“Nuclear Weapons Are Cold War Relics.”
Not so. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the era of nuclear competition seemed to be at an end, and the United States and Russia began to get rid of many weapons they had used to threaten each other for more than 40 years. In 1967, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at 31,255 warheads, but by 2010, under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) signed with Russia, the United States had promised to deploy no more than 1,550.
In June of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his intention to go even lower, to around 1,000 warheads — a move that would leave the United Stateswith fewer nuclear weapons than at any time since 1953. What’s more, influential figures around the world, including erstwhile American hawks, have increasingly supported steps toward total disarmament. In his major 2009 address in Prague, Obama committed “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear reductions and the heady dreams of abolition are driven in part by a belief that nukes are Cold War anachronisms. But it would be incorrect — dangerous, in fact — to assume that the conditions that have allowed the United States to de-emphasise its atomic arsenal will persist. Nuclear weapons are still the most potent military tools on Earth, and they will remain central to geopolitical competition. They have been relatively unimportant in the recent past not because humanity has somehow become more enlightened, but because we have been blessed with a temporary respite from great-power rivalry.
The Soviet Union’s collapse left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, and America’s unmatched conventional military overawed other countries. Nuclear weapons have not been central to America’s national security for the past two decades because its primary foes — Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and al Qaeda — did not have them. Whatever America’s problems in prosecuting its recent wars, a lack of firepower was not one of them. But times are changing. Economists predict thatChina could overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in the coming years, and international relations theory tells us that transitions between reigning hegemons and rising challengers often produce conflict. Already, China has become more assertive in pursuing revisionist claims in East Asia, confronting America’s allies, and building military capabilities — including anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines — tailored for a fight with the United States.
In September 2012, a dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands nearly caused a war that could have easily drawn in the United States. Beijing’s contested claims to natural resources in the South China Sea and ever-present tensions with Taiwan could also lead to Sino-U.S. conflict. Even relations with Russia,America’s partner in arms control, are becoming more competitive: The civil war in Syria bears every hallmark of a Cold War-style proxy battle. In short, great-power political competition is heating up once again, and as it does, nuclear weapons will once again take center stage.
The writing is already on the wall. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are modernising or expanding their nuclear arsenals, and Iran is vigorously pursuing its own nuclear capability. As Yale University political scientist Paul Bracken notes, we are entering a “second nuclear age” in which “the whole complexion of global power politics is changing because of the reemergence of nuclear weapons as a vital element of statecraft and power politics.” Nostalgia for simpler times can be seductive, but the United States needs a nuclear force that can protect it from the challenges that lie ahead.
“It Takes Only a Handful of Nukes to Deter an Enemy.”
Wrong. Advocates of further cuts argue that a secure second-strike capability — the ability to absorb an attack and retain enough nuclear warheads to launch a devastating response — is sufficient for nuclear deterrence. Although “secure” and “devastating” are imprecise terms, many analysts would say that a few dozen submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with multiple warheads, is plenty because at-sea subs are difficult to target in a first strike and the firepower provided by, say, 200 nuclear weapons is impressive. By their logic, anything more is “overkill” that can be cut with little loss to U.S. security. Although it is possible that no sane leader would intentionally start a nuclear war with a state that possesses even a small deterrent force, nuclear-armed states still have conflicting interests that can lead to crises. And it turns out that, contrary to widely held assumptions, the nuclear balance of power is critically important to how such disputes are resolved.
Recently, I methodically reviewed the relationship between the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal and its security. In a statistical analysis of all nuclear-armed countries from 1945 to 2001, I found that the state with more warheads was only one-third as likely to be challenged militarily by other countries and more than 10 times more likely to prevail in a crisis — that is, to achieve its basic political goals — when it was challenged. Moreover, I found that the size of this advantage increased along with the margin of superiority. States with vastly more nukes (95 per cent of the two countries’ total warheads) were more than 17 times more likely to win. These findings held even after accounting for disparities in conventional military power, political stakes, geographical proximity, type of political system, population, territorial size, history of past disputes, and other factors that could have influenced the outcomes.
When the United States operated from a position of nuclear strength during the Cold War, it stopped the Soviet Union from building a nuclear submarine base in Cubain 1970 and deterred Moscow from increasing support to its Arab allies in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. By contrast, when the nuclear balance was less favorable to Washington, it was unable to achieve clear victories in crises against the Soviet Union — for example, failing to roll back Moscow’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
In addition, qualitative evidence from the past 70 years shows that leaders pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates into a geopolitical advantage. During the Cuban missile crisis, American nuclear superiority helped compelMoscow to withdraw its missiles from the island. As Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “We have the strategic advantage in our general war capabilities.… This is no time to run scared.” Similarly, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, “One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority, but he also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours.”
