US Nuclear Forces: Meeting the Challenge of a Proliferated World PDF Thumbnail

A Second Nuclear Regime

To sum up, since 1998 the world has witnessed the progressive nuclearization of Asia as India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined China, Israel and Russia as members of the continent’s nuclear-armed club, while Iran continues its worrisome nuclear activities. To make matters worse, several nuclear states — North Korea and Pakistan in particular — are relatively unstable. Adding to the complexity of the situation, both of these nuclear powers (as well as Iran and Syria) have links to terrorist groups that are well aware of the potentially devastating effects of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and are actively seeking to acquire them.

Four of the five declared nuclear powers during the First Nuclear Regime, which extended from 1945 to roughly the end of the Cold War, were part of the Western world. The Second Nuclear Regime, which succeeded it, finds proliferation moving from a world dominated by advanced industrial powers centered in Europe and America to Third World Asian states (i.e., India, Pakistan, North Korea), with more Asian states (i.e., Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria) poised to follow. Thus in coming to grips with an n-player competition, it will be essential to develop an understanding of the way in which the leaders of very different cultures (e.g. Hindu, Muslim) view nuclear weapons. To date the United States has not devoted anything approaching the level of intellectual effort to this matter that it did to understanding Soviet views on nuclear forces during the Cold War. Such an effort is necessary if US strategy with respect to nuclear forces is to shape the actions of other nuclear powers, to include deterring their use. Furthermore, in a multipolar nuclear world there is the prospect that defenses fielded to address the threat may affect the calculations of other rivals in undesirable ways. These second-order effects are likely to be far more pervasive, and more significant, than was the case during the First Nuclear Regime.

The US military’s fielding of what is viewed by some expert observers as a nonnuclear strategic strike capability has blurred the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. The special status that nuclear weapons have traditionally held may be further compromised with the development of cyber weapons, which are capable of disabling, quickly and (arguably) reliably, certain kinds of strategic targets. Yet while these weapons complicate thinking about strategic strike operations and the role of nuclear weapons, neither of them can, individually or in combination, displace nuclear weapons’ capacity to create destruction and loss of life on a massive scale with a single, highly deliverable package. In a world where technology is displacing so much of what came before, including weapons of war, nuclear weapons will continue to cast a long shadow over humankind for the indefinite future.

It may be that deterrence, the cornerstone of US nuclear strategy during the First Nuclear Regime, will retain its importance in a more proliferated world. On the other hand, deterrence is based, to a significant extent, on the premise that it is possible to identify the source of an attack, a condition that may be increasingly difficult to meet. Deterrence also assumes an understanding of a rival’s sense of costs and benefits, and what he fears. This assumption may not prove out in the case of newly armed nuclear powers. It may be that some of the new nuclear-armed states do not calculate costs and benefits in a manner similar to that of the United States. They may be driven by other factors as well — domestic instability, historical rivalries, poverty, etc. — any of which could make their views on the utility of nuclear weapons significantly, and perhaps markedly, different from those of US policy makers. In short, deterrence could play a much reduced role in a proliferated world, while the prospect of nuclear use, defenses against nuclear attack, war termination strategies, and post-war considerations assume greater importance in defense strategy and planning.

The Second Nuclear Regime emerged thanks in no small measure to the existence of a market for nuclear weapons technology. Early in the First Nuclear Regime, technology was acquired, to a great extent, by theft, typically through the efforts of spies, or by willing transfer. While it appears that neither weapons-grade fissile material nor nuclear weapons themselves have been transferred from one country to another, there are concerns that such a direct market for nuclear weapons could be established, especially given the character of the North Korean regime and Iran’s apparent drive to become a nuclear-capable (if not nuclear-armed) state. Potentially of even greater concern is the prospect that Saudi Arabia may seek nuclear weapons should Iran become a nuclear power. Given their country’s central role as an exporter of oil to the global economy, should the Saudis choose to purchase a nuclear arsenal it may be difficult for the United States, or other countries, to impose economic sanctions against it, let alone attempt to reverse the act through the use of force. Should such a situation obtain, it could pave the way for an open, and greatly expanded, nuclear arms market, to include the transfer of nuclear weapons themselves.