Nuclear Strategy 411: Introduction

What is Nuclear Strategy? — A Primer by James Griffin

There is a specter haunting the world — the grim visage of nuclear war. Everyone, from the lowliest Taliban fighter whose education never exceeded paltry religious studies, to the most powerful men and women on the planet who’ve labored under wizened sages in select ivory-coated towers, everyone, has an idea of what nuclear weapons are, but no one — save a handful of enigmatic defense planners — has the foggiest notion of what nuclear conflicts entail. Seeing as unfamiliar nuclear ghouls are and have been the single greatest contributor to global peace and prosperity for seventy-five years, as well as the only beasts capable of undoing centuries of human progress within a matter of hours, that’s obviously a less than ideal state of affairs.

Absent a coherent frame of reference for nuclear tumults, people residing in nuclear democracies (from humble voters, to senior policymakers) lack the requisite insight to pressure their governments into make sensible decisions on the make-up of their nuclear arsenals; in authoritarian nations, generals and political elites don’t have the necessary insight into when their brutish leaders are shoving their societies into a nuclear abyss from which there is no return; and the people and governments of non-nuclear states are bereft of the knowledge critical to understanding when their eminently noble efforts to pressure the nuclear powers into reducing their stockpiles are, in practice, increasing the chances that their own innocent countries could have a brush with famine, open warfare, or wholesale annihilation.

As the old adage goes, nuclear warfare is far too important to be left up to generals. In this case, it should be read quite literally — as one general in charge of America’s Strategic Command coyly confessed a few years ago, he knew nothing about nuclear strategy until he was promoted to lead America’s nuclear forces.

We’ll begin this “course” from first principles.

Boiled down to its sublime essence, nuclear strategy can best be defined as — the refined art of how to kill nations while ensuring that one’s own country is not destroyed.

That simple statement encapsulates this most gruesome field of study, pioneered over decades through intensive and rolling theorization by hundreds of the smartest men and women to ever walk the face of the planet, serves as the core of this new series examining the nuances of nuclear strategy for the modern world.

A Not So Quick Crash Course In Nuclear Strategic Orthodoxy

As alluded to above, nuclear strategy is an eclectic process that touches or encompasses every subject which humans have ever set their minds towards riddling out, so before we begin in earnest, a word of caution. When one looks too closely at this effluent miasma of hypothetical yet all too real carnage, even striving to stay on top of every related facet can cause intense emotional and mental distress.

The sheer density of this topic and the fact that it wholly consists of unrelenting nightmare-fuel can be quite taxing, so while it’s quite important that most people (perhaps everyone) should have some familiarity with it (as Bert the Turtle showed us in the halcyon years of the Cold War, it’s quite literally a matter of life and death for any and everyone you know), it’s highly advisable that the reader take time to breathe in between videos and papers. This series will still be there when you get back. But a word of warning, if you wait too long to read this and exert your own political power, your city and homeland might not be. Such are the caprices of nuclear war!

Now, to start us off, I’ve embedded four videos to catch everyone up to speed on the “basics” of nuclear strategy. I’m including them because they provide a brief overview of the progressive development of nuclear delivery systems, command and control structures, force development/posture/structure, etc… within an ‘American’ context. All nine of the nuclear powers have their own concepts of operations, command and control structures, thresholds for nuclear employment, etcetera ad nauseam.

But do bear in mind that pretty much everything you’re about to see in these videos pertaining to the actual theoretical/doctrinal concepts concerning nuclear strategy is just empirically, practically and historically incorrect or are otherwise inadequate for too many reasons to count.

To take one especially noteworthy example, popular concepts such as “Mutually Assured Destruction” (i.e. “MAD”), speaking bluntly have never actually existed — they’re a figment of the public’s imagination sold to you all with thinly veiled condescension by consecutive governments that were too lazy to lay out the empirical facts of your own prospective immiseration. If you use them in conversation with career American defense analysts they’re either going to frown, audibly sigh or mock you as a “know-nothing” in their minds.

