Nuclear Weapons in the Information Age

  • Published

Nuclear Weapons in the Information Age by Stephen J. Cimbala. Continuum, 2012, 238 pp.

Nuclear weapons did not diminish in importance with the end of the Cold War, but remain an important element of US national security policy. In Nuclear Weapons in the Information Age, Dr. Stephen J. Cimbala, distinguished professor of political science at Penn State, Brandywine, offers a clear, concise study of the coexistence of nuclear and conventional weapons in an age of information-based, precision warfare. Cimbala’s expertise in arms control and national security issues shines through in this overdue update within the field of nuclear thought, especially at a time when nuclear disarmament is in vogue. He contends there are now two contradictory methods of war at play in modern warfare and divides his chapters into descriptions of this contradiction between ever-looming nuclear holocaust and precision, information-based, conventional warfare.

Cimbala’s work is effective in three ways. First, it does not talk down to the reader, yet his insight into the variety of nuclear regimes is accessible to anyone interested in arms control and nuclear policy. He begins by identifying and defining the variety of nuclear arms control possibilities and then walks the reader through the history and modern application of each, including mutual deterrence, nuclear primacy, defense dominance, and nuclear abolition. He uses this framework to craft his arguments throughout the book. Second, Cimbala presents a balanced argument for each regime, not showing preference to any one in particular, though he does advocate for a strategy of “limited deterrence” in his final chapter, underscoring his argument with graphs and data. Finally, Cimbala avoids the trap of simply dismissing nuclear weapons as relics of the Cold War. Instead, he outlines the advantages and disadvantages of continued modernization and control of nuclear proliferation and the arguments for abolition and denuclearization.

The book was written prior to the Russian incursion into Crimea in March 2013, so the escalation of tensions between the two former Cold War adversaries and subsequent initiation of substantive sanctions against Putin’s government are not addressed. Cimbala argues the advancement in network warfare and information ubiquity could actually increase the likelihood of at least a limited nuclear exchange due to a heavy reliance on information ubiquity. Importantly, catastrophe was averted in both the Cuban missile crisis and the Able Archer Exercise (1983), he argues, because of the slow exchange of information between the Soviet Union and the United States, giving decision makers on both sides time to consider their options. In a modern context, the reliance on information technologies and their vulnerability to disruption could actually escalate similar events. As Cimbala says, “A nuclear armed state faced with a sudden burst of holes in its vital warning and response systems might, for example, press the preemption button instead of waiting to ride out the attack and then retaliate” (p. 206). He argues a preemptive, or more precisely, preventive nuclear war would not be unrealistic. One need only study the US intervention in Iraq as an example of a preventive action instigated with less than perfect intelligence.

The impact of networked communications and intelligence is the extent of Cimbala’s “information age” thesis. Readers looking for a connection between nuclear weapons command and control and modern information technology will be disappointed. He paints a masterful description of contemporary nuclear relevancy and offers the reader paradigms ranging from the influence of geography to the negotiation and effect of the New START, but he does not include a discussion about the modernization of nuclear command and control regimes as they relate to emerging technologies or the importance of bringing these systems up to date with investments in control infrastructure. Additionally, Cimbala’s copious use of lists when describing alternate courses of action distracts the reader. For instance, when contrasting the “dream of a post-abolition world” with reality, he numerates seven points (eight if one counts the additional point slipped in at the end of the paragraph) ranging from the de facto nuclear status of Israel to the pursuit of nuclear materials by nonstate actors (pp. 118–19). While each point is valid, the repetitive use of lists disturbs the flow of the book. Finally, his campaigning for “minimum deterrence” as an alternative to nuclear abolition, whereby arsenals are limited to the minimum number needed to successfully deter a competitor, is an exercise in mathematical possibilities defined by varying states of alert readiness. While he does acknowledge the importance of a national strategy’s impact on the minimum number of warheads, he does not go into any detail on how that strategy would be fulfilled or determine how many weapons a nation needs to successfully hold an adversary’s targets at risk which is always the question when determining arms reductions. How much is enough?

Cimbala’s book is insightful and necessary in this time of nuclear uncertainty. His arguments for a balanced approach toward nuclear arms control and the importance of maintaining the current nonproliferation regime makes sense and are well supported with a litany of citations by renowned thinkers in the field, such as Bernard Brodie and Lawrence Freedman. The lay reader, curious about arms control, ballistic missile defense, or nuclear abolition, would find this book just as useful and interesting as the graduate student beginning studies in international security. Overall, Cimbala’s sober look at the future of nuclear arms control reminds us of the continued relevance of nuclear weapons and the constraints on utopian ideas of a nuclear free world in the information age despite relative global stability.

Maj Dennis Crawford, USAF

Instructor, 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."