Nuclear Weapons and Precision Strike in the Future Security Environment

By Stephen Peter Rosen

Natural scientists study complex systems by breaking them down into simpler parts before analyzing them.  By holding some factors constant, we think we can isolate the impact of changes in other factors.  This method works in many cases, but not for strategy.  The proliferation of nuclear weapons and of precision strike weapons are parts that form a whole that must be studied as such.

First, the presence of nuclear weapons in a hostile country will affect operations involving non-nuclear precision strike weapons, even if the nuclear weapons are never detonated.  Consider the problem of command and control.  Attacking the command and control systems of an enemy with precision weapons has become a routine part of war.  Given the fact that nuclear weapons will be deployed on dual capable missiles, what will happen when the command and control system controlling nuclear weapons may be affected by attacks on networks controlling non-nuclear systems?  Will the attacker be able to distinguish, reliably and in time of war, between the command networks for nuclear weapons and those for non-nuclear weapons, particularly if the adversary tries to hide his nuclear armed platforms among his non-nuclear armed platforms?  Will the attacker want to cut the links between national command authorities and the commanders controlling nuclear weapons, or will the attacker be self-deterred by the prospect of creating a situation in which nuclear weapons cannot be controlled by the political leaders of a hostile country? If the attacker is not so deterred, what will the battlefield dynamic be like when both sides have deployed nuclear weapons that are no longer under the control of the national command authority?

Second, nuclear weapons deployed on dual capable delivery vehicles will affect maneuver forces on land and at sea.  Mobile nuclear armed systems may conceal themselves to avoid becoming the target of precision strikes.  Hostile countries may want to conduct military operations in areas that may contain deployed, concealed nuclear weapons delivery systems, but they may not wish inadvertently to destroy enemy nuclear weapons and put the enemy in a “use them or lose them” position.  Will areas be denied to maneuver forces because of the fear of inadvertent escalation?  Or will conventional warfare inadvertently threaten or destroy enemy nuclear weapons?

Third, will the networks of networks supporting longer range precision strike weapons operate in an environment in which even one nuclear weapon has been detonated, deliberately or by accident? The first order assessment is “no, they will not.”  What will warfare look like when the United States and its adversary both lose their intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems and their command and control links in the theater, and perhaps globally?  Will the United States have an advantage because our military has a practice of devolving operational responsibilities to lower levels of command than is found in other militaries?  Or is the United States more dependent on modern communications than its adversaries?  If so, will it be more crippled than its enemy by nuclear detonations that disrupt those communications?

The United States government, civilian and military, appears to be operating on several problematic assumptions in this area. First, we appear to assume that nuclear proliferation will not proceed further.  Second, if it does, the effects will be confined to nuclear arms competitions, for example, between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  While that is not a happy outcome, the consequences will be limited because “no one will use nuclear weapons.” Third, implicitly, the United States government is acting as if nuclear weapons do not matter as much as other military requirements.  We are cutting our spending on nuclear weapons, and on capabilities that mitigate the consequences of nuclear weapons use.  A study of the strategic future that includes the proliferation of both nuclear weapons and precision strike weapons suggests that the United States government may wish to revisit those assumptions.

Stephen Peter Rosen is Senior Counselor at the Long Term Strategy Group and the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the Future Security Environment

By Elbridge Colby

A quarter century ago, nuclear weapons were central to US military planning – yet today they are largely consigned to the background.  How important will they be a quarter century from now? 

Many argue that the salience of nuclear weapons in military planning will continue to decline.  These observers point to the international opprobrium that constrains the employment or brandishing of such weapons, typified by the apparent growth of a “taboo” or “tradition of non-use,” as well as the more practical difficulties of using nuclear weapons in a rational and controlled fashion.  To these observers, assuming some degree of prudent statesmanship and good faith among the major powers, nuclear weapons will continue to recede in relevance.  Nuclear forces may well exist in the 2030s, but they will provide a basically existential deterrent, hardly impinging on the real world concerns of statesmen and military planners except as hazardous material to be properly accounted for.

