The threat of force has long been an important regulatory factor in international affairs; one cannot remove or greatly weaken this threat without expecting all kinds of unforeseen changes – not all of them necessarily for the better.

Herman Kahn[1]

[Now here’s an incendiary topic: Thermonuclear War. Will Israel and Iran have one? Let’s put a date on it. Will they have one by 2030? I’m not saying it’s likely; I don’t know that; I’m just wondering if it’s possible and, if so, why? I’m no soothsayer, or astrologer or anything like that, but I know people who have insights that often prove out. So I rang up one of them the other day, Fred by name, and asked him what he thought. Hi, Fred!]

Well, at least you’re accurate; you’re asking about thermonuclear war, not the garden variety of atomic war we waged against Japan at the end of World War II.

Thermonuclear versus Nuclear War

Thermonuclear weapons [aka H-bombs] are so powerful that they make the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki[2] look like firecrackers. An A-bomb is a kiloton weapon. An H-bomb is a megaton weapon. “Megaton weapons are comparable to gross forces of nature, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.”[3] Thermonuclear bombs and missile warheads were developed in the 1950’s, proliferated in the 1960’s, and today are common in the arsenals of the major powers.[4]

Strategy

I’m not going to make any predictions here about real war, and none of my suggested results are inevitable. What I’ll offer is simply a thought experiment, positing a situation that might exist in 15 years, and attempting to determine what might happen if stress is applied to it.

[Oh, good! You’re going to make a model and we’ll play with it. So let me help you with the assumptions. Let’s assume that in 2030 the Israelis have about 200 thermonuclear warheads, primed and ready to go.That’s conservative, based on outside estimates of what they have now, although the Israelis don’t admit having any. [5]

By the way, we’re going to do a blog one of these days on how Israel got all those nukes. Won’t that be fun? Now how many warheads do you think we should assign to Iran for 2030?]

Analysts seem to agree that currently Iran has no nuclear warheads. Really I have no idea what Iran might be able to produce in 15 years; so I’ll just pick a number. Let’s assume that if it wants to Iran could build or buy 15 by then. Why not more for Iran? If the current international agreement fails, or is sabotaged by the Congress, then Iran’s nuclear program will be scrutinized the old-fashioned way, through spying, computer hacks and so forth. Attempts might even be made to blow up Iran’s nuclear research and production facilities or assassinate its scientists. I’m thinking that all such activities would retard, but not destroy, any Iranian program to create [or purchase] weapons-grade uranium and deploy operational weapons. Hence, my estimate is that if Iran wants them, it could accumulate only 15 warheads by that date. What’s my formula for determining that precise number? Again, I don’t have one. It’s just a guess.

[So are the other parts of your model also a fiction? Or is some of it grounded in fact? No one on this planet has fought a thermonuclear war, thank God; so we haven’t seen the real thing. Do we really know how thermonuclear wars might happen?]

Avoiding or Making War

We have a good idea, I think. Experience counts. The U.S. acquired lots of that while avoiding thermonuclear incidents in the Cold War. Many people alive today weren’t around then, but you and I were, and we both remember that things weren’t so good. It was us versus the USSR[6] [i.e., the old Soviet Union]. Both sides were armed to the teeth; both developed thermonuclear weapons; and, theoretically at least, either could have wiped out the other. Of course that didn’t happen, so the real question is, “why not?” And more to the point, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s war was a big subject in this country. Some of our best and brightest, inside Government and out, spent a lot of time planning how to wage or avoid it. Today there’s no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of their hard work.

[So what would those war planners of long ago have to say about the prospects of a 21st century war between Israel and Iran? They were primarily concerned with the Soviet Union, not with small powers in the Middle East. ]

War Unprofitable?

I think the principles are the same. You’ll see why in a bit. Roughly speaking – very roughly, by the way – one might say that there were two schools of thought during the Cold War. One was that thermonuclear war is simply unprofitable, and that no country would want to wage one. Or, put another way,

The avoidance of deliberate, general atomic war should not be too difficult since its unremunerative character must be clear to the potential adversaries. Although actual stockpile sizes are closely guarded secrets, a nation need only feel reasonably sure that an opponent has some high-yield weapons, no matter how indefinite their exact number, to be impressed with the possible consequences of attacking him.

