The Prospects For Limiting Nuclear War And The Strategy Of “Escalate To De-escalate” – A Research Note

The most recent version of the United States  Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), written in 2018 during the Trump administration, claims that Russian strategy “mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.” This strategy is encapsulated in the phrase “escalate to de-escalate” (E2DE), which may be defined as a strategy in which a state attempts to escalate a conflict with the express purpose of deterring further military action by the adversary and/or terminating the conflict on terms favorable to itself. 

At first glance, the E2DE strategy might appear to be paradoxical and counter-intuitive. How might a country go about escalating a conflict and de-escalating it at the same time? Nevertheless, many decision makers in the United States, including national security officials, assume E2DE  to be part of the current Russian nuclear weapons strategy. The logic of this strategy is as follows: If one side of a conflict employs a sudden or sharp escalation, i.e. the crossing of an important threshold or a dramatic movement beyond previous limitations, the other side may capitulate. Capitulation would occur, the logic continues, because the receiving state understands (after the dramatic escalatory move) that its adversary is more committed, resolved, and willing to escalate to higher levels of violence than the receiving state.      

A bald white man in a black jacket and khaki pants stands in the middle of a black and white checkered floor. He is speaking to a room of white men and women, who are all dressed in business clothing. In the background is a row of flags of the world.
U.S. Naval War College (NWC) staff members listen to a brief during a wargame reenactment of the Battle of Jutland at NWC in Newport, Rhode Island. The historical World War I naval battle was fought May 31, 1916, between the British Royal navy’s Grand Fleet, under British Adm. Sir John Jellicoe, and Imperial German navy’s High Seas Fleet, under German Vice Adm. Reinhard Scheer. The battle was later studied in great depth at NWC by Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and William F. Halsey, and helped shape U.S. Navy warships, tactics and doctrine in the years leading up to World War II. During the wargame reenactment, Rear Adm. P. Gardner Howe III, NWC president, commanded the German High Seas Fleet and retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, director, Naval History and Heritage Command, commanded the British Grand Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released)

         The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review argues that the Russian assessment is mistaken, and yet the same E2DE strategy was a bedrock of U.S. and NATO policy throughout the Cold War. J. Michael Legge, a former analyst for the RAND corporation, explains the development and implementation of NATO Cold War nuclear strategy thoroughly in his 1983 piece. He writes: “The strategy formally recognized that if deterrence failed… NATO might have to resort to using TNW [Theater Nuclear Weapons] in a further attempt to end the conflict by convincing the Soviet Leadership that they had miscalculated.” If the U.S. and NATO assumed that E2DE might work then, why is faith in this strategy now a dangerously mistaken belief? Indeed, it is possible to argue that the strategy did work, as a deterrent strategy at least, since the U.S. and NATO never had to defend themselves from a Russian invasion of eastern Europe.

Other questions remain regarding the potential effectiveness of an escalate to de-escalate strategy in terms of deterrence as well as, more importantly in my view, in terms of what happens when the strategy is employed not as a deterrent threat but an escalatory attack. First, how prevalent is belief in the strategy’s efficacy among decision makers in the U.S.? Secondly, why (or under what conditions) do experts believe such a strategy might work? Finally, does evidence exist to support belief in the efficacy of E2DE strategy? My dissertation research seeks to answer these questions through a multi-method approach utilizing expert interviews, a survey experiment and a historical review of wargames and military exercises specifically related to the concept of limited nuclear war.

I argue that a majority of the U.S. strategic community believes that “limiting” nuclear war is difficult and unlikely but nevertheless believes the U.S. should develop specific strategies and capabilities for limited nuclear war, rather than simply relying on other deterrence strategies, such as assured retaliation or asymmetric escalation. I also suggest that a significant portion of the U.S. strategic community believes that nuclear adversaries embrace a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, I hypothesize that a significant portion of experts believe that the U.S. needs to have a similar strategy in response, both to deter adversaries as well as to respond in kind. Adopting this strategy is potentially catastrophic. If both parties to a nuclear conflict believe that escalation is a path to coercive success and war termination, a cyclical reciprocation of destructive proportions is a likely result.  

In order to interrogate this intuition, my first research question asks: What do U.S. leaders, experts and members of the United States strategic community, including decision makers in the nuclear command and control enterprise, think about the feasibility of conducting limited nuclear war? In other words, what are their beliefs about the ability to control and limit escalation in a nuclear war? I also ask how these experts think about the strategy of E2DE among nuclear powers. I plan to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews among members of the U.S. strategic community, which includes a variety of high-ranking military officers, civilian Department of Defense officials, think tank analysts, and other members of U.S. nuclear command and control organizations. Thankfully, due to my ongoing military service as an officer in the U.S. Navy, I have unique access to many of these individuals and my previous military experiences and contacts will be of great help in this research. 

