Michael KreponThe Second Coming of MIRVs

Reminder! The book launch event takes place on Monday, May 16, at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.

If the Pentagon is to be believed, the second coming of MIRVs is upon us, this time in Asia, with China’s deployment of the DF-5B missile. The advent of MIRVs in the first nuclear age was ruinous to prospects for keeping a tight lid on the superpower strategic arms competition. Once the barn doors were opened to MIRVs in the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement, the best that Washington and Moscow could do two years later was to limit them to 1,320 delivery vehicles in the Vladivostok Accord.

The generosity of the Vladivostok provisions reinforced each side’s concerns over being disadvantaged by rapidly ballooning prompt hard-target-kill capabilities. The SALT process never really recovered from MIRVing, despite the Carter Administration’s attempts at damage limitation.

The second coming of MIRVs in Asia won’t be anything like the first. China has systematically carried out strategic modernization programs at an extraordinarily slow pace. If China continues this slow pace with respect to MIRVing, Beijing could increase its missile warhead totals to between 100-200 warheads over the next 10-15 years.

The lower end of this range seems more likely, but much will depend on US missile defense deployments and the state of bilateral relations. Compare these numbers to the thousands of warheads the United States and the Soviet Union added to their war-fighting capabilities as a result of MIRVs, and the Chinese program will seem pretty modest by comparison.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that any additional source of incremental stockpile growth will cause perturbations in Asia. China, India, and Pakistan are already flight-testing a panoply of new ballistic and cruise missiles. Their complex, interactive, triangular nuclear competition will ratchet upwards with the advent of MIRVs.

Even without the deployment in Asia of a just one multiple-warhead-tipped missile, the combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, China and India could grow by around 250 warheads over the next ten years — if current trends continue.

Even without the deployment in Asia of a just one multiple-warhead-tipped missile, the combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, China and India could grow by about 375 warheads over the next fifteen years — again, given current trends.

If China proceeds with MIRVing, there will be added ripple effects. A new Stimson Center book, The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, to be released on Monday, explores them. India most definitely has the capability to MIRV. Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran, the authors of the India chapter in Stimson’s book, predict that India will follow China down this path. They estimate that New Delhi, like Beijing, will move at a slow pace.

The authors of the Pakistan chapter, Feroz H. Khan and Mansoor Ahmed, predict that if India MIRVs, Pakistan will also place multiple warheads on some of its missiles. Pakistan takes its nuclear-weapon requirements more seriously than India. Its military has, for example, articulated a “counterforce” rationale for its shortest- and longest-range missiles. (Counterforce targeting, as hard-core readers of ACW know, focuses on military-related designated ground zeroes, of which there are many.) Toby Dalton and I have estimated in A Normal Nuclear Pakistan that Pakistan is out-competing India in producing new warheads. But Pakistan, whose economy is nine times smaller than India, would face constraints in ramping up warhead production even more.

The prospects for negotiating a ban or serious constraints on MIRVing in Asia are as poor as during the first nuclear age. At present, there are no meaningful conversations on nuclear risk-reduction between China and India or between India and Pakistan. Bilateral or trilateral treaties are not in the cards.

The most important restraints are self-imposed. China and India have not bought into US and Soviet/Russian concepts of deterrence that rely on nuclear war-fighting capabilities. Nor have they bought into the necessity of counterforce targeting. Both China and India have adopted “No First Use” pledges. They have moved slowly to upgrade their nuclear forces. They do not use nuclear weapons to project power or to leverage diplomatic objectives. While Rawalpindi follows the beat of a different drummer, Beijing and New Delhi are more relaxed about their nuclear requirements, focusing on economic growth as the key to their national strength and domestic tranquility.

Chinese and Indian strategic concepts provide a necessary foundation for strategic restraint. This foundation is insufficient, however. Nuclear stockpiles and capabilities will continue to grow, and more growth is in the offing with MIRVs.

What’s missing is substantive engagement on strategic issues between China and India and between India and Pakistan. Also missing is nuclear risk-reduction and confidence-building measures. China and India have yet to negotiate their first nuclear risk-reduction measure. The last India-Pakistan nuclear risk-reduction measure was negotiated in 2007. When Indian leaders have sought to improve relations with Pakistan, explosions in India have followed, carried out by groups that are not terribly inconvenienced by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services or judicial proceedings.