Maxwell Taylor[7]

[You know, there’s something oddly comforting about that quote. General Taylor basically said that no-one would start a nuclear war because it would be so destructive that everybody would lose, including the people who started it. It sounds so reasonable!]

The Alternate View

Yes, but not everyone agreed with him. Other analysts thought that, while there were strong reasons to avoid thermonuclear wars, in extreme circumstances one party, or the other, might elect to go that route. Since those possibilities exist it’s best to be prepared to reduce our casualties, limit damage, harden our military sites and so forth.[8] If one loses 50 million people in a war, rather than 100 million, that’s better, isn’t it?

[That still doesn’t make a thermonuclear war profitable. What’s your source for this very dreary view?]

Why, Herman Kahn. He’s the one who wrote On Thermonuclear War,[9] a book we both know. Let’s talk about one of his case studies: the 1956 rebellion in Hungary, a Soviet satellite. The Soviets put the rebellion down in short order. You may recall – I certainly do – that there was a lot of pressure here at home for us to do “something” to intervene. In point of fact, we did the opposite. We advised citizens of the neighboring satellites, specifically Poland and East Germany, not to rock the boat “since no American aid was on the way.” [10] If we had intervened with conventional forces the war might have spread; sooner or later one side or the other would look like a winner; and the putative loser would have to examine its options, including the nuclear one.

[Oh yes, I well remember that! I was very young, then, but even I knew that the idiots who wanted us to intervene didn’t realize that they were risking their own lives, not just those of our military, if the confrontation went bad. We could have had a real nuclear bust up.]

Pre-emptive War

You’re making Kahn’s point. No one wants to start a Thermonuclear War. Kahn says that most governments “asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace, because it looks safer.”[11] “But if convinced that war is inevitable, a government most likely will choose to strike first.[12] Again, because it’s safer to strike first rather than absorb the other side’s initial blows. “As soon as either side thinks that war is probable it is under pressure to pre-empt.”[13]

In thermonuclear war there are significant advantages to the side that goes first. It strikes at a time and with tactics of its choosing.[14] If successful it can neutralize a good part of enemy’s nuclear capabilities, destroy enemy command and control, and neutralize enemy ground forces before they are able to deploy. The enemy will be hobbled and uncoordinated in its efforts to mount a retaliatory blow, and might even be totally demoralized. Possibly its capacities might be so reduced that it becomes susceptible to nuclear blackmail. It might give up when told “retaliate and we’ll destroy your cities, industry, farmland, etc. next.”[15]

The advantages of striking first are, of course, only relative. No doubt it would be better to avoid such a war, and its enormous costs, and settle for peace. But none of that matters if the sides decide war is inevitable.

[What? Why isn’t it possible to make peace? What in the world are you talking about?]

I’m talking about politics and paranoia. When tensions rise between nuclear powers, and the situation becomes unstable, each side has to wonder whether the other will be the first to take the nuclear option. Most likely both countries will have idiots prancing in the streets, demanding that their government show resolve in facing the enemy. Each country’s military will be very aware of the relative advantages that come from striking first. And, of course, the leadership of each country will know that the other side is having the same thoughts, and may launch missiles at any time; so there is a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that further destabilizes the situation. [16]

Israel v. Iran

Now let’s talk about our hypothetical case involving Israel and Iran. The situation we’ve posited is relatively simple. There are two rival countries, one small and one large, separated by geography. Key features of the model are set out below. Economic figures reflect the situation today, and come from the CIA’s World Factbook[17]. Geographic area is expressed square kilometers. The military component is evaluated in terms of the number of male and female adults, age 16-49, who are fit for military service. GDP is expressed as “purchasing power parity.” CIA updates its figures periodically, so what you see here today may not be correct tomorrow. All figures are rounded up or down, as appropriate.

The estimates of future warheads were concocted by us, before your very eyes.

