had no oil, nor anything else of commercial or military value; all they had were about 40,000 sheep! The war was fought purely for pride (and perhaps sheep). Since no vital national interest were at stake, it would have been inconceivable for the British to have used their nuclear weapons. This leads to the conclusion that conventional war can reach a conclusion without resort to nuclear weapons, but only if the cause is extremely unimportant!

To be sure, little wars have and will continue to be fought since the invention of nuclear weapons, but the great wars are now a thing of the past. World War II was the last of its kind. In the words of military historian John Mueller: "War itself -- at least wars fought between major states -- had become a health hazard, and therefore, an anachronism." 3

(B) Although both the above historical and logical arguments that nuclear weapons have and will continue to prevent major conventional war (or else blow up the world) are compelling, the author does not think this argument has been settled. The fact that there has never been a conventional war between nuclear states (or peer powers since World War II), does not prove it is impossible. Since there is no real empirical evidence either way, one may still maintain that major conventional war is still possible in the nuclear age. For this reason the author shall now bring forth the last and most compelling historical evidence that major conventional war is not possible in the nuclear age. Although no nuclear states have ever directly collied in war, two separate historical events should make the case once and for all.

First: Beginning in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Army quickly evacuated all its military bases in Eastern Europe over the next few following months. In Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungry, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, hundreds of military bases were abandoned almost overnight. The Russians left in such haste that much of their equipment and supplies were left behind. The Soviets tried to carry away or destroy all their secret documents, but in their haste thousands of documents including the Warsaw Pact war plans were left behind and captured by NATO intelligence. Furthermore, captured Russian documents were coroborated by captured East German, Polish, and Czechoslovakian documents. If only one or two war plans had been discovered, one might have reason to be skeptical. Perhaps they were only options or fakes. Even if they were real, plans could be changed. But NATO intelligence did not discover one or two documented plans for war in Europe. They discovered several hundred war plans, at all the bases all over Eastern Europe; and all were the same! What they discovered shocked the NATO High Command to its very core! NATO war plans always assume that any war with the Soviet Union and it’s Eastern European satellites would start out as a conventional war. NATO recognized that a conventional war could escalate to a nuclear conflict, especially if one side was losing too badly, but thought it unlikely. They assumed that before nuclear weapons were used, some sort of truce would probably come into play. In short a war on the German plains would remain conventional. However, the newly discovered Soviet war plans, showed conclusively that the Russians did not think the same way! The Soviets believed that any war that was not immediately stopped, would inevitably escalate to a nuclear one, and so wanted to get in the first strike. Accordingly, if a conventional war lasted for more than one day, they would strike first with 400 tactical nuclear weapons on all military targets in Western Europe including the city of Brussels Belgium, which was the Head Quarters for NATO. Only tactical nuclear missiles in the kiloton range would be used. The really powerful strategic nuclear weapons in the megaton range would not be used. Besides destroying army bases, missile emplacements and airfields, Soviet submarines would attack US carrier battle groups with nuclear torpedoes. The Soviets would try to spare as much of the civilians population as possible, and both Paris and London were to be spared. The territory of the United States would not be attacked. The Soviets expected, or at least hoped that such a nuclear war would remain limited, and global general nuclear war could be avoided. Considering that even the ‘small’ tactical nuclear weapons were as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, one could certainly have doubts about nuclear war remaining limited. But there is no doubt the Soviets were going to do it. If war came, they were going to use nuclear weapons.4

