Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Nuclear Weapons’

The Future of the British Nuclear Force

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party has drawn renewed attention to the future of Britain’s nuclear force. Corbyn has often spoken out against replacing the UK’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which together with their Trident II nuclear missiles are commonly referred to simply as “Trident.” Since nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are difficult to detect when submerged, if at least one submarine is always at sea a surprise attack on Britain could be answered by a retaliatory nuclear strike. This “second-strike capability,” in the parlance of nuclear strategy, is a powerful deterrent.

TheVanguard class is expected to leave service in the next decade; if they are not replaced and other upgrades not made, the UK’s nuclear force will most likely be retired. Corbyn’s recent “Defense Diversification” platform calls for “transitioning away from nuclear weapons” while protecting defense workers’ employment and “freeing resources for investment in other socially-useful forms of public spending” (via the Guardian). Proponents of Trident counter that, in addition to protecting high-paying defense industry jobs, despite its tight-knit alliances with the nuclear-armed US and France British security can only be guaranteed by an independent nuclear deterrent force under British control.

Corbyn may never become Prime Minister, his anti-Trident views are not universal within the Labour Party (Corbyn recently stated he would not resign if a party policy review favors retaining nuclear weapon; a hostile Dan Hodges notes the difficulty of ‘squaring the circle’ of a party which supports nuclear weapons and a presumptive PM who appears unwilling to ever using them), and the UK’s governing Conservatives are likely to see a Trident replacement passed in 2016, as Corbyn’s platform acknowledges.

But this does not mean that the long process to replace Trident will proceed as planned, as there are many arguments against maintaining Britain’s nuclear force. Most obviously, despite renewed tensions between NATO and Russia the extent to which the UK’s expensive nuclear deterrent actually contributes to British security is unclear, especially given the UK’s close relationship with the nuclear-armed US. The Scottish National Party is also wary of the nuclear force, which is based in Scotland.

Arguably, the threat of Russian aggression paradoxically strengthens the argument for retiring the UK’s nuclear weapons. The British defense budget is finite, and every pound that the UK spends on nuclear weapons is a pound that cannot be spent on the conventional forces relevant to countering Russia’s inching “hybrid warfare” aggression. Prompted by reports that US policymakers have encouraged the UK retire its nuclear force in favor of capabilities that can actually fight and practically support US forces, in 2013 Jarrod Hayes questioned whether costs, not moral objections, might herald the end of nuclear weapons. “The crux of the issue is the assessment by the US that the UK cannot afford to have conventional capabilities sufficient to allow the UK to be a full military partner and submarine-deployed nuclear weapons,” Hayes wrote. Given that the looming need to replace the Trident system is expected to amount to a decade-long 9-10% cut in the UK’s annual defense budget (if it is funded through the Ministry of Defense rather than the Treasury) this question is especially pressing.

The UK would not be the first state to give up its own nuclear weapons: the apartheid South African regime successfully developed a number of nuclear devices, only to voluntarily dismantle them on the eve of democratization.* But retiring Britain’s nuclear force would be unprecedented. In contrast to a half dozen crude nuclear bombs developed by an increasingly-isolated South Africa, the UK is a recognized nuclear-armed state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, has fielded nuclear weapons for decades, and has heavily invested in survivable, second strike-capable nuclear missile submarines. Perhaps no less importantly, the UK is a major diplomatic, economic, and military power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All other permanent UNSC members – China, France, Russia, and the United States – are nuclear weapons states.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald - Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald – Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Other states have turned away from developing nuclear weapons when they arguably had the option of doing so. Japan is widely thought to refrain from fielding nuclear weapons for political reasons, with the ability to assemble weapons should this policy change. Among others, states like Australia, Argentina, and Brazil all abandoned nascent nuclear weapons programs when their financial and diplomatic costs were judged to outweigh any eventual benefits. But there is a clear difference – perhaps expressed through loss aversion – between deciding not to develop nuclear weapons and giving up a formidable nuclear force. In particular, even if the British public and defense and political establishments accept the argument that the UK nuclear force’s contributions to British security is outweighed by its costs, retiring nuclear weapons would mean giving up an iconic status symbol. In Chris Walsh’s words, detonating Britain’s first nuclear bomb “marked its return to the club of great powers.” Is today’s UK prepared to risk losing any prestige nuclear status brings?