Country Area Population Military [Fit for service] Future Warheads GDP
Iran 1.648 million sq. km. 81.8 million 39.6 million 15 $1.33 trillion
Israel 20.8 thousand sq. km. 8.049 million 2.9 million 200 $268.5 billion

Israel is a small country with a very capable military, although, unless I missed something, it has little experience in waging an extensive ground war over a long time. [That seems to be a specialty of the United States.] By our estimate it will be stuffed with thermonuclear warheads, etc. in 2030. The actual total could be much higher than we show. Israel’s problem is that, being small, it can’t rely on geography to protect its nuclear stockpile. It can’t hide warheads in remote locations because, in modern terms, no place there is all that remote from Tel Aviv. Iran, on the other hand, has plenty of geography and no doubt lots of options for hiding launch vehicles and the occasional warhead.

[So if the two countries face off in 2030, and war seems possible, what factor is most likely to destabilize the situation?]

The enormous Israeli stockpile of nuclear weapons. In our model Israel has 13+ times more than Iran. If Iran concludes war is inevitable, it will have to do something to neutralize that advantage. How? With a nuclear first strike; in our model there’s no other conceivable option. And the Israelis would guess this; they’re not stupid; so they would try to get off their own first strike to disarm Iran before it could act. If you think about it, it’s all very logical.

[I have to ask: Who would win?]

Really, G, we’re just speculating here. I can’t project that kind of thing. It all depends on who shoots first, and who is best prepared for the kind of war they have. Perhaps when it’s over no one wins. But I’m pretty sure about one thing. The neighbors will not be pleased when H-bombs explode next door. Even if they escaped the blasts, the side effects of nuclear explosions – radiation and that sort of thing – could mess up their environment for generations. And who are the neighbors? Well there’s Iraq, Syria [if there is a Syria in 2030] and Egypt; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil Sheiks; Turkey and Russia [itself a nuclear power], to name a few. As Herman Khan said: “Retaliation and backlash from the rest of the world could be quite costly.”[18]

[Well, I’m glad we finally wrapped up this installment. It’s a difficult subject, and I’m sure some folks will be angry that we talked about it or even about the Middle East. Too bad! You probably wouldn’t object if you saw the same material on TV. Actually I think Fred’s given us the plot outline for a pretty good TV thriller.

The rights are for sale, you know.]

[1] Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010). Henceforth the Kahn book, Transaction reprint, will be cited as Thermonuclear War at ___. See Thermonuclear War at p. 560.

[2] If you want to know more about the two A-bomb drops during World War II, take a look at a recent article in the Washington Post. See Washington Post, Herken, Dropping the atomic bomb (Sunday, August 2, 2015) at p. B3.

[3] See Thermonuclear War at p. 313.

[4] Check out Wikipedia’s entry under “Thermonuclear weapon.” You’ll find the history and probably a lot more than you want to know at that page. Go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_weapon

[5] Our old friend, Wikipedia tells us that estimates of Israel’s current stockpile of nuclear warheads range from 75 to 400. See Wikipedia, Nuclear weapons and Israel, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_and_Israel The actual number in 2030 might be much higher. We choose the lower figure, 200, in an effort to be conservative.

[6] That’s short for the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

[7] This is from General Maxwell Taylor’s 1959 book, The Uncertain Trumpet. We don’t have that book here, so we lifted the quote from our principal reference. See Thermonuclear War at p. 8 for the Taylor quote.

[8] See Thermonuclear War at p.10, 11.

[9] See n. 1 for citation.

[10] See Thermonuclear War at p.134, 135.

[11] See Thermonuclear War at p. 136.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] See Thermonuclear War at p. 128.

[15] Actually I’ve adapted this scenario from one that Kahn said might have applied if we had in fact intervened in the 1956 Hungarian revolt. See Thermonuclear War at p. 128

[16] See Thermonuclear War at p. 136. “I will point out later that the instability is increased by the ‘reciprocal fear of surprise attack,’ in which each side feels a pressure to strike mainly because it feels the other side has exactly the same pressure.”

[17] It’s available online, at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/geos/is.html

[18] See Thermonuclear War at p. 37.

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