A Short History of World War III

I lost the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuked the world from my couch ... and you can too.

Come closer to the fire, my friend. It will keep the chill of nuclear winter away. Are you hungry? I have some canned food that is not radioactive. I checked it with a Geiger counter myself.

You came here from Washington, D.C.? I have heard rumors of strange creatures living among the ruins. Ground Zero was the White House, and I am told that a peculiar blue light glows from the bottom of the crater.

But people tell many stories. You have traveled a long way, and I will tell you the story you came for. You desire to learn how World War III started? I will teach you with the help of a friend. A board game called Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps you will make better decisions than Kennedy and Khrushchev did.

Help me set up the map. You see the island of Cuba, long and narrow like one of Castro's cigars, and divided into hundreds of hexagons? There are two players, one controlling the Soviets and Cubans, and the other for the Americans. Let us now place the little cardboard pieces. Now you see the prime cause of the war. Lack of information.

Do you notice that like the game of Stratego, the Cuban and Soviet forces set up face down, so that the Americans only see a hundred or so faceless brown pieces across the map? Each piece might be a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) battery. Or a surface-to-air missile (SAM) unit, or a rather inconsequential Cuban Army battalion. The Americans can only scan a sea of anonymous brown until their reconnaissance aircraft overfly a hexagon and flip the pieces to their revealed side. Until then, they can't bomb missiles sites that they can't spot.

How thick the fog of war is, as dense as a mushroom cloud. There are also Soviet convoys that arrive during the course of the game. They have their true nature hidden on the back side unless the American Navy intercepts them. Some carry regular cargo, but others carry intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). And to make the fog truly opaque, the Soviets secretly roll dice to determine when the missiles in Cuba become operational, so the gringos don't even how much time they have to remove the missiles before they can be fired.

Now we set up the Americans. The game begins October 16 -- each turn equals one day -- and the United States only has a few air squadrons in south Florida until mobilization is declared. Unlike the Soviet side, the American pieces are always face-up and known.

Would you like some crackers?  I found them in a fallout shelter. They are dry but nutritious. Where was I? Ah, yes, now comes the heart of the game. Each side has a deck of event cards that it can choose to play, one per turn. Many cards can only be played at higher alert levels, which span Defense Condition 1 to 5 for the United States, and a state of Peace, Crisis, and War for the Soviets. Each card allows certain actions, and adds or subtracts victory points for the United States or the USSR.

At the start of the game, the Americans start at a relaxed Defcon 5 and the Soviets at Peace. Neither side can attack each other, and America can fly only one reconnaissance mission each turn turn. If only things had remained that way...

Keep your hand away from that green blob on the floor. I swear that I have seen it move at night. Now we begin the game:

It is October 16. It was a Tuesday, I think. I was going to surprise my wife with a ... no, best not to think too much of the past. The present is hard enough. But it is the first day of the crisis, and the Americans move first. They change their alert level to Defcon 4, which allows them to play the Increased Reconnaissance card that allows two overflights per day. The reconnaissance aircraft detect some SAM sites, some Mig fighters and Ilyushin bombers, and a medium-range ballistic missile site. The MRBM site is not yet active, but now President Kennedy has proof of Soviet missiles!

The Soviet response is to raise their alert level from Peace to Crisis (as if there wasn't a crisis already?) -- and play a Cuban Mobilization Card to strengthen local forces in case the Americans launch a ground invasion.

October 17. Perhaps some quiet negotiation could have averted tensions at that point. But the Americans order Defcon 3. They play a Low-Level Reconnaissance card to improve the results of their overflights. Another MRBM site is detected, plus more SAMs and a Soviet mechanized regiment.

The Soviets did not play a card that day. Perhaps they thought time was on their side. They would wait out the Americans until the missiles were operational and then be in a much stronger bargaining position.

Have some water. I apologize for the quality. I filter it as best I can, but the black rain gives it the texture of mud.

October 18. Two Soviet cargo ships arrive that day. They were actually carrying food and industrial machinery, but how was Washington to know that? The Americans maintain Defcon 3, but now they play U.S. Army Mobilization. For the next several days, so many troops and aircraft pour into Florida that the state nearly sinks into the ocean. Aircraft are quickly deployed to airbases, and a Marine division is readied to invade Cuba, but it will take several days to prepare Army divisions for an amphibious and airborne assault. One should not be in a hurry to invade another country. These things often don't end well.

Seeing the U.S. mobilize and fearing an American surprise attack, Moscow orders mobilization of the Warsaw Pact.

October 19. That was a Friday, wasn't it? We should have been looking forward to the weekend, not war. While its forces mobilize, Washington intensifies paramilitary operations with the Operation Mongoose card, which disrupts Cuban defenses.

Now Moscow crosses the Rubicon. It plays Air Alert card, which allows air defenses to fire on American aircraft. A U-2 spy plane is shot down that day.