Hayes offered one answer, suggesting that “the rising cost and sophistication of modern weapons systems implies that nuclear weapons are no longer the hallmark of a great power, but instead the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat.” The point of these status symbols is that they are proxies for military power and, more remotely, other measures of national strength. Despite the nuclear status of all permanent UNSC members, John Mueller has argued in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaeda that some states and their populations do not seem to view nuclear weapons as desirable status symbols. Today it’s arguable that aircraft carriers, not nuclear weapons, better reflect the ability to project power and win the wars that actually happen. Notably, the UK’s two highly-capable (though not comparable to US nuclear-powered supercarriers) Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are currently under construction.

It may seem ridiculous to think that a state with a leading global role like the UK would ever give up nuclear weapons. But it is important to remember that other military status symbols have fallen out of fashion in ways that would have seemed doubtful at the time. Battleships were once a preeminent symbol of national power that aspirant states went to great lengths to field. Today, they are relics of history.

Of course, these two cases are not directly comparable. Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate means of deterrence, while airpower rendered battleships obsolete. Despite these differences, the point is that the value of military status symbols – what is and is not the hallmark of a respected state – can change in unexpected ways. If arguments in favor of retaining the UK’s nuclear force are motivated in part by their prestige — Tony Blair once wrote that retiring Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation,” Richard Norton-Taylor relays — then the calculus of prestige and deterrence versus cost could similarly change.

*Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all chose to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR.


Nuclear Weapons and the Brazilian Case

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

First off, my apologies for the long absence — I recently moved and started a new job, neither of which are conductive to regular writing.

Today I have a piece at Political Violence at a Glance (which I once edited, but have now moved on from, due to aforementioned the new job) looking at why Latin America remains the world’s largest region where nuclear weapons have never been produced.

The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.

So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?

The short answer is that Latin American countries were not in a position to develop nuclear weapons during the early years of the Cold War and both Argentina and Brazil abandoned their efforts to build nuclear arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s (see Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities for a detailed account of these events), all while the security and prestige gains from these weapons have steadily eroded while their diplomatic costs have increased. Today there is little reason why Brazil or Argentina would invite international condemnation by building nuclear weapons, when both countries face no external threats and see a path to global prestige through international organizations and economic growth, rather than unpopular nuclear arms.

However, as I allude this argument is a bit of a circular one in the Latin American context. It is arguable that states aspiring to global leadership roles have moved away from building nuclear weapons as a means of realizing their ambitions. But this observation rests heavily on the Brazilian example, because Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent non-nuclear states. Of the emerging economies BRICS bloc only Brazil has never possessed nuclear weapons (South Africa voluntarily gave up its own small nuclear arsenal), though of course Brazil’s historical experience is hugely different than India and South Africa, and especially from the USSR/Russia and China. Brazil’s non-nuclear status is not alone among the G4 nations hoping to join a reformed UN Security Council, but Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to decline fielding nuclear arms, even if both are capable of building them. So if Brazil does elect to build nuclear weapons the argument that modern aspirants to international status don’t need nuclear arms would collapse, both in theory and probably in practice.

All this isn’t to say that the alarmism of Hans Rühle’s 2010 article is correct. It is still difficult to say what Brazil would actually gain from developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s long coastline, offshore resources, and military modernization ambitions make developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine a legitimate goal (in the sense that consistently operating one or more nuclear attack submarine would grant the Brazilian navy significant new, practical capabilities). Of course it is unclear who an advanced submarine would actually be defending Brazil from, but that isn’t the point of prestige military programs. Unlike nuclear weapons few would condemn an eventual Brazilian nuclear submarine as anything beyond a waste of money, and this comparatively unoffensive weapons program still buys admission to an elite technological club. But even if Brazil joining the world’s nuclear weapons states is unlikely, it is important to remember that the negative consequences of it choosing to do so would be very serious.

Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears

By Taylor Marvin

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.

Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:

Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.

Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.

All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.

But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.

It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?

So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.

*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.

