• Iran and the other nascent nuclear powers (such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia) add new, complicated conflict scenarios that are disconnected from traditional thinking about nuclear war. They increase the potential nuclear war scenarios and change the probability that nuclear weapons will be used.
• The notion that regional conflict might be contained by a threat to “cross the nuclear threshold” now seems quaint. The inevitability of escalation and the threat to escalate to global suicide are not the deterrents they once were.
• The relationships between conventional and nuclear weapons have changed. Very important, the threat of regional nuclear warfare without global escalation is becoming a more credible “backup” to local and regional policies.
• The chance of accidental or irrational use of nuclear weapons has increased. So has the chance of unplanned nuclear use during the chaos and fog of conventional war.
• The nature of a “nuclear device” and the character of the potential nuclear attacker cannot be estimated with certainty. The attacker may not be a state or even a revolutionary movement.
U.S. strategy should fear Armageddon but not let it paralyze the country in a crisis. History shows that nations will go to war and eventually the tools men produce to kill one another are used. Weapons of mass destruction are not excluded. It is folly to base strategy and policy on any other judgment. America must develop strategies and capabilities to cope with the numerous and increasingly complicated ways that nuclear wars could happen. We must adjust to the potential for nasty, prolonged limited wars under nuclear umbrellas, and for limited nuclear wars divorced from intercontinental nuclear delivery systems.
Here are some realities to keep in mind: First, America and the other intercontinental nuclear powers must understand that speed, crucial in the past, may be the enemy of the most effective response to first nuclear use. Plans for measured action, with an emphasis on communication, are now necessary.
Second, the United States is not as good at staying out of wars as it is at getting into them. Our best chance of influencing the outcome of a conflict may be from outside the battlefield. Planning and strategy must take into account this possibility during, and even before, combat—and certainly before the nuclear threshold is crossed.
Third, we cannot let our efforts at nonproliferation and deterrence of nuclear conflict make us impotent if deterrence fails. Absolute concepts of non-use make flexibility in the event of nuclear use difficult. We need detailed plans for both conventional and nuclear responses to support unhurried and measured action.
Fourth, the second nuclear age validates strategic defense. (If there were valid arguments against defense in the MAD era, they are now void.) Prospects of limited, sporadic, accidental, or poorly controlled nuclear use merit the best possible defense.
Finally, the U.S. homeland is more at risk in a proliferated world full of terrorists. We must take defensive measures at home that prepare for the worst. The United States must be ready for the aftermath of a nuclear terrorist attack. This is politically difficult but needs attention. Policymakers and the American people must be equipped for both the domestic and international political and military implications of such an event.