We see similar patterns in South Asia. When asked years later why Pakistan ultimately withdrew its forces from Indian Kashmir during the 1999 Kargil crisis, former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes cited his country’s nuclear superiority. In the event of a nuclear exchange, he said, “We may have lost a part of our population … [but] Pakistan may have been completely wiped out.” This may sound crazy. To most people, “But you should see the other guy” would be scant consolation for losing perhaps millions of one’s fellow citizens. But the truth is that nuclear war might well be more devastating for one country than for the other, even if both sides can inflict “unacceptable” damage. As Cold War nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote, “Few people differentiate between having 10 million dead, 50 million dead, or 100 million dead. It all seems too horrible. However, it does not take much imagination to see that there is a difference.”
This is not to argue that leaders of countries with bigger arsenals believe they can fight and win nuclear wars. The logic is more subtle. Nuclear states coerce each other through brinkmanship. They heighten crises, raising the risk of nuclear war until one side backs down and the other gets its way. At each stage of the crisis, leaders make gut-wrenching calculations about whether to escalate, thereby risking a catastrophic nuclear war, or to submit, throwing an important geopolitical victory to their opponent. If the costs of nuclear war are higher for one state than another, then giving in will always look more attractive to leaders in the inferior position — whatever payoff they might get from escalating would always be offset by a higher potential cost. So, on average, we should expect that leaders with fewer nukes at their disposal will be more likely to cave during a crisis. And this is exactly what the data show.
Competition between nuclear powers is like a game of chicken, and in a game of chicken, we should expect the smaller car to swerve first, even if a crash would be disastrous for both. The United States has always driven a Hummer, but it is trading it in for a Prius, even though games of chicken are likely for decades to come. Rather than cutting its forces, the United States should, as President John F. Kennedy promised, maintain a nuclear arsenal “second to none.”
“But Doesn’t Superiority Increase the Risk of War in the First Place?”
Don’t be so sure. It is true that many strategists have long argued that having a nuclear arsenal “second to none” could increase the risk of nuclear war. Their logic is simple: If a state has a “first-strike advantage” — that is, the ability to launch a nuclear attack that disarms its opponent and leaves it relatively invulnerable to retaliation — then, in a crisis, it might be tempted to start a nuclear war. Alternatively, the weaker state might be tempted to use its weapons first, lest it lose them altogether. By this reasoning, nuclear superiority is dangerous for everyone, and the most stable situation is one in which both sides have survivable arsenals of roughly the same size, leaving both vulnerable.
Today, it is still widely believed that it is a bad idea for the United States to possess a nuclear advantage over Russia, and the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review identified “strategic stability” as a primary goal. That is why New START and Obama’s proposed follow-on agreement aim for equal limits on theUnited States and Russia. Some analysts also apply this logic to China, over which the United States has tremendous nuclear superiority. (China is thought to have a mere 50 or so warheads capable of reaching the United States.)
But an American first-strike advantage is just that, an advantage, and arguments that try to make a vice out of a virtue rest on tortured logic. After all, the United Statespossesses a first-strike advantage against the world’s 184 non-nuclear states, and it doesn’t wring its hands about that. Would Americans be better off if these countries could hold them hostage with nuclear threats? No. Would they feel better if North Korea’s missile tests did not routinely fail, giving the Hermit Kingdom a more reliable ability to nuke Los Angeles? Of course not. Then why is the United States so fearful of pursuing superiority over Russia and China?
The answer often given is that, while the United States can trust itself not to start a nuclear war, it doesn’t want to make a Russian or Chinese leader feel the need to “use ’em or lose ’em.” But this fear is unfounded. A leader in a position of inferiority — inferiority so extreme that his country could be vulnerable to a disarming first strike — has a choice of launching a nuclear war he will surely lose or simply conceding the contested issue. Faced with that choice, there is every reason to believe he will back down. Indeed, this is exactly the dynamic that my research demonstrates. To make any other decision, a leader would have to be either crazy or at the end of his rope. But if either were the case, nuclear parity would, if anything, make him more likely to gamble on nuclear war. In sum, a U.S. nuclear advantage is a major problem — if you are one of Washington’s adversaries.