Would a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent Have Prevented the Crisis?, Continued

By Taylor Marvin

Returning to the question of whether Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, John Mueller raises an interesting point in his book Atomic ObsessionAlong with Belarus and Kazakhstan, following the breakup of the USSR the new state of Ukraine found itself in possession of a formidable tactical and strategic nuclear arsenal. Under international pressure, all three of these new countries returned their weapons to Russia. Mueller highlights an interesting influence on this decision:

From the beginning, the leaders the new countries seemed to grasp that the weapons would be of little value to them. In considerable part, their patterns of thinking traced those of the many other technically capable states that have been content to follow a nonnuclear path … In Ukraine, and particularly Belarus, the experience with enhanced radiation levels that followed the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986 generated a special hostility toward—or wariness about—the weapons, something like a “nuclear allergy.”* [p. 123]

The costs and difficulties associated with the weak, newly-formed Ukrainian state retaining Soviet nuclear weapons has been highlighted in recent discussions sparked by the Russian invasion of Crimea, as has the challenges of safeguarding the nuclear weapons of up to four Soviet successor states rather than only one. However, I have not heard the influence of the Chernobyl disaster — which, remember, occurred less than half a decade before the disintegration of the USSR — mentioned in these discussions. I suppose this is odd, because Japan’s experience as the only target of nuclear weapons use is frequently highlighted as a reason why the country has not elected to actually acquire its own nuclear deterrent, though it has the technical capabilities to quickly do so. If Ukraine’s experience with Chernobyl, which was located on Ukrainian soil though much of the fallout from the disaster fell on the then Byelorussian SSR, informed its decision to give up nuclear weapons, it is a powerful reminder of the impact of emotions and memories on foreign policy decision-making.

*Mueller cites Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities here, which I have not read.

Would a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent Have Prevented the Crisis?

By Taylor Marvin

A Ukrainian Tu-22M is scrapped in 2002. DTRA photo, via Wikimedia.

A Ukrainian Tu-22M is scrapped in 2002. DTRA photo, via Wikimedia.

Could Ukraine have forestalled the Russian Federation’s invasion of Crimea if it had kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union? Writing in the National InterestTed Galen Carpenter returns to this argument. Noting the “undercurrent of worry that the Crimea intervention may be just the first move in a campaign by Vladimir Putin either to detach much of eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s control or to oust the new Ukrainian government and bring all of the country firmly into Moscow’s orbit,” Carpenter places blame for Moscow’s action on the early-1990s push to ensure that Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up the nuclear weapons the breakup of the USSR orphaned in their territory and returned them to Russia, the designated Soviet inheritor. Again citing John Mearsheimer’s 1993 Foreign Affairs piece that argued in favor Ukraine retaining nuclear weapons, the argument follows that given the power imbalance between Ukraine and its eastern neighbor, nuclear weapons would have been the Eastern European country’s best hope of resisting Russian revanchism.

As I wrote last week, even if Russia had allowed a former SSR to retain Soviet nuclear weapons (and handwaving away two decades of divergent Ukrainian-Russian relations) it is unclear if a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent would have prevented the Russian seizure of Crimea, the immediate site of the current confrontation. After all, the same strategies Russia employed to forestall a conventional Ukrainian military and international diplomatic response to the invasion would have made a nuclear response unlikely, as well. Russia initially infiltrated deniable troops to seize key strategic points in Crimea, and then brought a large number of soldiers to the peninsula. Before the wider world realized that Russia had indeed invaded and started discussing how to respond Russian Federation forces had already dug in, and would be extremely difficult for the Ukrainian military to dislodge. In addition, while the upcoming referendum will not be a free and fair reflection of the will of the Crimean people, annexation by Russia appears to enjoy some genuine support in the ethnic-Russian-majority autonomous republic, complicating both Ukrainian and international condemnation of the invasion.

By the time a nuclear-armed Ukraine had realized that Russia had indeed violated its territorial integrity, a nuclear threat would have lost what little teeth it ever had. Compelling Russia to leave Crimea would be even more difficult that deterring it from entering. Given the bloodless Russian invasion, Russia’s historic ties to the peninsula, and the pro-Russian outlook of the Crimean people, even an enraged government in Kiev could not credible threaten to use nuclear weapons against military targets in Russia in an attempt to compel Russia to leave. Importantly, by exposing itself to a Ukrainian strike Russia would place the heavy burden of actually making the decision to escalate to nuclear warfare on the Ukrainians, and thus likely ensure that they would not actually play their nuclear card. Even handwaving away Russia’s far superior conventional and nuclear forces, a Ukraine that actually used nuclear weapons against Russia, avoided a response in kind, and successfully forced its withdrawal from Crimea would be far worse off — a pariah politically, diplomatically, and economically — than one that lost Crimea.

