Ever since the end of World War II, the world has been sliding in and out of battles which have killed more than 10 million people. Even in the shadow of this bloody chronicle, 1982 represents something of a watershed: In addition to the two major international conflicts in the Falklands/Malvinas and in Lebanon, we witnessed the intensification or expansion of conflicts in Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, Angola-South Africa, Ethiopia-Somalia and El Salvador. Territorial disputes and a certain level of destructiveness are nothing new to human history. Yet from this recent spate of conflicts we get a sense that some invisible restraint has been breached. None of the major combatants—Argentina, Great Britain, Israel, Iran—displayed any inclination to limit their operations or seek early cease-fires.

What makes the future look particularly frightening is the fact that this belligerence coincides with a revolution in military technology of unprecedented scope. This revolution encompasses both nuclear and conventional weapons, as well as the means for controlling and deploying them on the battlefield. At the cutting edge of this revolution are new guidance technologies that can direct a weapon toward its intended target with extremely high accuracy. Summarizing these developments in a recent speech to NATO, former Undersecretary of Defense William J. Perry noted: “If you can see the target, you can expect to kill it.”

Equally important, this revolution involves a vast expansion in the ownership of such weapons. At one time, only a handful of major powers had access to the latest military technologies. Today, thanks to the international arms trade, even some of the smallest and least developed countries possess modern high-tech weapons. To appreciate the scope of this revolution, consider the following:

  • US scientists are now developing a “third generation” of nuclear munitions that will offer a discrete choice of blast, heat and radiation effects. According to Pentagon officials, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California have made considerable progress in development of these weapons, of which the enhanced radiation warhead, or “neutron bomb,” is the first example. In contrast to earlier generations of nuclear devices intended for large-scale, indiscriminate destruction (and still being manufactured), the new munitions will theoretically be capable of destroying specific military targets without causing widespread “collateral” damage. The aim of all this, of course, is to make nuclear weapons appear more controlled in their effects and thus more “usable” as everyday battlefield weapons. “Collateral damage has always been the stumbling block” to nuclear weapons use, a top Pentagon official explained recently. “If you could destroy a target without [producing] collateral effects,” the feasibility of using such weapons “becomes much, much greater.”
  • Not only are nuclear weapons becoming more usable, they’re also becoming more available. According to a recent US intelligence report, as many as 31 nations will possess or be able to produce nuclear munitions by the year 2000. (At present, only seven nations—the US, USSR, Britain, France, China, India and Israel—are believed to possess nuclear weapons.) This list of potential nuclear powers includes both highly industrialized nations like West Germany, Italy and Japan, and nations that are only now beginning to acquire the rudiments of nuclear technology. This category, according to the report, includes many nations located in potential conflict zones: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Argentina and Brazil. If even a few of these countries acquire nuclear munitions, the risk of nuclear war will increase substantially.
  • While nuclear weapons are being made smaller and more like conventional weapons in their narrow radius of impact, conventional weapons are being made larger and more like nuclear weapons in their indiscriminate capacity for destruction. Partly as a result of public opposition to nuclear weapons, laboratories in the United States and Western Europe are developing new conventional munitions that can be substituted for tactical nuclear weapons in attacks on significant targets. These armaments combine the accuracy of “smart” bombs with the spread-out effects of cluster bombs and the damage potential of concussion bombs (also known as fuel-air explosives) to produce a new order of munitions best described as “near-nuclear weapons.” Although designed primarily for attacks on Warsaw Pact airfields and tank formations, these weapons—which include the West German MW-1 submunitions dispenser and the US “assault breaker” system—could also be used to destroy entire towns and neighborhoods.
  • Advanced conventional weapons are being sold to other countries almost as fast as they are introduced into the arsenals of the major powers. Competition between the major arms suppliers and the new-found wealth of many Third World resource producers have eradicated most barriers to the export of high-tech conventional weapons. As a result, many aspiring Third World powers are equipped with the same aircraft, missiles, and tanks as the front-line states in NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Once these countries become proficient in the use of these weapons, they will obviously be able to engage in warfare at the same level of intensity as a major war in Europe.

Add these developments up, and it is hard to escape concluding that future wars—however and wherever they start—will be fought at unprecedented levels of violence and destructiveness, with an attendant risk of nuclear escalation. In a preview of such conflicts, the Department of Defense noted in its “guidance” document for Fiscal 1984-1988 that

the environment of future wars is likely to differ greatly from any we have known in the past. Combat against Soviet (and) Soviet-equipped forces will be of higher intensity and longer duration, and with weapons of much greater accuracy and possibly higher rates of fire and mobility. It will feature intensive electronic warfare and possibly chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Clearly, the prospect for survival of any soldiers sent into combat in such a conflict will not be very high. In another Pentagon report, sent to hospitals being solicited for participation in a contingency medical program, defense officials note that “because of technical advances in weaponry and the great mobility of armies today, a future large-scale war overseas will probably…produce casualties at a higher rate than in any other war in history.”

Based on these assumptions, the Pentagon has estimated that in any full-scale conflict with Soviet or Soviet-backed forces in the Middle East, the US Rapid Deployment Force could expect to lose 66 percent of its personnel in the first 60 days of combat—a casualty rate significantly higher than that ever experienced by US forces in comparable engagements. Besides the human cost of such an intervention, such casualty rates represent precisely the sort of situation in which the United States (or, if conditions were reversed, the Soviet Union) would be most likely to initiate the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Once that occurred, it would only be a short step to the initiation of all-out thermonuclear warfare.

All this suggests that the distinctions between different types of warfare—localized and global, conventional and nuclear—are rapidly breaking down, and that involvement in any type of conflict involves the risk of escalation to all-out nuclear war. It suggests that the US strategy of relying on military force—specifically, the Rapid Deployment Force—to protect raw material supplies abroad is of questionable validity and requires considerable rethinking. Finally, and most important, it suggests that the Reagan administration’s plan to enhance US security through a $1.6 billion military buildup and stepped-up arms sales to allies will produce little real protection. Only a vigorous program of both nuclear and conventional arms control will improve our chances of survival in an era of super-violence.

How to cite this article:

Michael Klare "The Era of Super-Violence," Middle East Report 111 (January 1983).

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