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’.