Nuclear deterrence and terrorism: Implications for global security


The 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review listed reducing nuclear weapons' role in national security strategy among the key objectives of nuclear weapons policy. It also restricted the circumstances under which the United States would contemplate using nuclear weapons. But the report also renewed a commitment "to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction… ." This commitment -- which seems to leave open the possibility of a nuclear attack against states that provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists -- seeks to address the difficulty of deterring groups like Al Qaeda. But the commitment raises difficult questions about attributing responsibility for a terrorist group's acquisition of a nuclear capability, and about the policy's compatibility with reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles and eventually achieving disarmament. Below, Evgeny Buzhinsky of Russia, Sadia Tasleem of Pakistan, and Manpreet Sethi of India address this question: How do US efforts to deter terrorist attacks through its nuclear policy affect international security as well as nonproliferation and disarmament efforts?

The Development and Disarmament Roundtable can also be read in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

Round 1

Right idea, tricky implementation

In the context of offering a fresh assessment of the nuclear threats facing the United States, the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review placed the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism at the top of the country's nuclear agenda, higher on the list than maintaining strategic deterrence, strengthening regional deterrence, and sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. This is not surprising, considering how preoccupied the United States has been in recent years about the risk that terrorists might gain access to nuclear weapons or that states like North Korea or Iran could provoke a cascade of proliferation. Indeed, these two risks are linked, as proliferation increases the chances that non-state actors might gain access to nuclear material.

The United States appears to be addressing these threats on two levels: the tactical and the strategic. The tactical approach has four components: accelerating efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide; disrupting terrorist networks by targeting their financing channels and eliminating their leadership; buttressing homeland security through better border controls and missile defenses and an ability to promptly strike time-sensitive terrorist targets at a distance; and, as outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review, threatening "to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction."

At the strategic level, though, US policy attempts to address nuclear dangers by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy. The Nuclear Posture Review, for example, circumscribed the use of nuclear weapons to "extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners." It also contained a vow not to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and are in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations. The idea behind both these measures is that nuclear weapons will become less attractive to other countries and the nonproliferation regime will garner additional support.

Are these tactical and strategic approaches contradictory? Is threatening to attack states that abet terrorists incompatible with the goal of reducing nuclear stockpiles and moving toward disarmament? Certainly not. To begin with, the US threat "to hold fully accountable" those who support terrorist efforts to gain weapons of mass destruction does not necessarily mean the United States would use nuclear weapons in such situations. Even the US initiative known as Prompt Global Strike, which would enable the United States military to strike any point on the planet in about an hour, is based on delivering conventional weapons with strategic delivery systems. Meanwhile, the new restrictions that the United States has placed on its own use of nuclear weapons are clearly aimed at devaluing nuclear weapons — at buttressing nonproliferation efforts by taking meaningful action toward disarmament. Therefore, in principle, US policy is on the right track. The problem lies in implementation.

US efforts to deter terrorism, including through nuclear policy, can only succeed if they gain widespread and wholehearted international support. The United States cannot hope to make itself terrorism-proof unless it can convince others that the terrorist danger is urgent and requires many parties to work together. It is here that US policy runs into hurdles. Sometimes the United States finds itself unable to follow through on its own policy. In other situations, its policies can be perceived as threatening and can complicate interstate relations.

Pakistan is a country that shows the limitations of US nuclear policy. Despite ample evidence that Pakistan has been involved in nuclear proliferation — and that the army and Inter-Services Intelligence, the most influential elements of Pakistan's state structure, have supported and fomented terrorism — two issues prevent the United States from taking meaningful punitive action. One is that the United States must have Pakistani support for its war in Afghanistan. The other is that Pakistan itself possesses nuclear weapons. Consequently, Washington to a large extent ignores the dangers associated with Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal and the support that terrorist organizations receive from within Pakistan – even though the possibility that these groups will get their hands on nuclear weapons, including through official complicity, cannot be dismissed. So US nuclear policy discovers its limits when it runs up against a nuclear-armed state where terrorist groups thrive. There are lessons in this that will not be lost on other nations.

Meanwhile, Russia and China perceive as threatening Washington's pursuit of ballistic missile defense and its Prompt Global Strike initiative (things the United States touts as necessary to defend against proliferation and terrorism). The resulting tension not only spoils chances for the three countries to approach common nuclear dangers in a united way, but also legitimizes the strategic modernization efforts of Moscow and Beijing. And as Russia and China seek to redress the imbalance between their military strength and that of the United States, threat perceptions in less powerful nations grow. The obvious casualty in all this is international security.

