In an editorial this week, military defense experts Adam Lowther and Chris Winklepleck argue that the strategic aircraft arm of the US nuclear triad provides unique “nuclear signaling” and serves a critical deterrence role in US military strategy.
Recent and historical evidence, however, shows that their claim lacks merit, as brandishing nuclear weapons only serves to exacerbate tensions and heighten the risk of conflict, former nuclear weapons expert at Los Alamos National Lab Jim Doyle writes for Defense News.
South Korea saw nuclear flyovers by the US in 2013 and 2016 using B-2 and B-52 aircraft, but the maneuvers have done nothing to diminish tensions on the Korean peninsula nor have they been a corrective to Pyongyang’s militaristic brinksmanship.
Recent North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests show that nuclear signaling does not achieve its desired effect. Reports out of Pyongyang suggest that US nuclear flyovers have been used instead by the Kim regime to increase domestic support for the dictatorship by confirming that a threat exists.
Specifically, the 2013 “long-range show of presence missions” by the US on the Korean peninsula was followed by North Korea’s restart of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor one month later. Following the second show of presence mission in 2016, DPRK conducted a fourth nuclear test explosion and expedited ballistic missile production and testing.
While military experts may write off aggressive North Korean military response as an anomaly, citing the country’s sometimes incoherent foreign policy, history points to the ineffectiveness of similar missions elsewhere.
On October 27, 1969, Doyle writes, the Nixon administration attempted to “signal” to the Soviet Union and the Viet Cong, in what became known as the “madman nuclear alert,” that Nixon was aggressive enough to launch a nuclear attack against North Vietnam if Moscow did not pressure the Hanoi government to seek peace. In that effort, 18 B-52s approached the USSR from the arctic. The posturing failed, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union, and doing nothing to resolve the Vietnam quagmire.
History shows that nuclear deterrence by means of mutually assured destruction is not an effective way to keep the peace, especially when global economic and political interests seek to end the threat of nuclear weapons. Research illustrates heightened tensions and conflict in the use of nuclear signaling. Nations seeking peace have no need to wield a larger club.