Second: The last piece of historical evidence is the most compelling of all: the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first and last time that the United States and the Soviet Union came close to having a conventional war. Briefly the Crisis was caused by the Soviets placing 24 medium and 18 intermediate range strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba. Each was armed with a one megaton warhead. The medium missiles had a range of about 1100 miles, which allowed them to reach the entire US Southeast, which included Washington D.C. The intermediate range missiles had double that range, which allowed them to reach the entire continental United States. The Russians took this gamble for two basic reasons. First they wanted to defend Cuba against an expected American attack. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, the Russians fully expected another attack, though the Americans actually had no such intentions. Although Russia had the most powerful army in the world at that time, it was six thousand miles away and Russia had only a very small navy. Lying only 90 miles from the US coast, Cuba was completely vulnerable to a US amphibious assault by army and marine combat units. The United States had complete command of the air in that part of the world, and the largest navy in the world. Unable to send reinforcements, there was simply no way the Russians could defend Cuba by conventional means. So it was that Chairman Khrushchev decided to defend Cuba with nuclear weapons. The other reason for deployment was the then large disparity between US and Soviet strategic nuclear forces. At that time, the United States had about 600 heavy bombers, 600 medium bombers, 180 ICBM’s (i.e., Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), and seven submarines carrying 112 SLBM’s (i.e., Submarine Launch Ballistic Missiles), which could attack Russia. In total, the Americans could hit Russia with over 3,000 bombs and missile warheads averaging about one megaton each. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was much smaller. They had 150 long range bombers, about two dozen ICBM’s, and only 3 or 4 submarines carrying less than a dozen SLBM’s. All told, Russia could attack the United States with only about 300 one megaton nuclear bombs and warheads. However, Russia had almost 1,000 shorter range missiles. They could not reach US territory from Russia, but easily could from Cuba. Thus Khrushchev decided to redress their inferiority by placing some of these missiles in Cuba. He need not have bothered. The United States had a population at that time of around 180 million people (compared to the Soviet Union’s population of around 210 million). At that time, the military experts had estimated that only counting the nuclear bombers and missiles forces based in the Soviet Union proper; they would have been able to kill 80 million people immediately by blast and fire, and another 70 million would die within several months by radiation, starvation, disease, and social anarchy. The United States, of course, could have done an equivalent amount of damage to the Soviet Union. This fact expounds one of the principle axioms of the nuclear age. Unlike conventional military superiority, which is vitally important, superiority in nuclear weapons means nothing; you only have to destroy a nation once. Unfortunately, the Americans were as ignorant of the reality of nuclear weapons as were the Russians. When the missiles in Cuba were discovered by U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, they imagined that these extra missiles somehow posed a great threat to their national security. Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, and for the first and only time in history, the world came to the very brink of nuclear war.

When the Americans discovered the Russian missiles in Cuba on the 16th of October, President Kennedy quickly and secretly assembled a group of close advisors to decide what to do. This group of advisors became known as the “executive committee”. This group met every day (sometimes more) often for several hours in rancorous debate. Some of the major regular participants were: John F. Kennedy, President of the United States; Robert Kennedy, Attorney General, and the presidents brother; Robert MacNamara, Sec. of Defense; Dean Rusk, Sec. of State; Douglas Dillon, Sec. of the Treasury; John McCone, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; McGeorge Bundy, Presidential Advisor on National Security; Ted Sorensen; Special Council To The President; General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs of Staff; and several others. Participating occasionally were: Lyndon Johnson, Vice President: Adlai Stevenson, Ambassador to the United Nations; General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief Of Staff; Admiral George Anderson, Chief Of Naval Operations; Senators Russell Long and William Fulbright; Dean Acheson, ex-Sec. of State; and a few others. The big question became: how do we get the Russian missiles out of Cuba? Soon the committee divided into two groups, one came to be known as the "hawks", and the other, the "doves". All agreed that to do nothing was not an option, and the use of nuclear weapons was unthinkable. The hawks chose the conventional military option. They would first bomb all the military installations in Cuba (both Russian and Cuban), and a week later invade with 90,000 ground troops. The doves chose the diplomatic option. They would institute a naval blockade (which was called a quarantine) of the Island of Cuba, and then negotiate with the Soviets for some tough bargaining. They were adamant that their be no hostilities, since no one could be sure where it might lead. Ultimately the President, backed by his brother, Stevenson, MacNamara, and to some extend Bundy, decided in favor of the blockade. The majority of the rest of the committee, especially all the military officers, wanted the military option but were overruled. The Crisis ended peacefully with the Soviets withdrawing all their missiles, and the Americans promising never to invade Cuba. Unknown to the public, the Americans also made a secret deal with the Russians, to withdraw all their medium range missiles in Turkey in a few months; a promise which they kept. Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with satisfaction for all, and the world was spared.

However, for thirty years the question remained: what would have happened if the United States had chosen the military option and invaded Cuba? Many argued, that because of our vast conventional superiority, the US would have won an easy victory, gotten the missiles out of Cuba, and overthrown it’s leader Fidel Castro. The military has especially held to this theory, since the Russians were thought to have had only 10,000 men in Cuba and the Cuban Army was considered of little account. The US would have had overwhelming air and naval superiority. That ultimate conventional victory was assured has never been contested by anyone in either camp.

