Nuclear weapons in non-MAD scenarios

In this thread about Iran, it is suggested that Iran intends to build and detonate a nuclear bomb as an act of war. There exist some opposing pairs of nations which would likely always result in MAD scenarios, such as Pakistan and India, or any two of Russia, China and the United States. But is there any possible combination of nuclear armed aggressor states and legitimate or likely military targets that would not result in a nuclear retaliation? If North Korea manages to successfully hit Japan with a nuclear missile, for example, what government would ever strike back in kind? Is there even a target in North Korea that’s worth the trouble of hitting with a nuke? And which nuclear armed nation would be least likely to use a retaliatory nuclear weapon if it were hit?

I think if Japan were hit with a nuke, odds are good that the US would drop a few big ones on North Korea. Probably targeting suspected nuclear facilities and missile silos.

The US withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, so obiviously the idea of the US using nuclear weapons against the North (even though there were not concerns about a North Korean nuclear program at that point) was taken seriously in the past.

I can’t think of a nuclear power that wouldn’t retaliate against a nuclear strike. That’s pretty much the whole goddamn point of having nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, Japan and the NATO states fell under the American nuclear umbrella - we made it very clear that if the Soviets nuked, say, Tokyo, then Moscow would become one of the world’s larger parking lots. Of course, the ensuing nuclear apocalypse would swiftly eliminate the need for parking lots altogether. If North Korea hit Japan, a nuclear retaliation from us would certainly be on the table.

That being said, the calculus is a little different when you’re dealing with a state that has thousands of nukes, compared to a state that just has one or two. MAD wasn’t just sheer bloody-mindedness - the idea was that, if the Soviets were launching, it made sense to respond with an instant full-out retaliation because we might catch some nukes on the ground before they’d been launched. We’d also degrade the Soviet capacity to wage conventional war and follow-up on a nuclear attack.

With North Korea, it’s different. Once the North Koreans set off a nuke or two, they’ve exhausted their nuclear arsenal - there’s no need for an immediate, overwhelmingly devestating response to prevent additional strikes. There is a danger that a North Korea that’s gone sufficiently nuts to fire off nukes might also unleash a conventional (and devestating) conventional artillery strike on Seoul. North Korea has many artillery pieces in position to fire on that city at a moment’s notice, and so our first priority after a North Korean nuclear strike (on Japan or elsewhere) would be to keep them from following up with that artillery strike. I don’t know enough about those weapons emplacements to know whether or not nukes would be the appropriate tool to take them out quickly - but given the proximity to Seoul, and the danger of fallout, we’d certainly prefer to take out NK artillery positions with conventional weapons if at all possible.

Assuming that conventional weapons could take NK artillery targeted at Seoul out of the picture, there’s really no need for a nuclear strike on North Korea in retaliation for an NK nuclear attack. With the immediate threat expended (nukes) or destroyed (artillery), the US and South Koreans would have the time to wear down the NK military with conventional weapons. And we would want to take down the NK regime - as would the PRC, in all likelihood.

There is a reason to use nukes other than pure military necessity - deterrence. An argument could be made that, even absent strict need, it would make sense for us to use a nuke on NK in order to demonstrate that we take nuclear attacks on our allies Very Seriously Indeed. However, the civilian deaths would almost certainly be appalling - and so long as conventional forces could reasonably safely bring down the current regime, I doubt we’d nuke NK purely to make the point.

Well, I would hope that the point is deterrence rather than revenge. Nuclear weapons are not the only tool in our toolbox, and they cause a heck of a lot of collateral damage with only marginal tactical advantages. I do not doubt that North Korea would be attacked if they were an aggressor in the way I described, but there is no real cause to drop a nuclear weapon on them. It does not make victory more assured, and it makes the cleanup a heck of a lot worse for everyone. There’s also the problem of escalation to consider. Would China tolerate an American nuclear attack on a neighboring country, even one they’re themselves not too fond of? I imagine, in the North Korean-Japanese situation I described, we could probably get away with some sort of allied land invasion and occupation of North Korea, for lack of a better solution, and the Chinese would protest only ineffectually. But really, a nuclear strike so close to China’s border, with fallout to consider? We must be smarter than to put ourselves into that situation.

any situation where you have deliberate nuclear blackmail against a modern nation is likely not to involve immediate devastating retaliation. E.g. if North Korea drops nuclear bomb on some valuable military target in Japan and promises that the next one will hit one of the big cities, Japan will not be in a rush to retaliate or to invade by force. They might quickly manufacture a lot of their own and prepare constitutional changes to allow their use, but there probably wouldn’t be serious kneejerk reaction. And even if there will be, it would be knee-jerk on the same level of destruction, e.g. some militarily significant target in DPRK destroyed, not big cities flattened.

