This space has periodically sung the praises of Bernard Brodie, but even All Stars occasionally go into slumps. Brodie was off his game in Escalation and the Nuclear Option (1966), in which he argued the case for tactical nuclear weapons. One cringe-inducing example:
Imaginative use of special types of nuclear weapons much earlier in the [Vietnam] campaign might have gone far toward defeating the Viet Cong without the commitment of large numbers of American ground forces.
Brodie argued that major U.S. adversaries could feel safer in carrying out conventional warfare unless Washington demonstrated readiness to use short-range nuclear weapons. At the time, he viewed countervalue, counterforce, and damage-limiting strikes as being unviable options for moral and as well as strategic reasons. This left a vast empty space for deterrence purposes, a space that Brodie provisionally filled with the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. To reconcile these views, he argued that the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union could prompt de-escalation, rather than escalation.
Here’s a sampler:
The dominant fact is that U.S. official pronouncements have for some time been committing us to the principle that local aggression on the part of our major opponents must at least initially be resisted locally. The possibility of further escalation will, to be sure, be unavoidably but also usefully present. It will induce caution on both sides, but it will more especially tend to dissuade the aggressor from testing very far the efficacy of a resolute local defense….
The existence of a nuclear stalemate on the strategic level may indeed favor rather than prohibit the use of nuclear weapons at the tactical level….
The best way, perhaps the only [way], for us to avert not only defeat but unnecessary escalation is to demonstrate clearly that our readiness to take risks is not less than theirs. How can we do that except by using the weapons demonstratively, few rather than many, and in as controlled a manner as possible, but nevertheless rather more abruptly than the Russians seem to have bargained for in launching their aggression?
During a visit to Pakistan last week, I heard strong echoes of Brodie’s reasoning, along with unconvincing assertions about command and control when nuclear weapons are deployed close to the forward edge of battle. My Pakistani colleagues rested their case on deterrence, which would override all other concerns.
Brodie’s arguments about escalation control were particularly weak. If nuclear-armed adversaries are on such different pages as to stumble into war, how realistic is it for them to find the same page after the detonation of one or more tactical nuclear weapons? J. David Singer put it this way in Deterrence, Arms Control, and Disarmament: Toward a Synthesis in National Security Policy (1962):
How reliable can commitments be between two enemies whose mutual trust even in peacetime is almost non-existent?… The point is that the dividing line between conventional and nuclear weapons is clear, obvious, and salient, while that between five and ten or between ten and twenty or between fifty and one hundred kiloton nuclear [detonations] is not. Escalation from the lowest to the higher would be not only tempting but easy.
The probability of miscalculation, accident, and loss of control grow as the range of a nuclear-capable delivery system shrinks. The central purpose of tactical nuclear weapons is to counter worrisome military asymmetries. Asymmetric responses are, however, the enemy of escalation control.
I recall that Brodie recanted the views expressed in Escalation and the Nuclear Option in a talk he gave, but I can’t locate the source. This is Alton Frye’s recollection, as well. Alton, who worked with Brodie at RAND, conveyed this memory:
Seyom Brown and I had been inside critics of his work on the likely utility of tactical or theater nukes… Seyom had the best line, though not one that won Bernard’s affection for us young whippersnappers: “It’s difficult to expect policymakers to have the courage of your convictions.”