Michael KreponUncommon Strategic Restraint

Our nuclear future would take a significant turn for the worse if Beijing and New Delhi begin to mimic Cold War thinking about the utility of nuclear weapons. So far, they haven’t. New Delhi waited 24 years in between nuclear tests, and Beijing took about as long to begin sea trials of second-generation ballistic missile-carrying submarines. Both have issued “No First Use” declarations, focused on economic metrics of national influence, and generally dealt with nuclear deterrence in ways that are hard for Washington and Moscow to comprehend. Their parallel nuclear postures are all the more remarkable because they have fought a limited war over a longstanding border dispute. Can the uncommon strategic constraint of these two rising powers continue? Important tests lie ahead, like those facing Washington and Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One test will be whether China, and then India decide to place multiple warheads atop their new long-range ballistic missiles. Given the small number of nuclear powered SSBNs China plans to build, the small number of ballistic missiles they can carry, and concerns about the effectiveness of U.S. anti-submarine warfare capabilities, it would not be surprising if Beijing moved toward multiple maneuverable or independently-targetable warheads at sea. And if at sea, then perhaps on land. With more warheads, plus improved guidance capabilities, counterforce options could become more interesting. A second test is whether China and India will go beyond technology demonstrations toward limited ballistic missile defense deployments.

China and India appear to be in no hurry to resolve their border dispute, with the occasional Chinese patrol setting up camp on the Indian side of their disputed border. Overlapping interests could produce friction elsewhere, particularly at sea. Competitive sparks would not be new. At every crucial juncture in the past – after their border war in 1962, after China tested atomic and hydrogen bombs in 1964 and 1967, after New Delhi acquired nuclear weapon capabilities in the late 1980s, and in 1998, when it tested these devices – India and China adopted a level of forbearance that would have been inconceivable to U.S. and Soviet strategic planners. The Asian way has been different: so far, Beijing and New Delhi have managed to steer clear of the Bomb’s siren song, sung in the key of prompt counterforce capabilities.

Nuclear restraint between Asia’s rising powers will be tested in the coming decade. How much of the “Asian way” can be sustained with advancing warhead designs and ballistic missile defense technologies? How much will Beijing and New Delhi gear up the pace of their nuclear competition, with spill-over effects on Pakistan? An accelerated competition between China and India would also reinforce the reluctance of Moscow and Washington to further reduce their nuclear forces.

Much is riding on the resilience of Beijing’s and New Delhi’s uncommon strategic restraint.


  1. MH (History)

    Isn’t it fair to say that some of this ‘restraint’ has actually been ‘constraint’, both external (non- and counter-proliferation) and internal (technological and economic)? Washington and Moscow had, by comparison, nearly unlimited resources and no barriers to arms racing except those which they themselves set up in the form of arms control. Would the Asian powers have behaved differently, given those circumstances?

    • krepon (History)

      Fair point. Some of this has to do with externals. New Delhi waited so long in between tests in part because of concerns related to economic repercussions. But there was also a deep ambivalence about taking this step.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The economic constraint is considerably loosened from what it was before. India and China have considerably larger economies than just a few decades ago. Here are four countries by name, rank, total GDP, and percent of GDP needed to equal U.S. nuclear weapon expenditure:
      USA #1, $16.8 trillion, 0.3%
      China #2, $13.4 trillion, 0.4%
      India #3, $5.1 trillion, 1.0%
      Russia #6, $2.6 trillion, 2.0%
      The remaining top 10 by GDP rank: Japan, Germany, Brazil, U.K., France, Mexico. Four of these ten have zero nuclear weapon expenditure. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    During the Cold War, one side wanted to revolutionize the other side from capitalism to socialism, democracy to dictatorship, and religion to atheism. Moreover, that side had the potential to invade Europe and capture perhaps a third of the world’s economy. Four big awfuls from the Western point of view. Nothing like this divides India and China today.

    That does not mean India and China are immune from great power war. China seems intent on disputing island territories, perhaps to the point of starting a war with the U.S. India and U.S. increasingly see each other as potential allies. Would China MIRV to defeat India? No. To defeat the U.S.? Maybe.

  3. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Michael, an interesting post to contemplate. The difficulty here is accepting the contingent nature of the practice of nuclear deterrence and the meanings assigned to nuclear weapons in different social and historical contexts. There is a powerful sense that the way we understood (and still understand) nuclear weapons from our collective Cold War experience represents the totality of understandings. The meanings we assign to our nukes are seen as objective and intrinsic to the material weapons themselves irrespective of social context. The Indian and Chinese experiences, practices and nuclear narratives suggest different meanings are assigned to their nuclear weapons. Those steeped in Western nuclear thought and practice can struggle to ‘get’ it, or think it duplicitous. In my view nuclear culture is pretty central to understanding global nuclear order and the possibilities for its progressive transformation. What do you think?

