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On Limited Nuclear War in the 21st Century

On Limited Nuclear War in the 21st Century edited by Jeffrey A. Larsen and Kerry M. Kartchner. Stanford University Press, 2014, 312 pp.

On Limited Nuclear War in the 21st Century reopens scholarly debate on the potential for, the unique challenges related to, and US government preparedness to deter and win limited nuclear war. In a well-crafted argument, Jeffrey Larsen and Kerry Kartchner's team of scholars presents a compelling argument that questions the US government's preparedness either to successfully deter or achieve national security objectives in the event of a limited nuclear war.

Using Cold War history as a backdrop, the volume explains the major theoretical elements in deterrence, assurance, extended deterrence, conflict management, and war termination. It then applies these elements to the changing nuclear landscape. As nuclear weapons proliferate to less powerful states, the same mechanisms that made the Cold War stable between the United States and Soviet Union cease to exist between America and the new nuclear powers. Given the decreasing number of tactical nuclear weapons appropriate for nuclear wars with limited objectives and the dearth of serious discussion in the government on theory and strategies for such a war, the United States finds itself ill prepared to deter or fight a limited nuclear war, despite its tremendous nuclear arsenal. Consequently, America may discover that its strategies to assure allies and offer extended deterrence to encourage some states to forgo nuclear weapons are less effective than it imagined.

The book could not be timelier. The US government and population are coming to grips with the reality of nuclear weapons in the hands of states that they do not trust to act in the same rational way as the Soviet Union and its successor, modern Russia. The prospect of states such as Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea possessing nuclear weapons is leading the United States to spend billions on missile defenses to protect against possible attacks. On Limited Nuclear War recognizes that defense may be insufficient to deal with the challenges presented by "rogue" nuclear states, especially in the realm of assurance to allies and extended deterrence.

The second strength of this book is the presentation. The editors have created a clearly written book whose text flows smoothly and logically across the three major parts and chapters, as if composed by a single author rather than 11 experts in the field. Both novice and expert alike can easily follow its theory, history, prediction, and assessment. If there is a failing in On Limited Nuclear War, it is not readily apparent. The book effectively reopens critical debate on the future of nuclear weapons and the more likely scenario of a nuclear war initiated by rogues to realize limited objectives. Military leaders serving in the nuclear ranks should certainly read it, as should individuals aspiring to become general officers, regardless of service or specialty, and those interested in the nuclear enterprise. The book will also prove instructive to politicians, their staffers, think tanks, and others who assist in the development of nuclear policy, including the president. Everyone who delves into the pages of On Limited Nuclear War will enjoy this important narrative.

Lt Col Michael J. Martindale, USAF
US Air Force Academy


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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