If you’ll recall from watching these videos, Dr. William Kaufmann, one of the bona fide nuclear strategists interviewed in the U.S. Strategic Policy videos produced by Sandia Laboratory, sheepishly suggested that America’s strategy wonks had/have a propensity towards “punching things up”, both for popular consumption and to simplify ideas to make them comprehensible for executives within the defense-industrial enterprises of the US, its allies and its adversaries. For our part, we will proceed with the presumption that if you are reading/watching this, you are capable of tying your own shoelaces, explaining to little Johnnie or little Sally that mee-ma will not be waking up, and that you understand the concept of taxation.

A brief, but I think, necessary aside. As far as I can tell, this paternalistic “dumbing-down” of nuclear strategy (yes, even too PhD holding experts in nominally intertwined fields, such as deterrence theory and arms control) isn’t entirely intentional. The morass of nuclear strategists spent and spend their time cloistered together with similarly brackish minds processing highly-classified material with an eye towards developing highly-classified war plans for the United States’ and its allies.

Whenever solitary nuclear strategists have tried to gently explain the nuances of some of the monstrous work they were doing to the general public, they were often lampooned as harbingers of the apocalypse. These excerpts from the famous game-theorist Anatol Rapoport’s journal article ‘Chicken à la Kahn’ (apparently only available to Analytica’s Patreon supporters in our Patron only Discord library) is perhaps a quintessential example of the low regard in which nuclear strategists were, and to some extent, still are held.

The author of “On Escalation” is revealed not as a detached analyst, nor even as a cynically bemused observer of human folly, but rather as an enthusiastic choreographer of the dance of death. He relishes the obscene pranks he invents and the cataclysmic phantasies (sic) he invokes.

“On Escalation,” like Mr. Kahn’s earlier books, is essentially a taxonomy of Pandora’s zoo, a blueprint for genocide, and a guide for the possessed. It is a recurrent symptom of a repulsive social disease, not unlike the disease to which Germany and Japan succumbed a generation ago. The disease is now incubating in our country.

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Volume 41, Number 3, 1965

This field naturally creates quite thick skin amongst its analysts, but it should be enough to argue that “shutting down” and lampooning the people pointing out the Sword of Damocles dangling over everyone’s heads will do nothing but wear on its stranded thread.

Now that we’re all cognizant of the all too common intellectual lacunae of… well, most academics, policy-makers and talking-heads who try to discuss topics even tangentially involving nuclear strategy, there are some works that properly treat with the subject. I’ve listed a few by order of complexity and accessibility below.

Dr. May’s book (really a doctoral dissertation) should be considered as the authoritative work on the subject (and a virtual copy is available, free of charge, to Analytica Camillus’ Patreon supporters via Analytica’s Patron only digital library). It’s the exhaustive product of dozens of interviews with many of the Cold War’s leading conventional and nuclear strategists, conducted by the United States’ leading contemporary strategist.

How did Nuclear Strategy Develop?

The Doyen of Nuclear Strategic Thought

Nuclear Strategy isn’t Medicine, Engineering or Computer science (although the modern iterations of those fields were jump-started by the so-called nuclear revolution), and even approaching expertise let alone mastery of this craft is quite simply impossible. As the famous economist and Rhodes Scholar Alain Enthoven once observed to an overly parochial Air Force flag officer:

“General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have!”

Speaking colloquially, that means there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news: there aren’t really any “experts” on nuclear strategy, nobody has experience fighting a nuclear war, so any and everyone’s informed opinions on the subject are valuable. Now, the bad news: there aren’t really any “experts” on nuclear strategy, nobody has experience fighting a nuclear war, and basically all of the work done on this subject up until now hopelessly inadequate given the severity of the potential consequences of nuclear war.

But, now that I’ve reiterated that there aren’t any experts on nuclear strategy, I’d be negligent in remitting the names and work of those individuals who’ve made great strides towards developing a sensible corpus on nuclear strategic theory.