    • krepon (History)

      An important consideration, in my view, is the role of civilian and military leaders in promoting nuclear weapons and defining nuclear weapon requirements.
      During the Cold War, this was a joint enterprise for the United States and the Soviet Union.
      In Asia, there seems to be quite different levels of civil-military engagement.
      In India, political leaders and bureaucrats have controlled decisions relating to the Bomb. The military have been on the outside looking in. Not surprisingly, New Delhi defines the Bomb as a political and not a military instrument. As/when military influence grows, this can change.
      In Pakistan, the military gained control over the Bomb project after disposing of Z.A. Bhutto, and never let go. The Bomb, not surprisingly, is viewed as having military as well as political utility. But Rawalpindi seems unlikely to go in for MARVs/MIRVs and BMD deployments. Economics still constrains nuclear requirements, even though this isn’t all that apparent at present.
      I leave it to others to characterize civil-military relations in China as they relate to the Bomb.
      Bottom line: civil-military relations in states possessing nuclear weapons, more than region, help define political context.

  4. Jon (History)

    I believe we will see China begin to adapt its nuclear posture to counter both Russia and the US by building up its arsenal of warheads along with its build-up of delivery vehicles. Along these lines we have to ask the question why China has gone through the great expense to build such vast tunnels under mountains? India on the other hand, appears to be maintaining its deterrent more towards Pakistan as those two have been trying to keep their arsenals in balance. I think at this point it would be more likely for China to try to become the nuclear peer with Russia and the US versus India.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I think China will want to try and maintain a credible nuclear deterrence with the US. We pose no threat of invasion, and they seem to have figured out that conventional antiship weapons are enough for them to credibly defend their seacoast if push comes to shove.

      What they seem to be doing with respect to the Russians is along the lines of hinting at preparing for a conventional war to escalate to tactical nuclear war or theater nuclear war.

      I don’t see any sign of them worried about India in that sense, even though it has more people than Russia (China has parity) and its economy has more promise than Russia (China has parity here, too) and it shares a common border. The border being up in mountains too inhospitable to fight modern offensive warfare in may have something to do with it. Nobody’s going to Blitz either direction from that border.

  5. J_kies (History)

    Restraints (self-imposed or other) are not necessarily the issue. US and Soviet MIRVs occurred as a natural progression from the available missiles vice the targeting protocols. Big missiles came about with the expectations of pushing multiple tons to ICBM ranges to address the H-Bomb designs of the times. When the compact / lightweight designs arrived; the missiles had a lot more throw weight than necessary and available warhead counts were ‘large’ thus multiple warheads per missile made sense for providing redundant coverage of multiple targets per launcher and the MIRV was born. SLBMs have a natural overhead cost of transport / hosting so bigger multiple warhead SBLMs arise from economics.

    China and India are working from design expectations of miniaturized warheads so the giant ‘heavyweight’ ICBM generation is unnecessary. Further given the multiple military logistics/survival advantages that accrue to single warhead mobile missiles of the appropriate ranges we seem to be looking at the types of weapons at the types of ranges that make sense for their political and military objectives.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      MIRVing is also a cost equation. At one point, warheads were approximately $1 million apiece in serial production (most of which was fissile material cost) and the ICBM they were fired from was $25 million. A third or so of that was the bus cost, so a single large warhead would have been somewhat cheaper.

      MIRVing say 10 $1 million mid-hundred-kt range warheads on a $25 million ICBM versus one ginormous warhead (say $2m including a ginormous secondary sparkplug) on a $16 million ICBM is a lot more target points destroyed.

      The problem is, this is a warfighting logic, not a deterrence logic. Deterrence logic is that you want to have a robust second strike threat, and a whole bunch of smaller still 1-warhead missiles (say, $8-10 million) are a lot harder to destroy that one big MIRV missile or one big unitary high yield H-bomb missile. 3-4 times as many targets for the other guy to have to destroy for the same amount of your money spent.

      [Costs here are a ridiculous 1980ish nominal baseline, not current costs. Your mileage may vary for current costs and capabilities, etc.]

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I guess the point from j_kies and George is to ensure adequate survivable second-strike capacity, rather than deliverable first-strike capacity. In view of China’s no-first-use doctrine, this should be an easy sell: Don’t do MIRVs on land-based missiles. They are not much use in a second strike if the opponent tries to destroy them in a first strike. No MIRVs will assure greater stability in nuclear relations, and reduce the odds of a nuclear war.

  6. krepon (History)

    Important insight.
    If Beijing MARVs or MIRVs, there probably won’t be many RVs.

  7. Arch Roberts (History)

    I suspect that much will depend, with nuclear weapons and anti-satellites and drones and hypersonics, on what the technicians can produce and then sell to the politicians. Supply-side economics have always worked very well in this relationship.

    • J_kies (History)

      Sir; as one of the ‘technicians’; let me disabuse you of the notion that we ‘sell’ to politicians. I am proud of my role in providing the best possible weapons / tools to address those security needs for our nation that are appropriately defined. Unlike the vast egos from the early days of nuclear weapon developments; I do not assert moral authority for the decisions of use/non-use of the tools that I help develop.