The second coming of MIRVs in Asia – in addition to new ballistic and cruise missiles – places a greater obligation on national leaders to exercise strategic restraint and to take steps to reduce nuclear dangers. The key to strategic restraint with the second coming of MIRVs is to avoid the pursuit of counterforce capabilities. As Washington and Moscow have so clearly demonstrated, once going down this particular rabbit hole, there is a bottomless pit of targeting requirements.

Note to ACW readers in the DC area: Our book launch is from 11 am-2:30 pm on May 16th. Speakers are Alexey Arbatov, Brendan Rittenhouse Green, Lynn Davis, Jeffrey Lewis, Michael Chase, Jaganath Sankaran, Mansoor Ahmed, and yours truly. Stimson is located at 1211 Connecticut Avenue, NW. We’re on the 8th floor. If you wish to join us, please RSVP to twheeler@stimson.org.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) team played a key role in fielding the recent Source Physics Experiment (SPE-5) detonated at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site (NNSS).
    The SPE shots, including the most recent one on April 26, consist of a series of six underground high-explosive detonations in hard rock that are designed to improve the United States’ ability to detect and identify low-yield nuclear explosions amid the clutter of conventional explosions and small earthquakes.
    “Working at NNSS near the location of previous underground nuclear tests allows researchers to compare data from these conventional explosions with the nearby historic nuclear explosions,” said LLNL geophysicist Bill Walter, the chief scientist for SPE-5

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-05-aims-advance-nuclear.html#jCp

  2. Michael Krepon (History)
  3. Jonah Speaks (History)
  4. Sean (History)

    Looking at the number of weapons 7 out of the 9 countries have, or are aiming at seems to be 150-300 (dependent on yield). Do I presume that each nation asked it’s scientists ‘how many physics packages’ would be required to destroy all life on earth?’. a MIRV could have 7 dummies and 1 real package, so that the total number of warheads could be limited but not the number of MIRVS? Missile defense has come a long way but going down to 300…. heck, 600 warheads (put them all in submarines) and you have the minimum means of reprisals. I know FOGBANK took an age but how much is the stockpile costing? The UK spends 6% of the budget on defense with only 1 submarine at sea but can be upped to 2 if things start to get hot. I think the US & Russia using the terminology ‘defense’ is a misnomer, it’s mostly spent on offence, correct me if I’m wrong. China seems comfortable with 200 so the US, EU, Russian Federation & China as the 4 power blocs, why do 2 go high and 2 go low?

    • Tobias Piechowiak (History)

      I was always wondering that myself… it could have cultural reasons. But… I have a different
      I have been reading about prospect theory lately.


      It basically says that loosing a certain amount of, money, is perceived as more threatening than gaining the same amount. Plus the gain ~ value curve is flattening out faster than the losses ~ value curve.
      So, for the US “loosing” 1500 warheads (from actually 1700) to 200 is perceived as more threatening than China gaining 1500 warheads because the gain/losses ~ values curve is simply not symmetric at the reference point (= current status).

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I don’t see how 300, or even 30,000 warheads, would destroy all life on earth, unless you are referring to nuclear winter. Even then, nuclear winter simply starves billions of people by ruining the supply of new crops. I would still expect survivors.

      I suppose nations could agree to have MIRVs with several dummies, but only one real nuclear warhead. This would require some intrusive method of verifying that only one nuke sat atop each missile. Just as an aside, the MIRV instability concern is focused primarily on fixed land-based missiles that might be pre-empted in a first strike, rather than on bombers or sea-based missiles that can more easily move or hide. If it is true that road-mobile missiles can successfully move or hide so as to avoid destruction in a first strike, then instability arising from road mobile MIRVs may be lower or non-existent.

      Prospect theory is an interesting angle. Technically, the perceived value or “loss” in moving from 1700 to 200 is greater than the perceived value or “gain” in moving from 200 to 1700. It has nothing to do with relative comparisons between nations. If both US and China had 1700 nuclear weapons, this would be perceived as more threatening than if both sides had only 200, because both sides would suffer more damage if there were ever a nuclear war.

  5. Sean (History)

    A great insight, Tobias. Strange cultures that don’t see that without ANY counter strike, we STILL all die. Heck, you may as well set off the physics package on you’re OWN soil, for all the difference it makes! At least you’re population doesn’t die slow, horrific deaths. I guess it’s counter-intuative but the Tsar bomb, or improvement their off, could take us all out. The Russians still use ‘fail deadl’…. an insight. I know that UK submarines listen for the world service to check all is well, only we would think like that! The CWC is also not worth the paper it’s written on because a)solids aren’t covered (see Novichok) and riot-agents can be dual use (see Kolokol). just 3 extra words would fix it!