But is this prediction of continuity correct?  Are nuclear weapons likely to be as marginal to US defense planning in the 2030s as they appear to be today?  There seem to be two primary reasons for doubt. 

The first reason for doubt is the possibility of nuclear proliferation among smaller and medium powers.  From the Persian Gulf War through Iraq and Libya, the United States could and regularly did fight militarily unlimited wars against “rogue states.”  While the United States exhibited admirable restraint towards civilians in these conflicts, it neither needed to nor did recognize any fundamental necessity for restraint in its conduct of the war against its adversary; rather, it pursued regime change and total victory.  US forces could conduct their campaigns of “shock and awe” without serious consideration for the enemy’s capability to escalate in response. 

But the conditions that allowed this are changing.  Countries ranging from North Korea to Pakistan have learned by observing the US way of war against Iraq and Libya that, as an Indian general pithily remarked about what to learn from the First Gulf War, it is foolish to fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.  If more countries acquire nuclear weapons – and especially survivable nuclear weapons – the United States will have to face the reality that adversaries might have the ability to launch nuclear attacks against its allies or even the United States itself even (and especially) if US forces initiate a full-scale attack.  This does not mean that the United States would need to forswear fighting nuclear-armed adversaries – but it would mean that the United States would need to learn – or relearn – how to fight limited wars, wars that seek to achieve US objectives while minimizing the probability that an adversary would escalate.

The second reason why nuclear weapons will probably be more salient is the likelihood of greater symmetry in the conventional military balance in theaters of prime interest to the United States.  While this is likely to be a longer-term development, the narrowing of US advantages in conventional warfare is likely to prompt US planners to think more about nuclear weapons as a way of shoring up its deterrent and defense postures by the 2030s. 

The decline in the salience of nuclear weapons in the 1990s and early 2000s was a function of two events: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the maturation for the United States of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  The combination of these events propelled the United States to a position of olympian conventional superiority over any plausible foe in any plausible contingency.  But the strategic landscape has been changing.  A number of countries, above all China, are dedicating substantial resources to ambitious conventional military modernization programs.  And the RMA is spreading.  Countries such as China, Iran, India, Pakistan, and even non-state actors like Hezbollah are now exploiting the possibilities of advanced conventional weaponry, even as they also explore forms of “hybrid” warfare designed to undercut American military advantages. 

The upshot of these developments is that the United States is likely to face a considerably more capable set of militaries than it did in the 1990s and 2000s, especially in the Pacific and the greater Middle East. US forces will have to strike deeper, harder, and more quickly against a wider range of adversary targets – and thereby take on greater escalatory risk – in order to accomplish military objectives against these opponents.  This reality will force American planners to consider the possibility that such conflicts could lead to escalation to the nuclear level with those states that possess such weapons. 

Moreover, even with effective investments in cutting edge military technologies, by the 2030s the United States may face situations in which it finds itself at a conventional military disadvantage in regions of great importance to Washington, particularly the Western Pacific.  Depending on the trajectory of American investment in force modernization, US forces may, for instance, be inferior in the local balance of power or US power projection capabilities may rely on fragile, vulnerable, and readily disrupted or disabled assets. If the United States cannot achieve its regional military objectives with conventional forces, it will need to consider greater reliance on its nuclear forces to compensate for its conventional inferiority and/or vulnerabilities – if it wishes to maintain the network of extended deterrent guarantees that have undergirded global order since World War II.

The combination of these two trends suggests that nuclear weapons will play a more salient role in global politics by the 2030s than they have in the last two decades.