If the United States is to surmount hurdles such as these, it will have to craft strategies that provide other nations reasons to cooperate with it. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review made a start by communicating that the size of the US nuclear arsenal would continue to decrease and that the role of nuclear weapons in US national security would decrease as well. The Nuclear Security Summits, a US-led initiative, have done much to raise awareness about nuclear security issues. But more steps are necessary, especially when it comes to building interstate confidence, a sense of common purpose among nations, and a desire to work collectively.

One important step would be to pursue disarmament as vigorously as nonproliferation. At the 2005 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences, non-nuclear weapon states refused to take on additional nonproliferation commitments unless meaningful steps were taken toward disarmament — with the result that little was achieved. Nuclear disarmament itself requires addressing such contentious subjects as ballistic missile defense, conventional arms imbalances, and the weaponization of outer space. These issues may not be directly related to deterring nuclear terrorism, but addressing them properly will create an environment in which deterrence can work better.

Nuclear terrorism and proliferation are dangers to all of humanity. They are not the responsibility of the United States alone. But the United States has long set the world tone in nuclear affairs — and in the nuclear domain, national security is closely tied to international security. Washington's approach to nuclear dangers would find wide acceptance if it were more inclusive, and if the United States were to find legal and political solutions to nuclear challenges rather than relying so strongly on military strategy.

Deterring nuclear terrorism: Reflections from Islamabad

If you asked strategy and security scholars in Islamabad to assess how US deterrence of terrorist attacks through nuclear policy affects security, nonproliferation efforts, and disarmament initiatives, most responses would probably focus on the uncertainties inherent in US policy. For example, certain operational aspects of combating terrorism through nuclear deterrence are very unclear — how would the United States establish that a state was complicit in an act of nuclear terrorism? How would miscalculation and misjudgment be guarded against? But the truth is that many scholars in Pakistan have never seriously considered the implications of the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review, and discussion of it has been rather negligible.

In my own view, deterring terrorist attacks by leaving open the possibility of using nuclear weapons represents a wide disproportionality between policy ends and operational means. The gap is so wide, in fact, that such a policy seems ineffective as a deterrent. To be sure, the worth of nuclear weapons in deterring asymmetric threats is difficult to test empirically. But nuclear weapons did nothing to prevent the gruesome terrorist attacks carried out against the United States in 2001 and Britain in 2005.

The Nuclear Posture Review claims that the United States is working to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs, but such a reduction is not clearly discernible in the policy itself. To the contrary: Linking nuclear deterrence with terrorism 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. Thus it creates serious challenges for proponents of nonproliferation and disarmament in states with small nuclear arsenals, and in that sense undermines the existing nonproliferation regime.

So if US policy on nuclear deterrence contributes little to deterrence and even less to international security, what would a more effective approach consist of? Essentially, it would involve denying access to sensitive materials while also threatening to use conventional military power against states that aid terrorists. This would be the right approach not only from a deterrence but also from a nonproliferation perspective: Though it would not persuade states with small nuclear arsenals to disarm, it would at least undermine the symbolic value of nuclear weapons.

No threat. The Nuclear Posture Review has attracted relatively little notice in Pakistan because the country faces myriad domestic and external challenges that soak up attention — in particular, an ongoing struggle against terrorism. But when attention does turn to nuclear issues, a few themes recur and resonate, all of them involving India: the 2008 India-US nuclear cooperation deal and its implications for nonproliferation; India's infamous Cold Start military doctrine (which envisions quick Indian strikes against Pakistan that do not cross Islamabad's nuclear threshold); and India's program for ballistic missile defense. And while Pakistan's military doctrine identifies terrorism as the nation's top security concern, nuclear terrorism in particular is not an issue that gains much traction.

When Pakistanis do consider nuclear terrorism, opinions differ on how serious a threat it represents. Some see it as a worrisome possibility; some believe it is an exaggerated danger. But in Islamabad a broad consensus prevails about the need to address even the remotest possibility of nuclear terrorism. Consequently, Pakistan has responded positively to major nonproliferation initiatives — the Nuclear Security Summits, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (which obligates states to establish domestic controls against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction).

Regarding the concerns often voiced by US analysts and aired by Western media that terrorists might obtain nuclear weapons or materials from within Pakistan, Islamabad appears confident in its ability to prevent any such eventuality. This, combined with the confidence that Pakistan draws from its close cooperation with the United States, prevents Pakistanis from perceiving US nuclear deterrence policy as a threat. Pakistan's threat perceptions continue to focus elsewhere.