      What you may be pointing out is the current inappropriate roles where the marketing departments of our aerospace companies hype work and hype threats to politicians. DoD and DOE fail to quash such marketing due to the political ‘choke-chain’ applied and the fact we maintain insufficient expertise tied to big egos that are willing to smash such nonsense regardless of personal career risk.

  8. Arch Roberts (History)

    @ j_kies: you got exactly what I was talking about. Sometimes I have problems with my mother tongue. What I have wondered for decades about US nuclear posture is how much is “demand-pull” and how much is “supply-push.”

    • J_kies (History)

      We ‘technicians’ believe the contractors demand money for items of dubious technical and military utility since the Government lacks thought leadership or meaningful strategy. A list of the programs that should have a serious re-review as to relevance and policy isn’t short. Big ones include:
      CPGS without a targeting system?
      ICBM recap or GMD (not both due to strategic confusion)
      F-35 (John Boyd spins in his grave)

      Cleaning up after the messes of TSPR contracts is still slow and painful.

  9. krepon (History)

    Speaking of uncommon strategic restraint, the Modi government decides to leave well enough alone: no addenda to massive retaliation:



    • krepon (History)

      More on this, from the MEA’s transcript, on Modi’s statement prior to visiting Japan, where he seeks a civil-nuclear deal:

      “I can tell you that currently, we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.”

      Key word here is “currently.” Need to remind myself not to jump to conclusions.


  10. Anjaan (History)

    @ MK,
    Yes sir … “currently” is the key word, and will always remain so … any sane country including Japan would not expect Indian leadership to mortgage India’s sovereign rights to bring in changes in its nuclear policies, including further testing, when India thinks appropriate for its security interests … India’s assurances should be adequate to take the relations forward …

  11. Bradley Laing (History)

    Translation from the German:

    “In view of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, experts see a growing risk of a nuclear incident in the country. The six reactors at about 200 kilometers from the combat zone remote power station Zaporozhye about are merely enclosed by a 1.20 meter thick shell of concrete, which stand only the crash of small aircraft, said Tobias Münch Meyer, nuclear expert at the environmental group Greenpeace, the “Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung “Saturday”

    Original from the article:

    Die sechs Reaktoren im rund 200 Kilometer von der Kampfzone entfernten Kraftwerk Saporischschja etwa seien lediglich von einer 1,20 Meter dicken Hülle aus Beton umschlossen, die nur den Absturz kleinerer Flugzeuge überstehe, sagte Tobias Münchmeyer, Atomexperte der Umweltschutzorganisation Greenpeace, der „Westdeutschen Allgemeinen Zeitung“ vom Samstag


    I first learned of this from the “RT Press” website, which has an English language article on this. But I felt that a non-Russian Federation article link would be a better choice.

  12. Bradley Laing (History)


    Atomic City’s dimensions were always suspect to critics of atomic energy, but these days even professionals in the nuclear sector are a bit uneasy about Zaporizhia. That’s because the power station is located just 124 miles from the part of Ukraine occupied by separatists, meaning the reactors are located in one of Europe’s most dangerous regions.

    Workers there saw the danger first-hand last spring when a group of armed men tried to get into the complex in the dark of night. Police were able to stop them at the last minute. The reasons for the attack are still unclear

    Read the full article: The West’s Collective Angst About Ukraine’s Crisis-Zone Nuclear Reactors
    Worldcrunch – top stories from the world’s best news sources
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  13. Bradley Laing (History)


    British scientists tested dead Australians for nuclear radiation
    Startling evidence that British scientists secretly tested up to 21,830 dead young Australians, without the knowledge of their parents, for radiation contamination following nuclear weapons tests in the 1950

    The author of Maralinga, Frank Walker, laid his hands on minutes of a top secret UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment meeting in England on 24 May 1957 approving a program to determine the long-term effects of the tests on Australia and its citizens.

    In his book, Walker describes how officials at the meeting, chaired by Professor Ernest Titterton, decided to first obtain soil samples from pasture regions near Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to check for fallout from the nine nuclear bombs detonated at Maralinga in the Australian Outback and the Monte Bello Islands, off WA.

    The group also sought to collect animal bones from the regions around where the nuclear explosions were carried out.

    In the document, the professor says that the final phase of testing would be to determine if Strontium-90 was being absorbed by the Australian population – most likely through the food chain.

    “We have to find out if Strontium-90 is entering the food chain and getting into humans,” says the document.

  14. Bradley Laing (History)


    The news: Authorities in Kazakhstan are on high alert after a container holding highly radioactive material mysteriously disappeared while in transport in the western region of the country on Sept. 2.

    Yes, you read that right. Radioactive material, which is sometimes used to build makeshift bombs, is missing in a region only a few thousand miles from Iraq, Iran and Syria