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The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters

The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters by Matthew Kroenig. Oxford University Press, 2018, 280 pp.

In 1984, Robert Jervis published a wide-ranging critique of American nuclear strategy entitled The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy, in which he argued that much of the thinking by nuclear strategists and decision makers within the US federal government had, over the previous decades, been based on a flawed understanding of the nature of both nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. He suggested that the United States need only possess the ability to retaliate against the Soviets to deter them from launching a surprise attack on the US or its allies. Any capability in excess of this was unnecessary and, even more problematically, destabilizing.  

For both Thomas Schelling and Jervis, threats issued by a state with a numerical inferiority could also be viewed as equivalently credible as, if not more so than, those issued by a state with a larger and thus more destructive capability if the stakes involved were greater for the numerically inferior state. Matthew Kroenig’s recently released work The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy is in many ways a direct rebuttal to Jervis, Schelling, and the many scholarly works published since that echo these sentiments. In it, he lays out a detailed argument as to why such an approach is at best incomplete, if not wholly misguided.

Kroenig begins by reviewing the classic logic of the brinkmanship game, which suggests that once each state in a two-player game possesses a second-strike capability, any additional capability should not affect the outcome. If both sides escalate to nuclear war, each player in the game is affected equally (destruction). The “winner” is thus determined not by whether one possesses more or less capability but by which one is more resolute and/or risk acceptant. Kroenig smartly points out, as he has in previous scholarship, that it is obviously not the case that two states with drastically different-sized nuclear arsenals would suffer in the same way in such a situation. Were such an exchange to occur between the United States and China, for example, the comparatively small size of the Chinese nuclear force combined with the US’s ability to destroy much of the Chinese nuclear arsenal before its use would virtually guarantee a US victory.

To reflect this dynamic, Kroenig offers his “superiority-brinkmanship synthesis theory,”  which suggests that states with a superior destructive capability have a distinct advantage in crisis bargaining situations because the potential cost of escalating to nuclear war is less for them than it is for those with a numerically inferior force.

He tests the strength of this theory using both qualitative and quantitative analyses and finds that nuclear superiority bolsters both deterrence and coercion. Furthermore, he finds that the scale of these effects increases as the disparity in capability between the two parties in a nuclear crisis increases (a rather troubling conclusion for those interested in nuclear disarmament).

The second part of the book not only attempts to dispel the conventional wisdom that nuclear superiority is inherently destabilizing but also challenges the prevailing logic of the stabilizing influence of nuclear parity. Nuclear parity, he points out, was always considered tenuous because it relied on “mutual vulnerability” between adversaries. If either side in such a relationship ever felt that its adversary possessed or was developing a first-strike capability, the other side might be incentivized to preemptively strike or else risk losing the ability to respond. As a result, there were strong pressures on both sides to guarantee the ability to conduct a retaliatory strike. However, Kroenig argues that situations where preponderances of capability exist are not subject to such tenuous circumstances because it is much clearer at the outset of a nuclear crisis who the likely victor would be, regardless of who launches first or second. Thus this kind of situation is inherently more stable than one in which parity exists. Kroenig further argues that many of the most often cited instability-inducing byproducts of nuclear superiority, including arms races and nuclear proliferation, are wholly unsupported by the empirical record.

Certain criticisms can be leveled at this book—including the brevity of the case studies and reliance on a dataset that Kroenig himself views as inherently flawed. Furthermore, chapter 2 appears least significant since its sole purpose is to empirically support the assertion that if a state has more or bigger bombs than an adversary it can inflict more damage than said adversary (hypothesis 1). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the questions it raises for both scholars and the strategic-planning community, the most obvious of which is why academics and those involved in US nuclear planning have been so at odds for so long.  If Kroenig is correct that preponderances of nuclear capability create more stable relationships than those where capabilities are roughly equivalent, why is it that the opposite conventional wisdom among academics remains prevalent? One might wonder, for instance, whether it is more ideology than strategy.

While the academic community has been almost monotheistic in its reverence for the concepts associated with parity, including the oft-cited doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the US nuclear planning community has, by and large, endeavored to create the situation Kroenig advocates. MAD, as many have pointed out, was never a doctrine to adhere to but rather an unfortunate reality to be dealt with. If given the choice between parity and US numerical superiority over all potential adversaries, it is hard to imagine that even the most reverential of MAD supporters would choose the former over the latter.

Overall this book is a noteworthy and necessary contribution to the renewed debate on the utility and appropriate constitution of the US nuclear arsenal. Kroenig’s preference for US strategic superiority seems to be echoed by the current presidential administration, a sharp departure from the past eight years. It will thus be interesting to see whether or to what extent his arguments filter into the narrative crafted by the administration to justify current and planned efforts toward force modernization. This volume may come to define the US approach to nuclear strategy for the foreseeable future—in which case, one can only hope that his assertions are correct.

Todd C. Robinson
Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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