Why does North Korea flaunt its nuclear status, while Israel hides its identity as a nuclear power? Has the United States ever been ready to fire at a moment’s notice? These are interesting questions and are important to understand in order to more accurately measure the relative power of different countries. There are three regional nuclear weapons strategies which are commonly utilized and each conveys a great deal of intelligence about a nation’s perceived capability in military terms. This article will help explain all three of these postures and when they would likely be used. After reading this, you may be able to accurately predict whether a country might need nuclear weapon status and what strategy the nation should pursue with their weapons.
The three major nuclear postures will be discussed in order of least to most nuclear aggressiveness:
- Assured Retaliation
- Asymmetric Escalation
This relatively peaceful posture often devoted to “No First Use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons involves the attempt to ensure that nuclear strikes are punished eventually by return nuclear strikes against the attacker. For example, the United States would only use nuclear weapons first in certain situations (see my article on US Nuclear Weapons). When would the US actually use nuclear weapons? One of the most likely scenarios today involving potential nuclear weapons use by the United States is following a nuclear attack against a major American city or military installation. The US has many nuclear weapons and several potential methods of delivery. Regardless of how hard the US is hit with nuclear strikes, the United States is likely to retaliate with nuclear strikes of its own. Nations such as the US typically hide nuclear weapons to prevent them from being targeted by the enemy and destroyed preemptively. These nations are generally thought to hold the Assured Retaliation posture. A typical scenario in which a nation might maintain this posture is if the nation feels relatively protected from foreign invasion using conventional forces. Conventional attacks are thought to be standard attacks, including tanks, infantry, etc. Nations that feel protected from conventional attack will often have military superiority over or at least parity with their closest neighbors and likeliest enemies. As nuclear weapon use is deemed to be negative for a country’s international standing, powerful nations are better served using their superior conventional forces in order to achieve military goals. Consequently, this is the preferred nuclear status of most nuclear powers today. Those holding variations of this status include Britain, China, France, India, Russia, and the United States.
Ever wonder why some nations refuse to disclose whether or not they have nuclear weapons? These countries will often have the catalytic posture because they see a benefit to withholding their status as nuclear powers. Holding this posture involves covertly persuading (blackmailing?) a richer nation into acting to defuse a crisis the Catalytic nation has become embroiled in. In the 1980s, after Pakistan developed its bomb, the nation decided to maintain a Catalytic posture in order to persuade the United States to intervene in military conflicts with India. Pakistan felt conventionally inferior to India, but the Pakistanis knew that the US was heavily involved in countering the Soviet invasion of next-door Afghanistan. Pakistan was assisting the US with the Afghan situation, so the US had a direct interest in preventing a major, especially nuclear conflict in Pakistan. Consequently, Pakistan would make preparations to use nuclear weapons that they knew only the Americans would see via satellite intelligence. Lacking the technology, Pakistan’s opponent India, would be unlikely to notice, however. Once this intel was seen by the Americans, they would move quickly to deescalate a potential nuclear war in the area in order to protect their foreign policy interests in Afghanistan. Catalytic postures then generally require a hidden nuclear status and deliberate action to notify a wealthier patron which has an interest in preventing nuclear war. Israel is today thought to be the only Catalytic posture holder.
By far the most aggressive posture, this stance requires that an opponent not only be aware of its nuclear status, but that the opponent recognize that the potential first use of nuclear weapons is not only possible, but likely. Typically, a nation using this strategy will launch nuclear weapons immediately upon any attack by an adversary. The reason for taking such a posture is the feeling of conventional inferiority which could cause the loss of significant or vital national interests through military conflict. Pakistan today is threatened by the military capability of India and has taken this posture accordingly. Similarly, NATO forces adopted this posture during portions of the Cold War to counter a Soviet presence in Europe that was conventionally and numerically far superior to any individual European nation. Unlike the other postures, Asymmetric Escalation renders centralized control (aka: by the civilian national leadership such as the President or Prime Minister, etc.) nearly impossible, as military commanders must have direct control over use of nuclear weapons in order to use this posture effectively. For example, if a nation using this posture is attacked, military commanders on site have the option of immediately countering invading forces with nuclear weapons. Clearly, this is the most aggressive of the three postures. Asymmetric Escalation is also the most likely to cause inadvertent release of nuclear weapons, because of the ability for any commander to fire upon seeing a threat. If you’ve ever seen the movie Crimson Tide (with leading actors Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington) the scenario depicted with a commander and his subordinate arguing over whether or not to fire is, of the three postures listed, most likely to happen under an Asymmetric Escalation posture. Nations holding variations on this posture currently include Pakistan and North Korea.
Using this knowledge, you may be interested in imagining what posture other nations might select if they decided to go nuclear. What posture would Canada choose? How about Venezuela or Iran?
Fravel, M. T., & Medeiros, E. S. (2010). China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure. International Security
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Gerson, M. S. (2010 (Fall)). No First Use: The Next Step for US Nuclear Policy. International Security , 007-047.
Narang, V. (2009-2010). Posturing for Peace? Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability. International Security
, 34 (03), 79-118.