The Changing Face of Nuclear Deterrence

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is also no longer a maintainable strategy and this increases the risk of the use of nuclear weapons

By Anil Madan

Ever since the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seared the conscience of humanity, the nations of the world have for the most part maintained a fearful respect for nuclear weapons. Even as both the US and the Soviet Union expanded their arsenals, there was an underlying sense that such expansion should be reluctantly undertaken.

This approach made deterrence and non-proliferation possible. It eventually led to the test ban treaty and arms reduction talks. Employing even the threat of using a nuclear weapon—except in a deterrent sense, later refined to the concept of mutual deterrence—has been considered off limits at least for the major powers. It was assumed that Britain, France and China were committed to this same respect. India and Israel (which never admitted that it had nukes) made indirect pledges of refraining from a first strike.

Surprising as it may be, despite the twisted logic of five superpowers having arrogated to themselves exclusive membership in a nuclear club, the world at large, with few exceptions, yielded to the imperative of non-proliferation. Of course, it was logical to expect that India could not abide China’s nuclear arsenal, and that Pakistan could not abide India’s. And it was not logical to expect that Israel would abjure the oxymoronic solace that comes from possessing the ultimate in destructive weapons when faced with an existential threat — destroy first, lest ye be destroyed. That deterrence was an insurance policy for a nation’s survival. 

Sensible international restraint

In recent years, things have changed. South Africa’s relinquishment of its nuclear weapons and Ukraine’s agreement to give up control of nukes on its territory, are distant memories. North Korea’s success in developing nuclear weapons and Iran’s all but inevitable declaration of its membership in the nuclear club, albeit both as uninvited members, speaks to the loss of that fearful respect that we all welcomed as evidence of sensible international restraint.

Recent developments suggest that the problem is now getting worse. And the culprits are both Russia and China rather than some new entrant into the nuclear club.

Just before he began his criminal invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin made a not-so-veiled threat to use his nuclear arsenal against countries that would intervene to give aid to Ukraine. He has continued to issue threats. The most recent came on April 20 when the Russian defense ministry announced that it had successfully test-fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Putin soon declared that the new missile is “capable of overcoming all missile defense systems” and would make those who “try to threaten our country think twice.”

To be sure, Putin has not directly threatened the use of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, but there is no shortage of journalists speculating along those lines. And the war is still ongoing. One predicts an erratic dictator’s actions at one’s peril. 

A recent article, about ten days ago, in The Wall Street Journal gives pause. It reports that China has accelerated an expansion of its nuclear arsenal because of a change in its assessment of the threat posed by the US. The assessment is attributed to unidentified “people with knowledge of the Chinese leadership’s thinking.” One is tempted to say that this is either an example of irresponsible journalism or, if true, that the WSJ is being played by people with knowledge of what China’s leaders are thinking. After all, one would not expect China’s leaders to disclose their thinking unless they wanted to send a message.

Lending credence to the idea that the article may be irresponsible speculation is the author’s acknowledgment that the Chinese nuclear effort long predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In other words, there is nothing new here. Of course, it is well known that China had plans to build up its nuclear arsenal because its nuclear weapons number in the hundreds compared to Russia’s and America’s thousands.

The idea, it is said, is that China wants to defer any arms reduction talks so that it can negotiate from a position with parity to the bipolar nuclear states Russia and America. Whereas the logic of that is suspect, it does make more sense that China feels the need to build up its arsenal to avoid a first strike by either Russia or the US that leaves it vulnerable to a crippling attack by the third power. I will discuss below why this is so.

The WSJ article also suggests that Chinese leaders see a stronger nuclear arsenal as a way to deter the US from getting directly involved in a potential conflict over Taiwan. This, of course, suggests that the Chinese have taken a page from Putin’s book and decided that his threats of nuclear escalation kept the US and NATO from direct involvement in Ukraine. The extrapolation required is that the Chinese leadership plans to invade Taiwan and keep America at bay by threatening it with the use of nukes.

That logic too is suspect because China’s nuclear arsenal will be built up over the next 8-10 years. It seems unlikely that the Chinese leaders are telegraphing an invasion of Taiwan about eight years away. Nevertheless, this is an ominous development for it presages a new nuclear race.

