How an Equation Changed Warfare


Thesis: Einstein’s equation, E=mc2, and the subsequent development of nuclear weapons, has led to an irrevocable change in warfare.
  1. Introduction
  2. The Development of Nuclear Weapons
  3. The Power of Nuclear Weapons
  4. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons
    1. Changes in tactics
      1. The obsolescence of ground troops
      2. Civilians as targets
    2. The threat of nuclear retaliation
    3. Limitation on types of war
      1. Guerrilla wars, revolutionary wars, and invasions
      2. Surrogate wars
    4. Promoter or deterrent?
  5. Conclusion

How an Equation Changed Warfare

Einstein’s equation, E=mc2, and the subsequent development of nuclear weapons, has led to an irrevocable change in warfare. Though the implications of nuclear warfare were not immediately evident after the development of the atomic bomb, it is now generally recognized that the world will never be the same in terms of international warfare. There are two main results from the introduction of nuclear weapons: an increase in power and heightened caution. These two forces often conflict and lead to tense situations which have never existed before and which may continue to exist indefinitely.

It took a period of forty years to make the transition from an equation to a weapon. In 1905 Einstein published three famous papers. Among these was his special theory of relativity, from which he extrapolated the equation, E=mc2. According to Nuclear America,

This formula indicated that the conversion of even a tiny amount of matter (m=mass) would release unbelievably great energy (E=energy, measured in ergs) because the constant that served as the multiplier was so huge (the speed of light squared=3.45 x 1010) (Clarfield and Wiecek, 13).
By 1932 scientists realized the potential uses of atomic energy and began to exploit the atom’s power. In 1938 nuclear fission was achieved by an Austrian team of physicists; the race to achieve a nuclear chain reaction quickened between the fascist and democratic countries. In America, scientists urged President Roosevelt to initiate a project to develop the bomb. He complied, but the research process was sluggish for two years, until the attack on Pearl Harbor. After December 7, 1941, however, the nuclear race was well on its way. Late in 1942 Enrico Fermi accomplished the chain reaction, and by July 1945 America had built three atomic bombs (Clarfield and Wiecek, 17-26).

In 1945, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, it was realized how powerful the bomb actually was. Though those particular nuclear weapons are considered weak by today’s standards, their destructive force was equal to 20,000 tons of TNT (Macksey, 209). “A large nuclear weapon might have the yield of a million tons of TNT or more. A single nuclear weapon can kill hundreds of thousands of people” (Thomas, 1). Nuclear weapons are obviously the most powerful and destructive arms man has ever produced. Besides immediate casualties from the huge explosion and resulting shock front,

[a] one megaton ground burst could cover about 2,000 sq km (775 sq mi) with 500 rem or more of fallout, enough to kill about half the exposed population. (Rem is the unit used to measure human absorption of radioactivity)… Fallout radioactivity is reduced by 99% two days after an attack, and by 99.9% two weeks after an attack. Nevertheless, it would take about five years for 500 rem of radiation to decay to safe levels of about half a rem per year (Thomas, 10).
This much pure destructive power has many effects on the way wars are fought, and what kind of wars are waged. For example, if a nuclear war were fought, there would be no place for ground troops.
Consider known weapon effects and try to visualize the number of dead and wounded, craters and blowdown, flash blindness, contamination, fallout, heat intense enough to melt rubber, fuse communications gear and ignite fuel supplies. Are extended [ground] operations feasible in that environment? (Collins, 33)
In addition, bombs would most likely be directed at large civilian cities, so as not to waste their considerable power. Large-scale attacks on cities have proven to weaken a country severely. A quick strike with nuclear weapons can destroy an entire population. In a nuclear attack, 20 million people can be killed “within seconds to 96 hours rather than over a period of four years [as in a traditional attack]” (38). If a country wanted to gain immediate superiority over another nation during a war, it is highly possible that innocent civilians would be the focus of attack, rather than isolated clumps of ground troops.

However, the victimized nation wouldn’t necessarily sit still while being attacked. If it possessed nuclear weapons of its own, a retaliatory strike could lead into an escalation of weapon use and the eventual destruction of both countries. This is obviously not the point of war in the first place–the point is to leave your own country intact while gaining a victory. Therefore, countries with rational leaders are unlikely to jump into a war with a nuclear superpower. This caution has been an effective deterrent against nuclear war (Carrol).

Since World War II, there have been no global wars; this shows that nuclear weapons could have held a part in limiting the kinds of wars fought. For example, nuclear weapons do not deter guerrilla wars, revolutionary wars, or invasions. It would be quite counterproductive to annihilate the country you plan to occupy. Also, in the last few decades there has been a substantial increase in surrogate, or proxy, wars.

Today there are about forty armed conflicts in progress… Many others are sustained by superpower support, with the US serving as the major supplier to twenty combatants and the USSR supplying thirteen. In some instances the adversaries are fighting proxy East-West wars which create the obvious risk of involving the principals (4).
These are wars in which nations, such as the United States and Russia, support and supply smaller countries which are involved in armed conflict. In this way, two nuclear superpowers can squabble indirectly, and therefore with a lesser chance of nuclear retaliation.

It is arguable whether or not there will be a nuclear war in the future. The advent of the nuclear age has introduced incredible power, along with increased tension and heightened caution.

A number of people have argued that an arms competition could develop in such a way that starting a war might represent a sensible course of action. In particular, many argue, a country that enjoys a substantial superiority of weaponry at a given time–a so-called window of opportunity–might be tempted to launch a war, especially if it seemed that the enemy might close, or even eventually reverse, the gap (Mueller, 233).
A tense situation, combined with sufficient arms, may lead a country to provoke a war. Yet over the years, there have been many tense situations, such as the Cuban missile crisis. In such situations, there have been enough weapons to destroy the world many times over. Still there have been no nuclear wars. There is no decisive way to determine whether or not nuclear weapons are a promoter or a deterrent of war.

It is obvious that nuclear weapons have affected warfare. The question is, have they moved the world closer to peace, or to an apocalypse? This question may lose its importance if either global economics gains superiority over military interests, all nuclear weapons are dismantled, or a general non-interest in war takes hold of all the nations’ leaders. However, nuclear weapons cannot be “disinvented,” nor can the concept of nuclear power be forgotten. It only takes one irrational leader to start a world war. It only took one equation to change warfare. As Einstein himself put it, “Politics are for the moment. An equation is for eternity” (Life, 25).


“Albert Einstein: the genius who found the key to the atomic age.” Life Fall
    1990: 25.

Carrol, Eugene J. “Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence.” The Nuclear Crisis Reader. Ed. Gwyn Prins. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. 3-10.

Clarfield, Gerard H. and William M. Wiecek. Nuclear America. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Collins, A. S. “Current NATO Strategy: A Recipe For Disaster” The Nuclear Crisis Reader. Ed. Gwyn Prins. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. 29-41.

Macksey, Kenneth. The History of Land Warfare. New York: The Two Continents Publishing Group LTD, 1974.

Mueller, John. Retreat from Doomsday. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1989.

Thomas, Valerie. “Nuclear Weapon.” The Academic American Encyclopedia (Electronic Version). 1994 ed.

Suzanne Aldrich
Web Technologist

Web technologist specializing in security, performance, and usability.

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