Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century

On July 24 the director of Russia's prestigious USA-Canada Institute made these predictions

By Sergei Rogov | 1998-09-01 12:00:00

Since the end of the Cold War and of brinkmanship between the Soviet Union and United States, concern over nuclear weapons has diminished. The issue has been understood as one of managing the retreat from the nuclear arms race and handling its consequences, especially the ecological consequences such problems as loose nukes. Much less attention has been given to the nature of the strategic relationship that had been built up by the Soviet Union and United States and which remains mostly intact despite the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union.


From the beginning, the nuclear weapon was perceived as the absolute weapon, which immediately created the political question of its usability. As an absolute weapon which can destroy humanity, nuclear systems couldn't be treated like any other weapon previously invented by the human mind. A conceptual effort was made to design a rational political role for something which, by definition, is irrational. This original problem was never resolved, but the interim solution to it was found in the concept of nuclear deterrence, which eventually was accepted as wisdom - the basis for strategic stability between the Soviet Union and the United States, and for a special regime encompassing the entire international community. Deterrence doctrine established different rules of the game for different countries

a hierarchy of strategic stability with three levels: (a) the United States and Russia; (b) France, Britain, and China; and (c) the rest of the world. Thus at the end of the Cold War we had a regime that was supported by the power of the United States and the Soviet Union and also by arms control agreements.

At the top level of strategic stability were the United States and the Soviet Union, whose posture was based on the concept of mutually assured destruction or mutual nuclear deterrence. The two superpowers developed the notion of their special privilege, as the owners of 98 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. The middle level concerned three other official nuclear powers, which were restricted in their holding of nuclear weapons. A completely different set of rules applied to their case. And finally, the third group comprised the rest of the world, which by the NPT was prohibited access to nuclear weapons.

The regime for managing nuclear weapons had nothing to do with disarmament. Nuclear arms control never had as its purpose to get rid of nuclear weapons. The real purpose was to manage the arms race between the two superpowers, make it more predictable, less costly, less dangerous, and at the same time to fix their special status in the international system.

The Soviet Union was dissolved seven years ago but this model of strategic stability continues and no serious effort has been made to determine whether this kind of hierarchical regime can be maintained in the 21st century. It reflected the bi-polarity of the Cold War - a bi-polarity which collapsed and is being replaced by a fundamentally different system. The newly evolving international system has a completely different hierarchy of nations and coalitions to which this Cold War strategic stability regime does not correspond. So today this three-level hierarchy is under pressure. The greatest pressure is on the top level, the United States/Russian level, from which arises the prospect of the collapse of the nonproliferation regime.


What is wrong with present model Russian/American interaction in the strategic nuclear field? It is based on the dubious philosophical premise that you posture in a way that demonstrates your ability to act irrationally, for by threatening to act irrationally you force the other side to behave rationally and not to cross a certain threshold. This is a contradiction: You show that you yourself can cross this threshold as a means of preventing the other from doing so. The nuclear deterrence model is unique in that it exists only in Russian / American relations, not in the other layers. Both superpowers subscribed to the mutual deterrence model, which was developed after the Cuban missile crisis. Both sides codified the rules of managing the nuclear arms race between them. The main principles of this system are:

First, preoccupation with parity characterizes the mutual assured destruction posture - the intention to maintain equality so the posture of each of the two players develops together with the posture of the other. the outcome of this is a continued interplay, action and reaction, with both countries threatening the other.

The second feature of this model of mutual assured destruction is its reliance on counterforce weapons. Only Russia and United States have counter-force capability - the nuclear weapons capable of conducting a preemptive decapitating strike. The existence of counterforce weapons challenges this strategic stability system and renders it rather unstable. The technical capability to conduct precise nuclear attacks against the other side allows the possibility of preemption, so that each side continuously expect attacks and must rely on launch-on-warning. You must not miss the launch when the other side begins the attack, so both sides maintain their forces on alert -ready to launch within minutes, before the other side launches. Another main feature of this relationship is the possibility of escalation. Vertical escalation occurs as an effort to resolve the original shortcoming of nuclear weapons: their unusability. In a situation of escalation, you have choices at each step -whether to give up or face the consequences of escalating all the way to complete annihilation. The Soviet Union and the United States created tactical nuclear weapons for all kinds of military missions. One, for example was the Davy Crockett recoilless gun, which the United States army started to produce 30 years ago.

It could be managed by one soldier and was supposed to shoot nuclear shells. Originally the plan was to produce 300,000 of these weapons. Actually; only 3,000 were produced, but the very plan was an indication of how crazy the nuclear strategists were. To think of using 300,000 small nuclear weapons That the mutual assured destruction concept has absolutely irrational conclusions was accepted by everyone, yet it was adopted as the highest wisdom and fixed by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty One of its strange logical consequences was that you need to keep some weapons vulnerable. That principle was built into the ABM Treaty. Finally, if you look at the history of the Cold War you find that the nuclear arms race was carried out separately from the conventional arms race. Both superpowers behaved as if conventional weapons were completely distinct from nuclear weapons. Actually, of course, conventional weapons could be used to destroy the nuclear arsenal, and vice versa.

