Inadvertent Escalation

Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks

Barry R. Posen
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 296
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Inadvertent Escalation
    Book Description:

    In this sobering book, Barry R. Posen demonstrates how the interplay between conventional military operations and nuclear forces could, in conflicts among states armed with both conventional and nuclear weaponry, inadvertently produce pressures for nuclear escalation. Knowledge of these hidden pressures, he believes, may help some future decision maker avoid catastrophe.

    Building a formidable argument that moves with cumulative force, he details the way in which escalation could occur not by mindless accident, or by deliberate preference for nuclear escalation, but rather as a natural accompaniment of land, naval, or air warfare at the conventional level. Posen bases his analysis on an empirical study of the east-west military competition in Europe during the 1980s, using a conceptual framework drawn from international relations theory, organization theory, and strategic theory.

    The lessons of his book, however, go well beyond the east-west competition. Since his observations are relevant to all military competitions between states armed with both conventional and nuclear weaponry, his book speaks to some of the problems that attend the proliferation of nuclear weapons in longstanding regional conflicts. Optimism that small and medium nuclear powers can easily achieve "stable" nuclear balances is, he believes, unwarranted.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6838-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Figures
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Barry R. Posen
  6. 1 Introduction: A Model of Inadvertent Escalation
    (pp. 1-27)

    Can nuclear powers fight conventional wars with each other and avoid the use of nuclear weapons? Although this question has usually been raised in the context of the superpower competition, it is also relevant to future disputes in a world where nuclear weaponry has proliferated, including disputes among nuclear powers of every class, from the very great to the very small.

    The most common view of how a conventional war could become a nuclear war stresses the initial stakes of the dispute. For example, had NATO found itself losing a conventional ground battle for control of Western Europe, the United...

  7. 2 Air War and Inadvertent Nuclear Escalation
    (pp. 28-67)

    The purpose of this chapter is to explore the possible ways that large-scale conventional conflict in Central Europe might have affected the Soviet political and military leadership’s confidence in the survivability, and thus deterrent power, of their strategic nuclear forces in a war that might have occurred in the 1980s.

    Large-scale conventional aerial warfare over Central Europe could have done sufficient damage to Warsaw Pact and Soviet air defenses, and created sufficient confusion for Soviet air defense commanders, to have permitted NATO’s long-range theater nuclear forces to threaten a surprise attack against critical Soviet strategic nuclear early warning and command...

  8. 3 The Balance of Ground Forces on the Central Front
    (pp. 68-128)

    This chapter argues that during the 1980s NATO’s power of conventional resistance in a ground war in Central Europe was vastly underestimated. This position has two important implications for the argument of the book. First, rapid Western conventional collapse would not have been the main cause of nuclear escalation. But that would mean that the air attacks discussed in the previous chapter, and the attacks on Soviet SSBNs discussed in the next one, could have proceeded for quite some time—long enough to damage military assets important to Soviet strategic nuclear forces. These conventional attacks could thus have been an...

  9. 4 Escalation and NATO’s Northern Flank
    (pp. 129-158)

    The danger of inadvertent escalation in the 1980s arose with particular acuteness on NATO’s northern flank, especially in the region comprising the Norwegian and Barents seas, northern Norway, and the Kola Peninsula in the Soviet Union. Moreover, as East-West relations improved in the late 1980s, the naval competition received less attention from senior political leadership than did the strategic nuclear competition, and the NATO-Pact ground and air conventional force relationship. Thus, the issues raised in this chapter are likely to remain important for some time.

    In northern Norway NATO territory and NATO conventional capabilities are situated near a critical element...

  10. 5 “Offensive” and “Defensive” Sea Control: A Comparative Assessment
    (pp. 159-196)

    An attack on Western Europe by the massive active and reserve ground forces and tactical air forces of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies has been the most demanding prospective military contingency for the United States since the creation of NATO. During the late 1970S and through most of the 1980s, Soviet capabilities for such an attack were judged to be the most impressive they had been during the entire Cold War. Had such a war occurred, American military units permanently based in Europe would have played a key role in blunting the initial Pact offensive, as would...

  11. 6 Conclusion
    (pp. 197-218)

    Can we conclude that it would have been impossible to confine a NATO-Pact war to conventional weaponry had such a war occurred in the 1980s? Indeed, ought we to conclude that U.S. military planning since the birth of flexible response in the early 1960s, which has focused precisely on such a scenario, has been futile? We cannot do so. Nuclear escalation is an extremely dangerous step, and statesmen have thus far not proven themselves cavalier in taking it. It may be that during an intense conventional conflict among states with large nuclear arsenals, statesmen and soldiers will be more impressed...

  12. Appendix 1 The Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) Model
    (pp. 219-234)
  13. Appendix 2 Central Region Close Air Support Aircraft and Attack Helicopters (1988)
    (pp. 235-239)
  14. Appendix 3 The Attrition-FEBA Expansion Model: Symphony Version
    (pp. 240-258)
  15. Appendix 4 A Barrier Defense Model
    (pp. 259-262)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 263-274)
  17. Index
    (pp. 275-280)