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Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Michael Klare

Global Flashpoints and the Risks of Escalation

October 2019

The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes
By Michael E. O’Hanlon.
Brookings Institution, 2019, 258 pp.

Reviewed by Michael T. Klare

How will a great-power nuclear war erupt? How can its outbreak be prevented? These questions have bedeviled nuclear strategists and peace advocates since the dawn of the Atomic Age and are gaining fresh urgency as tensions among China, Russia, and the United States intensify.

Theorists generally assume that such a horrific cataclysm would occur when the major powers have amassed large nuclear arsenals, have primed these weapons for early use, and have reached a fever pitch of hostility. Under these conditions, it is feared, any outbreak of armed hostilities could lead swiftly to a clash of major conventional forces and, were one side or another to face overwhelming defeat, the early use of nuclear weapons.

Historically, it was believed that such incidents would arise along NATO-Soviet borders or in the North Atlantic, where the warships of the major powers often crossed paths. To avert a nuclear catastrophe, global leaders labored over the years to reduce tensions among the major powers through U.S.-Soviet summits, UN sessions, intense diplomacy, and so forth and to reduce the size and alert status of their nuclear arsenals. Unfortunately, less effort has been directed at identifying potential flashpoints and reducing the risk of uncontrolled escalatory spirals.

This lack of attention is especially critical in the current era of great power competition, says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in his new book The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes. He claims that although the probability of a deliberate, full-scale military assault by one of the major powers against another is extremely low, significant risks remain for minor aggressions to escalate quickly. There is considerable potential for a limited Russian intrusion into one of the Baltic republics or a Chinese seizure of a Japanese-claimed island in the East China Sea to spin out of control, possibly triggering the use of nuclear weapons.

Under existing U.S. military doctrine, he explains, any assault on a NATO country or a U.S. treaty ally, however trivial, should automatically prompt a full-scale military drive to reverse the intrusion and punish the aggressor. Such an endeavor would require a full-scale mobilization of U.S. and allied forces and still might not succeed, or if it did, it might so alarm enemy officials that they might resort to launching nuclear weapons. Fearing such an outcome, U.S. leaders might allow the original intrusion to stand, thereby jeopardizing U.S. alliances and inviting further aggression, with every likelihood that all-out war would eventually follow.

This, he explains, is what constitutes the “Senkaku paradox”: In the event of a limited enemy aggression, say in the uninhabited Senkaku Islands of the East China Sea, “a large-scale U.S. and allied response could seem massively disproportionate.” On the other hand, “a nonresponse would be unacceptable, and inconsistent with American treaty obligations.” What is needed are credible responses that fall between the extremes of acquiescence to aggression and military escalation.

O’Hanlon proposes an “asymmetric defense” consisting of economic penalties and limited military actions. These could include sanctions aimed at critical nodes of the aggressor’s economy, such as energy, banking, and transport, along with air and missile strikes against key logistical targets, such as pipelines, port facilities, and oil tankers. At the same time, the United States and its allies would reinforce defense positions near the initial conflict. The aim of all this would not be to reverse the original intrusion but rather to demonstrate that any further aggression would be met with intensified economic hardship and a brutal confrontation with U.S. and allied armies.

In assessing U.S. strategic options, O’Hanlon focuses on three potential flashpoints: the Baltic region, the East China Sea, and Taiwan. Of all conceivable war-igniting scenarios involving the great powers, he suggests, the most likely are a Russian attempt to seize a sliver of eastern Estonia or Latvia, where Russian speakers are in the majority; a Chinese occupation of one of the Senkaku Islands, claimed both by China, which calls them the Diaoyu’s, and Japan; and a Chinese naval blockade of Taiwan to thwart any Taiwanese move toward independence.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel sprays Taiwanese fishing boats with water near the Senkaku islands in September 2012. The dispute over the islands' sovereignty  could create risks that a small conflict could escalate quickly. (Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/GettyImages)In any of these scenarios, O’Hanlon claims, U.S. military policy would presuppose a rapid and harsh response. Yet, any U.S. drive to dislodge Russian or Chinese forces from those locations would require a major commitment of force and, given recent improvements in those countries’ combat capabilities (especially through the acquisition of high-tech weaponry), might not prove easy to accomplish. A U.S. victory would be the most likely outcome, but could prompt Russia or China to employ nuclear weapons. Far better, he argues, to counter such assaults with asymmetric moves, such as attacks on vital energy infrastructure located outside the Russian or Chinese heartland, along with the reinforcement of positions in areas near the original intrusion.