Elbridge Colby is a principal analyst and division lead for global strategic affairs at CNA.  He previously served in various positions with the US Government, where he focused on nuclear weapons policy and proliferation.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

Implications of Future Security Environment Trends for US Ground Forces

By BG William C. Hix, US Army

Today’s headlines provide the prologue to a broad range of emerging challenges in an increasingly unpredictable and complex security environment, even as impending budget shortfalls promise to constrain our resources to respond.  The increased speed, quantity, and reach of human interactions, along with potential adversaries’ greater access to lethal capabilities, are driving the likelihood of instability and disorder in ways that blur the distinctions of past conflicts.  A Syrian regime held up by an increasingly shaky Shi’a-Alawite alliance, a nuclear armed North Korean state teetering on the verge of collapse, the increasing influence of transnational criminal organizations, and under-governed spaces such as post-Qaddafi Libya reflect this complexity and illustrate the wide variety of existing and emerging challenges to US national interests.  Recent events, along with China’s growing economic and military power tied to its own goals and ambitions, and the increasing risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East make clear that the United States must remain engaged and prepared for a wide range of challenges. 

Solving these security challenges will not be accomplished without human interaction on the ground.  Historically, it has been ground forces that have been required to operate in difficult environments, made complex by the unpredictability of human interaction.  Looking to 2030 this complexity will only increase, driven by globalization, increased access to information, and transparency, resulting in a remarkable diffusion of power and the proliferation of technology to increasingly diverse groups.  The character of conflict is likely to change as a result of these factors. Accordingly, two critical issues will dominate ground force operations in Asia and the Middle East:  nuclear proliferation and the diffusion of anti-access capabilities.    

Dealing with nuclear proliferation issues that will likely dominate the world stage in 2030 is essential.  Based on stated objectives and trends, the risk of nuclear proliferation in East Asia, South Asia or the Middle East cannot be ignored.  Still other nuclear states may not be able to keep their weapons out of the hands of a wide variety of non-state actors.  A Stanford database on nuclear smuggling documents some 850 incidents in the past decade, including weapons grade plutonium smuggled out of the former Soviet Union.  Nuclear related arrests have been made in Armenia and Georgia.  In the coming decades, with thousands of nuclear facilities spread throughout the world and not all nations maintaining high standards of security, it is necessary to plan for the possibility of lapses at some of these facilities. As a matter of sound risk mitigation or crisis response, if called upon US Army forces will play a key role in working with other joint capabilities to quickly locate, track, seize, secure, and deal with the consequences of nuclear proliferation. 

As the country moves toward 2030, the US military will confront significant challenges to access that it hasn’t encountered since World War II.  Breakthroughs in precision technology will make gaining and maintaining access one the key functions of ground forces in the future.  More precise missiles, aircraft, and unmanned aircraft are the technological backbone of future access challenges. Many of these precision capabilities are also developed as retrofit kits, upgrading older systems.  Intercontinental ballistic missiles with an accuracy of 100 meters will be within reach of nations and non-state actors alike thanks to advancements in global mapping, measurement devices (gyros and lasers), global positioning systems, and computing power.  The Chinese 400-meter WS-2 multiple rocket launchers and the Russian Yakhont cruise missile with a 300-kilometer range are just two examples of weapons likely to be widely proliferated by 2030. Increasingly, capabilities such as GPS jamming and laser countermeasures are exacerbating the access challenge. Enemies with precision mortars, artillery, rockets, missiles, and cyber tools can and will cover our likely entry points. Recognizing these challenges, the United States is developing operational approaches and capabilities to address these threats and maintain our competitive advantage over known and potential adversaries. These include off set entry operations and the application of US asymmetric advantages to counter or destroy hostile precision strike. 

Military forces must ultimately be prepared to fight and win wars.  Indeed, it this capacity to respond decisively that is vital to deterring wars in the first place.   Certainly, ground forces have particular value in shaping the environment before a crisis even erupts and preventing conflict. One common denominator of most nations in Asia and the Middle East is the prominence of their ground forces. Army conventional and special operations forces are uniquely suited to assist Asian and Middle Eastern countries build the capacity to handle their own problems. Replicating and increasing past successes in this area will be all the more important given an unpredictable and complex future operating environment. Concurrently, we continue to study and attend to emerging challenges, ensuring we stand ready to meet whatever tests lie ahead.

