The Second or Third Nuclear Age , Hermann Kahn´s Escalation Ladder and Chess

The Second or Third Nuclear Age , Hermann Kahn´s Escalation Ladder and Chess

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 rationale, analytical, scientific creatures,but also the game in itself. It was the era when the bipolar superpower competition was symbolized in chess contests Bobby Fischer against Spasky or later Kasparov,  when all knew you had two rationbale thinkers on both sides and everytthing was caluable. 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. And the other new parameter the CSBA points out is that you might have not two rationale thinkers on both sides as a result of new studies about cognitive thinking and the fact that the new world is multiploar and there are not only two actors anymore. 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.

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the Gulf War surprised China and Russia, who did not think that the US would win this war so quickly and easily.The book “The Commanders” by Bob Woodward also exemplifies the RMA , the new reconaissance-strike ability and focus on attacks of the C4I systems of the opponent.  That was the wake-up call for the two military powers China and Russia, catalyzed by the Jugoslavia war. Since then, their reconnaissance-strike ability has rapidly improved, while the USA  conditioned by the War on Terror focused on minor opponents, especially on wars with adverseries like the Taliban or Saddam Hussein  than technologically savvy major powers like China or Russia.

For China so far there is only a concept Airseabattle and a strategy Offshore Controll. For a Sino-American war there seem not that much other strategic options for the USA. The CSBA study Rethinking Armaggedon points to this archilles heel. Thus, strategically, there is no such thing as a real strategy  for such a war or deterrence against Russia or China. In addition, no comprehensive stratety has yet been developed that would have modernized Hermann Kahn’s escalation ladder into the context of a military technologically more complex multipolar world Whether the USA today has the ingenious strategic thinkers who are intellectually flexible enough is the question or if US strategists think more like the French military before WW II and  holds on to old strategies such as a mental Maginot line. Michael O Hannon`s book The Senaku Paradox, CSBA´s studies Airseabattle, Rethinking Armageddon and TX Hammes Offshore Controll are indicators that the USA just started to rethink and modernize its military strategies.To make the point: I get more and more the impression that strategic thinkers, politicians and societies can´t keep pace with all the new technologies, RMAs and whatever, which makes the situation more  instable and dangerous. Equilibriums are harder to achieve as we are in a revcolutionary transistion period to a new world order.

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