Turning A Broken Key: Was Nuclear Deterrence Truly Successful?

Nuclear deterrence has been a staple of international diplomacy and foreign policy since the advent of nuclear weapons following the Second World War. Many assume that it is an effective tool because there has not been a conflict involving nuclear weapons since 1945. Is the absence of open conflict the only indicator of success? Today we will look back at the Cold War and see if deterrence theory was truly effective, or if the risk of nuclear war has slipped through the cracks of history.

It has been three decades since the end of the Cold War, a period in time where the world appeared to be at the brink of nuclear annihilation between the two global superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Following the end of this forty-year nuclear standoff, many believe that the main reason why neither country ever launched a first strike at the other was due to the theory of nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence is the supposition that, when two countries face each other with massive nuclear arsenals at their disposal, neither will risk making the first move because the amount of nuclear weapons utilized will effectively annihilate the populations of both sides. In a nuclear war, there are no winners regardless of who attacks first; this is referred to as mutually assured destruction. The concept of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, has become something of a cultural feature found in iconic films of the period, such as Dr. Strangelove and The Day After.

In the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the flaws of deterrence theory already began to show. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This rationale was supported by the existence of a diversification of nuclear weapons delivery systems, called the nuclear triad that both the US and USSR employed throughout the Cold War and still employ to this very day. The nuclear triad consists of surface-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-based missiles, and bomber aircraft designed to transport and drop nuclear bombs in the event of war. However, looking back at this precarious moment in human history, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the notion that nuclear deterrence has been infallible and successful; it wasn’t as successful or foolproof as we may all believe.

Going as far back as the first major test of deterrence theory, in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the flaws of deterrence theory already began to show. In the case of Cuba, the assumption that policymakers and political leaders would act rationally with the looming spectre of war above their heads was supplanted by the amount of power military servicemen tasked with the responsibility for these weapons carried. In an incident that would repeat itself throughout the Cold War, the crew of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Cuba found itself caught in the middle of an American naval blockade around the island nation without communication to the Soviet high command.

The captain of the submarine believed that war had already broken out and thus ordered to fire their submarine’s payload, a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo at the American ships. However, one of the submarine’s senior officers responsible for authorizing the weapon’s launch, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, refused to comply and thus prevented what could have been the catalyst for a full-scale military conflict a day before the American and Soviet heads of state came to a resolution to the crisis.

In addition to this lapse of total nuclear control by the two governments, some policymakers even advocated for increasing nuclear arsenals to achieve arbitrary minimal impacts. The Secretary of Defence to the US administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert McNamara, believed that if deterrence alone could not prevent war, the United States should at least inflict what he considered some degree of “assured destruction”. As a result, the stockpiles of American nuclear weapons would skyrocket in the following decades, as did those of the Soviets.

Tensions between the two superpowers would reach a similar high point throughout the entire year of 1983, where a multitude of simultaneous incidents would lead to another near miss. First came the iconic speech by US President Ronald Reagan, where he labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire”, which set the mood the US government would have in its relations with the USSR. Shortly after that, Reagan announced the infamous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, commonly known as “Star Wars”, aimed at ending the perceived nuclear disparity in favor of the USSR which provided the US a position of strength at the negotiating table.

This left Soviet leadership in a position where they could no longer count on American and Western military restraint and led to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s belief that the United States would be willing to obliterate the Soviet Union if SDI succeeded. Whether or not this was true, Andropov had already ordered the commencement of the largest military intelligence infiltration program in Soviet history, named Operation RYaN, to determine when and where the surprise nuclear attack would come.

Despite any concrete evidence of American plans to engage in a nuclear attack, a military exercise took place in November 1983 that would lead to the near outbreak of war based on a lack of communications between the East and West. This military exercise, named Able Archer 83, was an annual military exercise held by NATO throughout western Europe that simulated a military escalation culminating in nuclear war. The difference this time was that relations between the US and USSR had deteriorated to an all-time low since the Cuban missile crisis, and the exercise was designed to be more realistic, involving several European heads of state and communications blackouts mimicking wartime conditions without informing the Soviets of the upcoming changes.

To say that deterrence theory has a proven record of success is to be blind to the flaws that have accompanied leaders throughout the Cold War. Photo: Flickr.

The Soviet leadership, already wary of the United States, and receiving constant reports from its spies abroad that confirmed their suspicions due to a demand for such reports, ordered a mobilization of military forces across the Polish and Czechoslovak borders until ordered to attack. The situation was only defused when the Able Archer exercise ended on the 11th of November, 1983.

The world almost descended into a nuclear holocaust in 1983 because of a combination of a lack of foresight by political leaders to see the potential ramifications of projecting their strength at their opponents; flaws in recently developed technologies that revealed the dangers of a dependence on systems that had not been around long enough to be considered reliable; and a general ignorance of the mentality possessed by the other side.

To say that deterrence theory has a proven record of success is to be blind to the flaws that accompanied leaders throughout the Cold War. Some incidents may have been resolved with the encouragement of deterrence, such as a political justification for avoiding an escalation of conflict, while others may have been resolved because of the actions (or inactions) of a single individual.

There is no mistaking that the threat of nuclear conflict is still a clear and present danger that affects the international community to this day, but the zones of conflict have changed. Recently, India and Pakistan have become the next potential battleground for nuclear tensions to rise, given that the two are nuclear powers and have been contesting the area around Kashmir for decades. With the recent skirmishes in the contested region, we may see the ultimate case for nuclear deterrence and its effectiveness as an instrument of foreign policy.

Alejandro Guzman

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