A grey, cylindrical rocket launches into the air with a jet of fire behind it and two pillars of smoke. The rocket is at an angle and appears to be moving upwards away from the ocean.
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge

With a deeper understanding of the beliefs of this strategic community, the next step will be to compare those beliefs to empirical evidence. Are these leaders and potential decision makers correct in their assessment of the viability of such a strategy? 

I will investigate two different but complementary sets of data. First, I will conduct a survey experiment utilizing a hypothetical future scenario between the U.S. and a smaller nuclear power. In this experiment, respondents will represent the U.S. and will be asked about their preferred response when placed in a situation where the adversary attempts to achieve war termination through escalation, i.e. an attempt at E2DE. This will help me answer the question of whether or not the employment of nuclear weapons (detonation of a nuclear weapon to achieve some physical and psychological effect on the adversary) in a conflict makes escalation more or less likely than an equivalent conventional (non-nuclear) attack.

The next component of my study will address the question: What historical evidence exists from past wargames and military training exercises to support or refute a belief that a strategy of E2DE might work among nuclear powers? To investigate this question, I will conduct a historical review of wargames and military exercises conducted by the U.S. and NATO, and other countries where available, in the nuclear era (post-1945) to assess the relationship between conflict escalation and war termination, or the strategy of E2DE among nuclear states. A wargame, as defined by wargaming expert Peter Perla is “a warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operation of actual forces, and in which the flow of events is shaped by decisions made by a human player or players.”

My goal in this portion of my research is to examine available records of wargames and exercises, like Operations Sagebrush, Carte Blanche, and Able Archer, akin to what Reid Pauly, professor of nuclear security and political science at Brown University, did with U.S. wargames in “Would U.S. Leaders push the button?” In his piece, Pauly systematically reviewed past wargames with elite level participants as a research method to assess when and why leaders might choose to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. In my project, the universe of cases would include games and exercises in which deliberate escalations were perpetrated by at least one side, whether  use of nuclear weapons or other forms of escalatory attacks. I will be looking at instances where one side attempts to escalate to de-escalate, whether or not through nuclear attacks, and what adversary response and escalation dynamics occurred in the wake of this decision. 

A missile flies through the air. The missile is grey and cylindrical with two airplane wings coming out of each side. The side of the missile says "U.S. Air Force." The tail of the missile has a white star inside of a blue circle. The tip of the missile is white.
Boeing’s AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile © Reuters

As an example, in 1967 two very high-level politico-military wargame exercises known as BETA I and II – 67 were conducted by researchers and senior Department of Defense officials at the Pentagon. During these games, both sides, representing the U.S. and the Soviet teams, experimented with attempts at E2DE with both conventional and nuclear weapons. The attempts were only successful once out of the four tries made by both sides. The one successful attempt was accomplished with conventional weapons, with the nuclear attempts resulting in cyclical reciprocation ending in massive nuclear exchange. Numerous other wargaming records are available for similar analysis and may be able to tell us important things about the dangers or merits of escalating to de-escalate.

One advantage to this method is that in games where the debates and arguments around decision making have been recorded it is possible to gather information about how decision makers were thinking and what their reasoning was. As Pauly recently explained for the Watson Institute, crisis simulations are useful as research tools in order to “see problems in different ways, anticipate unintended consequences, generate unanticipated outcomes, pose new questions to ask, and reveal unknown assumptions.”
         My research agenda asks important questions, the answers to which are likely to inform decision makers’ strategies for deterrence as well as their likelihood of engaging in conflicts that risk nuclear escalation. As the United States, Russia, Pakistan and other states increasingly explore the idea of lower-yield, shorter range, high accuracy weapons for “tactical” or “limited” use, and update their existing nuclear arsenals (in some cases bringing back weapons systems previously retired), understanding escalation dynamics in a nuclear war is of the utmost urgency. My project aims to help the U.S. strategic community and potential policy and decision makers to be cognizant of their own beliefs, to be aware of available evidence to support or challenge those beliefs and to acknowledge the implications if beliefs and evidence are misaligned. At a minimum, these misalignments may result in inefficient use of limited resources. Of more concern might be deterrence strategies and policies that are ineffective and may reduce stability between nuclear powers. Most importantly, if leaders are wrong about the ability to employ nuclear weapons as a de-escalatory measure the potential consequences could be a devastating nuclear war, something which is clearly in no one’s best interest.

One thought on “The Prospects For Limiting Nuclear War And The Strategy Of “Escalate To De-escalate” – A Research Note

  1. Everything checks out, and this is a truly intelligent analysis of the situation we’re living in. Keep up the great work, looking forward to see more of your work in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

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