October 20. Infuriated by the loss of the U-2, the Americans go to Defcon 2 and declare a naval quarantine of Cuba. A Soviet convoy is stopped and inspected for missiles, but none are discovered.

The Soviets respond by stationing missile-armed submarines off the East coast.

October 21. Washington declares that its aircraft will attack any SAM site that fires on U.S. planes. Perhaps someone forgot to tell the Soviet air defense crews, because they do fire on a U-2, and are bombed for their pains.

But someone also forgot to tell the Americans that Cuba wasn't the only battleground. Moscow plays the Blockade Berlin card.

Dusk is falling. I have little fuel left for my lantern. We must hurry.

October 22. And so it begins. Four MRBM sites and an IRBM site have been detected so far. The Americans gamble that the nuclear missiles in Cuba will become operational soon. They play the Surgical Strike card, which allows airstrikes against nuclear missile sites. Two MRBM sites and an IRBM location are destroyed by Air Force and Navy aircraft.

But if America can attack their missiles, they can attack ours. The Soviets raise their alert level to War status, and Soviet bombers strike Jupiter missile sites in Turkey.

October 23. There were options, you know. There are always options. Look at the event cards. The Americans could have played gone to the United Nations, pledged not to invade Cuba, agreed not to place any missiles in Turkey. The Soviets could have withdrawn their missiles, or stopped sending convoys. But both sides were drunk on a cocktail of pride and fear. Perhaps the lesson is, don't drink with your finger on the nuclear button.

That day, the United States went to Defcon 1 and invaded Cuba. Marines and paratroopers landed near Havana. Within hours, the Soviets invaded Western Europe. And then there was only one last card to be played: Initiate Nuclear Warfare. Whether it was America or Russia who first played it doesn't matter. The results were the same.

Who won the war? Look around you. Do these ruins look like victory?

Go to sleep. You must rest before your long journey home.

Getty Images

National Security

The Long Engagement

Fifty years after they fought a war, India and China are still on the edge of conflict.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war, when, despite Indian hopes that a shared anti-colonial history would bring the two countries together, divergent perceptions about China's "peaceful" absorption of Tibet and Chinese concerns about internal control led China to attack -- and decisively defeat -- India. 1962 might seem like ancient history in the United States, but the attitudes of the Chinese and Indians toward each other are increasingly suspicious and hostile.

An October 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project report, for example, notes that 62 percent of Chinese surveyed viewed India unfavorably, while only 38 percent and 48 percent viewed Russia and the United States unfavorably. Indian perceptions of China are even more negative. Less than a quarter of Indians polled characterized the relationship with China as cooperative, and only 24 percent of Indians said that Chinese economic growth was a good thing for India. As U.S. policy has tended to aim for stability in India-China relations, the anniversary of the war presents a fitting time to consider what has changed and what remains the same.

The obvious change from a half-century ago is the shift in the balance of power in China's favor. China achieved local military superiority on the border in 1962 by means of deception, but overall there was rough economic, technological, and military parity between the two countries up to 1980, and maybe even until 1990. That parity is gone, and today the Chinese economic and military advantage is large and still growing. The 2010 Pentagon report on Chinese military power notes the Chinese deployment of nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles and approximately 300,000 troops to the Tibetan plateau. These Chinese troops face 120,000 Indian troops in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state across the border, which are to be reinforced by 60,000 more. Indians take note of recent Chinese statements that China has dropped laser-guided bombs on targets in Tibet in training exercises, while in March the Indian Army and Air Force staged an exercise in Arunachal Pradesh charmingly titled "Destruction."

Concern about the current imbalance should be tempered by an assessment of longer-term trends, some of which are favorable to India. An aging Chinese population will compete with an Indian population that will remain relatively young. If India can implement appropriate policies, it can benefit from the rapid growth characteristic of the early phases of economic modernization, while China will face the inevitable slowing of a mature Chinese economy. These factors will gradually reverse the imbalance between Indian and Chinese economic growth rates.

What will remain constant is the gulf between the Indian and Chinese worldviews. China's vision is incompatible with India's, whether the issue is cultural pluralism, as witnessed in the mutual incomprehension over Tibet, or the institutional pluralism of democracy. It seems unwise for India to bet that a Chinese state that seeks a political monopoly and extensive control over its own population will not seek, at the very least, deference abroad whenever its growing power allows a credible attempt. China's ongoing support for Pakistan's missile and nuclear program has already put one nuclear power plant online in Pakistan, with another to become operational this year, and China and Pakistan are discussing the construction of two more reactors. In August, the Indian government raised the issue of Chinese security forces and infrastructure construction in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Indian BJP, the main opposition party, is making an issue of increasing Chinese incursions across the China-India border, asserting that there were 147 border incursions in the Ladakh area in 2012 alone.

