War Games: Exercising the Power to Hurt

To set the tone for their recent article on Twenty-First Century Nuclear Deterrence , four senior American nuclear war-planners approvingly quote from Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling’s classic 1966 defense of ‘coercive diplomacy’ in the atomic age:

The power to hurt – the sheer unacquisitive, unproductive power to destroy things that somebody treasures, to inflict pain and grief – is a kind of bargaining power, not easy to use but used often.

In this sense, the Bomb has been ‘used’ many times since 1945, acquiring in the process a ‘status’ and ‘aura’ its growing number of possessors (now nine) are determined to retain. The ‘bargain’ thus purchased, at vast cost and waste of human and natural resources, is Faustian: for the Ring of Power, a Day of Reckoning, when political use becomes actual use.

Nameplates of the countries attending the Sixth Ministerial Meeting on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), 2012. (Photo via The Official CTBTO Photostream, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Because atomic ‘pain and grief’ is so extreme — even a so-called ‘limited’ nuclear war will inflict insupportable damage on the entire world system, and indeed the earth’s climate — a clear majority of states believe such weapons should be abolished as speedily as possible, and have recently adopted a Ban Treaty to light the Way.

For the authors of Twenty-First Century Nuclear Deterrence, however, any move toward limiting, let alone scrapping, nuclear weapons, runs the risk of Uncle Sam loosening his grip on the Ring, at a time his main enemies, Russia and China, are brazenly strutting their strategic stuff. In the real-man’s world of today’s wars and weapons, arms control – alas, I exaggerate not – is a dangerous drug, a habit to be kicked:

On the surface it may seem that U.S. leadership in nuclear arms control and non-proliferation is altogether positive, but there have been several costly side effects.

They then refer to the emasculating effects of successive NPRs — as avid readers of this column know (and ‘consumers’ of mainstream North American media will not) an NPR is a Nuclear Posture Review, the unclassified formulation of US nuclear doctrine periodically updated, at the president’s request, by the Pentagon.

The authors go so far as to fault President Obama — who authorized a trillion-dollar, three-decade modernization of the American arsenal (the price tag has already nearly doubled) — for “diminish[ing]” the role of nuclear weapons in war-planning with his “permissive,” pro-arms control attitude,” acting to “marginalize” the Bomb, limiting its function to deterring, rather than determining, conflict.


A new NPR, in fact, was President Donald Trump’s first ask on taking office, and in February 2018 Defense Secretary James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis unveiled a Muscle Man posture promising ‘no more Mr. Nuclear Nice Guy’ — new types of nukes for new kinds of missions, including “achievement of U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.”

With the Mattis NPR, as our military masterminds note, “the United States seems to recognize that it is at an inflection point,” one at which the arms control treaties can be quietly sacrificed, as is indeed happening, roadkill on the road to nuclear ‘supremacy.’ Peace if possible, victory if necessary, through the ultimate power to hurt.

President Donald Trump speaks with Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Pentagon senior leaders during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2018 (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith via Wikimedia Commons)

And to ‘operationalize’ the new posture ASAP, they make two striking (pun intended) suggestions:

…a potentially controversial new concept involving custodial sharing of nonstrategic nuclear capabilities during times of crisis with select Asia-Pacific partners, specifically Japan and the Republic of Korea

And the incorporation by the US and NATO of:

…nuclear weapons into a broader variety and scale of exercises, while developing additional [nuclear] capabilities to offset Russia’s numerical advantage in low-yield nuclear weapons.

Both suggestions – sharing the Bomb with friends in Asia; practicing more “Bombing with Buddies” in Europe – focus on the nuclear ‘battlefield,’ where one’s ‘post-deterrence’ objectives will supposedly be achieved, with so-called ‘low-yield’ weapons – up to 15 kilotons, or Hiroshima-size – somehow not provoking a longer-range, many-megaton, response.

Given that the US and its ‘umbrella’ allies have always endorsed a first-strike doctrine and posture, and have never committed to ‘only’ striking first to prevent an imminent nuclear attack, such nuclearized ‘exercises’ will inevitably appear sinister to potential target-states, increasing the chances of catastrophic crisis mismanagement.


In some ways, it is hard to imagine how much more ominous such exercises could be. On the Korean Peninsula, for example, annual Max Thunder military drills by the US and South Korea – featuring ‘leadership decapitation’ routines and a panoply of nuclear-armed ships, subs and bombers – have long frustrated efforts to foster détente and demotivate North Korea’s pursuit of the Bomb.

At the admittedly surreal Singapore Summit in June 2018, President Trump agreed to end such exercises in response to Chairman Kim Jong-un’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests and in anticipation of progress towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – the ‘denuking’, that is, not just of North Korea but America’s regional presence and posture.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, Singapore Summit, 12 June 2018. (Source: NBC News video https://www.nbcnews.com/video/trump-and-kim-meet-at-historic-singapore-summit-1253541443746?cid=par-sy-embarqmailcom)

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, Singapore Summit, 12 June 2018. (Source: NBC News video)

The denuclearization nettle, however, has been grasped by neither side, ostensibly due to Washington’s refusal to synchronize sanctions relief with phased reductions, but more fundamentally due to Washington’s desire (as stressed ad nauseum in the Mattis NPR) to maintain a regional nuclear strike capability against China. Following the abject failure of a second summit, in Hanoi in February, the North resumed testing of shorter-range systems and South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, bowed to intense pressure from the US to permit a resumption of scaled-back but still significant “war games” (Trump’s term in Singapore).