Moscow’s calculus would be far riskier in a world where Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons. But again, it is unclear in my mind if this risk would have deterred seizing Crimea, especially given the status Putin has invested in Ukraine, status that necessitated some form of face-saving. What is true is that a crisis would be far, far more dangerous in a world where both Ukraine and Russia field nuclear weapons but Ukraine cannot credibly threaten to respond to the permanent loss of Crimea with a nuclear attack on Russian targets, a point Carpenter acknowledges.

Sure, Ukraine’s ability to deter Russian aggression is important, as is upholding the general “no annexation” norm of the post-war international order. A Ukrainian nuclear force would also largely put to rest fears that Russia intends to peel off Ukrainian territory beyond Crimea. But by writing that Ukraine and the United States are paying the price for the “myopia” of encouraging Ukrainian nuclear disarmament, advocates of a nuclear-armed Ukraine are placing greater value on these considerations than avoiding the — admittedly unlikely — prospect of a Russia-Ukraine nuclear war that would likely kill millions of people.

Would this risk be worthwhile?

Crimea, the Falklands War, and Alternative History

By Taylor Marvin

The Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has prompted an interesting round of parlor speculation — if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, would it have been able to deter Russia’s so-called intervention? After all, the question is not entirely academic. After the dissolution of the USSR, the newly independent Ukrainian state inherited the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Ukraine returned these weapons to Russia and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all in exchange for a security guarantee initially signed by Russia, the US, and UK.

After the last week’s very high-profile violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, many have suggested that Ukraine’s choice was a grave mistake. In particular, many have highlighted a 1993 Foreign Affairs article by John Mearsheimer suggesting that, under threat from Russia, Ukraine should keep its inherited nuclear deterrent.

Along with its recent return to prominence Mearsheimer’s argument has fallen under new criticism. Duck of Minerva contributor PM asks whether a nuclear-armed Ukraine would be more stable and less threatened by Russian domination, and concludes that the answer is probably no. In an interesting post Anton Strezhnev also questions Mearsheimer’s logic, writing that faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Ukraine whose power could be counted on to increase in the future Russia would not have permitted its neighbor to keep nuclear weapons anyway. “The deterrence argument is moot,” Strezhnev concludes. “If nuclear weapons had any meaningful deterrent effect on Russia, then Russia would likely have acted militarily in the 90s to prevent a nuclear Ukraine rather than let Ukraine wield its leverage in the future.”

I suppose that in the interest of following an alternative history through we can also question whether the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan movement, and Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster would have been allowed to proceed in a counterfactual nuclear-armed Ukraine as they did in our world, though the example of Pakistan and others suggests that outside powers are not guaranteed to forcefully impose political stability even when nuclear weapons raise the stakes.

But, like Strezhnev and Phil Arena, I think the entire question of whether a Ukrainian nuclear arsenal would have prevented the Russian invasion of Crimea is misguided. The current crisis may be, in Sarah Kendzior’s words, the “progenitor of bullshit analogies,” but in our nuclear-armed Ukraine hypothetical I think one is particularly apt: the Falklands War.

In spring 1982 Argentina invaded and occupied the Falklands Islands, or Islas Malvinas, a British possession laying roughly 300 miles off the Argentine coast. The military junta then ruling Argentina was under pressure, and believe that seizing the islands — long a grievance among ordinary Argentines — would boost its domestic popularity through a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. Through a complex signaling failure and incompetence not limited to the Argentines (see Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklands for more) the junta also calculated that its anti-communist ally the United States would not challenge, or would at least acquiesce, to its seizure of the islands, and that the United Kingdom would not pursue a difficult and risky military operation to retake them.

Of course, at the time the United Kingdom was a nuclear power with the capability of conducting a nuclear ballistic missile strike on the Argentine mainland. However, this did not stop the junta from ordering the operation, because it judged that even if the United Kingdom was committed to regaining the Falklands the prospect of a British nuclear first strike against a non-nuclear state — even an aggressor — would be so unpopular that the threat was not credible (though Argentina was not party to the NPT at the time). It would be, and was, up to the British to retake the islands militarily. Placing the heavy burden of escalating to nuclear force on the British, even if it was a burden Argentina didn’t have the capability to bear, would be their limited-warfare shield.

