Can Two Nuclear Powers Fight a Conventional War?

Crew chiefs from the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and 131st Bomb Wing perform a phase inspection on a U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit bomber aircraft at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Crew chiefs from the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and 131st Bomb Wing perform a phase inspection on a U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit bomber aircraft at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Senior Airman Nick Wilson/Air Force

As the U.S. military reviews the makeup of its nuclear arsenal, among the questions being asked is: Can two nuclear powers fight a conventional war without going nuclear?

Just last week, this scenario was among the mock battles when U.S. Strategic Command ran its annual Global Thunder nuclear wargame, Army Brig. Gen. Greg Bowen, the command’s deputy director of global operations, said Thursday at the Defense One Summit.

“It gets into a very difficult calculus,” Bowen said. “It’s clearly a place that we don’t want to go.”

That’s because when one country begins to lose a conventional battle, there is a temptation to use those nuclear weapons.

“If you’re talking about India and Pakistan, I think every scenario people play is that it goes nuclear,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, who joined Bowen for an onstage discussion. “You have a nuclear war in South Asia, that’s a global event. That will affect us and not just economically.”

During a six-day trip to four Air Force nuclear bases last month, Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s chief of staff, asked airmen to think about new ways that nuclear weapons could be used for deterrence, or even combat.

“I’ve challenged…Air Force Global Strike Command to help lead the dialogue, help with this discussion about ‘What does conventional conflict look like with a nuclear element?’ and ‘Do we respond as a global force if that were to occur?’ and ‘What are the options?’” Goldfein said. “How do we think about it — how do we think about deterrence in that environment?”

Cirincione warned that nuclear weapons could be used as a form of de-escalation.

“The Russians have this new theory  — and we’re starting to copy it — that in a conventional war that they start to lose, they will escalate to de-escalate,” Cirincione said. “They will use a nuclear weapon first in order to show us how serious it is, figuring that we will then de-escalate. I think the odds of that happening are quite small.

“The justification for some of the new nuclear weapons people want — like the nuclear cruise missile — are based on that same theory that we have to be able to use nuclear weapons first to de-escalate,” he said. “It’s hard to see.”

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