In nuclear strategy, a first strike is a preemptive surprise attack employing overwhelming force. First strike capability is a country's ability to defeat another nuclear power by destroying its arsenal to the point where the attacking country can survive the weakened retaliation while the opposing side is left unable to continue war. The preferred methodology is to attack the opponent's launch facilities and storage depots first. The strategy is called counterforce.
First-strike attack, the use of a nuclear first strike capability, was greatly feared during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. At various points, fear of a first strike attack existed on both sides. Misunderstood changes in posture and well understood changes in technology used by either side were usually fuel on the fire of speculation regarding the enemy's intentions.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the leadership of the Soviet Union feared the United States would use its nuclear superiority to its advantage, as from 1945-1948, the U.S. was the only state possessing nuclear weapons. The USSR countered by rapid development of their own nuclear weapons, with a test first occurring in 1949, and the U.S. was taken by surprise. In turn, the U.S. countered by developing the vastly more powerful thermonuclear weapon, testing their first hydrogen bomb in 1952 at Ivy Mike, but the USSR quickly countered by testing their own thermonuclear weapons, with a test in 1953 of a semi-thermonuclear weapon of the Sloika design, and in 1956, with the testing of Sakharov's Third Idea - equivalent to the Castle Bravo device. Meanwhile, tensions between the two nations rose as 1956 saw the brutal suppression of Hungary by the Red Army; the U.S. and European nations drew certain obvious and inevitable conclusions from that event, while in the U.S., full scale hysteria was afoot, prompted by Joseph McCarthy, HUAC, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two atomic spies. This atmosphere was further inflamed by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, which led to wild fears of Communists attacking from space, as well as very real fears about the fact that if the Soviets could launch something over one's head, they could launch something else that could hit one's head. John F. Kennedy capitalized on this situation by emphasizing the Bomber gap and the Missile Gap, areas which the Soviets were (inaccurately) perceived as leading the United States in, while heated Soviet rhetoric, including Nikita Khruschev's famous threat that "We will bury you!" to Western ambassadors didn't help to cool tensions. The 1960 U-2 incident, involving Francis Gary Powers, as well as the Berlin Crisis, along with the test of the Tzar Bomba, escalated tensions to unheard of levels.
This escalating situation came to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The arrival of Soviet missiles in Cuba was conducted by the Soviets on the basis that the US already had nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey, as well as the desire by Fidel Castro to increase his power, his freedom of action, and to protect his government from US-initiated prejudicial resolution of ideological disputes through the use of military force, such as had been attempted during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961. During the crisis, Fidel Castro wrote Khrushchev a letter about the prospect that the "imperialists" would be "extremely dangerous" if they responded militarily to the Soviet stationing of nuclear missiles aimed at US territory, less than 90 miles away from Cuba. The following quotation from the letter suggests that Castro was calling for a Soviet first strike against the US if it responded militarily to the placement of nuclear missiles aimed at the US in Cuba:
"If the second variant takes place and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the dangers of their aggressive policy are so great that after such an invasion the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists could carry out a nuclear first strike against it. I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists' aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba—a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law—then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However, harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other."
The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in Khrushchev publicly agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba, while Kennedy secretly agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey. Both sides in the Cold War realized how close they came to nuclear war over Cuba, and decided to seek a reduction of tensions, resulting in US-Soviet détente for most of the 1960s and 1970s.
However, tensions were inflamed again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 Pioneer and the SS-18 Satan, and the decision of NATO to deploy the new Pershing II IRBM as well as the Tomahawk Ground-Launched Cruise Missile, along with Ronald Reagan's talk of 'limited' nuclear war. This increased Soviet fears that NATO was planning an attack. NATO's deployment of these missiles was a response to the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 Pioneer, which could hit most European NATO bases within minutes of launch. These mutual deployments led to a destabilizing strategic situation, which was exacerbated by malfunctioning U.S. and Soviet missile launch early warning systems, a Soviet intelligence gap that prevented the Soviets from getting a "read" on the strategic intentions of U.S. leaders, as well as overheated U.S. rightist rhetoric combined with classical Soviet paranoia. This culminated in a war scare that occurred during 1983 due to the inopportune timing of a NATO exercise called Able Archer, which was a simulation of a NATO nuclear attack on the Soviet Union; this exercise happened to occur during a massive Soviet intelligence mobilization called VRYAN, that was designed to discover intentions of NATO to initiate a nuclear first-strike. This poor timing drove the world very close to nuclear war, possibly even closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis over 20 years before.
But both sides retreated from the brink of the abyss of nuclear war.
