Thinking about the Unthinkable

Home / FYSA / Thinking about the Unthinkable

Thinking about the Unthinkable
By: Mark Cancian

Nuclear battlefields are back. After two decades of being considered a Cold War anachronism, the tactical use of nuclear weapons is again on the agenda. North Korea now has nuclear weapons and threatens to use them. Russian military doctrine envisions nuclear escalation as a means of countering a conventionally superior adversary.

The problem is that the United States has never been very good about planning for a nuclear battlefield. It made some efforts in the 1950s with the New Look and the Army’s “Pentomic” divisions, but the Army abandoned that structure in the early 1960s when it shifted to “flexible response.” During the Cold War the superpowers maintained thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, but the United States assumed that wars would have a conventional phase, even if eventually the war went nuclear. Thus, Cold War exercises were conducted as conventional conflicts up until the very end when nuclear release procedures were practiced. At that point, exercises ended because no one really knew what would happen next. (It’s not clear that our enemies shared these views, however comforting such a divide might have been for the United States and NATO. The Soviets appear to have planned on using nuclear weapons from the beginning of a conflict.)

Use of nuclear weapons by future adversaries is, what Frank Hoffman calls, a “pink flamingo”—that is, “a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces. These are the cases which are ‘known knowns,’ often brightly lit, but remaining studiously ignored.”

This difficulty became evident in a recent tabletop exercise that CSIS conducted for a study on future strategies. The study team’s efforts to get exercise participants—all highly experienced and experts in their fields—to think about how nuclear weapons might affect a Korean or Baltic conflict scenario were not successful. Use of nuclear weapons was too uncertain. It also takes our thinking to very uncomfortable areas. For example, if the North Koreans threatened Seoul with nuclear weapons, would coalition forces move into North Korean territory? If not, then the way we think about a Korean conflict needs to change. Regime change might not be possible. Further, if use of nuclear weapons occurs in a regional conflict, would a response with U.S. “strategic” nuclear weapons endanger the U.S. homeland? If so, should the United States modernize its “tactical” nuclear weapon inventory, which has atrophied since the end of the Cold War?

To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in nuclear battlefields, but nuclear battlefields are interested in you. See further discussion in CSIS’s forthcoming report, Alternative Defense Strategies in a Cost Capped Environment.

Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program. Other posts by .


Leave a Comment