As any halfway trained political scientist or international relations theorist will (or rather, should) observe, this next section is notably bereft of a number of noteworthy scholars on “nuclear strategic” related fields such as Deterrence Theory. The omission of luminaries like Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger and Morton ‘Mort’ Halperin is conscious and intentional — countless gallons of ink have been spilled on the somewhat less tricky subject of how to prevent nuclear and conventional war between the nuclear powers, both in academia and inside/around the US/West’s defense industrial architecture. Not nearly as much work has been put into estimating/calculating/simulating how to fight and potentially prevail in nuclear wars.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, if our collective objective is to avoid a cataclysmic nuclear exchange, then having at least an opaque idea of how potential nuclear exchanges could play-out is clearly a prerequisite to any conversations about deterrence.

The list of nuclear strategists and their work presented below is far from exhaustive (apologies in advance to anyone who’s been left out — if you’ve done work on the subject feel free to reply to this post here or on Twitter), but it should suffice as a comprehensive précis on the field’s intellectual progression.

The Old Breed

Oh, the Rand Corporation’s the boon of the world,
They think all day long for a fee.
They sit and play games about going up in flames;
For counters they use you and me, honey bee,
For counters they use you and me.

They will rescue us all from a fate worse than death
With a touch of the push-button hand;
We’ll be saved at one blow from the designated foe,
But who’s going to save us from Rand, dear Lord,
Who’s going to save us from Rand?

Malvina Reynolds, ‘The Rand Hymn’ – 1961, Schroder Music Company ©

Bernard Brodie


Bernard Brodie has the dual distinction of being the first (at least civilian) nuclear strategist as well as the first nuclear strategist to tackle the ramifications of the United States’ introduction of the hydrogen bomb. In the interest of highlighting the “less prominent” nuclear strategists, it should suffice to point out the two academic biographies written about Brodie and his work: Bernard Brodie and the Foundations of American Nuclear Strategy by Barry Howard Steiner; and State of Doom: Bernard Brodie, the Bomb, and the Birth of the Bipolar World by Barry Scott Zellen.


Herman Kahn


Herman Kahn — futurist, physicist, genius, strategist extraordinaire — needs no introduction for anyone over the age of 40 who has done any work in the field of national security. Founder of the inestimable Hudson Institute, Herman was the first man to introduce the unwashed masses to the unvarnished grim calculus of nuclear strategy, and he was the first analyst to publicly call for the creation of a robust American civil defense infrastructure. The empowerment of the US Office of Civil Defense Mobilization (later the Office Emergency Management, which was ultimately spun into the American Federal Emergency Management Agency — better known today as FEMA, the country’s go-to shop for mitigating natural disasters and conspiracist bugaboo) is quite likely a byproduct of his relentless lobbying and lecturing of Federal government officials. In the popular imagination, Kahn’s musings were aptly captured in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — though his hypothetical “doomsday machine” was something of a fictitious exercise, concerns about a “mineshaft gap” were only somewhat exaggerated.

There are three biographies cum compilations of Herman Kahn’s life and work in popular circulation: The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi; The Essential Herman Kahn: In Defense of Thinking, by Paul Dragos Aligica and Kenneth R. Weinstein; and SUPERGENIUS: The Mega-Worlds of Herman Kahn, by B. Bruce-Briggs. All three are excellent books, but I’m told that his family is partial to SUPERGENIUS.


Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter


Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter were and are undoubtedly the most effervescent couple on this list. Noteworthy both for their chic architectural taste, and their keen insights into both strategy and governmental profligacies. You can’t really separate out this couple — when former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle first dipped his toes into the field of national security, he was grilled and later cultivated by our dynamic duo operating together à la the Godfather, and their joint presence was felt for decades in the halls of power — but they did grapple with separate subjects. Roberta wrote the gold-standard work on strategic surprise and intelligence failure Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, and Albert Wohlstetter had the honor of grossly embarrassing Strategic Air Command and the Department of Defense by pointing out how comically vulnerable America’s fleet of strategic bombers was to a potential Soviet surprise attack. To say that Robert’s Economic and Strategic Considerations in Air Base Location: A Preliminary Review, “lit a fire under the Defense Department’s ass” would be poetic understatement, he and his small band of colleagues discovered that the United States with its extant force posture would lose a nuclear war to the USSR, and badly at that. The American government’s familiar habit of “going through the motions” and not fully thinking things through simply don’t make the cut when the game is nuclear war, and the stakes are literally everything.


