The Second or Third Nuclear Age , Hermann Kahn´s escalation ladder and chess

von Ralf Ostner

US strategists speak of an new Second or even Third Nuclear Age which is different from the First Nuclear Age of the bipolar Cold War. As a pioneer of this new thinking the Centre for Strategic Budget Assessment (CSBA) wrote a new study called „Rethinking Armageddon“:

Rethinking Armageddon

March 1, 2016 • By Andrew F. Krepinevich and Jacob CohnStudies

The First Nuclear Age was characterized by the Cold War era bipolar international system and a corresponding bipolar nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. While a few other states, such as Great Britain and France, also possessed nuclear arms, their arsenals were very small compared to those of the two superpowers.

The world is far different today. On the one hand, both the United States and Russia have far smaller nuclear arsenals than they did at the Cold War’s end. At the same time, new nuclear powers have emerged in pace with advanced conventional precision warfare capabilities. The rise of cyber warfare has also led to concerns over the security and reliability of early warning and command-and-control systems, and weapon systems as well. Advances in the cognitive sciences and research on Cold War crisis decision-making have challenged some of our thinking as to how strategies based on deterrence work, or risk failing. Together, these and other recent developments have combined to form what some are calling a Second Nuclear Age.

Dr. Andrew Krepinevich and Jacob Cohn have authored a scenario-based assessment of the competitive dynamics of the Second Nuclear Age. The assessment explores, among other things, the implications for extended deterrence, crisis stability, missile defense, prompt conventional global strike, growing multipolar or “n-player competitions, and planning assumptions as they have been influenced by advances in the cognitive sciences, to include prospect theory. Their paper also includes an analysis of the implications for U.S. interests, with an emphasis on preserving the seventy-one-year tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons (since their only use in 1945), also known as the “nuclear taboo.” The existing and prospective challenges posed by the Second Nuclear Age, as reflected in these scenarios, are sobering. If the United States seeks to preserve the nuclear taboo, it ignores them at its peril.“

“Rethinking Armaggedon“ is an appeal to rethink and modify the framework of Hermann Kahn´s escalation ladder in a Second/Third Nuclear Age and to make appropriate and thought-through decicions in an era of new weapon systems and multipolar competition.It´s a very complex thinking and simple ideas like Donald Trump´s „We have nuclear weapons, so why don´t we use them?“ might be not the right approach, even produce the Armaggedon.

The Second Nuclear Age is much more unstable, dynamic and unpredictable for a deterrence and has no “one-fits-all”-approach, but has to include new factors and drivers as global strike potentials, mininukes, precision strike weapons, cyberwar, space weapons,missile defense,  haystack attacks , stealth weapons, nano weapons, automized masses of drones, hypersonic weapons,  Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP/ an EMP weapon without a nuclear blast and fallout), multipolar and not bipolar nuclear competition and the tendency towards much more trigger-alert constellations as well as new analyses about the rationality of decision-makers.Till now no strategy integrates all these new parameters as a new framework for a Second Nuclear Age, its escalation ladder and future wars. The study even thinks about the idea if the term Second Nuclear Age is sufficent or if there is already the dawn of a  Third Nuclear Age due to the appearance of new weapon systems.

The question is how to deal with this new constellation and what should be the conclusions to get to an appropriate new strategic school which could understand the new complex situation?

Many former strategic thinkers were educated by a very simple bipolar, binary and simple structure of thinking as the Cold war was not so complex as is the Second or Third Nuclear Age. Hermann Kahn´s escalation ladder and Kissinger´s brinkmanship were based on a very simple biploar and binary structure between two adversaries with a limited arsenal. In the 90s the game theory became very fashionable to reduce the complexity of conflict situations and to predict their outcome. A given conflict structure was corresponding with a certain game, mostly card games and based on the theory of utilitarism and rationality of the homo economicus.Mostly you had two adversaries who make their decisions according to the corresponding game. We played several crisis situation as the Cuba Crisis, the Suez Crisis, the Berlin Crisis and other crisis with several card games as poker, Bavarian „Schafkopf“, Black Jack and so on.From this you could get probabilities of the reactions of the two adversaries and how the conflict situation would develop and how it could be solved.

However the weak point of the game theory was: You had to know the confilct structure and its pattern, to know which game you choose. Wrong analysis of the conflict structure and/or wrong adaption of the game would cause fatal decisions in the future as our professors knew the results of the past from the perspective of an allknowing future.Therefore it was easy to know the conflict structure and the game in the past, but not automatically in the future.The second weak point was what the neorealistic school of Gottfried Kindermann ist about:The possibility of misperceptions and the existence of actors who don´t act according to the homo economicus and scientific rationality. This was not elaborated too much in the theory of neorealism, but the CSBA study „Rethinking Armageddon“is questioning the paradigma of two rationale actors due to new studies about cognitive thinking. The danger is even more that one actor is mirroring himself into another actor and doesn´t understand his own „rationality“or that of his counterpart.

During the Cold War chess  players were seen as the avantgard of logical thinking. Not only the players as analytical, scientific creatures,but also the game in itself. Therefore I want to claim that chess was the appropriate kind of thinking in the First Nuclear Age of the Cold War. You had a bipolar structure (black and white–US versus the Sovjetunion) , an limited amount of chess pieces with limited mobility and also  limited skills, escalation potential and capacities while a chess game in the Second or Third Nuclear Age would have more players (multipolarity) with much more chess pieces (weapons) which also would have more skills, mobility and escalation potential and also not on one play ground, but on different levels of playgrounds as the old and familiar chess. The old chess would correspond with the First Nuclear Age , Hermann Kahn´s escalation ladder or Kissinger´s brinkmanship, the new chess would be played in Star Trek with many players, on different playgrounds (theater of wars) and with much more chess pieces which have much more interaction, mobility and skills.This is the new situation.

How to deal with this situation? What is needed is the promotion of military think tanks which think through this new situation. As computers are prevailing over human beings not only in chess, a new strategy academy has to be equipped with the most advanced technology of artificial intelligence and programmers which interact with strategic thinkers and can work out a network centric strategy and flexible escalation ladder , maybe with algorithms based on the game theory or other models.However, to rely on the old strategic thinking and the old theories and strategies and inflexible bipolar, binary, incomplexe escalation ladders is the recipe for a new Armaggedon and for a disastser.

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