MARCH 16, 2023: I AM TOLD BY A RELIABLE COLLEAGUE THAT THE QUOTE ABOUT TRIGGERING NUCLEAR WAR, NOW ITALICIZED BELOW, IS PROBABLY INACCURATE. APOLOGIES TO GENERAL COTTON FOR THE MISTAKE.
On Thursday, Air Force General Anthony Cotton, the head of the US Strategic Command, the service in charge of nuclear weapons, argued in testimony before Congress for more nuclear weapons, specifically a sea-launched cruise missile or SLCM-N. Back in the nineties, we pronounced this “slickem.” All things old are new again.
General Cotton referred to a “strategic gap or challenge in the availability of low-yield, non-ballistic nuclear weapons that do not generate a radar signature.” Nuclear weapons of this type, he said, “could be used without reaching a threshold that could trigger nuclear war.”
That last goes beyond the forest of nuclear cliches quoted by Defense Daily and is worth unpacking. As we’ve seen in the discussion of Russia’s nuclear threats and the escalation of Western aid to Ukraine. a great many strategists see nuclear use as implying nuclear war. The reason for this is that a first nuclear use removes some of the barriers to a second one, and so on. This is the nature of an escalatory ladder.
But General Cotton apparently has his own definition of “nuclear war.” This is dangerous, since the other services and the White House appear to share the more standard definition. A disconnect among the services in what constitutes a nuclear war can lead to dangerous misunderstandings and can certainly mislead Congress in a hearing like this one.
STRATCOM has always tended to be disconnected from the other services. Here we see the head of STRATCOM in a massive disconnect, which no doubt results from STRATCOM people talking to each other and nobody else.
I’ve been contemplating overnight, and I think I know what General Cotton means by “nuclear war.” It would be a war in which STRATCOM is involved. But that brings more questions of his concept of nuclear command and control. Does he understand that only the President can order the use of nuclear weapons?
Seems like the more responsible members of Congress should have a longer list of questions for him the next time around.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner