Michael KreponArms Racing Redux?

Back in the day – that would be the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80’s — arms racing was the norm. The “action-reaction” phenomenon ruled. If one superpower unveiled a new weapon system or improved hard-target-kill capabilities, the other superpower was sure to follow. MIRVs begat MIRVs, cruise missiles multiplied, and target lists expanded as deployed warheads reached stratospheric numbers. No potential strategic offensive advantage could go unanswered. “Overkill” was trumped by the imperative to avoid being placed at a disadvantage. Anxiety overruled common sense.

The offense-defense competition made everything worse. If one superpower demonstrated interest in national ballistic missile defenses, the other would act to ensure that warheads would still get through. The “mad momentum” of the arms race was a constant. The best the superpowers could accomplish in the 1970s was to limit deployed capabilities, and even then, prospective limits prompted end-arounds and bargaining chips.

It was not until the advent of the Reagan Administration and a radical reformer in the Kremlin that unorthodoxy held sway and the Rules of the Game changed. When the dealers overrode the squeezers around President Reagan, previously unimaginable outcomes became possible. Missiles with shorter ranges that were well-suited for preemption were eliminated in return for the dismantlement of missiles threatening U.S. allies. The threat of space-based missile defenses was traded in for deep cuts in strategic forces. Reagan and Gorbachev broke the mad momentum of the arms race by dismissing the underlying war-fighting capabilities behind their nuclear deterrents.

Is arms racing now picking up speed again? We still use the terminology of arms racing out of habit, just as we talk about arms control when we now mean arms reduction. A careful look suggests change as well as familiar behaviors. Nuclear arms have indisputably staged a comeback. Four of the NPT Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) are undertaking or are planning to undertake expensive strategic modernization programs. India and Pakistan have flight-tested more new types of missiles since 1998 than any of the NWS. North Korea brandishes its nuclear arsenal and tests devices. Vladimir Putin views nuclear weapons as backstopping Russia’s resurgence.

All of this is well worth worrying about – especially since there is comparatively little happening on the other side of the ledger to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear arsenals. Treaty-making is at a standstill, and will remain slow-footed even if the Conference on Disarmament revives. The next best shot at negotiated reductions may not arrive until New START is nearing expiration — if Moscow and Washington are looking to cut expenditures for nuclear excess. This is a very long time to wait and watch aging weapon systems being replaced by new ones.

Everyone justifies these expenditures in the name of deterrence, but the flip side of deterrence has always been nuclear war-fighting. What has changed is that, with the exception of China, the NWS’s ongoing and prospective strategic modernization programs are about replacement, not about build-ups. Replacement in some cases will accompany shrinkage. Budget constraints do not fade when negotiations lag. There are no technical revolutions on the horizon that would lend major impetus to arms racing, as there were during the Cold War (with the possible exception of boost-glide vehicles). And while regional missile defenses will become more important, plans for national missile defenses are likely to remain on the shelf.

The testing of nuclear devices was always the handmaiden to arms racing, but testing is now confined to one outlaw state. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s norm against testing becomes more meaningful every year, even without the Treaty’s entry into force. The taboo against the detonation of mushroom clouds on battlefields is now over 70 years old. The extension of these norms cannot be taken for granted, but they constitute powerful restraints. Because of them, the utility of nuclear weapons is shrinking much faster than existing arsenals. Russian and U.S. nuclear enclaves haven’t gotten this message.

In Asia, where stockpiles are growing, the pace of expansion is far slower than during the Cold War. The two major powers in Asia that could greatly pick up this pace – China and India – are taking their time. So far, they have not signed up Cold War strategies that equate nuclear deterrence with war-fighting capabilities. The possibility of strategic restraint in Asia, despite the absence of arms-control arrangements, is greater than most Western strategists anticipated. The triangular strategic competition among China, India, and Pakistan is interactive and serious, and will be tested by the advent of MIRVs. But there is still a decent chance that Beijing and New Delhi will not go overboard.

The enterprise of arms control was a Western construct conceptualized in the early 1960s as a needed replacement to hollow superpower pronouncements championing general and complete disarmament. The practice of arms control accomplished much, despite its limitations – including constraints on nuclear testing, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and strategic-arms limitation accords. But the concept of arms control didn’t prevent arms racing until immediately before and after the demise of the Soviet Union, when significant strategic arms reduction treated were negotiated.

We have been eating this seed corn ever since. The challenge before us is to conceptualize the next goal and the next phase of reducing nuclear arsenals and nuclear dangers. This time around, conceptualization in the West will be insufficient; a more inclusive approach will be needed. The end goal is abolition, but we have learned that abolition is not an effective organizing principle. So, what is the next phase and the next goal? And then, even harder, how do we achieve the conditions necessary for success?


  1. E. Parris (History)

    What you say is very stimulating and valid, but I believe that a satisfactory answer is unavailable unless you inject the dynamics of economics and politics into the equation. In our case, President Eisenhower warned of it, but our system has not changed, it has only gotten worse. Why can’t we lead the world in a new direction?

  2. ybutt (History)

    A particular threat is the proposal by many that nuclear power is “needed” to “solve” (highly uncertain) climate change.

    A vast increase in enrichment and nuclear material leakages come hand in hand with a massive nuclear power renaissance.

  3. Mark Gubrud (History)

    “There are no technical revolutions on the horizon that would lend major impetus to arms racing, as there were during the Cold War (with the possible exception of boost-glide vehicles).”

    The most important emerging technology is information technology, which has already yielded precision weapons and is now moving to autonomous weapons as the technology moves to artificial intelligence – a genuine technical revolution which will have HUGE social, economic, political and security consequences.

    Unless we agree to ban autonomous weapon systems, their development will be a major impetus to arms racing over the next few decades. Most of the new weapons will be non-nuclear but it is impossible to decouple non-nuclear from nuclear weapons buildups when the adversaries are nuclear-armed.

    Hypersonic missiles, both boost-glide and powered, are of far, far less importance; they offer few if any advantages over ballistic and cruise missiles and are essentially niche weapons. Nevertheless, they are another source of impetus to further strategic weapons competition and poison for nuclear arms reductions.

    Space weaponization, as China and Russia strive to duplicate capabilities demonstrated by the United States over the last two decades, are yet another technological impetus to arms racing today and in the coming decades.

    The term “arms race” suggests a heated, desperate competition to get ahead and stay ahead of potential enemies in preparing for war, as in the pre-WW2 arms race or the Cold War from the 1950s to 1980s. But these are just the extreme cases; the more general phenomenon is the action-reaction cycle which can percolate along as it has over the past two decades, and gradually heat up as is happening now. Inputs which stimulate this cycle include emerging and improving technolgies (and the perceived need to replace older systems) as well as political antagonism, miltarism and ongoing wars, and the perception of danger.

    The phenomenon exists at a continuum of intensities. What we can say with little doubt today is that it is heating up again, and poses a very great danger of reheating to Cold War levels in the near future, i.e. over a time scale of years to decades.

  4. Howard W. Hallman (History)

    As one who has favored nuclear disarmament from an idealist, religious perspective for the benefit of humankind, I believe that we should also emphasize the mutual self-interest in nuclear disarmament. Resources redirected to more useful purposes. Greater safety in a world without nuclear weapons.
    Howard Hallman

  5. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I like the observation that arms control has become arms reduction, and arms racing has become arms replacement – a change for the better, if only half a loaf. For the near future, reducing nuclear danger should focus primarily on reducing the odds of nuclear war, rather than reducing arsenals (but no harm doing both).

    Reducing the odds of nuclear war requires mutual adherence to these principles:
    1) Severely limiting or eliminating launch-ready missiles – i.e. take the missiles off high alert.
    2) Severely limiting or eliminating tactical nuclear weapons, and plans to nuke “military” targets.
    3) Adoption of the principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons by all nations.
    4) For severe crises or wars that tempt the threat of nuclear use, issue warnings and orders for evacuation rather than detonate nuclear weapons. Mutual evacuations of cities would be costly and inconvenient, but would substitute for the catastrophic destruction of people, property, and environment in an actual nuclear war.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Errors by three airmen troubleshooting a nuclear missile in its launch silo in 2014 triggered a “mishap” that damaged the missile, prompting the Air Force to strip the airmen of their nuclear certification and quietly launch an accident investigation, officials said Friday.

    In a statement released to The Associated Press, the Air Force declined to provide key additional details or a copy of the report produced last November by the Accident Investigation Board, saying the information was classified and too sensitive to be made public.


  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    The Navy has begun early construction and prototyping on a new class of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines designed to help ensure global peace by deploying massive destructive power under the sea.
    The Ohio Replacement Program, a so-called SSBN, is scheduled to begin construction by 2021. Requirements work, technical specifications and early prototyping have already been underway at General Dynamics Electric Boat.
    Designed to be 560-feet– long and house 16 Trident II D5 missiles fired from 44-foot-long missile tubes, ORP will be engineered as a stealthy, high-tech nuclear deterrent able to quietly patrol the global undersea domain.


  8. Andreas Persbo (History)

    You end the article with a difficult question, and it’s hard to disagree with its premise. A viable abolitionist movement will only come about when there is political will amongst the weapons-possessors to get rid of this class of weapons once and for all. In my opinion, the first problem facing those seeking abolition is that public opinion on the matter is weak (and campaigns have done little to change that). A recent poll in the United Kingdom, for instance, indicated that half the population supports retaining the nuclear arsenal. Policy makers are unlikely to heed suggestions for corrections, unless they feel a stronger electoral mandate to do so. Of course, in some other nuclear-armed nations, public support for keeping nuclear weapons appears even greater.

    That support amongst leading members of society remains largely absent represents the second problem. There is, for various good reasons, little appetite amongst decision makers to change the status quo. In the past years, we have seen that not even the most powerful man in the world have that much influence on this particular agenda item.

    Finally, the identity of the abolitionist movement is quite weak. This is the third problem. I have often wondered why several campaigns tend to dilute their message by getting involved in other social justice causes, or other matters of war and peace.

    It’s hard to disagree with Jonah Speaks comment above; that ‘half a loaf’ is better than nothing at all. If the threat cannot be eliminated, it should be reduced to a more manageable size. In my mind, this involves limiting the size of the arsenals further, in addition to establishing clearer rules of engagement, as Jonah suggests above.