William ‘Bill’ Kaufmann


William Kaufmann, one of the quieter nuclear strategists (interviewed above), was probably the first analyst to formally articulate that “genocide is not a great policy actually” to the endless consternation of SAC leaders such as General Thomas “Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!” Power and General Curtis “If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I’m going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.” LeMay. Specifically, he propagated plans for an initial ‘counter-force’ campaign that would spare cities from being incinerated and, hypothetically at least, make controlling a nuclear exchange significantly easier. To my knowledge, there aren’t any biographies about Kaufmann in particular (though his name crops up everywhere whenever one delves into the history of the Cold War in America), but learning that his middle-name was ‘Weed’ might provide a helpful incentive to younger scholars interested in learning about how the cities they grew up learning about weren’t rebuilt atop piles of cinders.


Andrew ‘Andy’ Marshall


Andrew Marshall should be a household name in the United States, as he’s arguably the figure who’s single-most responsible for shepherding in the last forty years of American global dominance, as well as at least the next ten. As a young analyst at the RAND corporation, he studied the dynamics of hypothetical nuclear exchanges with and among the smartest men and women to ever walk the face of the planet. Mr. Marshall was best friends with the aforementioned Herman Kahn (I could have mentioned this above, but I’m placing this here for dramatic effect, Kahn was verifiably the smartest man whose ever lived in the United States; I’m not exaggerating here, when he took the IQ test administered to the 12+ million US military intakes during the Second World War alongside neutron bomb inventor Samuel Cohen, Kahn was the only person to receive a near perfect score, he missed one question because he rushed through the exam, wandered out of the test-taking room, and hurried back a few minutes later to try and fix an arithmetic mistake and they didn’t let him back in); Marshall was close friends with Daniel Ellsberg — the man who produced, basically memorized and subsequently released all 20,000 pages of the infamous Pentagon Papers; he worked on Enrico Fermi’s cyclotron; he helped reform the US’ Intelligence Community and was cultivated by the CIA’s own resident spook/savant John Bross — and this was all before we get to the interesting parts of his life.

Mr. Marshall went on to establish the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA), the Department of Defense’s (and if we’re being completely honest, the entire Federal government’s) personal brain trust. During the 70s, 80s and 90s, Marshall borrowed the idea of defense networkization from a handful of Soviet defense intellects, and his outfit produced the studies that jumpstarted the Defense Department’s (and by extension, the United States’) headfirst lunge into rabid technological modernization. The widespread adoption of stealth technology, the breakneck miniaturization and subsequent commercialization of microelectronic soft and hardware (such as the MacBook or Dell laptop you’re probably reading this on), the drive towards harnessing “exotic” materials such as innumerable composites and depleted uranium, can all be traced back towards Marshall’s aisle-office musing aloud “wouldn’t it be neat if…” I won’t even bother with getting into the strategic ramifications of ONA’s policy suggestions (for that, I’d point you all towards Net Assessment and Military Strategy: Retrospective and Prospective Essays, by Tom Mahnken; The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts; and Reflections on Net Assessment, by himself, Jeffrey McKitrick and Robert Angevine), but since they’re too used to carefully couching their analyses and we lack their inhibitions here at Analytica Camillus, it falls to us to point out that ONA’s work played a pivotal role in pushing the USSR’s economy off the cliff it spent decades tottering on. ONA also spent the past several decades shadow-boxing with the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party, so if (and increasingly when) the United States economically triumphs over China (with or without open conflict), that will largely be the handiwork of a titan who passed away in 2019.