Nonetheless, disenchantment with the United States is heavily reflected in Pakistan's popular discourse. The disenchantment mainly centers on drone attacks and the implications of the Indo-US strategic partnership. The operation that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death provoked concern in Pakistan's media, but the incident does not appear to have had a lasting impact on the country's threat perception vis-à-vis the United States. And only amateurs speculate about US plans to destroy Pakistan's nuclear weapons or sabotage its strategic capabilities. The scholarly literature does not echo such alarmism, and policy-making circles are not interested in these far-fetched theories. As might be expected in any nuclear-armed state, Pakistani decision makers do emphasize that Pakistan will not close its eyes to even the remotest threats to its safety and security. But US nuclear deterrence policy is not perceived as a threat.

Two sides to the coin

The April 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review communicates a nuclear doctrine that closely reflects the policies of the Obama administration and presents substantial strategic innovations. The report highlights the need to maintain a nuclear deterrence capability — but also de-emphasizes "the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs" and reaffirms an intention to cut the US nuclear arsenal.

The new doctrine states that the "fundamental role of US nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners." But the United States "would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners." The role of nuclear weapons in deterring conventional, chemical, and biological attacks is reduced — and the document stresses that the nuclear arsenal that the United States inherited from the Cold War era is poorly suited to challenges posed by terrorists and unfriendly regimes that seek nuclear weapons. Therefore, the document says, "it is essential that we better align our nuclear policies and posture to our most urgent priorities — preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

The US commitment "to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction" seems to mean that the United States will continue its efforts to stop proliferation of WMD through all possible means, including military options — but I feel certain that the use of nuclear weapons in this context is excluded. Nonetheless, the commitment does not strengthen international security, since the military options contemplated under the policy will most probably amount to one-sided US decisions to use force against a sovereign state or a non-state actor that is acting within the territory of a sovereign state. It does not contribute to the disarmament process (nuclear and otherwise) because US reliance on non-nuclear military options assumes that existing conventional weapons will be improved and new ones will be developed, thus giving new impetus to the global arms race. It contributes to some extent to nonproliferation processes, at least insofar as its goal is correlated with those processes.

In any event, I am confident that the overall US policy expressed in the Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that nuclear weapons may have a counterproductive influence on WMD proliferation — that is, the more you rely on nuclear weapons as means of deterrence, the more other countries might want to obtain them. Moreover, the report makes clear to me that President Obama and his administration realize that nuclear weapons cannot solve the vital problems of the 21st century: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, regional conflicts and the mass migration of refugees that might result from them, cyber wars, organized crime, and illicit drug trafficking. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy is unequivocally positive.

But there is another side to the coin. The Nuclear Posture Review fails to update policies regarding the deployment and modernization of nuclear forces and their infrastructure, and indeed the posture review's approach to modernization ensures that nuclear forces will remain a central instrument of US national security strategy for decades to come.

Regarding deployment, the report includes no substantial changes to US nuclear force structure — heavy bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — or to their alert status. And it signals a rather aggressive approach to modernization. It states that the United States plans to develop and deploy a new generation of nuclear weapon delivery systems in the next two decades, including ballistic missile submarines and land-based missiles; will replace existing nuclear-capable fighter-bombers with the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; will study whether and how to replace existing air-launched cruise missiles; will not accept limits on its missile defense program; and will preserve options for deployment of conventionally armed missiles. A subsequent White House report to the Senate in connection with New START ratification stated, "Over the next decade the United States will invest well over $100 billion in nuclear delivery systems to sustain existing capabilities and modernize some strategic systems."

The Nuclear Posture Review also reports that work on warhead life extension will proceed for the W-76 submarine-based ballistic-missile warhead; the B-61 bomb, deployed on fighter-bombers; and the W-78 warhead, deployed on land-based missiles. While the review claims that the work will "not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities," life extension of the W-76 in fact enhances the capability to hit hard targets. Also, military capability does not depend on warheads alone, and improvements to delivery systems are ongoing — for example, to the F-35's targeting, command, and control.

Meanwhile, major investments in weapons production facilities are planned, supposedly to hedge against further reductions in deployed and non-deployed nuclear warheads. The administration plans to spend $80 billion through 2020 on the nuclear weapons complex, in addition to the $100 billion intended for delivery systems.

I believe that the United States, as well as Russia and all other de jure or de facto nuclear states, should meet the real threats and challenges of the 21st century by modernizing their nuclear strategies beyond the sorts of steps envisioned in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The main thrust of this modernization would be a pair of transitions: away from individual approaches to emerging local and regional threats, and toward collectives ones; and away from "positive" control of nuclear weapons, which emphasizes the ability to utilize nuclear capabilities rapidly, and toward "negative" control, which focuses on preventing accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons or their seizure by terrorists.

