Nuclear Ambiguity

16 February 2011


The term “nuclear ambiguity” already has at least two familiar meanings:

neither confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons
the possibility that launching an attack with a conventional weapon (especially if this involves the launch of an ICBM) can be mistaken for a nuclear attack

Several other forms of nuclear ambiguity readily come to mind:

failure to adopt as official doctrine a “no first use” policy (NFU), as practiced by NATO in the European theater during the Cold War
failure to sign, ratify, or participate in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NNPT)
failure to sign, ratify, or participate in the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT)

Much of diplomacy consists of an artful use ambiguity, and the diplomacy surrounding nuclear arsenals is rife with ambiguity. One might suppose that the dreadful power of nuclear weapons makes everything about them obvious and unavoidable, but far more often than being unavoidable nuclear weapons are the elephant in the room that diplomats and others take pains to pretend they do not see. One way not to “see” nuclear weapons is to allow their production and doctrine to languish in ambiguity. The secrecy surrounding nuclear technology only encourages this ambiguity.

Because everything that nation-states do vis-à-vis nuclear weapons is deeply ambiguous, and because every detail in this ambiguous situation is examined with minute and sedulous care, any ambiguity in regard to the design, construction, weaponization, targeting, or stockpiling (inter alia) of nuclear devices becomes magnified, at times far out of proportion. (In other words, nuclear weapons diplomacy is a lot like Kremlinology during the Cold War: more akin to reading tea leaves than to any kind of scholarly or scientific undertaking.) The disproportionate attention paid to nuclear weapons’ production and strategic doctrine is a function of the disproportionate power of nuclear weapons as compared to that of other weapons systems, and this disproportion has led to yet another nuclear ambiguity that I would like to discuss today.

A few days ago in Holding the High Ground I argued that the development of advanced, precision conventional weapons systems was at least in part an unintended consequence of conflict under the nuclear umbrella of the Cold War:

One of the unintended consequences of the cultural construction of nuclear weapons as “unthinkable” and the development of Cold War conflicts under the nuclear umbrella was a spur to the development of conventional capabilities beyond anything previously imagined. Now that the past twenty years of rapid developments in telecommunications and computers have given us technological assets of which no one had previously dreamed, conventional military capabilities refined in the proxy wars of the Cold War are being updated, upgraded, and augmented by the high technology capabilities that will make it possible to strike any target, no matter how small, at any time, at any place, in less time than it takes to eat your lunch.

I followed this claim with another argument in the same post regarding nuclear and conventional weapons systems:

We are, at present, in a great age of the precisification of weapons systems. I recently wrote about this in Precisification of Small Arms Fire, but this applies far beyond small arms fire. Many of the same considerations of the precisification of small arms fire apply to China’s development of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, for example. Traditional weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical, and biological — are slowly, gradually, incrementally becoming obsolete and irrelevant as and the technology and industrial tooling become available to create precision conventional weapons systems.

These two observations taken together suggest that the cultural construction of the use of nuclear weapons as “unthinkable” created the conditions in which all-too-thinkable weapons systems would be developed that would, in the fullness of time, replace the unthinkable with the thinkable.

WMD will probably never be irrelevant, but as the power and precision of conventional weapons increase, that which was to be accomplished by brute force and mass killing through the use of WMD will become possible with precise force and targeting killing. I’ve never cared much for Alvin Toffler’s thought or terminology, but it would be fair to call this the demassification of warfare. We could also call this the conventionalization of deterrence. And it is happening right now.

Simultaneously with the precisification of weapons systems made possible by recent technological developments, other high technology developments are making possible two trends that overlap in a strategically crucial way:

the possibility of miniaturized nuclear weapons of very small yield, and
the possibility of conventional weapons of very high yield

Regarding miniaturized, low-yield nuclear weapons, I cannot do better than to refer the reader to the utterly fascinating paper by Andre Gsponer, Fourth Generation Nuclear Weapons: Military effectiveness and collateral effects. Gsponer reviews the technological developments in nuclear weapons theory and design and focuses on discussing realistically buildable nuclear weapons system in the near future. The paper is too rich in content to summarize here. Suffice it to say that nuclear technology still has many imaginative (and as yet untapped) possibilities for warfighting.