Brigadier General William C. Hix is Director, Concept Development and Learning, Army Capabilities Integration Center, US Army Training and Doctrine Command.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

More on China’s Perspective on the Future Security Environment

The rebalancing of the US defense portfolio from West to East Asia has been called a “pivot,” but the term arguably applies better to China’s strategic situation.  Over the past few decades, China has had momentum in the global military competition, but looking ahead, China will have to adjust to the reactions to its rapid build-up in the region.  These responses may put China on the wrong side of the cost-imposing equation. More generally, they may complicate China’s effort to reap strategic dividends from its modernization to date.

Up to the present, China has taken advantage of the conventional precision strike trend to build up a “counter-intervention” force, aimed at threatening, for example, expensive US power projection assets with relatively cheap missiles. Today, we are witnessing the fruits of China’s decades-long effort to construct a network of sensors and strike assets capable of hitting fixed and mobile targets – from runways in Taiwan and Guam to US aircraft carriers in China’s near seas. This has threatened the ability of the United States to project power by traditional means along China’s periphery. With logistics support, staging areas, and both surface naval and airborne platforms vulnerable to Chinese missiles, would the United States come to the defense of, say, the Philippines in the event of Chinese aggression against Filipino claims in the South China Sea?

There is another way of casting this question, however.  Looking forward, China’s emerging defense infrastructure will itself be vulnerable to conventional precision strike. From the Indian Ocean in the west to the Timor and Banda Seas in the south and the Sea of Japan in the north, regional states are acquiring their own counter-intervention capabilities to defend their interests and maintain stability in the context of outstanding territorial disputes, competition over resources, and other potential disagreements with China.  Consider the following examples of observable and potential developments:

  • India, Japan, and South Korea have all been investing in sophisticated cruise missiles that could threaten Chinese naval forces.
  • Land-attack variants might be placed on submarines operating off of China’s coast. Australian Collins-class subs could carry Harpoon land attack cruise missiles (LACMs), and Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines that could carry Russian LACMs.
  • Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Mahnken has proposed a West Pacific intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) consortium involving data from drones that would enable consortium members to detect and, presumably, target Chinese forces conducting incursions.

As the regional security environment evolves, and as China chooses to become an aggressor, the logic of precision strike will turn against it.  Chinese power projection assets, rather than US forces, will be in the crosshairs.

Beyond the operational level, the spread of counter-intervention capabilities in the region could pose a serious challenge for Chinese strategy, which is centered on inflicting a devastating series of strikes at the outset of a conflict to paralyze or incapacitate the enemy so that China can prevail quickly.  On their own or as part of a coalition, other states look poised to acquire the means to withstand such an onslaught and inflict damage on Chinese forces.

Would regional states really venture to use conventional precision strike against Chinese forces and risk nuclear retaliation? This question suggests the need for better understanding of nuclear proliferation dynamics in Asia. Observable trends include the prominence of tactical nuclear weapons in Russian doctrine; the build-up of fissile material by actors from India, Pakistan, and potentially the Middle East to North Korea; and developments in US and allied missile defense. In light of these factors, prospects for nuclear arms reductions by China look slim. Nuclear-related decisions by other regional actors will likely hinge in part on the fate of the US extended deterrent.  Mark Stokes has noted that China may have its own version of prompt global strike by 2025, so it makes sense to ask about the impact of this capability on the credibility of the US commitment to the defense of regional allies and friends.

