The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy

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In one volume the reader can trace the story of nuclear strategy from its roots in thinking about airpower in the first decades of the Twentieth Century to arguments about how to deal with the possibility of nuclear terrorism in the Twenty-First.


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There is full coverage of how the west came to rely on nuclear weapons to deter Soviet aggression and the major problems of credibility that soon opened up as the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear capability. The highlights of the ensuing strategic debate are described, and the contributions of the leading figures in these debates are examined.

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The extent to which the theorising influenced the formation of policy in the major nuclear powers is explored. At all times the wider political context is kept in view, demonstrating the factors which shaped the nuclear legacy with which each new generation must cope. The central issue for nuclear strategy, therefore, is less how to win and wage a nuclear war than whether by preparing to do so it is possible to create a deterrent effect.

That maximum objective, which was the one adopted by both superpowers during the Cold War period, required close attention to the links with more conventional strategy and also to the wider political context , including alliance formation and disintegration.


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Although attempts to reproduce those alliances in continents other than Europe met with scant success, their stability within Europe meant that they were virtually taken for granted. Nuclear strategy then became associated with more technical questions relating to the capabilities of various weapons systems and the range of potential forms of interaction with those of an enemy under hypothetical scenarios.

With the end of the Cold War, most of those scenarios became moot, raising the question of whether there was still a role for nuclear strategy.

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The answer seemed to lie largely in how the consequences of nuclear proliferation fit into a much more complex international system. With the rise of tensions around the peripheries of both Russia and China, however, it became most possible to imagine circumstances in which a great power war might break out, which would always carry a risk of nuclear escalation.

The first successful test of the atomic bomb took place in New Mexico in July as the leaders of Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States met at the Potsdam Conference to discuss the shape of the postwar world. That context coloured the early American appreciation of the potential foreign-policy role of the new weapon, with the result that nuclear strategy thereafter became bound up with the twists and turns of the Cold War between East and West.

However, the decision to actually use the bomb against Japan reflected the more immediate urge to end the war as soon as possible and certainly before it became necessary to mount an invasion of the mainland.

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The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August was a means of shocking Japan into surrender. The choice of civilian rather than purely military targets, and the consequent immense loss of life, reflected the brutalizing experience of the massive air raids that had become commonplace during the war. Afterward it was assumed that any future atomic bombing would also be against cities.

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As weapons of terror, they appeared to have brought 20th-century trends in warfare to their logical conclusion. The first nuclear weapons were in the range of other munitions; the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was equivalent to the load of some B bombers.


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Also, at least initially, the weapons were scarce. The key development introduced by atomic bombs was less in the scale of their destructive power than in their efficiency. By the start of the s, though, that situation had been transformed by two related developments. The first was the breaking of the U. Once two could play the nuclear game, the rules had to be changed. Anyone who thought of initiating nuclear war would henceforth need to consider the possibility of retaliation. The second development followed from the first.

In an effort to extend its effective nuclear superiority, the United States produced thermonuclear bombs , based on the principles of nuclear fusion rather than fission , upon which the atomic bombs were based. That made possible weapons with no obvious limits to their destructive potential.