The United States and other countries could help effect these transitions, and also contribute to nonproliferation and minimize terrorist threats, if they took a few specific steps. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons should be consolidated and made safer, and more reliable safeguarding mechanisms should be introduced. Operationally deployed warheads and delivery systems should be reduced in number. The time needed to achieve combat readiness for nuclear forces should be increased — to something between 24 and 72 hours. Conventional forces should be prepared to engage in combat for the first 24 to 72 hours of a conflict, until an enemy is defeated or nuclear readiness is fully established. Command, control, and early warning systems should be structured so that combat efforts can be adequately coordinated during the early stages of a conflict, while control of nuclear forces is shifting from negative to positive. It is through steps such as these that the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs could truly be reduced.

Round 2

Transcending narrow national interests

My colleague Sadia Tasleem, discussing whether Pakistan might be considered a potential target of US deterrence policy, noted in her second essay that her nation has not "help[ed] terrorists gain access to weapons of mass destruction." This is true—so far. And while it is reassuring that over recent years Pakistan has enacted measures to enhance its nuclear security, one may still be forgiven a twinge of concern: Between 2007 and 2012 terrorists carried out six attacks against Pakistan's sensitive military installations, some of which are believed to house nuclear components, and the terrorists demonstrated an ability to penetrate progressively deeper. These days, Pakistan-bred terrorist organizations are as opposed to the United States and India as they are to their own establishment, and, as I argued in Round One, insider collusion with them cannot be dismissed. As Pakistan frantically expands its nuclear arsenal, and diversifies it to include tactical capabilities, the sources from which terrorists might gain access to weapons also multiply. For all these reasons, I continue to believe that Pakistan is just the sort of country that might find itself running afoul of US policy on terrorism and nuclear deterrence.

Establishing state complicity, however, is a complicated affair, and Tasleem makes a valid point when she questions how the United States would guard against miscalculation and misjudgment. But nuclear forensics holds out the promise of establishing culpability: Analysis of radiological fallout can provide valuable clues about the type and source of fissile material used in a detonation. Also, space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are making nations' nuclear activities more transparent. In the long run, no nation will be able to escape the consequences if it is complicit in an act of nuclear terrorism.

Fortunately, no act of nuclear terrorism has ever occurred. But this won't last unless a longer-term and more holistic approach to the very existence of nuclear weapons is developed. My fellow participants in this Roundtable do not offer much hope that this can be achieved. Tasleem seems to harbor little optimism for arms control in South Asia; Evgeny Buzhinsky gloomily assesses nuclear disarmament as unrealistic.

A valuable step, if the idea that nuclear weapons should be eliminated does not find universal acceptance, would be to decrease the value accorded to nuclear weapons. The United States made a welcome move in this direction with the release of its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (even though US nuclear policy can still be faulted in a number of ways). And I applaud the two "transitions" that Buzhinsky proposed in his first essay—toward collective approaches to emerging threats instead of national approaches; and toward negative control of nuclear weapons instead of positive control.

I would add another transition to this list. An indirect method of combating nuclear terrorism might lie in establishing a legal norm against using nuclear weapons. I know terrorists don't play by rules, but a universal, legally binding convention banning the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons would carry two important implications for nuclear terrorism. First, it would devalue nuclear weapons as state instruments, and this would reduce the secrecy and opacity that surround nuclear weapons; promote transparent accounting of material and warheads; and ultimately reduce the risk of theft. Second, by enhancing transparency and trust, a convention would facilitate international cooperation in intelligence sharing and law enforcement and thus enhance global security. Nations united against breaches of the norm would collectively be better equipped—politically and morally—to respond to violations, whether they were carried out by state or non-state actors.

Buzhinsky notes that "nuclear weapons cannot solve the vital problems of the 21st century." Indeed they cannot, and I would argue that nuclear weapons simply create new problems. Nuclear weapons serve only narrow, entrenched national interests; visionary leaders must look beyond these interests and focus instead on global security.

Silver linings, ominous clouds

In her first Roundtable essay my colleague Manpreet Sethi analyzed the tactical and strategic levels of US policy on nuclear proliferation and terrorism and concluded that, in principle, the United States is on the right track. But she went on to argue that US policy runs into problems where implementation is concerned — and she provided Pakistan as an example of the policy’s limits. Specifically, she wrote that the United States has not taken "meaningful punitive action" against Pakistan despite "ample evidence that Pakistan has been involved in nuclear proliferation — and that the army and Inter-Services Intelligence … have supported and fomented terrorism."

