Nuclear War – A Possibility?

North Korea has now carried out its most powerful nuclear test to date, claiming it has tested a warhead that can be placed on a missile that can reach the United States.

President Trump called the test “very hostile and dangerous” and when asked as he left Church this Sunday whether he is planning to attack North Korea, the president answered “we’ll see.”

As often happens when President Trump talks tough, other administration sources sought to play down  the implied threat just as they had when he said last month that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the United States” or it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

North Korea since having been warned about the U S “fire and fury” has continued to threaten. It launched a missile over Japan and now tested a much larger nuclear weapon (North Korea claims it is a Hydrogen bomb, U S analysts have their doubts).

The tension and possibility of miscalculation leading to war is clearly rising  so it’s worth thinking about what such a war would mean.

If the U S strikes North Korea militarily, what would the North’s response be – an attack on South Korea? What would China, fearing destabilization, do? And, most worrisome, could “attack and counter attack” descend into nuclear/thermonuclear War with China?

Enter the fabled Rand Corporation, established after World War II to “game plan” strategic military scenarios and strategies. Last year, a new study by the RAND Corporation titled “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” was devoted to assessing a US war against China. The study was commissioned by the US Army.

Throughout the Cold War, RAND was the premier think tank for “thinking the unthinkable”—a phrase made famous by one of RAND’s chief strategist in the 1950s, Herman Kahn. In 1960, Kahn published On Thermonuclear War.

“Whether hundreds of millions died or “merely” a few major cities were destroyed, Kahn argued, life would go on – as it had, for instance, after the Black Death in Europe during the 14th century, or in Japan after the limited nuclear attack in 1945 – contrary to the conventional, prevailing doomsday scenarios.  No matter how calamitous the devastation, Kahn argued that the survivors ultimately would not “envy the dead”….” (1)

Others disagreed. in fact, it was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who said  if a nuclear war was fought, “The survivors would envy the dead.”

Years later, President Ronald Reagan said “A nuclear war can not be won and must never be fought.”

And now?

The new Rand study (the US vs. China) is based on these assumptions: that a war between the United States and China would not involve other powers; that it would remain confined to the East Asian region; and that nuclear weapons would not be used (itals added). That last point is comforting but, obviously, open to question.

“The study which “game plans” a war with China considers four simplistic scenarios for a conflict defined by two variables: intensity (either mild or severe) and duration (from a few days to a year or more). It also notes that given the pace of advances in military technology—in what is already an undeclared arms race—the outcomes change over time. Thus, it studies the losses and costs for both sides of a war fought in 2015 and one in 2025.” (2)

The study’s projected figures for losses and costs has the United States winning but projects fewer losses and costs for the United States the earlier the war is fought.

Whether you call it “game planning” for war with (fill in the blank) or just another exiting episode of the television series “Game of Thrones,” there can be some value in trying to calculate the future. But also some danger.  Favorable or optimistic “game plans” can tempt leaders to use them as a basis for a decision to act (2015 vs 2025).

The problem is, “the future” as calculated almost never follows the script. It was the German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke who said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

North Korea has blustered and threatened and President Trump has replied in kind. He is surely laying down a “red line” for action as President Obama did in the case of the Syrian Government’s use of poison gas. Obama did not follow through. Trump shouldn’t either. Not now.

Let North Korea bluster and threaten while we work within the Six Power group or some other forum to seek a non-military solution. Short of capitulation to North Korean demands and threats, that would be far preferable to relying on military action based on a calculation that it would not lead to nuclear/thermonuclear war.


(1) Strategic Culture Foundation (based in Moscow)

(2) Ibid






3 Replies to “Nuclear War – A Possibility?”

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