A final consideration is that China’s economic growth, a critical enabler of its defense modernization to date, is beginning to slow, as the draft Global Trends report notes.  This will affect China’s ability to sustain defense budget increases across the board and necessitate potentially difficult trade-offs among investments.  For these and other reasons, leading Chinese security scholars such as Shi Yinhong and Wang Jisi have begun to debate whether China’s period of strategic opportunity is ending.  A perceived closing window of opportunity could affect Chinese decisions about Taiwan or other disputed territory on land (e.g., along the border with India) and at sea (e.g., in the East and South China Seas) in surprising ways.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

The RMA with Chinese Characteristics in the Future Security Environment

By Timothy Thomas

China’s ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is often defined as strategic thinking based on “Chinese characteristics.” Chinese characteristics, according to Hu Jintao, appear to include the informatization of the military system, to include military weaponry and equipment, theory, training, management, logistics, and political work. This focus somewhat follows a 1997 Chinese Military Affairs Dictionary definition of the RMA as “a reflection of qualitative changes in military technology, weapons and equipment, unit structure, war fighting methods, and military thought and theory.” Other Chinese RMA characteristics stressed by Hu and others include military reform and science and technology innovation, the latter described not only as the decisive factor and core competency of a modern military but also as the precursor and soul of the RMA. These advances shift China’s combat power generation model to one that relies on science and technology innovation in the opinion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Advancing the RMA is a strategic task whose goal is to control the strategic initiative in international military competition. In 2011 these RMA goals were advanced, according to a Nanfang Zhoumo Online article that stated that the General Staff created or reorganized three departments, the Informatization Department, the Strategic Planning Department, and the Military Training Department. These departments, according to the authors, provide the top-down design for military reform and innovation, and they help coordinate military-wide strategic planning and information command and control support. They serve as future design blueprints for seizing decisive opportunities and advantages, and they help build an informatized military that can seize the initiative and win local wars under informatized conditions. Accelerating the RMA transformation and improving joint operations through the establishment of system-of-systems (SoS) capabilities allows for responding to multiple security threats. To adapt to the world’s RMA, Hu Jintao stressed that the basic form of combat power is the SoS operations capability; the fundamental point of enhancing RMA capabilities is SoS capabilities; and the fundamental point of endeavor for military preparations is SoS capabilities. All of these Chinese RMA characteristics have appeared in the Chinese military press over the past two years.

Interestingly, most if not all of these characteristics seem to follow several recommendations first developed in the 2004 Chinese anthology On the Chinese Revolution in Military Affairs. This work included contributions from a host of influential information warfare and strategic thinking authorities, such as Dai Qinmin, Shen Weiguang, Wang Pufeng, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of Unrestricted Warfare fame, Li Jijun, and Li Bingyan, among others. First the book noted that superior thought that develops a strategy of “imbalance” will avoid traveling the path that an enemy expects. In this sense, Li Bingyan noted, the RMA is really a cognition system revolution (which accords with the recent focus on innovation). Further, authors stressed the diversification in the pattern of war at the initial stage of the military revolution (which coincides with the necessity to seize the initiative). The RMA changes the face of war and thus the application of military strategy (which accords with a new Strategic Planning Department). Another author stated that the RMA included new technology and weaponry, organizational structure, and theory, strategy, and tactics (much like Hu’s listing of characteristics); and that information imparts an offensive character to warfare. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote that the RMA allows for control over front lines from rear lines, referring to the use of drones in Afghanistan. The only dissenting voice was that of Li Jijun, who noted that an RMA is not the same as reform or a revolution in military technology. The RMA is more expansive and quick, while reform and technology revolutions are more gradual and limited. Overall, however, the authors believe that the RMA is a revolution of an entire military architecture, but the manner in which it is understood cannot accommodate the US version. The RMA must be seen through the prism of Chinese military thought and culture, focusing on thinking as much as on technology. In other words, strategic thinking must be based on Chinese characteristics.

Overall, RMA advances in 2011 helped China’s deterrence and actual combat capabilities according to the Nanfang Zhoumo article. Two tendencies must be avoided in RMA preparations: moving too fast, and excessively using military resources.

