Nothing captures my attention like a submarine-launched Trident ballistic missile, which is probably why ABC chose to include such imagery (along with shots of a very good looking cast) in its trailers for its latest series, Last Resort.
The show is a military drama about an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) that defies orders to launch its nuclear weapons against Pakistan. It’s an intriguing premise with a long lineage – Crimson Tide, the opening scene of War Games, and, in the inverse, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe. Last Resort’s predecessors have varying degrees of plausibility and until the season premieres on September 27th, we won’t know what geopolitical circumstances the writers have cooked up to make a strike on Pakistan worthwhile.
An astute student of international relations would pose a number of juicy questions: What redline did Pakistan cross to warrant a nuclear attack? How would Pakistan respond to such an attack by its nominal ally? How would India respond? Or China? Or Russia? Or the rest of the Islamic world?
With only medium range ballistic missiles, Pakistan doesn’t have the capability to launch a serious attack on American forces or the homeland. The typical target of Pakistani ire is India and U.S. involvement in such a conflict would be limited to diplomatic efforts at de-escalation and preventing a wider war.
The most realistic redline would be the proliferation of Pakistani nuclear weapons to a terrorist organization. This scenario poses an even greater question: if the weapons were stolen, would the U.S. respond in the same way as if they were given or sold? It seems likely that it would. To deter a state like Pakistan from giving away its nukes or skimping on security for them, the U.S. has to promise devastation, doesn’t it? Or is there some other reason beyond U.S. retaliation that would compel the Pakistani military to safeguard its arsenal? The fear that terrorists might attack the Pakistani state with stolen nukes might provide adequate reason.
The Pakistani Response
If the U.S. strikes Pakistan, it can kiss future counter-terrorism cooperation “goodbye,” but that would probably be a moot point anyway. Pakistan’s response options are limited. It could give weapons to terrorists if it hadn’t already, though that would be tricky with no guarantees of how they would use them. In a time of weakness it might consider striking India to exert escalation dominance, but that seems unlikely. In a nuclear exchange, India would fare much better than Pakistan. It might call on China, another nominal ally, to flex and deter the U.S. from additional strikes. Depending on what else is going on in the world, it’s unlikely China would be willing to tangle with the U.S. head-on. Instead, China would play the same role as the U.S. during a South Asian conflict – mediating and pressing for de-escalation.
China and Russia
An attack on Pakistan would not directly threaten these two countries, but depending on the size of the strike, the launch vehicles used (ICBMs, bombers, or just sub-launched Tridents), and the intended targets there are a couple problems. The first is misperception – will China and Russia be able to recognize that the strike against Pakistan is limited to Pakistan? The second is political – does the use of nuclear weapons against terrorists in Pakistan mean China can use them against its own Uighurs? Or Russia against Chechens? In other words, will the taboo hold?
The Good Stuff
The plot of Last Resort, despite its inevitable shortcomings in terms of geopolitical reality, does offer audiences a lesson in positive and negative control of nuclear weapons. Positive control – always using nukes when you want to – and negative control – never using nukes when you don’t want to – have an inherent tension. For more positive control you have to yield some negative control and vice versa. Adding layers of security to prevent weapons from being stolen or fired accidentally makes them harder to fire intentionally. Alternatively, making weapons easier to use increases the chances they will be launched inadvertently or without proper command and control authority. Too much of one or the other could both weaken and bolster deterrence. The trick is knowing which to do when and by how much.
I’m counting the days until Last Resort premieres, but I’m not going to hold my breath that writer Shawn Ryan (The Shield) gets the geopolitics right. Still, it may be good television (I liked Red Dawn, after all) and given the other twist in the plot – they end up on a Pacific island ala Lost – the cast will be pleasing to watch splashing around in the surf.