We don't know why no war took place between the Soviet Union and the United States - whether it was because of or despite mutual assured destruction. Anyway, whether you believe the Soviet Union was an evil empire or not, it is gone. And the conflict between the United States and Russia is also behind us; if you look at the major economic competitors of the United States, Russia will not be on the list for a long time.

Nevertheless, we still maintain the whole system of mutual assured destruction. Neither side is seriously reconsidering why we are doing it. It is not a healthy relationship. If adopted, START III agreements will reduce the number of weapons, but even this is only a numerical difference. Any agreement to de-target the weapons is only a gimmick because they can probably be retargeted within about 60 to 90 seconds.

Is there any rational basis for maintaining mutual assured destruction? Usually when you ask this question, you are given an answer that was typical of the Cold War: "Because we have the capability, which cannot be dis-invented." On that reasoning, we are doomed to continue forever on an irrational course. A few years ago Clinton and Yeltsin proclaimed that there was a partnership between Russia and the United States. This declaration has had no effect -probably because a strategic partnership is simply incompatible with mutual assured destruction.


But another challenge is arising from the bottom, against the hypocrisy of the unequal strategic stability regime. Some countries are building "bombs in the basement" and a few months ago India and Pakistan exploded such nuclear devices. I had expected that the hierarchy of the Cold War would indefinitely; but now we have a new dilemma. To permit the entry of India and Pakistan into the NPT would make a joke of treaty. On the other hand, not to admit them would make a joke of the situation because it would seem to pretend that nothing had happened.

The present conflict between India and Pakistan is extremely dangerous. The United States and the Soviet Union had fought wars by proxy in distant parts of the world, but never fought each other directly. India and Pakistan have fought three times since they both achieved independence. Moreover, the threat of preemption is much greater in their case because of the overwhelming conventional superiority that India enjoys over Pakistan; the superpowers were more evenly matched. Today India has methods for preemption against Pakistan's nuclear facilities, and the next year or two are going to be extremely dangerous for that reason.

Worse yet, while there is a possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, the great threat is India/ Chinese nuclear parity. What will be the Chinese reaction to India's tests? Will they make the same mistake that we made a generation ago? Will China deploy in the next decade the next generation of MIRVed intercontinental range ballistic missiles? What kind of weapons does China need to deter India? Mostly those which Russia and the United States agreed to eliminate when adopting the INF treaty.


Britain, France, and China each developed their own nuclear postures and their own model of nuclear deterrence which not based on mutual assured destruction. They did not try to achieve parity with nuclear powers. They didn't develop counterforce weapons, thus they could not decapitate other nuclear powers, so their problems of nuclear deterrence are different; possibly some alternatives strategies can be learned from analyzing their approaches.


But there will be other challenges as well, some of them arising in connection with the reform of the U.N. Security Council. Japan has joined the economic superpowers, and there have been demands that it be given a permanent seat, possibly along with Germany, Brazil, Mexico, or even Canada. Unfortunately, India's nuclear tests have made it impossible to reform the Security Council because now it will be impossible to win support for the necessary changes in the U.N. Charter to admit at least Japan and Germany. Apparently India expected to be given a permanent seat, which cannot now be done. However, unless it is given one, it will appear that membership on the Security Council are allocated strictly on the basis of economic power.

In any case, the system of strategic stability that was created during the Cold War is totally inadequate for managing the challenges of the 21st century. The question is, how do we move to the next stage and begin to replace this model with actual nuclear disarmament? The first step is to replace mutual assured destruction in Russian and American relations with some kind of more constructive Interaction. And here we can look at the British and the French. Both of these countries have the capability to destroy each other, but they do not relate to each other in terms of mutual assured destruction. Theirs is a wholly different model of interaction. Can we envisage Russia and the United States, while maintaining nuclear deterrence, having a type of interaction that is closer to the French model?


We must also ask whether it is possible to neutralize India and Pakistan. Is an arms race between them absolutely inevitable? Or can we find positive incentives that would allow them to freeze what they have done and keep from doing greater harm to each other -something in exchange for which they would promise not to deploy nuclear weapons? Are there any economic carrots that can be used? The fear of preemption will not be enough. Is it possible to provide them with some kind of early warning and reassurance.

In addition, we have to think about the expectations of the middle powers. In my view we cannot expect China, Japan, and Germany to accept the status quo unless the United States and Russia achieve very drastic reductions. The United States cannot maintain its superiority in the nuclear field. \'e have to think about political solutions at the Security Council, at the G8, and these will involve the future of nuclear weapons. Already there was a meeting of the foreign ministers of the GB. That provided an opportunity for Japan, Germany, Canada, and Italy on equal footing to discuss security issues with four of the five official nuclear powers. Unfortunately, they didn't produce any results at all, but it indicates where we should be moving. Nuclear holocaust, which was looming so ominously during the Cold War, remains a possibility. If we don't resolve it, the whole system of stability' will collapse with a bang.

Dr. Rogov is a military adviser to the Russian Duma.

Peace Magazine Sept-Oct 1998

Peace Magazine Sept-Oct 1998, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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