Timothy Thomas is an analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

More on Regional Nuclear Powers in the Future Security Environment

By Ravi Rikhye

Analyzing the India-Pakistan nuclear balance over the coming decades is difficult for two reasons. One is that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is based on a false strategic premise. The other reason is that India’s nuclear doctrine is not to have a doctrine. From time to time Western-trained analysts, including Indians, produce weakly applicable formulations that may be relevant to the West, but they are irrelevant to South Asia.

Superficially, the nuclear balance is simple and will remain so. India has six times the population and ten times the GDP of Pakistan. India also manages to collect about twice the amount of taxes as a percentage of GDP relative to Pakistan. India’s true defense budget is around $40 billion, two percent of its GDP; Pakistan’s without US assistance is perhaps $7 billion, closer to four percent of GDP. Pakistan has no depth: an Indian advance of 100 kilometers (Jaiselmer to Rahim Yar Khan) would cut Pakistan in half; advances of up to 300 kilometers would overrun Sindh and the Punjab, spelling the end of Pakistan as a nation state. The obvious solution for Pakistan is to deploy nuclear weapons in counter-value mode. Against the possibility that, in accordance with its “Cold Start” doctrine, India will seek not to overrun Pakistan but to make shallow advances of up to 30 kilometers, tactical nuclear weapons employed on Pakistani terrain are the solution.

India’s nuclear doctrine is focused not on Pakistan but on China. India does not envisage a nuclear exchange with China under any practical conditions. Delhi wants only for Beijing to understand that it cannot be blackmailed by China’s nuclear weapons. Somewhere India’s strategic aims became more ambitious: to possess nuclear weapons for recognition as a great power. Incredible as Western analysts may find this assertion, Pakistan figures nowhere in Indian nuclear doctrine! And any Indian insider, be it a senior general or a senior bureaucrat who claims to have the definitive answers on Indian doctrine toward Pakistan, may safely be disregarded because there is no doctrine. This statement needs explanation.

Indians have zero concerns about Pakistan’s counter-value strategy because they believe the Pakistanis are not suicidal. Using nuclear weapons against Indian cities will mean the end of Pakistan. Because Indian nuclear weapons are well-dispersed, a counter-force strike is inconceivable. That leaves tactical nuclear weapons. But India has no intention of pushing Pakistan to the point where the latter feels nuclear use on any level is its sole resort.

Here is Pakistan’s false strategic premise about India: India has absolutely no intention of using the military option to destroy Pakistan. Now, we can admit that persuading Pakistan of this is a losing proposition. As far as India is concerned, Pakistan has a right to nuclear weapons. There has been exactly one occasion since 1947 when India may have planned an advance to the Indus River. This was in 1971, when the eastern offensive was supposed to complement a western offensive. But the purpose of the western offensive – which was not launched – was not to destroy Pakistan, let alone to occupy the country. It was to straighten out the Kashmir Line of Control to India’s advantage. If Pakistan’s strike force and air force could be brought into a big battle and destroyed, that was to India’s advantage because then India would not have to worry about Pakistan for a generation.

After September 11, 2001, India’s strategy has been entirely focused on punishing Pakistan for terror attacks. That India has never done so is another matter. “Cold Start” is explicitly designed to make zero-warning, short-distance jabs into Pakistan. The offensives will last no more than 24-72 hours, after which India will stop before Pakistan feels compelled to use tactical nuclear weapons. Territory seized in Kashmir will not be returned. Territory seized elsewhere will be returned except for that required to buffer choke points, specifically Pathankot-Gurdaspur. Even the West came to realize in the 1970s-1980s that nuclear weapons were not a feasible defense against a massive but shallow Warsaw Pact advance. That is why NATO began a huge conventional buildup. The same conditions apply between India and Pakistan. This is why Pakistan is focusing on boosting its counterstrike conventional forces.

Accordingly, the wise strategic analyst should not waste time on the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. There is nothing to discuss.

