"The Army, the Air Force, all of our services are constantly training, preparing, maintaining a level of readiness to send the signal to the Kremlin that we are ready, that we are prepared", says Ben Hodges. "We were ready back in 1981 when I was a lieutenant in West Germany during the Cold War.
Benjamin ‘Ben’ Hodges, an American lieutenant general and retired US Army officer, was the commander of the US Army in Europe in 2014-2018.
One of the top US military officers, he also commanded US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and served in South Korea and West Germany. He is currently the chair of strategic studies at the Centre for European Policy Analysis.
LIGA.net spoke to Ben Hodges about the prospects of a nuclear war, its consequences, and the readiness of US troops in Europe for a direct confrontation with Russia as it prepared a new story for its subscribers: Nuclear Abyss. What awaits humanity if the red button is pushed.
Why might a nuclear war start?
We have to take the threat of a nuclear war seriously. Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads and they clearly do not care how many innocent people they kill. But I also think it's extremely unlikely.
The Russians have zero, zero positive outcomes if they use a nuclear weapon. There's no benefit for them if they use it.
The only benefit they get is from threatening to use it because they see that we are so concerned that they might do it; that we stop from doing things that Ukraine needs such as providing long-range weapons. And I think it's because the [Biden] administration worries about nuclear escalation.
After the British and the French provided long-range precision weapons to Ukraine, such as Storm Shadow and Scalp, Russia did nothing. There was nothing they could do. And that's why I think it's just very unlikely.
Also, I think the Chinese have told the Russians, ‘Do not use nuclear weapons’. And the US president has told the Russians if they use a nuclear weapon, there will be catastrophic consequences. I think they believe him.
And I have heard many Ukrainians say if Russia uses a nuclear weapon, that's not going to cause Ukraine to stop.
And finally, I think people around Putin are thinking about life after him. And if they use a nuclear weapon, everybody that had any part in enabling it, they know that their life will be over.
Who can be the first to launch a nuclear strike?
For sure it won't be the United States or the United Kingdom or France. Actually we don't need to. There are non-nuclear weapons that are just as or more effective without all the downsides. So there's no need for the US to do this and the US has no intention of doing this.
Russia, on the other hand, is the one that always threatens, and this is very, very dangerous and irresponsible for Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to constantly threaten the use of nuclear weapons.
What types of nuclear weapons are there and how powerful are they?
Of course, there are different types. When you talk about something like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, those are what we would call strategic nuclear weapons.
Today, they would be delivered by an intercontinental ballistic missile either from a submarine or from a bomber or from a missile silo, what we call a nuclear triad.
They are designed to either destroy infrastructure or to create a gap in defences. So people should not make the mistake of assuming that every nuclear weapon is going to be like Hiroshima.
What region is most likely to be affected by a nuclear strike?
If Russia were to decide to make the terrible miscalculation to use a tactical nuclear weapon — one of the reasons I think it's unlikely is where are they going to use it against what?
There is not a place that, if they destroy this one place, they win and the war's over. I think they already have caused enough destruction with their other missiles against Ukrainian cities. So I don't know where they would use it.
Perhaps they might use it as a demonstration to detonate one somewhere where there's no population or little population just to say, ‘Look, we have the ability."
How would the US respond should Russia use nuclear weapons?
My president said that there would be catastrophic consequences. Of course, he did not specify that — nor should he. But I would imagine that he has a list of possible responses that would include kinetic and non-kinetic.
(In US military parlance, ‘kinetic’ is usually applied to projectiles and missiles, while ‘non-kinetic’ weapons are directed energy flows, electronic attacks, or cybertools.)
Kinetic would, of course, be a destructive force — probably non-nuclear — that would be delivered against Russian targets, not in Russia: maybe Black Sea Fleet, maybe the Russian Navy base in Tartus, maybe Russian forces in Crimea — something that would be very, very, very destructive.
It would send a signal that if Russia does it again, then they're going to continue to lose real capability. But I would imagine it also would include more economic sanctions, more other ways to make Russia catastrophic. That's significant.
Would a hypothetical explosion at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant be regarded by the international community as a use of nuclear weapons?
It's interesting. I've heard nothing about Zaporizhzhia in the last four weeks. I mean, there's been almost nothing for several weeks. The threat or the concern seems to have really gone down.
I think that's probably because there's been a lot of pressure on the Kremlin and back channels to not allow something bad to happen there.
There's also a growing awareness that this would not be like Chornobyl. It's a different type of reactors, different circumstances — and you would not have the devastating effect in Zaporizhzhia that happened in Chornobyl.
Probably the Russians also realise there's a good chance that their own people and forces would suffer consequences in Crimea, for example, or in Rostov depending on the weather and wind and all of that. It seems like that threat is less than it was, or at least I don't hear about it as much anymore.
How many thousands of US soldiers are now deployed in Europe?
The numbers are public information. That's not a secret. Of all US forces in Europe, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, it’s probably somewhere close to 100,000.
It’s active guard reserves that are either living in Europe — Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkiye — as well as rotational reserves which are mostly in Poland, Romania and Baltic countries.
Is the United States hypothetically prepared for a war with Russia in Europe?
The Army, the Air Force, all of our services are constantly training, preparing, maintaining a level of readiness to send the signal to the Kremlin that we are ready, that we are prepared. This is deterrence. And of course, working with our allies on exercises all the time, we're all trying to increase our air and missile defence capability, increase our logistics capability.
But we were doing that when I was a lieutenant back in 1981 in West Germany during the Cold War. Our job every day was to be prepared to fight against the Soviet Union if the Soviets attacked.
How devastating would the effect be for the global economy in the event of a limited and full-scale nuclear war?
Any use of a nuclear weapon will have an effect even if it's just a tactical nuclear weapon. People will be concerned that it will escalate worse.
That's probably another reason that the Chinese are telling the Russians not to do this because it would cause a ripple through global economies that would affect a lot of people.
And I think the Russians understand that as well.
Will the state and the state institutions survive in the event of a limited or total nuclear war?
The apocalyptic sort of ending is not going to happen because even the Russians know that there's no positive outcome for them if they do that.
I think most governments do things to practise being resilient, to be able to continue operations even if there's a catastrophe of some sort.
I'm sure that the Ukrainian government has thought through the procedures of if there was a use of a nuclear weapon against Kyiv, that the government would still be able to carry out its responsibilities as a government. That's what I would expect of all of our capitals.