Hopes of reviving the peace process, raised by Trump’s surprise meeting with Kim in the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas on June 30, were further dashed by North Korean short-range missile tests in July and the resumption of US-South Korea ‘drilling for war’ on August 5. On August 6, a North Korean statement noted that:

…as the U.S. and South Korean authorities take every possible occasion to claim that the joint exercises are ‘defensive’ in nature, an ‘essential element’ for combat preparedness, etc., so we are compelled to develop, test and deploy the powerful physical means essential for national defense.

“If,” the North argued, the South “finds itself so distressed by a ‘security threat,’ it would be much more expedient for it not to commit such an act that will only make a rod for itself.”


This was the unravelling backdrop to President Moon’s address on August 15 – the 74th anniversary of Korean liberation from Japanese occupation – in which he pledged to nurture last year’s “spring of peace” to the full fruition of “unification by 2045, the 100th anniversary of liberation.” The overture was immediately and brutally rebuffed by the North, which announced the termination of all North-South cooperation in protest at the new drills.

Guided missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66) passes beneath the McDonald Bridge during a passing exercise to begin the at-sea phase of Exercise Cutlass Fury 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Candice Tresch/Released 12 September 2016, via Wikimedia Commons)

Such exercises in bad judgment – the militarization of political intelligence – have contributed mightily to the absurd return of mid-Winter relations between NATO and Russia. And from September 9-20, Halifax will have the dubious honor of hosting, for the second time, a massive NATO naval war game with the saber-rattling title Cutlass Fury.

Cutlass Fury 2016 featured a mere 11 warships, three submarines (two nuclear-powered), 25 aircraft and 3,000 personnel from six states (Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and – dominant of course – the US). In the glowing report provided to the Pentagon’s Navy Live website by Captain Derek Laban, Commander of Destroyer Squadron 28 (how many are there?):

[W]e trained and operated together, sending a powerful and visible signal of our combined effectiveness and our ability to be bold, strong and ready.

This time round, 22 warships (and an as-yet unspecified number of planes, subs and sailors), from the same six states, will practice…well, presumably, being bolder, stronger and readier. But for what?

The stated purpose of the exercise is anti-submarine warfare (ASW), which sounds ‘defensive’ but of course could include protection of NATO vessels – and other ‘assets’ – engaged in offensive operations. In what is either a PR stunt or a remarkable innovation in ASW tactics, Cutlass Fury will also feature an opening day ‘flypast’ of the harbor (as approved by Halifax Regional Municipality on July 16) – in saluting sequence: a Cyclone helicopter, 2 Alpha fighter jets (privately operated by Top Aces Inc) and a CP140 Aurora patrol plane – and on September 13th a display of amphibious landings by Canadian forces at Point Pleasant Park.

On September 8, the ‘No Harbour for War’ group  will be holding a peaceful protest against “the largest Canadian led anti-submarine warfare-centric event of its kind conducted on this side of the Atlantic in over 24 years,” a “revival of a level of training that was routine during the Cold War” and “one more step in integrating the Canadian Armed Forces in the U.S. war machine.”

Cutlass Fury will return to Halifax in 2021. If the authors of Twentieth-Century Deterrence get their way, and the 2018 NPR is by then ‘operationalized,’ perhaps the show will feature some new, nuclear stars?


In the meantime, Russia will continue to conduct equally provocative and swaggering drills, as well as building new weapons to ‘leapfrog’ NATO’s rapidly-developing defensive and offensive – conventional and nuclear – capabilities.

Where such arms racing might end was perhaps foreshadowed on August 8 (between Hiroshima and Nagasaki Day!) in the Arkhangelsk region of the Russian Far North, when a radioactive explosion killed seven scientists at the Nyanoksa military testing site. What they were testing may never be confirmed, but speculation centered on one of the dumbest weapons ever conceived, even by the spectacularly low standards of the atomic age: a nuclear-powered nuclear-armed missile (to be launched from a nuclear-powered sub or ship).

In a video grab from Severodvinsk TV, a man stands outside the city administration building on August 13, holding a cardboard sign demanding information about the accident in Nyonoksa. (Severodvinsk is a shipbuilding city near the Nyonoksa site.)

That’s right, in the surmise of many experts, “a nuclear-fuel carrier that…could potentially be used to transport a nuclear device” blew up and spread radiation and panic  to surrounding towns and villages. Why create such a monster? To fly at speeds and trajectories thwarting all attempts at interception or even detection. To render all enemy exercises useless.

As Global Zero’s Executive Director Derek Johnson argued on August 14: “fatal accidents, risky posturing, obscene spending, mounting instability and fear” should be seen as inevitable “features of nuclear arms racing, not bugs.”

And we can, as Johnson predicts with horrified confidence:

…expect to see more of this as the United States and Russia, as the world’s two largest hoarders of nuclear weapons, attempt to one-up each other in a Cold War redux that puts the whole world at risk.

When it comes to ‘risky posturing,’ we can certainly expect to ‘see more of this’ — coming soon to a harbor near you.

Featured image: An MH-60R Seahawk from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 72 takes off from the flight deck of guided-missile destroyer USS Bulkeley (DDG 84) during international exercise Cutlass Fury 16. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Colbey Livingston.


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.







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