This is what I dislike about the dope sometimes. Too much intellectualising. Any country which has nukes and has been hit by one, will hit back, there is not government in the world which can afford to let it go.

The only use of nukes in a non-MAD senario is if it is used by a nuclear country against a non nuclear nation. Say Israel against Syria or Pakistan against Iran.


The OP asked if doper’s felt that MAD would work in a situation like NK v. Japan, which fits the definition given in your second paragraph.

I think the U.S. would use a nuke on the launching (or production) sites of a North Korea-gone-wild scenario (assuming such facility wasn’t in Pyongyang), after clearing it with China first. By NK-gone-wild, I mean one where the government of NK did not appear to be in danger of internal overthrow, and was making noises of additional launches as more warheads become available, no matter what.

To a large extent you’re correct, and I’ve admitted that most pairs of nuclear armed countries would result in that outcome. But I’m really interested in situations in which any country attacks any other plausible country, even ones which aren’t themselves armed with nuclear weapons. I started off the discussion by suggesting Japan as a victim of the strike, primarily because their people still oppose nuclear armament. I think it’s entirely possible that no one would use a nuke in response.

What if British and Argentinian tensions flare up for some silly reason and the UK were to nuke a military target in Argentina? Where would the nuclear response come from? I don’t think any South American nation has them. Surely there must be other plausible situations.

I don’t know if any nuclear power today regards nukes as simply a cheaper easier way of taking out a target that would otherwise require massive aerial or artillary bombardment. In other words, I can’t see nukes being used as a convenience. The defacto position the world seems to have adopted is that first use of nuclear weapons is punishable by national extinction.

I don’t think China would tolerate North Korea dropping a nuke. Without China, the current North Korean goverment wouldn’t be there. This is not to say it’d be a democracy, but China allows North Korea to get away with what it does, because it’s a convenient thorn in the side of the West.

There is a HUGE difference, between being a thorn in one’s side and being a dagger in the heart.

If North Korea nuked Japan, then China would be most likely to swoop in and end the regime or at least as the current regime now exists. China would have no interest in annexing North Korea but it’d make a nice puppet state for China

Yeah, but why? What’s the possible point of “wearing down” the NK military with conventional weapons, likely incurring thousands of US and SK casualties, when we could just smoke Pyongyang and get the job done with 0 US and SK casualties?

Remember, this isn’t play-nice time- it would be deadly serious war, and in that situation, you use overwhelming force to compel the enemy to your will, whether that will is to stop fighting, or something else. Going nuclear by the North Koreans would be the ultimate “gloves off” statement, and it would be idiotic politically and militarily not to use our nukes in response.

That’s not to say we should necessarily use 9 megaton strategic weapons, but a half-dozen tactical nukes could make really short work of the North Koreans.

What about exchanges between, say, Pakistan and India? Could we see the rest of the world sitting back and saying “Sorry, not our problem” without anyone escalating it? That’s what I wonder about.

Well I think the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction as it applied during the cold war between the US and the Soviets is certainly outdated. I do not envision a scenario where the current situation between the US and Russia would lead down that path. Or with China.

Let’s talk about the other possibilities.

If Iran were to use nuclear weapons against, say Israel, then Israel will definitely retaliate with their nuclear weapons, probably without consulting with the US before, and probably even if the US says no. And it’s going to be a short, one sided war. It won’t fall into mutual destruction. Even if a dozen or so nukes are used, both countries would survive. But what would be reaction of Russia, China and the US? That is the wild card. Russia may come in to support Iran but I doubt they will launch anything.

North Korea lobs a few nukes somewhere. Perhaps the US sends in a limited nuclear strike at military targets. This is problematic with China so near. More likely that we would move on NK without nukes. No need to destroy a country whose government has been doing that for years. Now, NK has a large standing army, and a lot of artillery, but little air power and once their launch capabilites are destroyed there is no need to escalate.

India and Pakistan go at it. India almost certainly comes out on top. Pakistan is unable to even control the entire area within it’s borders and the government does not appear to be highly functional.

With all scenarios the reaction and communication between the major powers who still hold the big bad weapons is the big IF. Things can go bad swiftly, one party may see an opening to their advantage and decide to use it. Things can happen fast.

The global financial and trade markets are much more inter-dependant than they were during the Cold War. I do not expect that there will ever be a high possibility for Global Thermonuclear War again.

But an eventual limited exchange started by some player other than the remaining major powers is almost a given. In my opinion.