The problem as the doves saw it, was the danger of escalation to nuclear war. After the crisis was over, Kennedy was asked what he thought the odds of escalation were? He replied that he believed they were between one-third and half. The other doves concurred. They were all afraid the small conventional operation in Cuba would escalate to a much bigger conventional war in Europe or somewhere else, ultimately crossing the threshold of nuclear war. As Kennedy stated afterwards; “we did not know if a conventional war would escalate to nuclear one or not, and we didn’t want to find out”! On the other hand, the hawks had a very different view of the danger. They all believed that the odds of escalation to a nuclear war were extremely small if not impossible. McCone stated the he thought the odds of escalation were only “one in a thousand”. On this point, the hawks, and especially the military brass, had never wavered. But for thirty years no one really knew the truth of it; and then suddenly, almost overnight, everyone found out what really would have happened

After the Cold War had ended, both the governments of the United States and the Russian Federation decided to have a meeting of all the major surviving participants, on both sides, in the Cuban Missile, and to exchange notes and official secret documents. Some of the participants had died, of course, but their deputy commanders came in their place along, with any surviving notes or memoirs they may have written. For the Americans (and also to a lesser extent the Russians), they knew well enough what had happened in their own government, but had little idea what had transpired on the "other side of the hill". They agreed to send delegations to Havana Cuba in January 1992. No one knew what to expect, but most thought it would certainly be interesting. They were not disappointed. Their were actually several meetings, but the first one was the shocker. For the first time the Americans found out that the Russians had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba! Lots of them. They Americans knew, of course, that the Soviets had strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba (i.e., strategic means they had the range to reach the US homeland), after all that’s what started the crisis in the first place. But they had absolutely no idea that the Soviets had tactical (or battlefield) nuclear missiles in Cuba, and furthermore, were actually going to use them, if the Americans invaded! For the Russian delegation, they were astounded to find out that the Americans did not know this. The Russians did not believe the Americans would willingly start a nuclear war, because they thought the Americans knew about them; but they were willing to use them if they had to. It turns out that the two sides were playing two very different games, with very different rules, but neither side knew this. General Pliyev, the commanding general of the Russian forces in Cuba, had at his disposal, 40,000 combat troops (not 10,000 as the CIA had thought). However, and much more importantly, he had 12 Luna tactical nuclear missiles on six mobile launchers. Each missile had a range of 30 miles, and carried a 2-kiloton nuclear warhead. The warhead was not as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but would easily have killed anyone within a half-mile radius, and severely, if not mortally, injured anyone at twice that distance. It would have destroyed any tank at a quarter mile, and severely damage one at double that distance. It was very fast and accurate. Two such bombs would have completely destroyed any beachhead if Americans forces had landed in an attempted invasion.5 The Russians also had a couple of dozen cruise missiles, with a range of ninety miles, and carrying a 12-kiloton warhead. These missiles were slower than the Lunas and not as accurate. The Russian’s also had six 12-kiloton atomic bombs that could be carried by jet fighter bombers. And that’s not all! The Russian navy also had four diesel-electric submarines in Cuban waters, each one carrying one 12-kiloton nuclear torpedo with authority to use them. One of the submarines even had its nuclear torpedo loaded into the torpedo tubes, and was prepared, that if war came, it would fire the nuclear torpedo for its first shot! Furthermore, at the height of the crisis, on October 27th, Khrushchev cabled General Pliyev, that he was to use all means at his disposal to defend the island, except the strategic missiles.6 Since Khrushchev prohibited only the strategic missiles, that meant Pliyev was to use the tactical missiles. Would General Pliyev have carried out his orders? By the time of the Havana meetings, Pliyev had died. However, two of his deputy commanders were there. They both testified that they had no doubt that he would have.

What would have been the result if the Americans had invaded as the hawks had advised? The American troops landing on the Cuban beaches would have been slaughtered by nuclear fire. Tens of thousands would have been killed in minutes. Furthermore one or more American naval vessels would have been vaporized by a nuclear torpedo. The American forces in the invasion force had no nuclear weapons with them; but there can be no doubt that the US would have swiftly retaliated. What would have been the final result? Perhaps the conflict could have been contained in Cuba and Cuban waters without escalation to a general nuclear war. Even that would have led to hundreds of thousands of Cuban, Russian and American causalities. Perhaps the respective Soviet and American governments could have stopped the slaughter before it escalated to far, almost certainly they would have tried. But perhaps not. Maybe the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, Japan and Western Civilization would have been destroyed. We will never know. One thing we do know is that there would have been no conventional war. The hawks were as wrong as wrong can be. President John F. Kennedy, either through good judgement or luck, chose the correct course of action, and by so doing, perhaps saved the world. To quote Robert MacNamara after the Havana conference: "We need not speculate any longer about what would have happened had a US attack been launched, as many in the US Government-military and civilian alike were recommending to the President on October 27 and 28. We can now predict the results with certainty: ... utter disaster”! 7

