The Nuclear Shortcut
By Taylor Marvin
Writing at Duck of Minerva, Jarrod Hayes profiles the brewing disagreement between US and UK policymakers over British nuclear weapons. Many Americans fear that as the UK defense budget shrinks, the British will be tempted to cut their conventional forces — which American policymakers hope will continue to operate alongside their US counterparts — to free up funds for the UK nuclear force. The costs of capable modern conventional forces have grown so great that, in Hayes words, “the established nuclear powers in the West will face increasingly difficult questions about [nuclear] arsenals that serve no practical military purpose.”
Hayes concludes that as the costs of fielding competitive conventional forces grows, “the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat” will increasingly be seen as the mark of great powers, not nuclear weapons.
There are numerous reasons to suspect that this is the case. First, while nuclear weapons are often viewed as a physical confirmation of great power status — the fact that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear armed is surely relevant — not all aspiring world powers decide to pursue nuclear weapons. Of the G4 nations that hope to reform the UN Security Council, only India possesses nuclear weapons; despite the opportunity to do so, Brazil, Germany, and Japan do not (though, of course, Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to forego nuclear armaments). Indeed, the decision to actually acquire nuclear weapons appears to be more often driven by security concerns than the desire for great power prestige: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all appear to perceive nuclear arms as a necessary deterrent against foreign threats.
Secondly, nuclear weapons are comparatively cheap compared to other indications of great power status. As Hayes notes, the costs of world-class conventional forces are much greater than nuclear weapons. This holds for other components of nuclear forces: the accurate rockets and advanced submarines needed to create a second strike-capable nuclear force are far more difficult to engineer and costly than nuclear warheads themselves. The same is true of other demonstrations of national greatness. While successful civilian space programs suffer from none of the prestige costs associated with nuclear weapons — they don’t threaten to destroy civilization — the ability to send humans into space is reserved for a much more exclusive club than nuclear weapons.
But nuclear weapons will remain attractive for aspiring regional powers, especially those facing extraordinary security situations, for precisely the reasons Hayes outlines. Iran is — of course — a good example. Iran’s leaders perceive themselves as threatened by the United States, a perception heightened by Washington’s previous overthrow of an Iranian government, various American officials’ public belligerent rhetoric, and Washington’s support for an anti-regime terrorist organization. Direct security concerns are not the only reason Iranian policymakers desire nuclear capability: the legitimizing effect, both within and outside of Iran, of achieving prestigious nuclear capability in the face of Western resistance and the desire for greater freedom to influence the region likely also play a role.
However, nuclear weapons, or more likely, the ability to quickly produce them, are the only way for Tehran to achieve these security goals, because Iran has zero chance of ever matching US conventional military capabilities in the region. Before the 1979 revolution Iran attempted to become the foremost local power in the Middle East. The Shah’s government had a considerably greater opportunity to chase this goal than today’s Iran. Flush with oil revenue, Washington was willing to sell the Pahlavi government the most advanced weapons systems money could buy: among other toys (really, that’s the only term for how the Shah approached weapons procurement; Pollack relates an amusing anecdote about the Shah “reading magazines such as Jane’s Defense Weekly as if they were shopping catalogues”) the Shah’s government purchased American main battle tanks, F-14 fighter aircraft, Cobra helicopter gunships, and was overthrown just before acquiring four US-built advanced air defense destroyers based on the world-class Spruance class.
But of course, the Shah’s military never came close to rivaling US power in the Persian Gulf region. While the Pahlavi government’s weapons purchases were put to great use in the Iran-Iraq war, weapons systems acquisition in and of itself is not sufficient to build a competitive military — human capital resources like training and doctrinal flexibility are far more important. Today’s Iran faces far more barriers to building a competitive military. Sanctions on Iranian oil exports restrict available funding, and unlike the Shah today’s leaders in Tehran faces steep barriers to purchasing weapons systems from abroad. Today, Iranian military hardware innovation is mostly restricted to fabricating spare parts for rapidly aging Western weapons and knock off missiles far less advanced than their international equivalents. Indeed, Iran’s recent embarrassing attempts to showcase an obviously fake “stealth fighter” is arguably evidence of just how decrepit its indigenous weapons industry really is.
Iran cannot further its own security goals through conventional military forces, so instead Iran’s deterrence strategy must favor “unconventional” assets, in both senses. In an open conflict with the US Iran would use asymmetric area-denial strategies to restrict the movement of US maritime forces in the Persian Gulf, and its irregular proxies to punish vulnerable US interests and allies. Similarly, nuclear capability would allow Tehran to, in its leaders’ minds, offer the ultimate deterrent blocking US aggression, a deterrence impossible to achieve with conventional military forces.
It is debatable how realistic Iran’s nuclear ambitions are. While the status quo (Western reluctance to strike Iran; Iranian reluctance to acquiesce to a nuclear deal that does not favor their interests) favors Iran, there is an ever-present risk that Israel or the US will try and forcefully delay Iran’s nuclear development. But Iran’s chances of achieving a workable deterrence that allows it to expand its own interests are greater if it pursues nuclear, rather than conventional, power.