Superman, Batman & Nuclear Primacy

Nuclear deterrence beyond numbers

It has shaken up the Russians a bit. But the most interesting subject of an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, written by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press was not Russia. It was China. The article has sparked an international uproar for suggesting that the United States is close to acquiring nuclear primacy (the ability to wipe out nuclear weapons directed against it), and drawn quick rebuttals from politicians and bloggers. But it will require a truly delusional American government to act upon its inferences.

The authors’ case is based on their estimates of the United States’ ability to detect and destroy the nuclear weapons capabilities of all its strategic adversaries. Unlike in the cold war days, they contend, Russian nuclear forces have deteriorated to the point that they may not be able to retaliate by launching a nuclear attack on American territory. They also argue that despite all the hype, China has a mere 18 ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in America. These are liquid-fuelled single warhead missiles that need to be launched from the mountainous Heilongjiang province, making them cumbersome to use and easy to detect. The United States nuclear arsenal and surveillance capabilities have improved tremendously over the last decade, leading the authors to conclude that the age of mutually assured destruction is coming to an end.

Strategists, especially in the west, have long subjected deterrence calculations to numerical computations. To some extent this is a reasonable thing to do. But nothing reveals the absurdity of taking this logic to the extreme as the thousands of nuclear warheads that the United States and the Soviet Union deployed during the height of the Cold War. It is therefore not surprising that Lieber and Press now rely on the same numbers game to argue a case of American nuclear primacy. Here’s the rub — deterrence is not so much due to the certainty of absolute numbers of weapons, but the uncertainty surrounding the adversary’s ability to retaliate (and cause unacceptable damage). A chance, however small, that a country will retaliate with nuclear weapons is sufficient to rule out their first use.

Despite their deterioration, as Pavel Podwig points out, Russia’s nuclear forces are intact to the extent that they hold out a finite probability of carrying out a second strike. Understanding China’s nuclear deterrent requires more than comparing its 18 inter-continental ballistic missiles or even its secret submarine project. It has not transferred its nuclear and missile technology to North Korea, Pakistan and Iran for nothing. The success of its strategy of ‘managed proliferation’ can be seen from the fact that not only is the United States currently tied down handling the fallout from their activities it also needs China’s help to prevent the situation from getting worse. These problems are not going to go away any time soon, and as long as they exist, the United States will have little incentive to antagonise China. China has created enough strategic room for itself to modernise its armed forces and improve its nuclear delivery capacity.

Provocative scholarship has its uses. So far it has stirred up interest, including of the undesirable kind, in Russia’s nuclear posture. But it will have failed in its purpose if it does not improve the world’s understanding of China. The chances are once China is fully factored into the larger equation, American nuclear primacy will instead appear ‘so near, yet so far’.

5 thoughts on “Superman, Batman & Nuclear Primacy”

  1. Not just the Ruskies, it shook other people up too! 😉
    I do think the authors are somewhat correct in their assessment of MAD being no longer possible, but that is only as per the cold-war statistics when upwards of 10 warheards were targetted at each Soviet/American city. The toleration of collateral damage/civilian casualty is also much lesser. As you point out – the chance of nuclear retaliation however small is a good deterrent.

    Btw, its the Americans which started the ‘managed proliferation’ thingy – in Europe, for instance. The Chinese just followed their lead – although it hasnt yet led to the kind of crisis as Cuba was in 62

  2. nice article..however i believe nuclear primacy would mean being able to detect and destroy the second strike using anti-missile missiles etc. not being and expert,:), i have no idea if the US has an absolute capability to do this, but i wld assume that given technological prowess they might have an edge in this regard. however, numbers are still important, because eg.
    if A carries out nulcear attack against B, for B to retaliate successfully:
    1. enough has been left over to be able to take a military decision to retaliate(i.e. the administrative and military structure, or atleast the ppl authorised and capable of taking the decision still remain)
    2. it has enuf number of warheads to fire back so that A can’t intercept and destroy all of them.
    so i guess even if the US doesnt have primacy now it will eventually, its only a qn of having the tech to it.

  3. This reminds me of this Tom Clancy book, The Bear and the Dragon. The thing is, China may only be able to strike US with partial success if it tries first use. But the retaliation will be truly devastating for China.

    All in all, China will get bombed back to the stone age. I’d not be surprised if the North Koreans also don’t get taken out in the bargain. Pre emptory strikes on Pakistani and Iranian nuke facilities is also a good possibility. And with the damage inflicted on the US itself, they won’t be in any mood to listen to whatever the international community has to say.

    That is something every Chinese leader will contemplate before even dreaming about striking the US. Even despots think about consequences – especially those which wipe out their spheres of power or cause enough destruction to start an uprising.

    China is in real danger of triggering off an uprising in its own country with stupid mistakes. This is why they prefer to ‘fish in troubled waters’ so often. With the international attention focused on the kids like North Korea and Iran, China can continue its destabilisation policies in peace.

  4. I agree with Prasanna that FA article authors thesis is by and large correct – when it comes to US, MAD may not work for any other nation. Use of nuclear weapons is an existential issue for nuclear powered nations including China and Russia – apparently for US, it’s not. Deterrence, which to me is a non-existential issue, is why US attacked Iraq and not N. Korea or Iran – other evils!

    Also I don’t understand how managed proliferation of the always “smart” Chinese will threaten US existentially. The article is surely a wake up call to the Chinese to do something about it – otherwise Taiwan will keep slipping more into Pacific.

    Prasanna, if there was no Cuban crisis from decades of Chinese proliferation – look who is on the other side.

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