Nuclear deterrence

Mutually assured destruction via nuclear strikes has acted as the main defence against nuclear-armed states attacking each other and their allies. But have advances in missile defence systems, cyber attacks and other conventional weapons started destabilising this system and increasing the risk of war?

That’s a question that ANU College of Asia and the Pacific Research Fellow Benjamin Zala will be exploring in his year-long research fellowship in 2018 at Harvard’s Belfer Center, which is headed by former US Defence Secretary Ash Carter. More specifically, Zala plans to look at the spread of advanced conventional weapons beyond the US to Russia, China, India, and others and how that trend could reshape deterrence relationships.

“These weapons are all aimed at reducing your vulnerability from nuclear attack by your adversary. The problem is that mutual vulnerability is the central way we’ve managed nuclear deterrence.

“I think we’re potentially on the verge of an age of a return to an arms race as a response to this stuff,” he said.

Zala points to conventional, or non-nuclear, weapons being developed in several nations, including:

  • missile defence systems that can protect cities or military targets from retaliatory strikes.
  • supersonic and even hypersonic missiles produced by both China and a venture between India and Russia that can penetrate missile defence systems.
  • technology being developed by Russia and China to knock out satellites that are critical to US and other national defence systems.
  • cyber attacks that can compromise communications and nuclear targeting technology.

Mutual nuclear deterrence was developed during the Cold War – when the US and Soviet Union housed most of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons – to avoid major military confrontations between the superpowers and their allies. The two nations signed several treaties starting in the 1970s to reduce their nuclear arsenals but retain mutual deterrence.

Since then, two major trends developed that changed this global power dynamic, Zala said. Several nations are working on or have developed their own nuclear-weapon capabilities, including so-called rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, which changed the deterrence formula beyond just Russia and the US.

Secondly, the US led the way in developing advanced conventional weapons – missile defence systems, prompt-strike conventional missiles, and anti-satellite and anti-submarine technology. The weapons reduced US vulnerability to nuclear strikes by other nations but had the effect of making mutual deterrence unequal, he said.

Zala said if a nation views the US or other adversary as not being vulnerable to nuclear attack and able to launch a first-strike attack at its nuclear arsenal, that nation has two choices: expand its nuclear arsenal to create more targets to hit or develop conventional weapons that can deter a first-strike attack. Most nations seem to be hedging their bets but many are steering towards the latter choice, he said.

Zala is working with researchers from other countries to map out which nations are building various types of conventional weapons. They will develop theoretical models of what happens when various nations develop these weapons, and whether any could gain enough of an advantage to launch a first-strike capability without risk of retaliation and possibly war, he said.

A new era of arms control is needed that reaches beyond the US and Russia, Zala said, especially since there are no formal agreements among nuclear-armed nations in Asia. Questions that need to be addressed is whether China and other nuclear nations can be persuaded to sign onto a nuclear arms treaty, and will new agreements also control conventional weapons, he said.

More fundamentally, does the principal of mutual vulnerability still underpin nuclear relationships, especially since the US seems to moving away from it? Several nations, including Australia, have shown interest in building a missile defence system after North Korea developed the technology to build intercontinental missiles.

Ironically, the focus on strategic defence dropped after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1980s and later with the 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the US and subsequent warfare in the Middle East, Zala said. While it was side lined, it never went away.

“Unfortunately, the whole issue of strategic relations between major powers and the issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear balances of deterrence are back on the agenda in a really big way,” he said.

Research funded by: The Stanton Foundation

Related research: Research Fellow Benjamin Zala

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team