O’Hanlon deserves credit for seeking credible alternatives to all-out war as a response to low-stakes challenges of these sorts. His emphasis on economic tools of coercion, as opposed to full-scale military mobilization, merits close attention by U.S. strategists. He also performs an important service by shining a spotlight on those potential flashpoints. Clearly, unless greater effort is made to understand and defuse the sources of friction in all three, other efforts to avert catastrophe could come to naught.

That said, many of his recommendations deserve careful scrutiny. Would Russian or Chinese leaders consider attacks on their energy facilities and logistical chokepoints as acceptable retribution? Perhaps such moves would incite them to undertake even harsher countermeasures of their own. To punish China for any future misbehavior in the East China Sea or in waters off Taiwan, for example, he proposes blocking Chinese oil imports from the Persian Gulf, a venture that he estimates will require four to six U.S. aircraft carriers and supporting vessels and would likely initiate a major naval conflict in the Indo-Pacific region. Although certainly superior to the immediate onset of full-scale war, asymmetrical moves of this sort do not necessarily promise a pacific outcome. Surely, O’Hanlon could have devoted more attention to preventative and diplomatic endeavors, such as confidence-building measures and power-sharing arrangements, such as for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Indeed, the deeper lesson to be drawn from The Senkaku Paradox is the difficulty in envisioning any outcomes from future U.S.-Russian or U.S.-Chinese military encounters that do not risk a nuclear escalation. Modern conventional weapons are capable of inflicting immense damage on vital military infrastructure, including, conceivably, nuclear command-and-control facilities, so it is easy to envision Russia or China responding with battlefield nuclear weapons.

Asymmetric responses are a welcome contribution to the discussion of alternative options, but a far more thorough reassessment of U.S. strategy is required, aimed at reducing U.S. risk of military entanglement in far-off hotspots and putting more space between conventional combat and the onset of nuclear war.

Michael T. Klare is professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association.



Michael E. O’Hanlon considers how to lower the risks of small conflicts escalating into major, even nuclear wars.

U.S. University to Speed Hypersonic Development

September 2019
By Michael T. Klare

Texas A&M University will build one of the world’s largest wind tunnels on behalf of the U.S. Army Futures Command as part of an accelerating U.S. effort to develop hypersonic weapons, according to an August announcement. The unusual partnership of the university, the Army, and the state of Texas represents a throwback to the Cold War, when prominent educational institutions built and managed major military research facilities, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, established by the University of California, Berkeley, in 1952.

Texas A&M University plans to augment its existing wind tunnel facilities, such as the Oran W. Nicks Low Speed Wind Tunnel shown here, with a long wind tunnel to test hypersonic aircraft. (Photo: Texas A&M University) In its announcement, University officials described plans to construct a “ballistic aero-optics and materials” (BAM) test facility for $130 million on a 2,000-acre campus near the small city of Bryan, about 100 miles east of Austin.

“Texas A&M will be the hypersonics research capital of the country with the planned construction of [the BAM] facility,” said Katherine Banks, the school’s vice chancellor and dean of engineering. The facility will consist of an above-ground tunnel 1 kilometer long and 2 meters in diameter, making it one of the largest such installations in the world. According to Defense One, the university will contribute $80 million toward construction costs with $50 million more provided by the state; additional sums will come from the Futures Command, which will operate the facility.

As U.S. military leaders appear determined to outpace China and Russia in the exploitation of advanced military technologies, and now unfettered by the defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Defense Department is accelerating its drive to develop and deploy hypersonic weapons, projectiles that can fly at five times the speed of sound or faster, evading most air defenses. (See ACT, June 2019.) Many such projectiles, some of which with ranges that would have been limited by the INF Treaty, are being rushed into development, and the Pentagon is planning to procure vast numbers of these munitions as soon as they are deemed ready for combat.