Regarding conventional weapons of very high yield, I have already mentioned the Russian built Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP, also called the “Father of All Bombs” — Авиационная вакуумная бомба повышенной мощности, АВБПМ, in Russian) in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept. There has been some skepticism surrounding the Russian ATBIP, but this is mere quibbling. If the technology is not yet as powerful as it has been claimed to be, this will happen soon. Perhaps it will be some other nation-state that produces it, but certainly the temptation of a conventional bomb with a quasi-nuclear yield is being carefully studied in all the advanced industrialized nation-states.

Smaller, miniaturized nuclear weapons and larger, more powerful conventional weapons means that nuclear weapons and conventional arsenals now overlap in power. There are nuclear devices smaller than the largest conventional bombs, and there are conventional bombs larger than the smallest nuclear bombs. The further this overlap advances with the passage of time and the improvement of technology, the less distinction there will be between nuclear and conventional weapons systems: nuclear and conventional deterrence will become, for all practical purposes, strategically indistinguishable.

From a common sense point of view, I find it troubling if not mystifying that so few strategists seem in the least interested to discuss the overlap of conventional and nuclear weapons that exists today, right now. This overlap will only increase as the technology of nuclear miniaturization increases and the technology of high yield conventional weapons increases. So far we have only seen the first stages of this overlap. As the overlap of conventional and nuclear weapons increases, and overlap of conventional and nuclear capabilities will increase, and that which was formerly only possible with WMD becomes possible with conventional weapons systems. Then we must ask ourselves if the unthinkable remains unthinkable if it is accomplished with conventional rather than nuclear weapons.

Much of the international system following the Second World War has been constructed upon the basis of superpower nuclear umbrellas and MAD among the nation-states of the nuclear club. Much of this system collapsed with the end of the Cold War, but some of it remains, and what remains of this system must collapse — sooner or later, quickly or slowly — once the meaning of conventional and nuclear overlap fully dawns.

A further nuclear ambiguity will emerge when technology advances to the point that exotic nuclear devices and antimatter devices become practicable for weaponization. Treaties will have to be updated, diplomats will argue over whether these devices are or are not nuclear weapons, or whether they are or are not WMD, and those smaller and less advanced nation-states that were denied entry to the nuclear club will enthusiastically pursue these productions of high technology, which latter will be even more widely dispersed than it is today, and therefore available to many more nation-states than ever had the industrial plant and infrastructure to produce fissionable materials.

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2 Responses to “Nuclear Ambiguity”

  1. A very thoughtful post. If one assumes that a major reason there has been no “great power” war of significance (not including wars between tertiary powers, civil wars or proxy wars) since WWII has largely been due to the advent of the nuclear age, an overlapping of nuclear and conventional military capabilities raises questions about the future of the post WWII order.

    I wonder if the so-called “post-American” world will become a neo-Middle Ages with proliferating weapons technology dramatically enhancing the power of modern day “Huns”, “Vikings”, or other quasi “barbarian” groups. The overlapping of Nuclear and conventional weapons capabilities along with a general lack of global order would be a very worrying prospect.

    Perhaps, returning to Fukuyama and Nietzsche- we are re-entering history and will soon have the type of struggles that will stall the advent of the “Last Man.”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Thanks for this very interesting idea. I hadn’t thought of the nuclear ambiguity of the nuclear/conventional overlap in terms of empowering non-state actors and quasi-state actors, but that is a good point.

      No peace settlement can last forever. The post-World War II paradigms are already riddled with exceptions and failures, because the world was moved on. This doesn’t mean that the war was ultimately “lost” but only that what people are fighting over has changed. This is inevitable.

      I certainly do think that the conventional means developed under the shadow of MAD has been the unconscious and unintended template for future wars, and perhaps even wars involving or between great powers. Technological advance is making these conventional means as formidable as nuclear means.

      As always, there will be a time lag for the latest and greatest technology to reach non-state actors, but this is, by definition, only a temporary condition. One can anticipate a time when irregular forces possess precision and intelligent conventional munitions, and this will certainly be felt in the international system.

      Best wishes,


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