James ‘Jim’ Digby


This is a point of personal embarrassment, but despite the monumental work done by Jim Digby and his wife Mary Jane (pictured above) at and for RAND, I can’t actually find any pictures of him. His path to nuclear strategy was relatively nonstandard, he received a B.S. in engineering from Louisiana Tech and a Masters in electrical engineering from Stanford (as opposed to a degree in history, economics, political science, physics or mathematics — give or take the usual pathways into the field of strategy until the cementation of strategic studies as a field in its own right). During the Second World War, he took courses in electronics at Harvard and radar at MIT, and in 1949 he moved to RAND eventually heading up its Operations Research department working on Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter’s teams.

While at RAND, he did much of the technical work on riddling out the ramifications of the oncoming precision-weapons regime which revolutionized the field of nuclear strategy. Traditionally, for counter-force to be a viable strategic approach, nuclear warheads needed to be fairly massive to reliably destroy, say a hardened missile silo. We’ll try to break-down some of the math/science involved in our “course” on counter-force, but to effectively service a hardened target using a warhead/re-entry vehicle with a large circular error probability (CEP), it was necessary to either allocate multiple warheads (creating an infamous ‘overkill‘ mentality) or to use significantly larger warheads creating all sorts of unsavory environmental impacts and reducing the use-efficiency of one’s stockpile of fissile materials. An increase in precision reduced both the size and the number of warheads necessary to destroy hardened targets under a counter-force regime, opening the door to such elusive phenomena as “Arms Control.”

As I eluded to above, the importance of Jim Digby’s work speaks for itself, but mind-bogglingly there aren’t any biographies on him; he currently unjustifiably lies in the margins of history despite making it.


Henry ‘Harry’ Rowen


As a former president of RAND, an Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs, a chairman of the National Intelligence Council and member of the Defense Policy Board during the Bush administration, Henry Rowen needs no introduction for anyone familiar with the field of national security. What’s less widely known is that Harry Rowen cut his teeth working with Albert Wohlstetter and his studies of basing nuclear forces and flexible response.


The New Age

Ashton Carter


Another Rhodes Scholar, the recently departed Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, a physicist and historian by training, entered the field of national security working on the infamous MX basing study and with his touchstone work on nuclear command and control ‘Managing Nuclear Operations.’ Several decades later, he penned the seminal book on ballistic missile defense aptly titled ‘Ballistic Missile Defense’ (who says physicists aren’t creative), both of which are linked below. You can read his autobiography here.


Janne Nolan


Janne Nolan, another brilliant mind gone far too soon, wrote probably the best metanalysis of/on the field of nuclear strategy and war-planning, examining the — albeit somewhat perverse behavior of nuclear war planners that has stymied more or less every president who’s ever tried to reign in or otherwise control the nuclear arsenals/strategy/posture that America’s heads of state are nominally in charge of.


Francis Gavin


Since Frank Gavin is very much still alive, I’ll note that he’s a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins. You can see much of his work at his JHU page here.


Ashley Tellis


An economist and political scientist by training, Ashley Tellis is also very much still alive, and he’s the Tata Chair of for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can see much of his other work at his CEIP page here.


Ankit Panda


Sticking with our trend, Ankit is an editor at the Diplomat and a Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. You can access his work at this link here, and you can ask him questions over at his very active Twitter feed.


Vipin Narang


Normally a professor at MIT, Vipin is serving as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy. You can access his past work via his MIT webpage here, and if you ask nicely he might even respond to your messages on Twitter (though he is quite busy at the moment).


Elbridge Colby


Bridge is currently principal of the Marathon Initiative, and formerly was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. I’ve linked some of his work below, and you can shoot him questions via Twitter.


Matthew Kroenig


Matt Kroenig is a professor at Georgetown University and a former policy advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. You can access his work via his Georgetown page here, and he also happens to be very active on Twitter.


