06/13/2013 - 16:12

How US policy works against disarmament

If the Roundtable essays by my colleagues Sadia Tasleem and Manpreet Sethi are any indication of the way Pakistan and India perceive each other's nuclear policies, the prominence of nuclear deterrence in South Asia will only grow. Nuclear warheads will increase in number; so will means of delivering them. Nonproliferation activists may hope, by convincing Pakistan and India to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-weapon states, to make it more difficult for terrorists to gain access to nuclear weapons. But based on my colleagues' viewpoints, these hopes would seem to be absolutely unrealistic.

But to turn to this Roundtable's central issue -- how US deterrence policy affects international security and nonproliferation and disarmament efforts -- I read with great interest Tasleem's discussion of the way US policy links nuclear deterrence with terrorism. She writes that this linkage "overrates the effectiveness of deterrence and seems from an outsider's perspective only to reinforce the value that US security policy accords to nuclear weapons." If I understand her correctly, she believes that the linkage is artificial, just one more pretext for the United States to continue relying heavily on its nuclear arsenal. And when she writes that the linkage "creates serious challenges for proponents of nonproliferation and disarmament in states with small nuclear arsenals," I suppose that she is referring first of all to her own country, Pakistan. Taken together, Tasleem's perceptions only strengthen my conviction that eliminating nuclear weapons from the world, though a noble goal, is unrealistic in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Sethi writes that "Russia and China perceive as threatening Washington's pursuit of ballistic missile defense and its Prompt Global Strike initiative." I can only confirm that her impression is correct. I fail to understand how these two US projects can be thought to contribute anything to antiterrorism efforts and especially to nonproliferation. To the contrary, they only increase the risk of nuclear conflict between major powers and make nuclear weapons more attractive. Or, at the very least, they dissuade Russia from carrying out further reductions to its nuclear arsenal and dissuade China from holding its nuclear arsenal at current levels.

Prompt Global Strike, from Russia's point of view, is a very dangerous concept. The idea is that the US military would be able to quickly strike any spot on the planet with high-precision conventional weapons carried by strategic delivery systems (mainly submarine-launched). The project's initial impetus came from the US inability in 2001 to reach Osama bin Laden in his complex of caves at Tora Bora, Afghanistan. But there is a major problem: Russian early warning systems cannot distinguish between conventional and nuclear-armed long-range missiles. The possible consequences if a missile were launched in Russia's direction are obvious. This is especially worrisome because the shortest path toward a threat originating to the south of Russia (where the majority of contemporary threats originate) might lie over the North Pole, and this could easily cause missiles to pass over Russia's vast territory. This is the most conspicuous example of a missile threat to Russia, but there might be others. For example, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launched from the North Atlantic toward a target in some country to Russia's south would not fly over the North Pole but would pass over Russia. The same applies to SLBMs launched from the central Pacific.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to develop its system for ballistic missile defense despite the concerns and objections of Russia and China. US missile defense will only discourage these two countries, and perhaps others, from reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their own military doctrines. Deterrence depends on balance. If the strategic balance between Russia and the United States is upset, Moscow would find it impossible to continue reducing its nuclear arsenal. Reductions past a certain level would leave Russia without a credible nuclear deterrent.