Nuclear Deterrence Destabilized
With the failure of talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, heightened tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the need for high-quality policy solutions to nuclear crises is more critical than ever. Too often, however, rather than take the risk of nuclear war seriously in response to these crises, politicians and analysts fall back on the old standby of nuclear deterrence – ‘deterrence will hold’. But the world has changed dramatically since the Cold War era, when nuclear deterrence was born. A confluence of changes to technological, domestic and strategic landscapes has destabilized nuclear deterrence, and it would be dangerous to maintain a continued, unquestioning reliance on it.
The Cold War logic of nuclear deterrence maintains that nuclear-armed states will not attack one another because of fear of massive retaliation, or mutually assured destruction (MAD). By this logic, nuclear weapons promote stability and can prevent war. In the words of realist scholar Kenneth Waltz, ‘Those who like peace should love nuclear weapons.’ Whether nuclear deterrence actually worked during the Cold War is a matter for debate; analysts still argue whether the lack of a major war between the superpowers was due to deterrence or to other factors. However, even if deterrence worked in the past, it is unlikely to do so in future.
To evaluate the present-day utility of nuclear deterrence, this essay examines some of the key assumptions that hide within its pithy logic, and focuses on three key problems with nuclear deterrence today: the destabilization of second-strike capabilities; incomplete and inaccurate information; and the growing trend for states to reject outright the logic of MAD. While these trends were present during the years of US–Soviet competition, they have evolved and intensified since then due to technological changes and the expansion in the number of nuclear weapons.
The destabilization of second-strike capabilities
Nuclear deterrence is heavily reliant on second-strike capability – the ability of a state to launch a devastating (nuclear) response to a nuclear attack. Otherwise, a nuclear first strike could be a knock-out blow, and states would have strong incentives for first use. However, technological advances, particularly in cyberwarfare, have the potential to destabilize the assurance of second-strike capability, particularly for countries with smaller arsenals. Known as ‘left-of-launch’ tactics, because they pre-empt an opponent’s ability to launch missiles, these cyber and electronic techniques can ‘sabotage missile components, impair command and control systems, or jam communication signals’. Left of launch is likely to encourage, rather than deter, nuclear use. For example, the leader of state Y fears that their ability to launch a second strike could be compromised by left-of-launch cyber tactics by state X. In this scenario, leader Y has a greater incentive to launch nuclear weapons before the start of a conflict, for fear they will not be able to do so later.
These concerns are not hypothetical: Pentagon officials have publicly discussed the merits of being able to undermine North Korea’s nuclear command and control, as well as its missile launches. If Kim Jong-un suspects electronic warfare may keep him from communicating with field units in a time of crisis, he may pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to field commanders, which also increases the risk of nuclear use. As Narang and Panda argue: ‘With communications disrupted, the Korean People’s Army units tasked with nuclear operation would come under intense use-it-or- lose-it pressure without knowledge of whether Kim Jong-un and the Supreme Headquarters remained intact or had been decapitated.’ Moreover, it is unlikely that the US is the only country engaged in left-of-launch activities; both China and Russia have strong cyberwarfare capabilities. As assurance in second-strike capability erodes, nuclear deterrence is undermined to a serious extent right across the globe.
Deterrence is about influencing a potential adversary’s cost-benefit calculus, assessment of risk, and decision-making processes. It requires a thorough understanding of a potential adversary’s priorities, perceptions, and strategies.
For nuclear deterrence to prevent war, correct and comprehensive information is crucial. Without a deep understanding of priorities and perceptions, miscalculations can lead to an underestimation of the likelihood of escalation and potential nuclear use. During the Cold War, with only two critical actors to consider, information was easier for each to acquire about the other. Now, however, the expansion in the number of nuclear-armed states has led to a corresponding increase in potential nuclear exchanges. In addition, the amount of deep understanding required between potential nuclear adversaries has increased exponentially, encompassing nuclear capabilities, command and control systems, national security culture, threat perceptions, pressure from domestic interests, leader aspirations and objectives, and more. This is a major qualitative change in deterrence context, from bipolar ‘analogue’ to multipolar ‘digital’.
In this context, incomplete or incorrect information is now more than ever likely to lead to a failure of nuclear deterrence. For example, a lack of understanding about military strategies could lead to a potential nuclear exchange. As Caitlin Talmadge argues, the US prefers rapid strikes deep into enemy territory early in a conflict. If applied against China, however, such tactics could lead to a nuclear response because of the fact that Beijing intermingles its conventional and nuclear forces. Faced with uncertainty as to whether Washington was attempting to take out its nuclear capabilities, China could decide to use its nuclear option while it was still largely intact.
