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Red lines and mushroom clouds

By Marko Beljac - posted Wednesday, 16 December 2015

It's just as hard to miss the tinge of red in the mushroom clouds produced by the explosion of a hydrogen bomb as it is the setting of "red lines" that has coloured much international relations over recent times.

When the great powers set red lines they do so under the shadow cast by mushroom clouds.

In June 1983 the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, warned US envoy Averell Harriman that the actions and rhetoric of the Reagan administration were leading the US and the USSR toward "the dangerous red line" of nuclear war through "miscalculation."


Six months later that red line was reached, but thankfully, was not breached. It was a close run affair, we now know.

At the time the Reagan administration adopted a nuclear strategy, not terribly different from that of the Carter administration, that called for the US to "prevail" in a "protracted nuclear war." The strategy sought to achieve "escalation control" through the use of nuclear weapons strikes as a type of communication device. The idea was that limited nuclear strikes, backed up the credible threat of a full scale nuclear attack, could be used in a graduated fashion to signal resolve and so compel Moscow to do Washington's bidding during a crisis.

This strategy was matched by strategic programmes such as the MX missile, Pershing II missile, Trident II D5 missile, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and so on that were, in part, designed to give the US the ability to launch a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union and prevent it retaliating in kind. To control the process of escalation required a credible capacity to destroy the Soviet Union with relatively limited cost.

Despite all the historical water that has flowed under the proverbial bridge the strategy and the efforts to "modernise" nuclear weapons to make these war fighting strategies credible endures, from the physics packages of the warheads themselves, to the reentry vehicles in which they are bused, to the delivery vehicles such as missiles upon which they are launched, to the system of command and control needed to control escalation after their use.

Today all the nuclear powers, so far as we are aware, are modernising their nuclear weapons precisely as they are setting new red lines. They are doing so because they understand that red lines stay bright red when the shadow cast by the mushroom cloud remains clear to all and sundry.

All this moves us toward the "dangerous red line" of nuclear war through "miscalculation." This is because the nuclear weapons of the US and Russia remain on high alert, a posture known as "launch on warning." In a crisis high alert levels lead to a "use them or lose them" dynamic that puts a premium on striking first.


Furthermore, during the cold war, the Soviets indicated that they would not play the American game of communication through nuclear strikes; a limited US nuclear strike would be met by a full blown Soviet response. That set a red line that deterred even a limited nuclear strike by Washington.

Now things are a little bit different. Russia currently pursues a similar strategy of escalation control that would first begin with a limited nuclear strike to communicate resolve which would, hopefully, compel an adversary to deescalate a crisis, envisaged as one that threatens the viability of the Russian state, on terms favourable to Moscow. Both Washington and Moscow have a graduated nuclear strategy that makes nuclear weapons more "useable" in a crisis.

To make matters worse the red line that the United States casts for Russia now sits on her very borders. That has been perhaps the most significant long term strategic affect of the crisis in Ukraine. We now have both Washington and Moscow thinking they can play cat and mouse with nuclear weapons, and that when the red lines sit upon the Rodina herself.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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