Further to the east, China is already using its newfound influence in Nepal, where several major Chinese development projects are under way, to pressure Nepali officials to reorient away from India and toward China. This includes demands that Nepal crack down on Tibetan refugees and close the border, as well as intervention in internal Nepali constitutional debates about federalism, which the Chinese oppose on the grounds that it would increase space for Tibetans to operate in the country.

This year, the same trend of deference to Beijing on Tibetan issues could be observed within India itself. During a visit from President Hu Jintao in April, Indian security forces reacted to the self-immolation of a Tibetan protester in central Delhi by jailing hundreds of Tibetans. The New York Times reported that this Indian reaction was designed to protect its "$70 billion worth of trade" with China. With this in mind, consider what might happen in Tibet after the death of the Dalai Lama. India could face decisive Chinese pressure to shut down all Tibetan political activity in India and force the Tibetan government-in-exile into further exile outside India. Tibetan refugees in India would be asked to take Indian citizenship or to leave India, bringing to an end a morally admirable policy that India has stubbornly clung to for over 50 years. As in 1962, China might also use unrest in Tibet as a pretext to seek a new border settlement on Chinese terms. This time, China might end up controlling Tawang, which Chinese officials currently refer to as part of "south Tibet" (along with the rest of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh).

The current balance of power so favorable to China has been decades in the making, so it will likely take decades for India to escape it fully. India needs a strategy for the next generation, which may sound like a tall order for a democracy, but India did build a nuclear arsenal, a national space program, and a metro in Delhi, all of which took decades of hard and steady work, by both national parties. Clearly, the foremost task is maximizing its economic growth, rather than focusing on redistributing wealth. The U.S. role in Indian economic development may largely be confined to promoting free trade with India, which will support relationships of mutual benefit between Indian and U.S. technology firms.

The next task for India will be to focus on the military balance. Here, the Indian government will have to address issues of defense management, strategy, choice of hardware, and total spending, roughly in that order of priority. At a forum on the 1962 war held this month in Delhi and covered by the Indo-Asian News Agency, Brig. Arun Sahgal (ret.) argued that the Indian defense establishment has not done enough to counter China's options for "asymmetrical attacks." The single most important thing India could do is to make the China problem much more prominent in its defense management processes and the object of an integrated effort. But according to Sahgal, at this point, "There is talk of joint[ness], but there is no thinking on integrated joint operations" within the Indian military. "Because of this, there is no common operating picture," he said. An integrated effort to balance against China would at a minimum include multiple service branches within the Indian armed forces, but it might also include the United States and other states with an interest in preventing Chinese aggression.

As for specifics, a mountainous border is good terrain to defend, but it still leaves room for strategic surprises -- for instance, an attack through Bhutan that would close off the Siliguri Corridor, a vulnerable "chicken's neck" connecting northeast India to the rest of the country, as suggested in a recent report out of the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Ideally, India's military should constantly assess such novel scenarios as China's military capabilities evolve. Other strategic surprises could involve the use of Chinese precision weapons against Indian assets and command-and-control facilities far from the border. India needs an urgent effort to deal with its vulnerability to precision strikes and its cyber-vulnerabilities, both problems that require attention more than large sums of money or high tech. Finally, India should aim at keeping its defense spending at or above the 3 percent of GDP recommended by Indian strategic experts.

These recommendations would require a modest shift from current policies. Official Indian positions as well as semiofficial thinking -- as recently on display in the "Non-Alignment 2.0" document -- seem still paralyzed by the curious notion that India's challenge is somehow to triangulate between China and the United States and above all to avoid "offending" China. If India were happy with an equilibrium in its dealings with China, this might make some sense, but neither is India happy, nor is the relationship in equilibrium, so it is hard to understand what India gains by self-censorship.

Two former Indian foreign secretaries have used the 1962 anniversary as an occasion to opine against this tendency. "We must acknowledge that adversarial elements currently dominate in India-China relations," argued Shyam Saran in a recent Times of India piece called "Lesson from 1962: India Must Never Lower Its Guard." Kanwal Sibal, Saran's predecessor as foreign secretary, ended his last column in India's the Week with a similar warning, "India has no reason to trust China, which will pursue its interests relentlessly even if it bides its time and dissimulates its true intentions. It is the only country, besides Pakistan, that seeks to change our borders."

Deeper strategic cooperation between India and the United States would both advance India's interest in balancing China and serve the common U.S.-Indian interest in maintaining a liberal democratic world order. If India manages to close off easy opportunities for Chinese aggression, it will make good India-China relations possible for the long term. The costs for India of adopting the necessary economic and military measures are much lower than the costs of inviting aggression by failing to prepare, which is perhaps the main lesson that Indians remember as they observe this year's anniversary.