Subsequent events caused the fears of nuclear attack on both sides to diminish significantly, as the tensions between the superpowers decreased, and have remained—at least in nuclear terms—comparatively low. However, the present indicates that this might be changing. Relations between the two have recently fallen to new post-Cold War lows, and events have illustrated that the world may be heading back towards a more tense situation in terms of nuclear armament and use, possibly even to a first strike. Talk that has been characterized as "reckless" has been rife amongst certain U.S. politicians who favor the development of new nuclear weapons (such as through the Complex 2030 program) or new uses for old weapons, such as by using them as nuclear bunker busters, even against non-nuclear states. The military invasion of Iraq was seen by Russia as indicating potential U.S. disrespect for what the Russian leadership views as international law, which it allegedly values. The U.S. missile defense program has proven a persistent irritant to better relations with Russia, who views the placement of U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe for defense against "the Iranian threat" similar to how the U.S. would view placement of Russian missile defense systems in, say, Cuba, for Russian defense against "the insidious Kiwi". The assassination of a British citizen by alleged operatives of the Russian government using Polonium-210, a radioactive poison, as well as the poisoning by dioxin of the President of the Ukraine, has raised tensions between Russia and the West, with Western nations regarding the poisonings as an indicator of the character, morality, and true intentions of the Kremlin. On top of that, Russian bellicosity and belligerence has recently increased, with tests of new nuclear-capable missiles occurring on a regular basis, military conflicts with neighboring states, claims of a Russian "sphere of influence" on the perimeter of the old Soviet Union, the rise of neo-fascist "Putin Youth" groups, aggressive politicization of and threats of withdrawal of natural gas supplies to Europe, should the Europeans not dance to the Kremlin beat, and even threats of a nuclear first strike against Poland have been heard to be made by certain Russian generals.
Even with these developments, recent events in both nations have served to restrain rhetoric and action in the direction of strategic destabilization, and have encouraged the possibility of stabilizing developments. Both the US and Russia have recently been humbled by the recent economic crisis and both are seeking to retrench policies that are viewed as potentially costly or reckless between the two. Russian posturing is no longer backed and inflated by record-high natural gas and oil prices allowing massive sums to be poured into military spending while US posturing is no longer encouraged by a (now-former) Administration who thought it could act in the immediate proximity of Russia with pointed disregard for Russian interests. Indeed, the correlation of forces and means between the two makes a potential reciprocal nuclear drawdown to low levels consistent with minimum credible deterrence - and, beyond that - to ultimate levels comparable with the nuclear force levels of the other great powers - achievable within the next decade. Both nations have begun to realize the core truth of the post-Cold War era that, if the strategic reality, as described by the words of Ronald Reagan, is that "Nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought", then what are excessive stockpiles of nuclear weapons stored for an Armageddon that must - and will - never come - anything but the most useless of white elephants that serve to impoverish the treasuries of both nations, increase global insecurity, send mixed messages on proliferation, without increasing the national security or freedom of action of either one iota? The possibility of a peace with honor of strategic equals between Russia and the US - the final settlement of the last unfinished business of the Cold War - may now be possible.
Still, clouds lurk on the horizon in other areas. Other nations have engaged in other policies that are regarded as potentially destabilizing. Officials in the People's Republic of China recently tested an anti-satellite missile, leading to widespread international concern, as anti-satellite missiles are viewed as threats to nuclear-launch warning systems, which could result in a first strike; further, tensions amid the Chinese governments over Taiwan have been rife in recent years; in addition, the PRC is reportedly pursuing modernization of their nuclear forces. Israel has made threats of the use of weapons, including those of a non-conventional character, while the former administration in the U.S. has refused to "take options off the table" (including the "nuclear option"), in the nuclear dispute with Iran, who is widely viewed as pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, and well known for their desire for the destruction of Israel (c.f. "The World Without Israel") and extreme dislike for the United States (c.f. regular political rallies in Tehran calling for "Death to America!"). The unpredictable North Korean government recently tested (or, more likely, partially fizzled) a nuclear device, and has historically threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire", or most recently, "ashes", in response to unspecified, but always imminent, U.S. or South Korean "aggression" against the Worker's Paradise. The foreign relations of Pakistan and India, as always, remain a powder-keg, but are now exaggerated by the nuclear arsenals of both states, as well as the rise of Hindu fascism in India, and the rise of al-Qaeda Islamism in Pakistan, and intercommunal strife—ranging from the demolition of a historic mosque by communal hooligans with worshipers inside—to a terrorist assault on Hindu shrines could be the spark igniting a nuclear war.
Decreasing tensions by mutual adoption of a minimum credible deterrent posture
Instead of relying on sophisticated communications links and launch-on-warning postures, the French, British, and Chinese have chosen to assume different nuclear postures more suited to minimum credible deterrence, or the capability to inflict unacceptable losses so as to prevent the use of nuclear weapons against them, rather than pursuing types of nuclear weapons suitable to first-strike use.
The People's Republic of China is believed to pursue a minimum credible deterrent/second strike strategy with regards to the United States. This may or may not be true with regards to the PRC's stance vis a vis Russia, as the majority of Chinese nuclear platforms are non-intercontinental, and are deployed on the Russian-Chinese border. Unlike the relations of the United States and the PRC, the PRC and Russia have had military conflicts in the past. In recent years, the PRC has improved its early-warning systems and renovated certain of its platforms for intercontinental strike; this may be due to the U.S. missile defense system (it may not be, however). In general, it appears that the PRC's leaders do not greatly fear a first strike (due to their posture of merely inflicting unacceptable losses upon an adversary as opposed to the U.S./Russian policy of trying to "win" a nuclear war); in any event, the Chinese arsenal is considered sufficient to ensure that such a first strike would not go unavenged.
France & Great Britain possess sophisticated nuclear weapons platforms; however their nuclear strategies are believed to be minimum credible deterrent-based as well, due to the small number of weapons they possess and lack of major adversaries they have.
Eliminating nuclear weapons
Ultimately, the best countermeasure against a nuclear first-strike, or a nuclear strike of any sort, is to eliminate nuclear weapons, in a comprehensive, universal, verifiable and irreversible fashion. Of course, this is more easily said than done, but, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear weapons states have obligated themselves to at least try. Iran however has flouted all attempts at reason.
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