Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Weapons’


The Increasing Allure of Nukes

In Warfare on July 23, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Nuclear weapons are commonly viewed as the ultimate military capability that a state may possess. Those countries that have developed and constructed nuclear weapons, no matter how limited their numbers or capabilities might be, are set apart from those that have not in the calculations of leaders and foreign policy establishments charged with managing conflict. The possession of even a single functional device is often assumed to mark a quantum shift in that state’s global standing and military position. Yet if one looks beneath the surface and examines more carefully the realistic options available of nuclear-armed nations, the limitations are found to be quite significant for those countries with small, newly-developed nuclear arsenals. Indeed, minimal nuclear capability may in some ways serve to impose restrictions on policy options that might not otherwise be present while at the same time creating external pressures that might not otherwise develop. In the interest of understanding the strategic implications of states with limited nuclear capabilities on diplomacy and conflict, we must examine the effect of development on the state’s international relations, the conditions in which such weapons might be used, and what exactly can be expected from both their employment as well as mere possession.

Ascendancy to the small circle of nuclear-armed states brings with it considerably baggage. States which have developed their capabilities have done so either outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or, if signatories, in direct contravention of it. Neither condition is likely to contribute to widespread support among the global community, at the very least introducing unwelcome complication, and opening the door to possible sanctions or other measures intended to punish the transgression. Naturally, this is likely to be haphazard and contingent upon the specific circumstances of the current balance of power; for example, the United States has made extraordinary efforts to assist India in normalizing their nuclear standing (thus making available to it civilian nuclear technology) in spite of that country’s nuclear program operating outside the NPT, with the U.S. intention being to strengthen diplomatic ties in the interest of longer-term security interests. It is of course much easier to overlook the violations of a potential ally half a world away than those of a known enemy or potential short-term rival.

Known nascent programs, such as Iran’s, are more likely to be targets of direct action, as the possibility of arresting the development prior to weaponization greatly simplifies the equation (though, with a nod to Clausewitz, one should not mistake simplicity for ease). Israeli strikes against the Iraqi and Syrian programs forestalled development of nuclear weapons in those countries, allowing Israel to maintain regional dominance in the nuclear arena, a cornerstone of her security strategy. In lieu of military action, stiff sanctions and other measures short of war may also be employed. If the state or coalition doing so are militarily dominant in relation to the nuclear aspirant, these efforts may be carried out in relative security (though not without consequence); in the face of a direct challenge, the aspiring nuclear power can be counted on to redouble its efforts in what amounts to a race to see if the sanctions can have a meaningful effect before the development process is completed. Even if it succeeds in building weapons, the costs of doing so under such external pressures will likely be severe. For all of these reasons, states seeking nuclear weapons have strong inducements to keep their programs secret for as long as possible.

The nuclear weapons themselves are only part of the equation; delivery systems must also be available if the state is to have meaningful nuclear capability. Surface-to-surface missiles are the most common method for delivery, as they have traditionally posed the greatest difficulty for defensive systems (though this is changing somewhat) and do not require the extensive air force capabilities necessary to contest air superiority in order to reliably deliver weapons to the target by that method. Submarine-launched missiles offer the most secure method of maintaining a nuclear force for both offensive and deterrent purposes, but this technology is not generally available to new nuclear powers. The range of whatever delivery systems are in use will dictate to a significant degree the extent to which the state will be able to employ (actively or passively) its nuclear weapons; conversely, states outside that range that may oppose the new nuclear state may increase the level of their resistance with relatively limited concern, though regional allies may find themselves more exposed.

Assuming a successful program, the newly-minted nuclear power will now have to determine what it may do with its new capabilities. To have acquired militarily-viable nuclear weapons, that is to say weapons that can be delivered effectively and reliably against relevant targets, is a significant achievement, but it is not the same as having an arsenal capable of offering the full gamut of nuclear strategic options. While a great deal of thought was dedicated to nuclear strategy during the Cold War, and some very useful theories and doctrines generated, little of this is relevant to a state with a handful of low- to medium-yield nuclear weapons, especially if its rivals have larger and more versatile nuclear arsenals.

