The world’s first nuclear war was the Cold War. It was fought with nuclear weapons, and it ended in an immense victory for America. It accomplished three important objectives: First: Not a single nuclear weapon was ever detonated; second, it brought about the total collapse of the Soviet Union; and third; it exposed communism as a failure to the world.
The Cold War lasted for almost a half-century (1946-1991), and for most of that time the fate of the world hung in the balance every single moment. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were poised for instant launch on each side, threatening thermonuclear war and unimaginable death and destruction across the world.We won that war because we learned how to fight a nuclear war better than our adversary, and we learned it the hard way, by doing it. We advanced our technology faster than our enemy. We changed our strategy faster than he did. When an approach worked well, we doubled and tripled it. In addition to our high-yield strategic weapons, every branch of the service had low-yield weapons for every military purpose. Most of all, we out-thought our enemy in every sector of our society: military, industry, science, finance, academia, and others.
But when the Cold War ended, everything changed. Russia and the U.S. adopted polar opposite approaches.
Russia made no distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. They consider the full spectrum of weaponry to be available for military use; and they have even gone farther, by establishing a preferred strategy of early (conflict-ending) use of low-yield nukes in all military actions, large and small. For a quarter-century Russia has been focusing their nuclear weapons research and testing on very low yields (say, from ten to 500 tons). During this same period, they have also been researching and testing greater use of fusion, less of fission, possibly achieving pure fusion. These weapons would emit only neutrons and gamma rays, and leave little or no contaminating residual radiation.
Their tactics of use would be ones we’ve never seen or thought about. Putin has threatened military action in many areas of Europe, to recover the former Soviet empire. If armed conflict broke out tomorrow, the advancing Russian armor, mobilized infantry, artillery, and tactical aircraft would be preceded by dozens of low-yield nuclear detonations, killing everything, but leaving roads and bridges intact. The war would be over in days or hours. There’s nothing like losing a major war to stimulate a great power’s creative thinking.
The U.S., since 1991, has moved in exactly the opposite direction. We prohibited underground nuclear testing in 1992. Design of low-yield weapons was made illegal. For the next 17 years, our arms controllers and anti-nuclear activists put us in an unannounced nuclear freeze, with no advanced nuclear research allowed — curators in a nuclear museum. For the following eight years President Obama established a national goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Nuclear testing has not been permitted for the entire quarter century — a lifetime in the nuclear weapons business. We have emphasized conventional weapons at all levels, spurred on by conflicts in the Mideast and Southeast Asia. Thus Obama’s denuclearization policies have produced an immense gap between our conventional and nuclear capabilities. Nuclear use was prohibited against all but the most extreme threats.
How far behind are we? Science is the heart of the nuclear weapons world. Science is based on the scientific method, which requires endless testing. With the U.S. observing a zero-yield test moratorium, and Russia testing at low yield (quite sufficient for their purposes), we are now a quarter-century behind them, in both science and weapons. Our military services have not been taught how to fight and win on a nuclear battlefield. Even the Pentagon's nuclear delivery systems are at the crisis point in modernization.
Let’s go back to science for a moment. The Manhattan Project created nuclear weapons and won WWII by excelling in two broad types of science — nuclear weapons design by civilian scientists, and nuclear weapons effects by military officers. We subsequently won the 46-year Cold War by excelling at these two types of science.
The Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons labs excelled in the former, and DOD’s “national laboratory for nuclear weapons effects” — the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) and its predecessors — excelled in the latter. Both organizations carried out robust underground nuclear testing programs. DNA then had the additional responsibility of training the entire Defense Department and the armed services worldwide in the rapidly advancing military science of nuclear weapons effects. But DNA was shut down in 1997, and today America’s military forces have little knowledge of nuclear weapons science.
We’ve forgotten the lessons we learned the hard way in winning the Cold War. If we hope to become competitive in the business of saving America, we better do two things fast. Resume underground testing by the DOE nuclear labs, and re-create DOD’s Defense Nuclear Agency to resume their underground nuclear testing program and “re-nuclearize” DOD.