In a completely different vein, the regime type of a nuclear-weapon state also influences the availability of comprehensive and correct information about a potential adversary. Scott Sagan argues that ‘personalist dictatorships’ are a grave threat to nuclear peace: ‘A leader surrounded by yes-men will have no one who can question faulty assumptions, much less challenge his decision-making.’ As applied to North Korea, therefore, nuclear deterrence relies on Kim Jong-un having an accurate understanding of US priorities and perceptions, and vice versa. To provide another example, the importance of two-level games – involving the interaction of international and domestic politics – also makes it exceedingly difficult for decision-makers to acquire information with the necessary detail and accuracy to understand adversaries’ intentions. One stark example is the February 2019 Kashmir crisis, driven by complexities arising from disputed territory, semi-autonomous sub-state actors, domestic political considerations, and deeply felt historical wounds. In such a context, how could India and Pakistan fully understand each other’s perceptions and intentions?
If decision-makers believe incorrectly that their adversary has launched a nuclear attack, and so launch a counterattack, then for all practical purposes deterrence has failed.
Successful nuclear deterrence also requires leaders to have accurate and comprehensive technical information. If decision-makers believe incorrectly that their adversary has launched a nuclear attack, and so launch a counterattack, then for all practical purposes deterrence has failed. The missile flight time between India and Pakistan can be as little as five minutes. Even if each country has highly sophisticated early-warning systems, how does a state record and transmit the news of an incoming attack, and how does the leader make an informed decision, within a timescale of just five minutes? Moreover, given the geographic proximity of India and Pakistan, false alerts on either side could also result in a nuclear response. Other technical failures could lead to nuclear use: some speculate that India, despites its ‘No First Use’ pledge, might launch a first strike against Pakistan if, for example, it believed it detected Islamabad readying tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use. India’s detection capabilities would then add another layer of complexity in nuclear decision-making. In all these cases, the quality of decision-making is only as good as the quality of the information generated by complex technology and operating systems, which are imperfect – as is richly demonstrated in Eric Schlosser’s harrowing documentation of nuclear accidents in the US.
Nuclear use ≠ nuclear Armageddon
The crux of nuclear deterrence is that states will not use nuclear weapons for fear of a return strike. If decision-makers believe that limited nuclear use is possible without triggering a nuclear response, nuclear deterrence is undermined. With the end of bipolarity and the expansion of nuclear-weapon states, the likelihood of limited nuclear use has increased. While the US and the Soviet Union both considered options for limited nuclear war during the Cold War, the possibilities thereof have multiplied with the rise of numerous regional nuclear states who have reasons to consider first use. For example, a nuclear adversary could potentially use nuclear weapons, not against the US homeland, but in its own region or in a demonstration effect, to deter Washington from intervening in a conflict outside its hemisphere. North Korea, for instance, has ‘explicitly threatened to conduct theatre nuclear strikes to prevent the United States from marshalling the forces required to conquer North Korea’. Furthermore, Pyongyang has simulated nuclear strikes against South Korea as well as against US bases in Japan. Nuclear use may be more likely when a new nuclear state is part of the equation, because they would not be constrained by the institutionalized communication channels, knowledge of ‘red lines’, and alliance constraints that benefited the US–Soviet relationship.
There is evidence, too, that Russia has once again returned to planning for a limited nuclear first strike. For example, Russia’s 2017 naval strategy included a statement that ‘being ready and willing to use nonstrategic nuclear weapons in an escalating conflict can successfully deter an enemy’; Russian officials have made ‘threats to use nuclear weapons against ballistic missile-defense facilities, and in regional scenarios that do not threaten Russia’s survival’; and President Vladimir Putin himself publicly noted that he considered putting the country’s nuclear forces on alert during the Crimea crisis of 2014. However, even if Russia has not adopted an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, the Pentagon believes it has, and is now making plans to combat this, as explicitly referenced in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
With regard to China, most evidence indicates that Beijing’s No First Use policy guides strategy and planning; however, a number of texts encourage the use of nuclear forces for the purposes of escalation control in conventional warfare. Some analysts argue that Chinese nuclear policy may retain No First Use for its strategic nuclear forces, but permit a ‘limited war-fighting approach’ for its non-strategic nuclear forces. With both new and established nuclear states planning for nuclear first use, deterrence has eroded.
Nuclear deterrence: disrupted and dangerous
Continued unquestioning reliance on nuclear deterrence is dangerous. During the Cold War, only the two principal actors had to be accounted for. Today, however, we are faced with a dramatic increase in the variables that can disrupt nuclear strategy: an increase in nuclear-armed states, with differing pre-existing conflicts (such as territorial disputes); a greater variety of domestic variables that may influence nuclear decision-making (including regime type, electoral politics, and nationalism); and numerous technological changes that can affect nuclear use. It is no surprise that states have responded with changes in nuclear doctrine. Unfortunately, thinking about nuclear deterrence has not kept pace with these changes; even proponents of deterrence call it ‘static and stagnant’. Some argue that deterrence may be upheld through greater transparency and diplomacy; however, these are often the first principles to be abandoned in the face of the crises from which deterrence is supposed to save us. Regardless of whether it is desirable for nuclear deterrence to hold, the evidence is that it has instead been destabilized, and continued reliance on it may lead to nuclear use for the first time in 70 years.