Before I get to that, I must mention that the WSJ article also suggests that the Chinese leadership is driven by fears that Washington might seek to topple Beijing’s communist government. This really smacks of irresponsible speculation. The US probably has a slight preference to see the CCP displaced in China but that is more wishful thinking than policy.

Certainly, the US has no viable means to effect such regime change. In any event, the US has historically shown little aptitude for accomplishing regime change anywhere in the world. Certainly, the suggestion that China is expanding its nuclear arsenal as a response to such fears seems an illogical conclusion. Paranoia may have run amuck but an eight-year program of nuclear arms development hardly seems a logical response to fears of regime change. 

So, let us get back to why this is ominous. This is not because the WSJ article mentions that unidentified American military officials and security analysts are concerned that China’s nuclear acceleration could mean it would be willing to make a surprise nuclear strike. That too smacks of more irresponsible journalism. China has no incentive to attack the US, its major trading partner and the locus of much of the wealth that CCP members hold. Nor does the US have any incentive to attack China, its principal supplier of manufactured goods and products that are an integral part of American life and a source of immense profit to its companies.

The explanation may be much simpler. To some extent, it is understandable that the CCP might want to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. After all, the US does that from time to time. President Obama orchestrated a substantial upgrade of US tactical nuclear weapons and there is talk of upgrading the strategic arsenal. Putin’s latest missile is an upgraded weapon and he boasts that other countries will not match it for years. It is to be expected that the Chinese don’t want to fall further behind.

A tripolar imbalance

But the problem is more serious. In the just released May/June 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs,Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, argues that China’s construction of new missile silos signals a dramatic shift in China’s approach to nuclear weapons, that it will quadruple its arsenal by 2030, to 1000 weapons. But wait. Didn’t he (and I) already say that China has long planned an expansion of its nuclear force? Yes, of course it is. So that part is not new, much less a dramatic shift.

But the author goes on to make the more telling point that China’s plans will upend the bipolar nuclear power system. China’s entry as a power at parity with Russia and the US threatens to create a tripolar system that will inherently be more unstable with greater incentives to resort to nuclear weapons. With three competing powers, the factors that rendered the extant system stable will be moot or less reliable. 

One obvious feature of a tripolar imbalance is that neither the US nor Russia will be able to focus nuclear strategies solely on the other, but must now include China in the calculus. The features of parity and mutually assured destruction in a bipolar system are a disincentive for each of two adversaries to resort to nuclear weapons. A killer first-strike capability is not possible and any strike would not eliminate the likely certainty of destruction from a retaliatory attack.

But with three powers in the mix, retaining a sufficient capacity to deal with two adversaries becomes a challenge and may not be possible without another massive buildup in the arsenal of nuclear weapons. This, in turn, would trigger the other two to build up their arsenals in a never ending spiral. In short, it is simply not possible for each state to maintain nuclear parity with the combined arsenals of its two rivals. That logic compels the conclusion that mutually assured destruction (MAD) is also no longer a maintainable strategy and this increases the risk of the use of nuclear weapons.

Compounding all this is that the allies of the US who rely on its nuclear umbrella will be motivated to develop their own arsenals once they perceive that the US umbrella has leaks and is no longer reliable protection for them.

The author notes that in some circumstances, starting a nuclear war can be seen as a rational act. This is truly frightening but not illogical. Calls for nonproliferation and indeed for disarmament have rested on the compelling idea that the mere possession of nuclear weapons makes their use likely. In other words, possession of such weapons can lead to one’s rationalizing their use. Again, we have only to look at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of how possession of artillery and bombs can lead one to use them. And let us not forget America’s adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, of the same tenor.

The author argues that China’s eventual attainment of great-nuclear-power status by way of parity will dramatically upset the delicate equilibrium of the bipolar system. Ultimately, he posits that addressing nuclear strategy in a tripolar nuclear system brings to mind the impossibility of predicting the motion of three celestial bodies based solely on their initial positions and velocities.

I will add that we cannot expect either Russia or China to behave rationally in such a system. Certainly, Putin’s actions now underscore that concern. And China’s willingness to create an unstable system raises legitimate concerns about its rationality in this context. Nor can we expect that the Chinese or Russians will trust the US to behave rationally.

After all, if the leaders of the great powers, indeed of all nations, trusted their counterparts to behave rationally, we would not be where we are today.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 22 April 2022

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