Author: Cimbala, Stephen J.

Title: Uncertainty and Control: Future Soviet and American Strategy / Stephen J. Cimbala.

Published by: London: Pinter Press, 1990.

Description: vii, 183 pages; 24 cm.

Notes: Includes bibliographical references and index.


Subject headings:

Escalation (Military science)
Deterrence (Strategy)
United StatesMilitary policy.
Soviet UnionMilitary policy.

ISBN: 0-86187-039-5

Reviewed by:

Olalekan Waheed ADIGUN,



Can we prevent wars, using the realist’s prognosis, by building up arms for “defensive” purposes or limiting their use to guarantee world peace? Can there be a positive correlation between military strength of states and the prospects of world peace? Will arms buildup in rival superpowers during the Cold War lead to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) or effective balance of power? What guarantee of control of arms building in “advanced” countries do we have that this will not lead to escalations of a nuclear war? These questions were attempted in the military classic, Uncertainty and Control: Future Soviet and American Strategy by Stephen J. Cimbala.

In this important and timely book, Professor Cimbala proposes that although the superpowers have managed to cope with deterrence and crisis management, they have failed to establish doctrines, procedures and technologies which would ensure the control of a major war between them once deterrence had failed. To state his argument further, he three major hypothesis that:

  1. Both US and Soviet military doctrines (containing both offensive and defensive elements) are biased towards unrepentant use of force making control more complicated.
  2. History of both super powers has conditioned their military leadership towards skepticism with regards to any limitation in armed war.
  3. Both super powers do not have the C3 or the command, control and communications systems to condition their coalitions (Warsaw Pact and NATO factions) in the eventuality of a nuclear war (p. 1-2).

Theoretical Perspective

In tackling these hypotheses, the author adopted the use of prospect theory which is provides an explanation of how decisions are made under risks and uncertainties McDermott (1998) cited in (Goldsetein and Pavehouse, 2011). As a theory of decision making, the author chooses between choosing quickly and deciding correctly under turbulent situations as witnessed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He notes: “The sum of these predicaments for the commander in conventional war, or for the policy-maker in nuclear crisis, is that the choice often lies between the quick and the dead. Choices must be made on the basis of too little information, and wrongly, or by deciding too late, and irrelevantly. The right decision made at the wrong time is as useless as the wrong decision made in a timely manner.” (p. 13)

But more often than not, the question is not for the commander in chief of the commanders at the strategic or operational levels in war, critical decisions are made at the tactical level because of the challenge of programmed control as it was the case during shooting down of a civilian South Korean airliner in 1983 by Soviet air defence commander. This action of this airliner, who was simply acting on the standard operating procedure or rules of engagements or programmed control, brought renewed tension between both countries. This is shows how complicated the question of control in war can be during the Cold War.


The adoption of prospect theory poses some challenges of control and uncertainty. First, it is established that there is often the inadequacies of C3 by both super powers which has the tendency to increase the risk of nuclear war as manifested during the 1983 shooting down of South Korean aircraft, KAL 007, which some say the Soviet should have avoided a needless tension by just bringing down the plane rather than shooting it down after it entered “forbidden zone”. Even though the Soviet commander acted on the standard operating procedure, the decision at that time and point rested on the air commander’s shoulders, not in Moscow. Neglect of little details under the programmed control like these could have proven costly and had wider implications in the case of Western reactions.

Apart from programmed control, there are also those of reflexive and command control. In the case of reflexive control, there is a big possibility of deciding wrongly or emotionally. Reflexive control involves anticipating your opponent’s every move and choices. Invariably, it relies seriously on intelligence (p. 25). The problem with reflexive control places too much trusts in spies and information supplied by the enemy. Can this be why despite its secrecy, the Soviet’s nuclear activities in Cuba was blown open yet were under illusion it is was largely unnoticed by the Americans?

In applying the prospect theory to different conflict zones during the Cold War by both major parties, where or what did it lead to?

The arms buildup, unlike what most Western military analysts predicted, do not lead to peace, rather more wars. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Soviet arms in Eastern Europe suddenly started finding their ways into Africa and exploding conflicts in less developed parts of Europe like Bosnia. The arms shipments into Africa meant proxy wars in Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the likes.

Can we say both superpowers were emotionally matured in the handling of: Korean war (1950), Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Vietnam War (1968), Korean Airliner, KAL 007 (1983) and the Afghanistan war (1978) and somehow managing to avoiding a nuclear war?

We cannot immediately say that because even though there were no actual escalations of nuclear wars during the Cold war, Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) came to the closes of nuclear war. Had the Soviet leadership bowed to Fidel Castro’s pressure to resort to nuclear war (in the event of an invasion of US in Cuba) the matter might have been more complicated. The decision of the US to agree to remove its nuclear facilities from Turkey and Soviet’s decision to remove its medium range nuclear facilities in Cuba at the time shows the maturity of the leadership of both powers, even though it was said that the US president was largely inexperienced at the time.


Nuclear crisis is a really delicate affair because it could lead to what no one will imagine. It was Carl von Clausewitz in his book, On War, who wrote: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” The things that would really have led to major nuclear escalations during the Cold war were at the tactical level not at the operational level due to ineffective C3 system. The book is an excellence addition to the debate on the prospect of world peace.





Cimbala, S.J (1990) Uncertainty and Control: Future Soviet and American Strategy (London: Pinter Press)

Glodstein, J. S and Pavehouse, J.C, (2011) International Relations, ninth edition, (United Sates of America: Longman Plc)


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