Several days ago, US Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech at the National Defense University outlining the current administration’s arms control agenda. It included pushing for US ratification of the CTBT, the ongoing START talks with Russia and reducing the US nuclear arsenal. While we could discuss all three of these issues at length, I’d like to first concentrate on the idea of ‘getting to zero’ and reducing America’s nuclear capability.
The Vice President (as others) noted that
“We have long relied on nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries. Now, as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective.”
Non-nuclear weapons development includes the administration’s plan for an “adaptive” missile-defense shield and conventional warheads “with worldwide reach,” he said. “With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong,” Mr. Biden said.
The idea of replacing some nuclear weapons with conventional capabilities is not new. The argument is that the increasing destructive power of modern conventional weapons combined with the ability of the United States to ‘reach out and touch someone’ anywhere on the globe in a minutes or hours can play the same deterrent role as nuclear weapons currently do.
In order to break down this argument, I’d like to make two things clear. Firstly, the goal of our current nuclear force posture is to deter adversaries from attacking us and our allies. Secondly, the means to accomplish this is not and should not be the focus of discussion but instead the end. What do I mean? Many people focus on the weapons themselves, i.e. nuclear weapons, but as Biden notes, if conventional capabilities can fulfil the same function (i.e. survive a first strike and destroy enemy targets with high certainty), then they can be substituted for nuclear weapons. In short, how we do it doesn’t matter. The key thing is the destruction of enemy targets with high certainty. The fact that we use nuclear weapons for this purpose is a reflection only of the fact that they are the best suited weapon available for this task today.
However, there are very serious problems with the idea of replacing nuclear with conventional weapons.
If we accept the proposition that today, or sometime in the future, conventional weapons will be on par with nuclear weapons in terms of their deterrent capability, then several logical conclusions must follow:
1) These conventional weapons would be just as dangerous as nuclear weapons. Therefore replacing one with the other makes no substantive difference. Moreover, it would require time, money and effort to do this all with no gain.
2) If conventional weapons are used in the future in the same role as nuclear weapons today, they could invite a nuclear response from adversaries whose conventional capabilities do not match our own. This would be possible also in smaller conflicts because an enemy could then never be sure what weapons were employed since both nuclear and conventional are equall bad. It would lead to escalation at a much higher pace.
3) Having more conventional weapons in the US deterrent may lower the threshold for use.This may encourage a first strike by us or others.
4) If conventional and nuclear weapons are ever equal, they will be sought after by other states just as nuclear weapons are. This leaves us in the same situation as today. However, if the conventional capability is more expensive or difficult to achieve than nuclear weapons (which is older technology now), it will actually encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
5) If these conventional weapons are indeed equal, it means countries will be able to acquire destructive power equal to nuclear weapons, but WITHIN the legal framework Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This will lead to the irrelevance and death of the most important and successful nonproliferation regime the world has.
6) If conventional weapons can equal nuclear ones, they will require the same types of arms control agreements and nonproliferation agreements as nuclear weapons.
7) Replacing nuclear weapons with equally capable conventional weapons is a cosmetic change which does nothing to address the underlying nature of the international system which makes deterrence necessary in the first place. It’s a change in form, not substance.
Readers, I’d appreciate any thoughts, criticisms and comments you have on this.