The United States needs “many dozens, many hundreds, maybe thousands of assets,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, on Aug. 7. “This takes us back to the Cold War where at one point we had 30,000 nuclear warheads and missiles to launch them. We haven’t produced on that kind of scale since the [Berlin] Wall came down.”

To satisfy this requirement, analysts say the arms industry will have to overcome numerous technical issues involving the design and production of hypersonic weapons. Projectiles flying at hypersonic speeds encounter immense pressures and temperatures in the Earth’s atmosphere, deforming even specialized materials and distorting electronic and communications links. Long before such weapons can be deployed, therefore, they must be rigorously tested under realistic conditions. This is normally done in wind tunnels, but hypersonic weapons fly so fast that few such facilities are capable of providing the necessary test environment. The BAM facility is planned to supplement hypersonics testing at NASA’s Ames Research Center, located at Moffett Field, Calif., where the Pentagon currently conducts the bulk of its hypersonic testing.

Texas A&M University expands its aerospace engineering capacity to support U.S. military goals.

Few Tech Firms Limit Autonomous Weapons

September 2019
By Michael T. Klare

Only a handful of global technology firms have adopted explicit policies to prevent their products from being used in lethal autonomous weapons systems, also called “killer robots,” according to a survey published in August. Such weapons have become highly controversial because they are gaining a capacity to identify and attack targets without human supervision.

A survey of 50 international technology firms found that Google was one of just seven companies to follow best practices in ensuring their technology is not used for lethal autonomous weapons. A 2018 staff action led the California-based firm to seek no renewal of a contract with the U.S. Defense Department. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Just seven of 50 companies surveyed in 12 nations were rated as following the best practices of ensuring their technology would not be used in these systems. The survey, called “Don’t Be Evil?” was conducted by PAX, a Dutch advocacy group.

“Don’t Be Evil” was once the official motto of Google, where thousands of workers signed an open letter in April 2018 calling on the company to cancel its involvement with Project Maven, a Pentagon-funded initiative aimed at harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) for the interpretation of video images that would potentially enable lethal attacks by autonomous weapons systems. Google’s management chose not to renew the contract when it came up for renewal in June of that year, promising that the company would not help develop AI for “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.”

The PAX survey queried major firms known to be developing technologies relevant to autonomous weaponry, such as AI software and systems integration, pattern recognition, aerial drones and swarming, and ground robotics. The list included many household names (Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft) as well as less-known firms involved in specific facets of tech development (Anduril, Clarifai, and Palantir). The companies were asked to describe their policies on development of these weapons systems on a questionnaire submitted by PAX; some responded, some declined.

Using survey responses and open-source literature, PAX analysts placed the companies into one of three categories: Best Practices (firms that explained their policies for preventing the use of their technology in developing lethal autonomous weapons systems); Medium Concern (firms known to be working on military applications of their technologies that refused to answer the survey or did answer the survey and claimed their military work did not encompass these systems); and High Concern (firms working on military applications of relevant technologies that refused to answer the survey).

Only seven companies, including Google and General Robotics, were rated as Best Practices; another 22, including Apple, Facebook, and IBM, were placed in the Medium Concern category; and 21, including Amazon, Intel, and Microsoft, were rated in the High Concern column.

With no international agreement in place to constrain the development and deployment of lethal autonomous weapons systems, a greater burden falls on executives of the major tech firms to establish and enforce ethical principles on the military applications of their products. Although officials at some tech firms, such as Google, have expressed reservations about working for the military on projects related to these systems, their colleagues at other companies have professed a willingness to work for the Defense Department or the militaries of other countries on such devices. This lack of consistency could lead to an unregulated environment in which the introduction of these systems proceeds apace. By publishing its survey, PAX hopes to encourage greater transparency and self-restraint on the part of key tech firms.

“Companies working on these technologies…need to have policies that make clear how and when they draw the line regarding the military application of their technology,” said the PAX report.


Global tech firms have yet to adopt policies to ensure their applications are not used for lethal autonomous weapons.

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