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How Emerging Threats are Changing Strategic Thinking About the Use of Nuclear Weapons

nuclear weapons test in pacific atoll taken from ground level with rising mushroom cloud

Ever since nuclear weapons became a part of the USSR’s arsenal, American policymakers have strived to preserve what is known as “strategic stability”. According to Carnegie Moscow Centre, the term means “the absence of incentives for any country to launch a first nuclear strike.” This ideology provided the backbone for policy during the Cold War, the first and only time the world was on the brink of nuclear war. 

There were two key factors during the Cold War that helped preserve strategic stability – one the threat of mutually assured destruction and the second the fear of ‘second strike’ capabilities, i.e. the ability to launch nuclear missiles even after being hit. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the strategic stability policy continued to define the US approach to nuclear weapons. 

U.S. ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson presents evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba at the UN Security Council on October 25, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the last time the world was close to nuclear war. Source: UN Photo/MH

However, the 21st century has seen the strategic thinking that underpinned the doctrine of nuclear war upended. With the end of the Cold War, nuclear armageddon is no longer the same threat to the world that it was as NATO and the USSR faced off. The emergence of China as a military superpower and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by states like Pakistan and North Korea means that the geopolitical realities of this new more multipolar world have made international relations incredibly complex.

This can be seen in the political complexity of recent conflicts like Afghanistan, Ukraine and Libya and all of this has forced a rethink of what war looks like and what role nuclear weapons have. The strategic stability that was provided by the Cold War is gone and new thinking must replace it.

Mutually Assured Destruction

In order to understand the challenges that lie ahead, we first need to understand how classic strategic stability works. The policy, in its most basic form, is based on a strategy that discourages nuclear war through the promise of mutually assured destruction. This is because, even after a nuclear strike, both the US and USSR know that each other has the ability to retaliate with a nuclear strike. That is because both nations have spread their arsenal all over their respective countries and even at sea. 

Retaliation or second-strike capabilities are a key reason for nations to build submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles. With the ability to spend months at sea undetected, submarines are capable of retaliation from almost anywhere on Earth, with little warning. Right now the US, Russia, France, India, the UK and China all have ballistic missile submarines and North Korea is working furiously to develop them. The fear of retaliation ensured that the strategic balance would be maintained, thus there was little to be gained from a nuclear strike. 

USS George Washington was the first operational ballistic missile submarine fielded by any navy. Source: Navysource

The New Strategic Reality

That long-standing logic now no longer holds true. As Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall wrote: “there was a fairly linear escalation ladder from conventional to nuclear weapons, with just two players involved. Policymakers and defense planners today have to contend with a system of complex interactions that are far less predictable and therefore harder to manage or control.” Preserving the peace in such a system is decidedly more complex. 

Adding to the complexity is the spread of nuclear weapons. Pakistan and North Korea are the most recent countries to join the nuclear club but there are a number of nations like Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan that sit just below the nuclear threshold who could quickly develop the capability and an Iranian bomb could trigger a wave of proliferation throughout the volatile Middle East. Few countries have given up their nuclear weapons and these are Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and South Africa.

Pavel Podvig, a Senior Research Fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research wrote: “unless the international community commits itself to a more rational security regime, the world could get bogged down in a quest for strategic stability — which is increasingly becoming nothing more than a cover for obstructionism and cynicism in nuclear disarmament.” Almost a decade later, that still holds true as the world is quickly moving towards armament and not disarmament.

What this has done, is change the meaning of the term ‘strategic’ for the military. After the second world war, the term became the preserve of nuclear weapons policy. Now strategic includes a wide array of responses, capabilities and new domains like space and cyber. A hypersonic missile that cannot be intercepted or the ability to destroy a nations communications satellites poses the kind of threat that was once the preserve of nuclear weapons. That’s not to say nuclear weapons don’t have a place in this new thinking. If anything, they still have a critical role to play, which is why nations are increasingly spending on not just on warhead technology, but also on rockets as a means of delivery.

The Emerging Strategic Threats

The nuclear option was, is and always will be the last resort. But when exactly is such a response acceptable? In the past, it would have mainly been a response to a nuclear strike, although the NATO plan for the defence of Europe against a Soviet invasion was built around the tactical use of nuclear weapons against the expected tidal wave of Soviet armour.

Today nations face equally grave threats from cyber attacks. Sherwood-Randall a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has written that: “U.S. policymakers have begun discussing whether the United States should threaten a nuclear response to a debilitating wide-scale attack on energy infrastructure. Adding this to the list of casus belli for nuclear response could serve as a deterrent, but it would also open up a new escalatory pathway (to nuclear war) without clear firebreaks.”

The US Cyber Command is America’s military wing that deals with cyber threats. Source: William Belcher/Air Force

That thinking is based on the hybrid nature of warfare in the 21st century. The lines are now increasingly blurred between war and peace, with nations being forced into a constant state of readiness. The increasing strategic threat posed by cyber-attacks is a key reason for this, but also the blowback that has come from nations’ involvement in conflicts in regions like the Middle East. In fact, such deployments are seen in terms of the strategic defence of the homeland.

Two other key areas where strategic stability is fundamental are space and biotechnology. Modern societies are utterly dependent on fleets of communication satellites which are the backbone for both civilian and military life. Despite a UN treaty banning the deployment of weapons in orbit, space is fast becoming the most important strategic domain.

Then there is also the rising concern of the potential weaponisation of biotechnology. At the end of 2016, the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology offered a warning: “While the ongoing growth of biotechnology is a great boon for society, it also holds serious potential for destructive use by both states and technically-competent individuals with access to modern laboratory facilities.”

Is it possible for a nation to bioengineer a virus and target another country? That could happen. In such a situation, would a nuclear response be deemed appropriate? It is certainly possible. 

With a rise in the number of countries who are adopting a more muscular style of foreign policy and the increasing competition for influence and resources, it is clear that maintaining the status quo is a major challenge. To that end, US strategists and planners need to undertake a broad and integrated effort to develop a framework for synchronizing deterrence across multiple platforms—and for developing a related framework that addresses the implications for strategic stability. 

A 2020 estimate by the Arms Control Association of the number of nuclear warheads globally.

In order to do so, planners need to explore multiple escalation pathways in coordination with allies so as to build confidence and remove unpredictability from the equation. It is also fundamental that governments are willing to come to the table and be open to dialogue on the issue. Right now, Trump has severed most of the goodwill the US has with nations like Russia and China, giving them little reason to want to talk. Such a situation is not ideal, as it brings more unpredictability. 

According to Sherwood-Randall: “Over time, dialogue among leading powers about the range of new capabilities could produce a comprehensive and integrated view of the battlespace….. If sustained by determined leadership and informed by science, these processes could eventually lead to the creation of a more stable overall balance“. However, the potential for a disastrous miscalculation has never been greater

Sources: Carnegie Moscow Centre, Foreign Affairs, The Bulletin

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