Crimea has many parallels to the Falklands. While not an island, the Crimean Peninsula is largely non-contiguous with Ukraine proper, and can be culturally constructed as to not “really” belonging to Ukraine. Much like Argentines have long claimed that las Malvinas by rights should belong to Argentina, Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority and historical association with the Russian imperial project have, in Moscow’s narrative, allowed it to be detached from wider notions of Ukrainian sovereignty. Importantly, the physical and military geography of both Crimea and the Falklands allowed them to be quickly seized by invading forces, allowing the aggressor to create the “facts on the ground” before their opponents could react.

Obviously, there are substantial differences between the two examples. Both via geographic proximity and culture, Crimea is arguably more important to both Russia and Ukraine than the Falklands were to Argentina and the United Kingdom, and is home to two million people. The long land border between Russia and Ukraine presents the distressing possibility that the current crisis could spiral into a general land war, something impossible in the South Atlantic. A conflict over Crimea between a nuclear-armed Ukraine and Russia would also include two nuclear actors, not just one — an extremely consequential difference.

But the Falklands War is still the best analog for a hypothetical crisis between a Ukraine that retained its nuclear weapons and Russia. Following the counterfactual, and hand-waving away two decades of divergent history before the current crisis, if the British nuclear arsenal was not sufficient to deter the Argentine invasion of the Falklands it wrong to assert that a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent would simply have prevented the current crisis. Like the Kargil crisis Strezhnev highlights, limited wars between nuclear powers are possible. The Falklands example further suggests that nuclear weapons are not an iron-clad guarantee against territorial predation, especially if the territory in question is constructed as to lie outside of the defender’s heartland.

A Thought Experiment on the Nuclear Triad

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia are divided between what is termed a triad of nuclear-armed aircraft, ballistic missile submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As I noted earlier this week, many argue that the triad system is an expensive and redundant relic, and that one or more of its legs could be eliminated with no risk to the credibility of America’s nuclear deterrence.

The Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are most often singled out as the least essential leg of the triad, for numerous reasons. The fixed locations of ICBM silos tempt an enemy to strike first in an attempt to destroy them on the ground, a destabilizing incentive towards a nuclear first strike; the threat of missiles being destroyed before they can be fired pressures decision-makers to “use them or lose them” and fire on just the warning of an imminent attack, increasing the risk of accidental war; and ICBMs encourage arms races, because the number of nuclear warheads necessary to destroy an opponent’s missiles in their hardened silos is far higher than needed to end civilization. Indeed, the entire concept of the nuclear triad is an after the fact justification of a three-branched strategic nuclear force that owes more to interservice rivalry than any sound strategic concept.

One of the most common arguments against eliminating ICBMs — or any one element of the triad — is the need to hedge against technological advancements that suddenly defang one means of delivering nuclear weapons. It is possible, triad proponents argue, that a revolution in undersea detection could make it much easier to find and destroy the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). These fears are overstated. As Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher A. Preble and Matt Fay note in their paper “The End of Overkill? Reassessing US Nuclear Weapons Policy,” despite similar warnings during the Cold War after the dissolution of the USSR the US government learned that it had over, not underestimated the Soviets’ ability to detect US submarines. This will likely hold true in the future as ballistic missile submarines — which are termed “boomers” in US service — continue to grow quieter. “Remember that hawks have been warning about future US SSBNs’ vulnerability to enemy forces since the 1960s, and it has not yet arrived,” Friedman, Preble, and Fay write. “Moreover, the effort needed to achieve such technological progress is unlikely to be instant or unknown to US intelligence.”

In any case, a sudden technological advance that makes ballistic missile submarines much less survivable is no more likely than an extremely unlikely revolution that makes iron-clad ballistic missile defense possible and negates the entire concept of ballistic missiles.

But even if boomers suddenly became much more detectable, would this fatally threaten the deterrence value of a submarine and aircraft nuclear dyad? Imagine a world where, for what ever reason, submarines do not exist (say humans of this alternative reality are literally paralyzed with innate fear of the ocean’s deep).* In this world the naval leg of the nuclear triad are “ballistic missile cruisers” armed with 24 Trident II nuclear missiles, each carrying up to a dozen independent nuclear warheads. Besides being launched from the ocean’s surface rather than underneath it, these missiles are identical to those carried by US and UK SSBNs in our world. Perhaps these cruisers are also nuclear powered, again like SSBNs (the USN has operated CGNs in the past). Strategic deterrent patrols consist of a “cruiser strike group” composed of a ballistic missile cruiser, an air-defense cruiser, and two destroyers. As ballistic missile cruisers would be more affordable than a SSBN, the US Navy fields, say, twenty of them, with two thirds at sea at any given time.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

