Michael KreponArms Control Implications of the War in Ukraine (II)

Lyric of the week:

“You can throw me in the Colbert County jailhouse

You can throw me off the Wilson Dam

But there ain’t much difference in the man I wanna be

And the man that I really am.

Listen to me…

We ain’t never gonna change

We ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong”

— the astounding Jason Isbell, then with the Drive-By Truckers

No good story in the field of arms control is properly appreciated, especially the Nonproliferation Treaty. And no good story comes without a dark under-shadow. (Think of the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing, followed by even more testing underground.)

Amidst the unrelievedly tragic news coming out of Ukraine, there is an important positive result in the making. It’s that wars of aggression may be foiled — even when the aggressor possesses nuclear weapons and the victimized state does not.

Another positive story, despite the carnage, loss of life, and massive refugee flows, is that the seven-decade-long track record of No Use of nuclear weapons in warfare may well be extended. It’s not over yet, but there is reason to hope that these symbolically weighted and supremely dangerous weapons will again prove to be unusable on the battlefield.

Now here’s one dark under-shadow: As nuclear armed missiles again sit on the sidelines their conventionally armed cousins have risen in prominence. The war in Ukraine gives further impetus to an unwelcome trend. The perceived utility of non-nuclear-armed ballistic and cruise missiles is clearly growing. (I’m including armed drones as a subset of cruise missiles.)

With precision guidance, conventionally armed missiles of varying kinds are becoming weapons of choice against high value, heavily defended targets. Why lose combat aircraft and crews when you don’t have to? Without precision guidance, conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles serve as instruments of psychological warfare.

The Russian military and Vladimir Putin didn’t invent this. Nazi Germany used conventionally armed cruise and ballistic missiles as instruments of terror. The V-1s and V-2s that bombarded London and other cities were too inaccurate to be of use against military targets. Instead, the intended purpose of the “Blitz” was to break the spirit of Londoners and other city dwellers. Nazi terror tactics failed.

The U.S. Army Air Force also employed indiscriminate bombings of cities during World War II. After the war ended, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for German rocket scientists — Wernher von Braun being the most notable U.S. arrival — and then raced to produce ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons. These fast flyers were presumed to be “war winning” weapons, ideally suited either for surprise attack or for gaining war-fighting advantage. Since speed was of the essence, cruise missiles were temporarily shelved.

Cruise missiles returned to prominence after Washington and Moscow signed their first agreement limiting strategic offensive arms in 1972. The Soviet Union had surged ahead of the United States in numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles and would inevitably master the art of placing more than one accurate warhead – MIRVs — atop these missiles. The Nixon administration was looking for instruments of leverage in subsequent negotiations and the Deputy Secretary of Defense, William Clements, seized on cruise missiles as one way to supplement U.S. deterrent forces.

Resistance to cruise missiles inside the Pentagon quickly waned as their potential for precision conventional as well as nuclear targeting became undeniable. Once billed as a U.S. “bargaining chip” in negotiations, cruise missiles became too valuable to trade.

As with MIRVs, Soviet weapon designers were about five years behind their U.S. counterparts in fielding modern cruise missiles. The Pentagon then turned to stealth technologies and electronic upgrades to make cruise missiles even harder to intercept. The revolution in drone warfare now underway is the linear descendant of the cruise missile competition that began in the 1970s.

Conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles have become staples of warfare, even as their nuclear armed cousins have not. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Iran fought a “war of the cities” that showcased these missiles (as well as chemical weapons). Missiles that were too inaccurate to be militarily effective against “hard” military targets were once again employed as instruments of terror against cities.

The utility of conventionally armed cruise and ballistic missiles has foiled diplomatic attempts to constrain their range and payloads. For confirmation of this reality, see China’s procurement policies. And Pakistani and Indian missile programs. Or Iran’s attachment to missiles without nuclear warheads. Or Hezbollah’s stockpiles. Or check out what the Houthis in Yemen are doing.

The case for including conventionally armed missiles in arms control agreements is far greater, in my view, than including nuclear-powered cruise missiles and other ‘exotics’ that Vladimir Putin is exploring. Most of Putin’s much ballyhooed new types of delivery vehicles are either a waste of money or technically suspect. Their utility depends on how much they scare us. If they add no leverage, they have no utility.

The exception is hypersonics, but given their cost and enduring missile defense woes against fast flying, “old fashioned” intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles are likely to remain no more than niche weapons. Their utility in warfare, as with ballistic and cruise missiles, depends on being armed with conventional rather than nuclear weapons.

I’ve often argued in these posts and in my magnum opus/door stop that a norm based approach to arms control will have to take precedence in this fractured world of ours. If and when trilateral U.S.-Russia-China numerically based agreements become possible in the future, a strong case can be made for controlling conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles along with their nuclear armed variants.

At present, this seems a long way off. For now, the case for expanding the scope of arms control limitations has never been more evident — or more difficult.


  1. Greg Thielmann (History)

    Analyses on the arms control implications of the war in Ukraine are numerous, but I’ve seen few better than this!

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      thank you, Greg–

  2. Ken Brociner (History)

    Michael, …I just sent a link to your upcoming lecture on Cspan to a Russian friend of mine in Moscow. In doing so, I found and read your short “life story” – beautifully written and inspiring. A suggestion: I’ve been meaning to do this – but coming from you it would be a lot more effective. As I assume you have noticed, over the past few weeks, the NYT has run a number of articles that have implied that defensive measures against incoming nuclear missiles are now a factor in the overall calculations of one side or the other. My question to the Times and its readership would be: “Since when has any version of Star Wars become a serious defense against all but a few missiles? Any version of ABMs or Star Wars would be useless against a ‘robust” attack and the sooner we dispense of this dangerous illusion, the better and safer we will all be.”

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you for your kind words, Ken.
      As it happens, my next post deals with the missile defense implications of the war in Ukraine. The picture has become more complicated, in my view, requiring to view national and theater missile defenses in different ways.
      Best wishes,