He who wishes to fight must first count the cost.”
~ Sun Tzu
I have always been interested in military tactics, particularly in the bygone era of pitched battle tactics. I have begun to question whether the conventional wisdom surrounding strategic warfare has been made null by the advent of nuclear weapons.
War, whether one is the attacker or defender, is waged to achieve an aim: this could be the procurement of a vital resource, such as oil or grain, or the seizure of an important region to improve position. One’s ability wage war, and the way in which war is waged, is heavily dependent on the sociopolitical variables of any given nation, as well as operational ability. Let’s use the German situation in the First World War as an example: following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and due to the intricate web of military alliances in Europe at the time, Germany was faced with the possibility of a two front war it feared it could not sustain. This was, amongst other things, due to the lack of military resources and manpower to do so. Germany at the time had a highly competent army, relatively speaking, at the outbreak of war (this was to change over the course of the war, as military technology developed and tactical superiority was achieved through different ways). Their solution to avoiding a prolonged, two front war, which is costly and straining in every possible way, was to deliver a swift, decisive blow to the French using the infamous Schlieffen Plan, whilst Russia was mobilizing is slow, but large army. Here we can see how the various levels of conventional warfare play a part in deciding strategy and subsequently operational objectives in a military conflict. Limitations of manpower and resources, and tactical superiority/inferiority were all part of the strategic planning equation of the German high command, as well as every participating nation in the conflict. As you likely know, their plan to deliver a swift blow to the French, through the neutral low countries, was unsuccessful, and Germany would in fact fight a two front war for a large proportion of WW1 (ending in early 1918 due to Russia’s exit from the war after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).
This balance of strategy aims, socioeconomic limitations, and operational capabilities, however, may not apply in a modern conflict due to nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons in a military conflict between two great powers would be catastrophic — known as mutually assured destruction, nuclear capability in itself raises the stakes to a level where waging a conventional war against a nuclear power, even if that power is conventionally inferior, is unwise. The power now lies in nuclear capability, as both a primary offensive tool and deterrent. It does not end there though; simply having nuclear weapons is not sufficient. Countries have now turned to maximizing nuclear capability, as current nuclear strategy focuses on disabling the adversaries ability to launch a retaliatory strike. This is why countries like Russia and North Korea are not satisfied with their current nuclear stockpile or capabilities, and the arms race continues. In order for the theory of mutually assured destruction as an effective deterrent to be true, the country attacked by the first strike must theoretically be able to survive the first strike and be capable of launching a retaliatory strike. It is possible that future arms races, if they are not already, will move away from achieving conventional military superiority in the aforementioned sense, and move towards a policy of deterrence through nuclear proliferation.
It will be interesting to see in the coming decades how countries approach military policy and defense, as the addition of nuclear weapons to the strategic military equation has really upset the balance of power, and upped the stakes significantly.