Part Four: Conclusions

If one accepts the thesis of this essay, that the concept of major conventional war is now both delusional and mortally dangerous, then what conclusions can we draw from this realization? There are actually two conclusions. The first is this: nuclear war is not very likely, but it is not impossible. The most likely avenue by which nuclear war may occur, is that this country clashes in a conventional war with another nuclear armed state, firmly believing it will remain conventional; but only to have the violence escalate to nuclear oblivion. If we are to avoid this fate, then we must abandon forever the dangerous delusion that major conventional war is possible in the nuclear age. We will continue to have little wars to be sure. However, the big ones are gone forever. Of the three western nuclear states ( United States, Great Britain, and France), only the French seemed to have completely grasped this reality.

And that reality is this: the arrival of nuclear weapons has created a grave threat to mankind, but they also offers a great hope as well. That hope is that nuclear weapons have forever eliminated the scourge of major conventional war. To paraphrase a great philosopher, nuclear weapons are the worst thing that has ever happened in human history, and they are also the best thing that has ever happened! Which option will it be?

The second conclusion flows from the first; if major conventional war is now accepted as an obsolete concept, then why does the United States continue to prepare for it? Not counting the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US spends well over a half trillion dollars a year on it’s military forces, almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Almost 96% of this tremendous expenditure is for conventional war, and only 4% goes for nuclear war. The huge sums spent on naval carrier battle groups, army divisions, and air force wings are for the war that will never come! That is a major war with another state or states (like Russia and/or China), which can muster comparable military power in an all-out struggle for victory. In the pre-nuclear age there was no choice. Nations had to expend large expenditures on their military forces if they wanted to survive. But those days are now gone forever, and these gigantic expenditures of wealth are nothing more than a waste of precious resources. Let no one imagine that we can escape completely the burden of having capable military forces, for there will always be small wars. However, the little wars do not require the same large preparation as do the world wars. The great land, air and sea battles of World War Two are now gone forever; and we need not prepare for them any longer. Nuclear weapons have given mankind the freedom to tackle the real problems which now threaten this planet. Problems like global warming, declining energy reserves, poverty, cancer, crime, and ignorance. If the United States cut by half its military budget, and that is probably a conservative estimate, it could save hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and without any loss to national security whatsoever. President Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation in 1960, and he was hardly a bleeding heart pacifist, warned the American people to beware both the greed and hawkish influence of the military-industrial complex. His warning was never heeded; perhaps it is time it should be.


1. James F. Dunnigan, HOW TO MAKE WAR, Harper-Collins Publishing, NY. Chapter #20: "Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Weapons".
2. THE WORLD ALMANAC, Editor-in-chief Alan Joyce, World Almanac Education Group, Pleasantville, NY, 2009. pp 174.
3. John Mueller, RETREAT FROM DOOMSDAY, New York, Basic Books, 1989.
4. Williamson Murray, "There Goes Brussels," pp 455--461 from THE COLD WAR, edited by Robert Cowley, Random House, NY, 2005.
5. Aleksander Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, ONE HELL OF A GAMBLE: KRUSHCHEV, CASTRO, AND KENNEDY - 1958-1964. W. W. Norton & Co., NY, 1997, pp 242--243.
6. Ibid.,pp 272.
7. Robert S. MacNamara, the foreward to THE CUBAN MISSLE CRISIS, 1962, edited by Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh. The New Press, NY, 1997, pp xi, xii, xiii.

"The Fallacy of Major Conventional War in the Nuclear Age" is ©2009 by George Simmons Roth, all rights reserved. Original banner graphic by Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Crazed and Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2009 by Nolan B. Canova.

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Other articles by George Simmons Roth:
From 2006: A Solution To Prevent Accidental Nuclear War
From 2011: The Dangerous Delusion of Nuclear Missile Defense

Books by George Simmons Roth:
From 2007: Battle in Outer Space

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