The Cold War calculus applied to nuclear war incorporated such sophisticated approaches as counter-force and counter-value targeting, secure second-strike capability, and eventually mutually-assured destruction; for a state possessing perhaps a few dozen warheads, many of these options simply do not exist. Counter-force targeting, aimed at an opponent’s nuclear weapons, is not likely to be possible, especially if that opponent has dispersed their warheads and has multiple methods of delivery available. Counter-value strikes against cities, intended to raise the cost of fighting to unacceptable levels, are the only realistic option for the small nuclear power, and then only if its delivery systems have sufficient reach. Counter-value targeting works primarily as a deterrent, in effect holding an opponent’s population centers hostage as a guarantee against an attack. If, however, this option is exercised, the state will draw the wrath of both its opponent and likely that of a significant portion of the world community. Having expended even one weapon thusly is very likely to provoke retaliation on a scale it cannot hope to match. Lacking both sufficient first-strike capability to inflict catastrophic losses on an opponent and its allies (while casualties and costs would be massive, catastrophic loss must be defined here as sufficient to persistently obstruct the ability of a state to function economically, politically, and militarily), and sufficient survivable second-strike capability to deter massive retaliation for limited nuclear first use, mutually-assured destruction does not apply in this case. In effect, then, any use, and particularly first-use, of nuclear weapons by a small nuclear power against another nuclear power would very likely amount to self-assured destruction.

If first-use against another nuclear power is simple suicide, it must be inferred that the possession of nuclear weapons is viewed as a primarily defensive measure to be held as a final reserve to prevent existential national defeat, or that they are intended to attain dominance over non-nuclear rivals. The logic of the former case is self-evident, if fatalistic: a government facing obliteration in a non-nuclear contest may attempt to forestall the result by escalating the conflict in order to so dramatically increase the cost to its opponent that unconditional surrender or regime change become less attractive than simply ending the conflict, or simply to reap final vengeance on an otherwise-victorious rival. Obviously such an approach is extremely high-risk, but for a state in extremis this risk is no greater than accepting otherwise inevitable defeat. If a state is the first in a region to seek nuclear weapons, doing so will probably trigger a race by regional rivals to develop arsenals of their own in the interest of maintaining the balance of power. This has been seen most notably in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, and previously in the early years of the Cold War. If the regional rivals succeed in building viable nuclear arsenals of broadly similar size and capability, the result may in fact be ultimately stabilizing; the possibility of a nuclear exchange has historically had the effect of causing leaders to willingly limit conflict so as to minimize the risk of escalation. The proliferation of weapons to additional states, however, must nonetheless mathematically increase the chance that they will be used.

We must infer then that those states that acquire nuclear weapons perceive a threat significant enough to endanger the existence of the government, and that the threat is compelling enough to offset the diplomatic and economic costs involved with development. Once acquired, nuclear weapons are only of practical value if they can be used to intimidate non-nuclear opponents, or to prevent nuclear-capable rivals from taking action. The possession of roughly equal nuclear arsenals will likely act to reduce the chances of all-out war between rival states, as neither will be willing to risk the costs of either first-use or being the victim of a first-strike, given that both will be restricted to counter-value targeting strategy. The moment of greatest danger for the nuclear aspirant, then, is the period between the decision to develop nuclear weapons and the point at which they become operational, when vulnerability to both nuclear and non-nuclear opponents peaks because they may seek to disrupt the effort before it succeeds. For non-nuclear rivals of a newly nuclear-capable state, the risk persists for as long as the imbalance remains. This of course encourages them to develop nuclear capability of their own, or to at least build stable alliances with nuclear powers. The inevitable conclusion is that, in lieu of a strong and reliable nuclear partner, states facing potential regional nuclear rivals will seek such capability of their own. During the Cold War, the presence of two nuclear superpowers made alliance with one or the other the preferred option for the vast majority of states. In the increasingly divided multipolar global system, however, with power becoming more diffuse and shared more equally among more states, governments are ever more likely to perceive that they must look after their own security, as the threats multiply and alliances become less stable. For all its drawbacks, indigenous nuclear capability provides, if nothing else, reasonable assurance that the regime will not be destroyed from without, and this alone is enough to make it increasingly desirable in a dangerous and uncertain world.