Needless to say, these surface ships would be far more vulnerable than ballistic missile submarines, and in this world America’s nuclear deterrent is less robust. Ships can be tracked from the air or space, and destroyed with anti-ship missiles or other military weapons. The vulnerability of surface ships would create the same “use it or lose it” incentive towards a destabilizing launch on warning stance as land-based ICBMs. These cruisers would also be unable to sneak close to enemy shores to reduce missile flight times, one of the key advantages — or disadvantages, from a global stability perspective — of ballistic missile submarines. Cruisers would also share one of the same trip-wire problem of SSBNs, namely that a counterforce attack on submarines at sea does not carry the same weight (and hands-tying motivation for nuclear response) as one targeting ICBMs based on US territory.**

But would a fleet of ballistic missile cruisers alone constitute a credible deterrence? While far from ideal, I think that it would be. After all, destroying this “surface” leg of a triad would require killing at least a dozen heavily defended ships scattered across the globe, all before the US realized that a coordinated attack on its nuclear forces was underway and responded in kind. After all, the difficulty of pulling this off would be roughly comparable to sinking every US supercarrier more or less simultaneously, something that no one is worried about today. Even for a future adversary armed with intercontinental-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, this would be a difficult task. Certainly one not worth betting millions of lives on.

The point is that even after a sudden revolution in undersea detection that makes US boomers much more vulnerable they would still be more survivable than the ballistic missile cruisers of this alternative world. There will always be an undersea arms race between offense and defense. But this isn’t any reason to fear that submarines will suddenly become more vulnerable, and it certainly isn’t an argument against drawing down the Air Force’s ICBMs.

*Though perhaps in a world without submarines German unrestricted submarine warfare never prompts US entry into World War I, which Germany then wins, an isolated United States is not the first to develop nuclear weapons, and our ballistic missile cruisers belong to the imperial Hochseeflotte…

**This citation specifically references a comment by Tom Nichols; the format of the blog does not allow me to permalink to it directly.

The Nuclear Shortcut

By Taylor Marvin

Iranian F-14s, via Wikimedia.

Iranian F-14s, via Wikimedia.

Writing at Duck of MinervaJarrod 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.

Strategic Interactions in “Last Resort”

By Taylor Marvin

This morning I watched the pilot episode of ABC’s Last Resort. The show chronicles the adventures of the crew of the fictional USS Colorado, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. After disobeying a potentially unlawful order to fire on Pakistan, the crew goes rogue, docking at a small inhabited island in the Indian Ocean.

While the show’s core concept showed promise — Crimson Tide aside, a rogue submarine crew is an inherently dramatic setting  — I had trouble making it through the pilot, mostly due to stock characters and the silliness of the plot. The experience did lead to some entertaining live-messaging to the friend who recommended the show as I watched:

“I’m glad the Navy manages to crew their submarines exclusively with models.”


Maybe the show will get better; there are plenty of series that don’t find their feet immediately. But the show does present an interesting take on nuclear bargaining. [MAJOR SPOILERS for the pilot follow]

At the close of the pilot the USS Colorado’s crew is in a precarious position: their vessel is docked at the tropical island of Sainte Marina and is (presumably) too damaged to take out to sea, and the entire US government wants them dead. At the climax, Captain Chaplin desperately attempts to deter a pair of B-1s from bombing his submarine at dock by launching a nuclear missile at Washington, DC, broadcasting the assurance that if the bombers are called off he’ll destroy the missile before it hits its target (yes, this is ridiculous, but bear with me). The Pentagon blinks, calls off the bombers, and Chaplin harmlessly redirects the missile to detonate off the eastern US coastline to prove his threat to meet any threat to his submarine with nuclear force is serious. To reinforce this threat, Chaplin record a message threatening to launch his missiles if anyone comes within 200 miles of “his” island, which is somehow disseminated and broadcast on US domestic news networks:

“I’m Captain Marcus Chaplin of the USS Colorado… We have commandeered the NATO early warning station on the island of Sainte Marina. From this facility we can see the movements of all the world’s militaries. We are in control. I am declaring a 200 mile no-man’s land around this island, effective immediately. As for myself and the men and women of the USS Colorado, we love our country. We would gladly die for what it represents. But we do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own. If the current United States Executive or any nation violates this perimeter, we have 17 more nuclear missiles aboard and we will not hesitate to unleash fiery hell down upon you; I give you my word, test us and we will all burn together.”