  6. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    And of course one does not have to forget that even if prospect theory might kick in – the large US & russian numbers are basically a relict of the cold war.
    Talking about nuclear winter – there is an interesting aspect to this. It might not be true after all. It was theorized that it was simply an “invention” of the USSR at that time (mainly 80’s) in order to affect the public opinion and to countersteer a, from their point of view, ruinuous arms race. Check this out:


    There was another, more extensize, time story about him but I can’t find it…

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Wikipedia confirms that Vladimir Alexandrov “disappeared while at a nuclear winter conference in Madrid and his ultimate fate remains unknown.” Curiously, Google and Wikipedia both find additional articles on Alexandrov, but no second article by Time.

      Alexandrov was not the main mover and shaker on nuclear winter, which involved numerous Russian and American scientists. Wikipedia states, “Richard P. Turco, a major figure in the development of the nuclear winter scenario, described Alexandrov and Stenchikov’s model as ‘a very weak piece of work’ and ‘a primitive rendition of an obsolete US model.'”

      Speculation about the possible reasons for someone’s disappearance provides no scientific basis for rejecting nuclear winter as a probable consequence of nuclear war. Disproving nuclear winter requires scientific evidence and reasoning, not conspiracy allegations.

  7. Sean (History)

    Jonah is right, there would be a few survivors, but the nations are destroyed and the level of radioactivity left by a few 1000 physics packages would surely render the planet uninhabitable? Chernobyl showed how far the fallout can travel in a matter of weeks and that didn’t use a uranium tamper (dirty bomb). I wouldn’t even guess how to multiply this up, but I don’t think 10s of 1000s would be vastly too high. Russian and American stance is clearly to attempt to destroy the adversary totally. If China and the EU feel comfortable with >300 apiece, I think ‘minimal means of response’ is their position. When 38% of the US budget is ‘war on terror’ and ‘defense’, it seems pretty clear that the US military is sticking to the ‘kill everything’ stance and since the advice the POTUS gets is from military sources, this site is important in giving people a more independent view…. and TBH the Podcasts put onto peoples facebook timelines is funny enough to draw in more members of the public.

    • Tobias Piechowiak (History)

      It would be interesting though to investigate how different nations derive the number representing “minimal means of deterrence”.
      For France, UK and China this number seems to be very close. 200 – 300 warheads. So it seems obvious to assume that there is a common rationale behind these numbers but what the rationale exactly is, remains open…

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    CARLSBAD, California–Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi broke down in tears as he made an emotional plea of support for U.S. Navy sailors beset by health problems they claim resulted from radioactive fallout after the 2011 nuclear disaster.

    More than 400 veterans who were part of a mission called Operation Tomodachi to provide humanitarian relief after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami filed a mass lawsuit in California against Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. They are seeking compensation and an explanation for their health problems.


  9. Sean Wain Dunlevy (History)

    The French are the most interesting. 300 units of ‘Force de dissuasion’ has air, land and sea-based physics packages. 300Kt air-launched mach 3 cruise missiles (‘warning of last resort’ i.e. you nuke a ship, not a country). 18 IRBMs (harder to stop than ICBM due to short flight-time) with 110Kt warheads (suggesting high accuracy). That seems pretty flexible and I would consider to be a ‘minimal means of reprisal’ considering the size of France. The UK has 144 physics packages all MIRVed in submarines (i.e. no land-based so no high-priority land targets) and, being a smaller country, I would consider to be another case of MMOR. Well, not quite true – the US likes to park a lot of weapons in our driveway… that could do with ending.

    • Jeffrey Lewis (History)

      IRBMs? I believe the S3 retired in 1996. France initially planned to replace it with a land-based variant of the M45 SLBM, but that has not come to pass.

  10. Sean Wain Dunlevy (History)

    You are almost certainly right, Jeffery. The French, after the NORKS, are pretty quiet concerning their WMDs but even the NORKS are keen to put WFNA + ADH powered missiles in a submarine. Anyone laying odds on a Nedelin event?

  11. Sean Wain Dunlevy (History)

    Somewhat OT – but is the CWC not covered by this site? There are vastly simpler routes to stuff more toxic than VX. Synthesis in 3 steps from any reasonable Chinese supplier. Don’t presume ACE is the molecular target, think mu2

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