Ravi Rikhye has been an independent defense analyst for 50 years.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

Regional Nuclear Powers in the Future Security Environment

By Vipin Narang

The world is sliding toward a second nuclear age, one whose character will be dominated by regional nuclear powers with conflicting interests rather than by the United States or Russia. Regional nuclear powers such as India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, potentially Iran and others that might follow face different challenges in managing their nuclear forces than the superpowers. They have tighter resource constraints, often unstable domestic politics or even internal conflict, and hostile regional security environments. Some are forced to extract significant deterrent power from much smaller arsenals, which can strain command and control organs.

Some like India and China are content to rely on nuclear weapons to deter strictly nuclear use, and therefore have the luxury of adopting no first use clauses and relatively assertive command and control structures that privilege arsenal security. These nuclear powers have a nuclear strategy best described as “assured retaliation,” and they are able to select it because of advantageous geographic buffers and strong conventional forces that obviate the need to rely on nuclear weapons as warfighting tools.

Others, like Pakistan and perhaps several emerging nuclear states in the next two decades, are not so lucky. Nuclear states that face a conventionally superior adversary are often tempted to adopt more aggressive first use postures that threaten nuclear use in a conventional conflict—as NATO did during the Cold War. With sometimes unstable regimes and internal threats, regional powers that adopt such a posture risk not only the intentional use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, but nuclear accidents and more disturbingly of course, nuclear terrorism.

 It is an open question as to what type of nuclear posture future regional nuclear powers such as Iran, and others that might follow, will adopt. There are reasons to think Iran might look more like India or China, trying to deter nuclear use and an existential threat to the regime’s existence. But there are also reasons to think, particularly given the structure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, that Iran might go down the path of Pakistan and adopt a first use nuclear posture to deter even limited conventional threats from its adversaries. Keeping a close eye on not only which states pursue nuclear weapons, but also which nuclear postures they adopt, will be a critical determinant of stability or instability in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia.

What is certainly clear is that the emergence of a potential cascade of nuclear powers across Asia—from west to east—carries with it significant challenges that we have not yet faced. First, the number of potential nuclear powers that border each other, with historical territorial disputes and irredentist claims, is a novel challenge. The risk of armed conflict, checkerboard nuclear alliances (e.g., persistent rumors about Saudi-Pakistani nuclear connections), and catastrophic misperceptions are all heightened in such a multipolar nuclear landscape. Second, for the most part, the Cold War competition settled into a pattern where both the United States and the Soviet Union had an interest in largely preserving the status quo. Some new nuclear states across Asia may view nuclear weapons as an instrument to revise the status quo—that is for deterrence as well as offense or compellence, despite the historical difficulty of the latter. We have already seen some of the effects of this in South Asia, where Pakistan has more aggressively employed state-based terrorist organizations to attack metropolitan India, using its first use posture as a shield behind which it can act against its conventionally superior neighbor.  

What role can the United States play as these dynamics unfold over the next two decades? Can a broader US extended deterrent to Middle East allies who might be tempted to proliferate stanch the cascade of proliferation? There are two reasons to think that this might be difficult. First, states such as, hypothetically, Saudi Arabia might prefer to have their own sovereign deterrent against a future nuclear Iran rather than outsourcing it to the United States. Second, the risk that a broader US extended deterrent might generate “reckless allies” that might drag the United States into conflicts would be a serious concern. Broader nonproliferation and counter-proliferation efforts might slow the emergence of this landscape, but it has historically been very difficult to stop determined states from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

 Realistically, the best hope the United States probably has in managing this emerging nuclear landscape is to stay engaged across Asia to help ensure that small disputes do not escalate to armed conflict between nuclear powers. It may also be time to revisit export control laws that prohibit the sharing of negative control technologies and best practices that might help secure the arsenals of new nuclear states. In the new landscape, with nuclear weapons dispersed across unstable states, a premium ought to be put on ensuring that those weapons are as secure as possible.

Vipin Narang is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a member of its Security Studies Program.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030