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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2000

The changing face of nuclear deterrence


MOSCOW -- The role of nuclear weapons is undergoing subtle but important changes in deterrence strategy. Although this transformation is a consequence of the collapse of bipolarity in international relations and the shift in military threats from the global to the regional context, the trend is becoming more visible as a result of recent developments. The principles of nuclear deterrence are beginning to alter in a way that could have a profound impact on the still-evolving post-Cold War security order.

This transformation is visible in the current U.S. debate on a national missile defense system. The political debate has narrowed to when and how -- rather than whether -- the United States should deploy such defenses. At the core of the debate is a growing acknowledgment that deterrence in the 21st century cannot be based on principles that were the foundation of the now-gone Cold War nuclear paradigm.

Traditionally, deterrence has been an offense-based posture that aimed at retaining a balance between mutual vulnerabilities and the capacity to wreak unacceptable punishment on an aggressor. Now, national and theater missile defenses symbolize a potential shift in focus from offense to defense. Without abandoning offense, deterrence will instead be constructed on defensive capabilities that will tilt the balance between mutual vulnerabilities in favor of one side.

Change is affecting the face of deterrence, but not its primary purpose. Deterrence will still center on achieving strategic objectives, not through military victory in a nuclear conflict, but with the threat of war. Since the threat has to be realistically based on ready, deliverable nuclear weapons, the symbiosis of deterrence and use will remain the key reality of the nuclear world. The difference now is the difficulty in identifying the mechanisms for credibly executing such a threat in a post-Cold War world.

With the threat of global nuclear war giving way to the danger of regional nuclear conflict that involves one or more of the established nuclear powers, such as over Taiwan, new concepts of nuclear-weapons deployment and new types of weapons are emerging. The large-yield, high-destruction weapons that make up the bulk of the U.S. and Russian nuclear armories are anachronistic given the desire of today's military planners for "clean" surgical strikes. Total annihilation of an enemy is no longer considered a politically feasible or desirable proposition, especially when no major state is willing to identify a particular foe.

So, after having built city-busting weapons for decades, weapon designers are now looking at high-precision, low-yield arms that could take out a government complex or some other target without leaving the rest of the city in ruins. America's new, deep-burrowing "mini-nuke," France's interest in "sub-strategic" weapons, Russia's stress on tactical nukes and China's primary reliance on short- and intermediate-range weaponry underscore the need for the capability to make limited, localized strikes.

The revolution in military affairs has opened the path to precision nuclear weapons by spawning highly accurate and lethal conventional arms. Conversely, it has increased the value of nuclear weapons for technologically less advanced powers that are unable to enter into a race with the U.S. to build those conventional precision weapons.

The nuclear build-down of Russia, the world's largest but most thinly-populated state, and the parallel nuclear build-up of the most-populous state, China, also suggest that deterrence in the 21st century will be strikingly dissimilar to the bipolar confrontation when two superpowers kept peace between themselves and their blocs by matching each other's nuclear might. Today Russia is a fallen superpower unable to keep up with the nuclear tempo, while China aspires to be America's peer competitor, but is in no position to match Washington's nuclear prowess in the foreseeable future.

Possessing at present just six to 24 strategic weapons that can possibly reach the western U.S., China for several years to come will remain far from the Cold War model of deterrence in relation to Washington -- a capability to inflict mutually assured destruction. Double-digit increases in military spending for 12 consecutive years have brought China's latest budget, according to U.S. government estimates, to $70 billion -- much larger than Japan's present defense outlays. Despite being the world's second largest defense spender, Beijing is still a long way from acquiring a survivable second-strike capability against the U.S. The most profound impact on the future shape of deterrence comes from developments within Russia. For half a century, Moscow pursued nuclear parity with the U.S. to underpin strategic balance and ensure that the latter could not carry out a disarming first strike. Now, privately if not publicly, parity has been given up. With an official defense budget in the year 2000 of $5 billion -- less than Pakistan -- Russia does not have the funds to maintain even its existing armory of 6,000 strategic warheads plus an undetermined number of tactical nukes.

The Russian nuclear arsenal is on a downward spiral even though the START process is stuck. The Duma ratified the START II six months ago on terms that make its early entry into force improbable. This treaty is to take effect only after the U.S. Congress ratifies the 1997 START II Protocol and a package of amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Moreover, by stipulating specific parameters for START III, the Duma legislation makes START II's entry into force conditional on an early conclusion of START III.

The Americans have allowed the START process to wither away for good reason: Attrition through expiry of service life will drive Russia's strategic arsenal down to about 1,500 warheads over the next five to six years. As a result, Russia will slip to second-tier status as a nuclear-weapons state. In the U.S. presidential race, Republican candidate George W. Bush has promised deep unilateral nuclear cuts, an NMD system and no Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty if he wins. But with its economy booming and the U.S. destined to emerge as the world's paramount nuclear power, it seems doubtful that any U.S. president will have the political or financial incentive to go for deep cuts at a time when Russia's arsenal is shrinking on its own. In the evolving situation, the existing premises of arms control, like the traditional principles of deterrence, are unlikely to hold. It is no accident that the process of arms control has ground to a halt in this state of fluidity. The proposed elimination of multiple-warhead ICBMs under START II was designed to encourage a shift from a launch-on-warning to a launch-under-attack posture. But Moscow has made it clear that it intends to stick to a launch-on-warning posture (which is indistinguishable from the capability to pre-empt) and may not even eliminate its multiple-warhead ICBMs if Washington begins to deploy NMD.

In a complex world marked by conflicting trends, it is apparent that each deterrent relationship will be different from the other, premised on principles at variance with classical deterrence theory. The concept of mutually assured destruction is losing relevance. Deterrence will be constructed on principles radically different from notions of qualitative or quantitative parity.

China has overwhelming nuclear superiority over India, but its deterrent posture against the U.S. is centered on a capability to threaten America's East Asian allies and a few U.S. cities. India similarly can live with nuclear disparity with Russia, but not with an inadequate reach against China, which seeks to dominate the region. Russia, resentful that START I and II are loaded against it, is likely to move to an independent nuclear force unhampered by major treaty restrictions.

The future of deterrence, however, remains hazy. What are the military missions for nuclear weapons? What is the right mix of offense and defense in deterrence? For deterrence to be credible, what level of force and alertness is required? How does deterrence work in relation to a state that is irresponsible and sinking (Pakistan) or is totally opaque (China), or when the two are working hand-in-glove?

For Japan and the rest of Asia, the changing face of deterrence and the emerging triangular strategic offense/defense relationships among the U.S., China and Russia have important implications. It is self-evident that disarmament remains a distant vision and that none of the present nuclear-weapons states is going to quit the deterrence game. Asia has areas with the most serious potential for a flareup in the event of a crisis: There is a nuclear dimension to problems relating to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and the China-India-Pakistan triangle.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic-affairs expert based in New Delhi, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.


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