Preposterous? Yes. But this is an interesting question: how would this strategic interaction between a rogue US boomer captain and the outside world play out? At the close of the pilot, this positions are fixed. Captain Chaplin controls a NATO station that apparently features long-range radar that his crew can use to detect incoming aircraft, making it difficult for outsiders to approach the island undetected. He also possesses 17 (Ohio-class SSBNs can carry 24) Trident II ballistic missiles, each with four nuclear warheads — an arsenal capable of killing a good portion of the world’s population. But for plot reasons (namely, the producers needed a reason to justify filming off the submarine, and an excuse to cast a bartender that looks like this) the submarine is presumably unable to dive or even move, except in extraordinary circumstances, canceling out its reason for existing: stealth. Presumably elements of the US government responsible for Chaplin’s betrayal want him and his crew dead, and everyone wants the threat of 17 nuclear missiles controlled by a rogue captain removed.

The core problem with this interaction is that Captain Chaplin’s threat isn’t credible: because he and his crew are Americans with families living in the US, their threat of “assured destruction” if they’re challenged is not credible, and the government knows this (hint: don’t say you “love” the country you’re threatening to destroy if you want people to take you seriously). If the Pentagon launches a strike on the USS Colorado, they can reasonably guess that Captain Chaplin and his officers will not launch a mass nuclear strike on the US in retaliation. Unfortunately for Chaplin’s bargaining position, his only available method of retaliation is so devastating that it’s unthinkable — the same limitation sank President Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy of reducing US conventional forces in favor of reliance on nuclear deterrence. If Chaplin wants this threat to be credible, he must employ some type of commitment device that would tie his hands in a crisis, forcing him to launch his missiles even if he didn’t want to; perhaps by constructing an automated system that would automatically launch the missile once the island’s radars detected an aircraft within weapons range. Confounding this problem is Chaplin’s low information. Presumably Chaplin’s captured NATO radar station would have trouble identifying the nationality of an incoming cruise missile strike during a crisis, and a submarine launched torpedo targeting the Colorado would be impossible to identify — if Chaplin has no way of knowing who’s shooting at him, how is his threat to respond credible? A rogue nuclear arsenal is just as threatening to other nations as it is to the United States, and capable military powers like China, Russia, and the UK have a major incentive to remove the threat while facing a much lower risk of being on the receiving end of Chaplin’s nuclear retaliation than American forces. While a nuclear strike on the US is certainly a very bad outcome in the eyes of these countries, the low risk of Chaplin identifying and launching a reprisal on their country in time could be expected to alter their cost/benefit reasoning to make a strike worthwhile.

This makes Chaplin’s position untenable. In the eyes of US policymakers, a strike on the USS Colorado isn’t a particularly bad outcome; a strike by another country whose lower military capabilities make a successful reprisal more likely is worse. If the United States doesn’t destroy the USS Colorado, someone else will at a much greater risk to the US — given this incentive, the US will strike first. Even if Chaplin isn’t bluffing, in the event of a US strike he’s unlikely to get a retaliatory strike off. An attack by a B-2 or stealthy AGM-129 cruise missiles on the docked USS Colorado is unlikely to be detected before the submarine is destroyed. Given the relatively low risk of destroying the Colorado and the much greater risk of someone else attempting to do so, American policymakers will order a strike. If Chaplin can take the Colorado out to sea his chances of surviving improve considerably, but it’s unclear if the show will go there. If it doesn’t, Captain Chaplin and his crew don’t have much of a chance of getting out alive.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Nuclear Theory

By Taylor Marvin

[This post contains spoilers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol]

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a very entertaining movie. Particularly interesting is the film’s depiction of nuclear conflict, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The film’s villain — renegade Russian nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks —  is motivated by the idea that stagnent world civilization can be revitalized by the disaster of a nuclear conflict, as long as the damage is distributed “evenly”. To trick the US and Russia into nuclear war, Hendricks clandestinely destroys the Kremlin with conventional explosives, and then uses stolen Russian nuclear launch codes to order a Russian ballistic missile submarine to launch a single nuclear missile at San Francisco in hopes of provoking a US retaliatory nuclear attack on Russia.

