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High probability of nuclear conflict – conventional war could inadvertently escalate

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High probability of nuclear conflict – conventional war could inadvertently escalate

Posen 82 (Barry R, Professor of Political Science, MIT, 1982, "Inadvertent Nuclear War?: Escalation and NATO's Northern Flank." International Security, pp 28-54)//LD

Could a major EastWest conventional war be kept conventional? American policymakers increasingly seem to think so. Recent discussions of such a clash reflect the belief that protracted conventional conflict is possible, if only the West fields sufficient conventional forces and acquires an adequate industrial mobilization base. Indeed, the Reagan Administration has embraced the idea of preparing for a long conventional war, as evidenced by its concern with the mobilization potential of the American defense industry.1 Underlying this policy is the belief that the United States should be prepared to fight a war that, in duration and character, resembles World War II. American decisionmakers seem confident of their ability to avoid nuclear escalation in such a war if they so desire. That confidence is dangerous and unwarranted. It fails to take into account that intense conventional operations may cause nuclear escalation by threatening or destroying strategic nuclear forces. The operational requirements (or preferences) for conducting a conventional war may thus unleash enormous, and possibly uncontrollable, escalatory pressures despite the desires of American or Soviet policymakers. Moreover, the potential sources of such escalation are deeply rooted in the nature of the force structures and military strategies of the superpowers, as well as in the technological and geographical circumstances of large-scale East-West conflict. If the escalatory pressures that could attend a major conventional war are to be prevented from driving decision-makers toward decisions they neither intend nor wish to make, those pressures must be recognized and guarded against by the leaders of both superpowers.2 Moreover, underestimating the escalatory risks that would accompany conventional war has several significant negative consequences, even in peacetime. First, American decision-makers pay insufficient attention to the details of conventional posture and operations essential to the limitation of war. Too many agree with the observation that "both sides understand conventional warfare, they know that it can be controlled in the present age."3 Second, leaders who fail to appreciate fully the dangers of nuclear escalation may not be cautious enough about both the initiation and the conduct of direct confrontations between Soviet and American military power. Third, nuclear deterrence may be undermined by excessive public confidence in the limitability of superpower conventional war. The "threat to lose control" is an important element of NATO's flexible response strategy, and must be preserved. It would be unfortunate if the public pronounce- ments of Western strategists encouraged the Soviets to believe that they could easily avoid nuclear punishment for "conventional" aggression. Fourth, emphasis on protracted conventional conflict weakens Western Europe's confidence in America's nuclear guarantee. Emphasizing instead the difficulty of keeping conventional war conventional might ameliorate Alliance fears that the U.S. nuclear umbrella no longer shields them. Unfortunately, surprisingly little attention has been devoted to analyzing and understanding this path to nuclear war. Escalation has generally been conceived of as either a rational policy choice, in which a leadership decides to preempt or to escalate in the face of a conventional defeat, or as an accident, the result of mechanical failure, unauthorized use, or insanity. But escalation arising out of the normal conduct of intense conventional conflict falls between these two categories: it is neither a purposeful act of policy nor an accident. What might be called "inadvertent escalation" is rather the unintended consequence of a decision to fight a conventional war. Defense analysts have long believed that nuclear war is most likely to emerge out of a conventional conflict, but the idea of inadvertent escalation has somehow escaped their attention. It nevertheless is as plausible a route to nuclear conflict as many of the scenarios that have received extensive scrutiny, and probably more likely than many. Because nuclear escalation could destroy everything that we value, the West must be careful that the way it intends to defend itself conventionally does not bring about the very destruction it hopes to avoid.

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