Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

A Cold War Movie’s (Wrong) Lessons About US-China Competition

The Hunt for Red October’s strategic errors are mirrored in U.S. assumptions about China.

Steven Stashwick
A Cold War Movie’s (Wrong) Lessons About US-China Competition
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/movie.poster.com

Thirty years ago this week, the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s internationally best-selling Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October about a Soviet captain trying to turn his high-tech submarine over to the United States was released in theaters. The film enjoyed substantial cooperation from the U.S. Navy, which provided ships, submarines, and helicopters for the filming and, like the book it was based on, was praised for its technical accuracy and portrayals of naval operations, if not the quality of its Russian dialogue.

Well-reviewed despite appearing just as the Cold War was ending, the film was about Cold War politics as much as undersea tactics, but perpetuated dangerous strategic myths about deterrence and the threats posed by accidental escalation from navies sailing and flying around each other. Many of those same myths and mistakes are echoed in the ‘Great Power Competition’ between the United States and China today.

In the film, the Soviet submarine possessed an advanced propulsion system that was undetectable by U.S. sensors that is asserted to enable the Soviets to conduct a nuclear “first strike” against the United States. A “first strike” between two nuclear-armed powers is a scenario where one side launches a preemptive attack to destroy the other’s nuclear arsenal in a single, simultaneous blow, rendering them unable to respond. The fact that the Soviets had built such a weapon is used as evidence of nefarious intentions.

This helps move the film’s plot along, but gets the logic behind nuclear missile submarines backwards. A first strike only works if the majority of an adversary’s nuclear arsenal can be destroyed because whatever survives will be launched in retaliation. That’s what makes missile submarines important, their function isn’t to conduct first strikes but to survive them by being at sea where they are less easily targeted than fixed missile silos on land. This makes them “survivable second strike” platforms that guarantee retaliation in response to an attack, thereby removing the incentive to conduct a “first strike.” The Red October wasn’t, as one on-screen admiral laments, “built to start a war,” but to more effectively deter one.

Unspoken in the concern of all the American admirals and generals in the movie, is that the Red October wasn’t a threat to mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was a guarantor of it; what it really threatened was the ability of the United States to survive a Soviet nuclear retaliation and “win” a potential nuclear war. This is an understandable advantage to seek, but one that actually raises the risk of the disaster trying to be averted.

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The Cold War is often described as a condition of mutual deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union – “M.A.D.” – but this was never quite the United States’ strategy, which sought to deter its rivals but avoid being deterred itself if it could be helped.

Now the United States, which already enjoys an enormous nuclear advantage over China, is working to ensure it has sufficient conventional advantage against it. For more than a decade the United States has sought new strategies and technologies to defeat China’s anti-access and area denial capabilities – thousands of long-range land attack and anti-ship missiles intended to keep U.S. fleets and warplanes far away from its coasts. This restriction on its freedom of action is broadly unacceptable to the United States, motivating research into a host of advanced weapons to respond to China’s missile arsenal. These include new long-range missiles that had been banned under the Cold War-era INF Treaty that the United States exited last year, a range of hypersonic missiles that can travel at five times the speed of sound or more, and the U.S. Army’s Strategic Long Range Cannon, a super gun designed to fire rocket-assisted artillery shells to ranges of at least 1,000 miles.

From the outside, the argument that China’s efforts to thwart the United States’ ability to conduct attacks against China is sign of malign intention might appear to be bad faith, or at least obtuse. The United States contends that this situation would give China a free hand to take advantage of partners and allies, and potentially seize the island of Taiwan by force. If China’s capabilities all work as planned, and at the outset of a war against Taiwan it sinks a U.S. fleet sent to deter it, would China really expect that the United States would not retaliate, and potentially with nuclear weapons?

During the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, a PLA general implicitly threatened that China might use its nuclear deterrent to prevent the United States from coming to Taiwan’s aid, reportedly telling a senior U.S. official that Americans “care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.” But even if true, China could not be confident that it could issue a nuclear threat against the United States without a response. The question then isn’t only whether the United States cares more about its cities than keeping Taiwan free, but simultaneously whether China cares more about Shanghai, for example, than it does about seizing Taiwan.

For the architects of the Trump administration’s defense strategy, the Pentagon’s new weapons programs are a way to fight a major war against China without having to resort to using nuclear weapons. This is true as far as it goes, that the United States needs a credible conventional deterrent against Chinese aggression, but sidesteps how a war that would lead to conventional strikes against targets on China’s mainland on the one hand, and against U.S. territories and allies on the other, doesn’t rush precipitously towards nuclear use anyway. And in trying to figure out how to fight a major war against China without nuclear weapons, dismisses the idea that a credible risk of that war going nuclear is a much surer deterrent against it breaking out in the first place.

Since both the United States and China have nuclear weapons, and especially in light of China’s efforts to improve the survivability of its nuclear missile submarines, a major armed conflict between the two should be deterred by the threat of mutual nuclear attack. The possibility of a non-nuclear conflict between them rests on the logic of the stability-instability paradox. This theory posits that two nuclear-armed countries both desire to avoid total destruction and therefore will avoid conflicts that risk escalating to that level of force. But as a result of that strategic-level stability, each feels secure in engaging in lower-intensity conflict, confident that the other would not risk nuclear escalation over comparatively minor provocations.

This is likely part of the reason that Chinese planes and ships, like the Soviets before them, have felt secure to engage in “games of chicken” with U.S. planes and ships resulting in incidents from the 2001 EP-3 collision in which a Chinese pilot died to near-collisions between warships in 2013 and 2018. The Hunt for Red October also suggests, incorrectly (or at least exaggeratedly), that dangerous incidents like these might lead to cataclysm.

In a scene where the National Security Advisor admonishes the Soviet Ambassador, he warns that U.S. and Soviet warships and planes operating close together was highly dangerous, and that “wars have begun that way.” It’s a concern both the United States and China have invoked about interactions between their navies when operating in the South China Sea, on the theory that an unintended incident might spark an armed clash and escalate from there. But as straightforward as the logic seems, the worry that incidents like these might lead to miscalculation and escalation appears unfounded, and historically, wars haven’t ever begun that way.

Still, the fear of unintended escalation has motivated some positive steps, such as a series of agreements between the Chinese and U.S. militaries to define safe behavior between their units, mirroring similar Cold War agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union. But China and Russia appear to have figured out a strategic asymmetry that the United States still struggles with. At the low-end, both China and (now) Russia still repeatedly violate those agreements, variously in letter and spirit, recognizing that these incidents, dangerous as they are, lack the potential for escalation the United States often asserts they do, leaving it with mostly unsatisfactory responses. But at the high-end, the United States is working feverishly to figure out how to fight major wars under the assumption that they would not go nuclear, one that the implicated adversaries may not share. If it is going to succeed in great power competition, the United States has to figure out how to flip both scripts.