For this plan to work, senior American officials have to believe that the initial Russian missile launch was ordered by the Russian government. On the surface, this is credible; the missile is delivered by a submarine-launched ICBM after all, which are only possessed by a handful of nuclear states. However, Hendricks’ actions don’t make sense in the framework of nuclear theory.

Hendricks intends American officials to view the initial Russian missile launch a retaliatory strike by Moscow, under the assumption that the Russian government mistakenly believes that the destruction of the Kremlin was ordered by Washington. Limited retaliatory punishment strikes are an accepted part of nuclear war. For example, one state could, purposefully or accidentally, launch a limited nuclear attack on another. To prevent their opponent from retaliating with a civilization-destroying unlimited response, the original aggressor could consent to “sacrificing” assets of comparable value to their opponent’s losses. This limited retaliation would inflict enough destruction to satiate the original victim, while avoiding a wider nuclear exchange.

Hendricks’ plot’s efficacy rests on two deceptions: that the American leadership believes the strike on San Francisco to be an authorized Russian attack — rather than a loss of Russian control over their weapons — and responds with a multiple nuclear strikes of their own (of course, Ethan Hunt could have attempted to warn the US government that the immanent nuclear strike was not authorized by Moscow; the film never suggests this possibility). However, the missile launch isn’t a credible Russian response because its target — a nuclear strike on an American city — is not comparable to the conventional destruction of the Kremlin in a terrorist attack.

Is their any reason to believe that Russia would respond to a perceived American conventional attack on a symbolic target with a nuclear strike on an American civilian target? In short: probably not; the escalation risks of such a hugely unproporitonal retaliatory strike are clearly not worth the signaling value of such a strike. There is the faint possibility that Moscow would authorize a nuclear response if it felt that a ICBM strike was the only retaliatory action available to a unprecedented American aggression. However, land-attack cruise missiles launched from air or submarine platforms likely do give Russian forces the ability to hit continental US targets on short notice — most likely a 3M-14E missile launched from a submarine offshore. This conventional strike capability gives Moscow the ability to responde in kind to an American attack on a high-profile symbolic target; Moscow would have nearly zero incentive to escalate to a nuclear response.

Of course, this disproportion is the entire point; Hendricks wants the American president to not accept the Russian strike as a valid retaliatory action, and respond with a unlimited strike against Russian targets. However, the problem with Hendricks scheme is that it’s so unproportional as to be an unbelievable Russian action. Rather than launch a retaliatory strike, it’s entirely possible that US leaders would judge the strike on San Francisco as evidence that Russia had lost control of at least a portion of it’s nuclear forces, especially considering that the Kremlin had been destroyed by an unknown actor the day before. If this judgement was made US leaders would not initiate their own launch. Whether in the heat of the moment American leaders are this discerning is an open question, but it is a major flaw in Hendricks’ plan.

The success of Hendricks’ plot depends on giving the Russians believable reason to launch a retaliatory limited nuclear attack on the US, but simultaneously prompt the US government to respond with a broad nuclear attack on Russia. But the film fails of both counts: the (perceived) terror attack on the Kremlin is not severe enough to suggest that the Russian strike on San Francisco was ordered by a rational actor in Moscow, and the Americans are unlikely to respond to a single missile launched on a US city with broad retaliation. If Hendricks was actually interested in starting a nuclear war, it would make more sense to dupe the Russian submarine commander into launching general strike on the US rather than one intended to be construed as a retaliatory strike, which is inherently deescalatory. 

However, it is possible to argue that Hendricks wants a nuclear war, but not a countervalue exchange that would decimate civilization; after all, he talks about humanity emerging from the rubble stronger. In this case, framing the manufactured conflict as an escalating series of retaliatory strikes makes sense. A series of counterforce strikes on Russian and American nuclear infrastructure and military targets would kill huge numbers of people — both through the exchange itself and the ensuing environmental damage — but might not be fatal to human civilization. But again, the film’s nuclear logic fails: if Hendricks is seeking a counterforce exchange, the Russian retaliatory strike shouldn’t hit a US civilian target.

Of course, none of this makes sense. The film dwells on the fact that Hendricks wants a nuclear exchange whose damage is distributed “evenly” across the globe; but an American-Russian nuclear exchange would inherently focus its damage on the northern hemisphere. A counterforce exchange would be even more discriminating in its devastation. Ultimately, these flaws don’t matter: if your plan rests on defeating the Impossible Missions Force, you’re already out of luck.