Keith Payne


Keith Payne is President of the National Institute for Public Policy and formerly served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Policy. He doesn’t have a centralized page listing his work, but you can access a lot of his papers at NIPP’s website here.


John Warden


John Warden’s probably the youngest of this (and I can’t stress this enough) non-exhaustive list of nuclear strategists, and he’s an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis. Most of IDA’s work is classified or privileged, but there are a few of his public papers accessible below. He’s also on Twitter, but he’s not especially active (which, I mean, fair enough).


Our Scenario

Well, that was an exhausting and not especially flashy introduction to the barebones of nuclear strategy and some of its theorists.

Now, we can start to show what nuclear strategy looks like in practice. For that purpose, we’ll tee up a scenario we’ll refer back to for most of the pieces in this series.

The Dog Days of 2023

In July of 2023, the collapse of China’s real estate market and the prospect of economic stagnation and widespread popular unrest spur the Communist Party of China into stoking hyper-nationalist sentiments, with pointed grievances being directed towards supposed interference by the Quad security-pact (Australia, India, Japan and the United States). In a self-feeding cycle, to satiate the furor provoked by the CPC, the Global Times reports that the People’s Liberation Army has begun amassing an armada of cargo freighters in the vicinity of Wenzhou. The American National Reconnaissance Office observes substantial elements of the PLA Eastern Theater Command leaving their bases and congregating along the eastern shoreline of China, while the NRO also notices a large scale rail movement of units from the Central Theater Command being moved to the Western Theater Command, just north of the Himalayan range. SIGINT acquired by the NSA, HUMINT scrounged up by RAW, CIA and (Japanese intel) corroborates chatter of a large series of exercises or operations (the data is unclear). CIA analysts sift through their intel on Xi Jinping’s travels and communications, and flag an oblique reference made in June by Chairman Xi to President Putin of Russia to a “pressure salve” in the near future.

Flush with this new intel and unsure if the CPC is bluffing, out of an abundance of caution Prime Minister Narendra Modi mobilizes the X and XXI Corps, with X Corps being issued orders to proceed to reinforce IA units in Kashmir within a timespan of 4 weeks.

The Pakistani government, shepherded by the Pakistani General Staff finds itself wedged between a rock and a hard place. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) attacks have accelerated, with a spate of May and June bombings targeting the officer corps of the Pakistani Frontier Corps, Pakistani Army units seconded to the PKC to suppress the increasingly difficult situation in Khyber Pakhtunkwa, and 3 airbases meant to support counter-terror operations in Pakistan’s highlands. ISI quietly confesses to General Asim Munir that they have proof that their prodigal scions the Afghan Taliban have been encouraging TTP operations, and transferring them equipment for a coordinated campaign to drive the Pakistani Military out of Khyber Pakhtunkwa — potentially positioning TTP for a chaotic thunder run on Islamabad.

Adding to the Pakistani government’s geo-strategic travails, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI — temporarily blocked from attaining political power by the machinations of the Pakistani Army — has sought to undermine Rawalpindi’s control by making lucrative political/monetary overtures to a number of Pakistani Army division, corps and army leaders, but ISI is struggling to identify who precisely has been turned, as all of these clandestine communications have been conducted via Signal.

Terrified of the possibility of fighting the Indian Army on one side, waves of hardened jihadists on the other side and a looming fifth column from within, the Pakistani General Staff’s new leader opts to de-fang the largest potential threat before it can materialize.

New Tools for a Old Lessons

To aid in teaching this “course”, we’ll make use of a suite of high-fidelity models and simulations shown below that, perhaps surprisingly, nobody has really used for broader educational purposes until now — they’ve mostly been employed by defense planners sequestered in their SCIFs and perhaps a handful of academics. We’ll explain what what each of them do and what problems they have when we come to them, but I’ve selected videos that provide fairly concise summaries.

If you’re interested in supporting or participating in this work, find us on Patreon here, or on our Discord here [].

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  1. Konrad

    The Satanic American empire is the only nation to use nukes in war.


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