The threat of revenge is where deterance comes from.

[QUOTE=ghardester;11939486India and Pakistan go at it. India almost certainly comes out on top. Pakistan is unable to even control the entire area within it’s borders and the government does not appear to be highly functional.

Niether canIndia. ANd Pakistan has a more substantial
arsenal than India.

I doubt Israel could survive 2 nukes, let alone a dozen. Have you seen how small the country is? Particularly if you remember that roughly half the population (and most of the economy) is concentrated in the small coastal strip surrounding Tel Aviv.

Iran has ten times Israel’s population spread out across 80 times its land mass. Any nuclear exchange would by necessity be very one-sided indeed.

Israel is widely believed to have a second-strike capability both from German-made Dolphin submarines and ballistic missiles buried deep underground. It is also believed to have hundreds of nuclear devices. Even if Iran were to successfully nuke Israel, it would almost certainly be able to retaliate and destroy large parts of Iran. Which is of course why it is extremely unlikely that Iran would ever launch a first nuclear strike on Israel.

First of all, what you’re describing is a MAD scenario.

Second of all, I agree that it would not be logical for Iran to attack Israel. Your assumption here - which has no precedent in history - is that people in charge of countries are consistently logical. My faith in human stupidity has much more basis than your faith in human rationality.

Actually I think the history of the last 60 years shows that even the most crazy and fanatical regimes are quite cautious when it comes to nuclear war. Apparently the prospect of nuclear annhillation concentrates the mind wonderfully. And when it comes to national security the Iranian leadership have been quite canny and pragmatic particularly in recent years. There isn’t the slightest indication that they would commit national suicide by launching a first strike on Israel.

If you want to worry about a batshit crazy regime with nuclear weapons I would be a lot more worried about North Korea. I sometimes wonder what would happen if Kim or his successors started blackmailing the world like a James Bond villain. Especially if they managed to build nuclear-armed submarines.

‘Round here, we calls it, "thinkin’", Forest.

Assured Destruction, as a deterrence method, is at best an unreliable game strategy even with two players that enjoy relative parity in their arsenals. In the case of a dramatic asymmetry of response capability or three or more players, the game is demonstratively unstable, as the clear “winning” strategy for the strongest player is to initiate an overwhelming attack on the other player(s) to prevent losing the numerical advantage and forestall further attacks. This is, of course, absent of any political or emotional influences, and is purely based upon comparative damage.

Reflexively responding to a single missile attack by a nation with nuclear force will not only result in the needless deaths of thousands or possibly millions of people who are innocent of any involvement in the attack, it also invites subterfuge and error, similar to Germany’s pretense of an attack by Poland which started WWII, or caused the United States to invade Iraq in 2003 looking for fictitious weapons of mass destruction. It is the responsibility of political and military leadership to use strategic assets in a manner which best protects the United States in its interests, and the same should be true for other nuclear-armed nations as well. A more effective strategy is to eliminate the ability of said aggressor to wage war or deploy mass weapons. This may require a nuclear strike at hardened sites or industrial facilities, or may require a more surgical attack to remove a dangerous regime.

As the late Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said, “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to destruction of nations…War is so complex. It’s beyond the human mind’s ability to obtain all the relative information and ensure that all decisions are correct. And, therefore, any of us who’ve had any senior command authority know we make mistakes. With conventional weapons we kill hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of human beings. We haven’t yet destroyed nations with conventional weapons. There will be no learning curve with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and nations will be destroyed.” Blindly responding to an attack with a nuclear response without a clear goal that improves the immediate and long-term security of the United States would be a foolish and ill-advised move.

In the case of the specific scenarios queried by the o.p., I find it unlikely that Iran–which has sustained itself mostly on bluster since the disastrous Iran-Iraq war–would initiate a nuclear attack against Israel, as the latter would respond with overarching force against Iran and possibly a disabling strike at Pakistan. As Israel has both numerical and technological superiority over these nations, the conflict would be largely one-sided, as would any effort by other nations to pursue conventional incursions into Israel.

It is hard to predict what North Korea might do, but any nuclear attack it engaged against Japan would be met with a severe response by not only the United States and its allies but likely by China as well. Such a response may be a limited nuclear strike at industrial facilities and known military complexes with the goal of displacing the current regime. Although it is difficult to predict what Kim Jong-Il will do, but I find it hard to believe that his senior military leadership is so detached from the response by the rest of the world that they would be complicit in such an attack. It seems clear from previous provocations and world response that the current regime has little interest in an actual attack, and that the posturing and bluster is simply intended to goad other nations into providing badly needed aid.