Best Defense

The scariest article I have read in some time: Nuclear war is becoming thinkable, especially on the Korean peninsula

Once a war starts, no one knows how or where it will end.


Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on May 23.

The new issue of International Security magazine contains a hair-raising article about nuclear weapons.

“Low-fatality nuclear strikes are now possible,” conclude the authors, Georgetown’s Keir Lieber and Dartmouth’s Daryl Press. That’s mainly because of changes in the accuracy of targeting.

They conclude that North Korea’s major weapons sites could be hit and substantially destroyed with as few as 20 B-61 low-yield nuclear bombs. (The B-61 is a small, streamlined bomb that can be carried by stealthy aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35.) This would result in total casualties of about 100 people, they say, and almost no fallout, they add. That’s a huge difference from having millions killed in both South Korea and Japan by huge clouds of fallout from high-yield bombs.

When I finished the article, I wondered how much the calculations of American war planners about North Korea have changed. If the Air Force’s targeteers are thinking along the same lines, our policymakers may conclude that the risks of simply taking out Pyongyang’s nuclear sites are lower than they were in the past. They may even conclude that a surprise first use strike is the way to go.

So what’s the problem? The problems are first: No first use has been a good global rule, and second: Once a war starts, no one knows how or where it will end. It is the most unpredictable of all human activities.

Photo credit: Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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