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Research Questions

  1. What dilemmas would U.S. decisionmakers likely face in military confrontations with emergent nuclear-armed regional adversaries?
  2. Under what circumstances, if any, might the United States be able to neutralize a regional opponent's nuclear capabilities?
  3. How and in what circumstances can the United States manage escalation while defeating nuclear-armed opponents in conventional war?

Risks are increasing that the United States will find itself in confrontations with nuclear-armed regional adversaries — that is, hostile states with small nuclear arsenals. This research seeks to help the U.S. Air Force understand and prepare for such confrontations. The authors explore circumstances in which the United States might be able to neutralize a regional opponent's nuclear capabilities, and describe how and in what circumstances the United States can manage escalation while defeating nuclear-armed opponents in conventional conflict.

The analysis finds that there is probably no case in which U.S. forces could neutralize an opponent's nuclear capabilities with a high enough probability of success that U.S. leaders would let them attempt it. However, U.S. forces should be able to manage escalation in some conventional conflicts, as long as the United States does not threaten the survival of the enemy regime or its nuclear deterrent forces. U.S. leaders must deter the adversary from escalating above critical U.S. thresholds and manage U.S. forces to avoid inadvertent and accidental escalation.

The authors recommend that the Air Force continue research and development on methods and capabilities to find, fix, track, target, and assess enemy nuclear weapons capabilities; continue research and development on ballistic and cruise missile defenses; and conduct research on how to rebalance the force to better enable posturing airpower to conduct conventional strike operations from afar, in order to defeat a nuclear-armed regional adversary's conventional forces while operating from bases beyond the range of its conventional and nuclear strike capabilities.

Key Findings

Dilemmas for U.S. Decisionmakers

  • In a crisis involving the United States and a nuclear-armed regional adversary, the United States would need to try to (1) avoid driving the adversary across its nuclear threshold, (2) reassure vulnerable partners, (3) persuade other powerful actors to exercise restraint, (4) deter further nuclear use if the adversary crosses the nuclear threshold in some way, and (5) decide whether to attempt to neutralize the threat.

Can the United States Neutralize a Regional Opponent's Nuclear Capabilities?

  • A regional adversary is most vulnerable to U.S. efforts to neutralize its nuclear capabilities when it has just developed or otherwise acquired its first handful of weapons, and much less so once it has capabilities for delivering nuclear weapons via ballistic missiles.
  • There is probably no case in which U.S. forces could neutralize an opponent's nuclear capabilities with a high enough probability of success that U.S. leaders would let them attempt it.
  • To restore the credibility of future nuclear deterrent threats, if an adversary were to use nuclear weapons, the United States would have to respond in a decisive way.

Managing Escalation in Conventional Wars with Nuclear-Armed Opponents

  • U.S. forces should be able to manage escalation in some conventional conflicts as long as the United States does not threaten survival of the regime or its nuclear deterrent forces.
  • U.S. leaders must deter the adversary from escalating above critical U.S. thresholds and manage U.S. forces to avoid inadvertent and accidental escalation.

Recommendations

  • Continue research and development on methods and capabilities to find, fix, track, target, and assess enemy nuclear weapon capabilities to the extent that such capabilities also support other missions.
  • Continue research and development on ballistic and cruise missile defense systems, methods, and concepts.
  • Conduct research on how to rebalance the force to better enable posturing airpower to conduct conventional strike operations from afar.
  • Revise Air Force doctrine to better capture the risks of escalation and the importance of managing it.
  • Educate air component commanders on the principles of escalation management.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    An Emerging National Security Challenge

  • Chapter Two

    Bringing the Challenge into Focus

  • Chapter Three

    Assessing the Neutralization Options

  • Chapter Four

    Managing Escalation in Crisis and War

  • Chapter Five

    Meeting the Challenge

  • Appendix A

    The Second Nuclear

  • Appendix B

    The Inadequacy of Cold War Concepts

Research conducted by

The research described here was commissioned by AF/A3/5 and AF/A8 and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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