But nothing in US policy suggests that the United States ought to have taken punitive action against Pakistan. In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the United States renewed a commitment "to hold fully accountable any state … that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction… ." Pakistan is not such a state. Even if one accepts that Pakistan has been involved in proliferation in the past, or believes that elements within Pakistan have supported and fomented terrorism, Pakistan still cannot be accused of doing the one thing that might subject it to the "punitive action" that Sethi discussed — helping terrorists gain access to weapons of mass destruction. The element of US policy under discussion in this Roundtable simply bears no direct relation to Pakistani behavior.

Having said that, it is also worth remembering that the revelations almost a decade ago about the proliferation activities of the A.Q. Khan network had a silver lining in Pakistan: International pressure in general and US pressure in particular impressed on Islamabad that nuclearization entails serious responsibilities. Pakistan reacted by introducing a host of nuclear security measures and now cooperates with many global initiatives meant to deny terrorists access to nuclear facilities and sensitive materials. Pakistan today is in the midst of probably the worst wave of terrorism it has ever faced, but through it all has succeeded in safeguarding its nuclear sites and materials. This should not be the basis for complacency. But it should at least ease anxieties about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, in his second essay, Evgeny Buzhinsky discussed my belief that the United States, by linking nuclear deterrence with terrorism, overrates the effectiveness of deterrence and seems from an outsider's perspective to reinforce the value that US security policy accords to nuclear weapons. Buzhinsky took me to mean that I consider the linkage of nuclear deterrence and terrorism to be artificial, "just one more pretext for the United States to continue relying heavily on its nuclear arsenal." That is not quite correct. I do not believe that the linkage is artificial — but I do believe that it is ineffective, insofar as its ends and its operational means are out of proportion. I also believe that the linkage does more to harm than help the cause of nonproliferation, no matter what the Obama administration’s intentions might be.

Buzhinsky also mentioned my assertion that linking nuclear deterrence with terrorism creates, in states with small nuclear arsenals, serious challenges for proponents of nonproliferation and disarmament. Buzhinsky wrote that "I suppose … she is referring first of all to her own country, Pakistan." I was not referring to Pakistan first — my comment was general in nature — but certainly Pakistan is no exception to the idea that nations with small nuclear arsenals will not be motivated to disarm by a perception that the United States accords great security value to nuclear weapons. At the same time, US nuclear policy is by no means the main driver of proliferation or of failure to disarm. Nuclear enthusiasts can find plenty of justifications for establishing or expanding nuclear arsenals.

Finally, Buzhinsky and Sethi discussed issues such as the US ballistic missile defense program, and the superiority in conventional arms that the United States enjoys, in terms of the challenges they pose to nonproliferation and disarmament. I would add that the same issues are at work in South Asia. India’s program for ballistic missile defense and the region’s growing asymmetry in conventional military capability bode ill for arms control in the region.

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.

Round 3

Vested interests, phantom threats

Evgeny Buzhinsky's Round Three essay encapsulates a mindset that prevents nations from seriously contemplating forms of interstate security that are not anchored by nuclear weapons.

Setting out stringent conditions for further reductions in Russia's nuclear arsenal, Buzhinsky writes that Russia must first "catch up with the United States in conventional and high-precision weapons." Unfortunately, this suggests that if the United States were to threaten Russia with conventional and high-precision weapons, Moscow could sanely respond with a nuclear attack. Meanwhile, Buzhinsky expresses concern about military modernizations in nations along or near Russia's borders and writes that "Moscow must feel safe regarding its territorial integrity" before it can further reduce its nuclear arsenal. But if Moscow catches up with Washington in conventional and high-precision weapons, other nations will want to catch up in turn. So is the world condemned to live in a state of self-perpetuating fear?

Perhaps more to the point, do threat perceptions remain high in Russia because elevated threats are in the interest of an influential defense industry allied with a powerful political coterie? A similar question might be asked about Pakistan: Does the Pakistani army maintain its belief that India poses a threat because relinquishing that belief would undermine the army's importance in Pakistan's power structure?

If nations remain prisoners of threat perceptions advanced by those who have incentives to perpetuate them, "nuclear weapons will be with us for a while"—as the title of Buzhinsky's third essay would have it. A long while. And the risk of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism will be with us a long while, too.

Pushing boundaries. In Round Two, I proposed a universal, legally binding convention banning the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. In Round Three, Buzhinsky described his objections to that proposal.

First, he "do[es] not understand the sense in possessing nuclear weapons if you cannot use them." But that is precisely the point. Nations are averse to disarming because they believe nuclear weapons can be put to use—either militarily or politically. But if a universal convention outlawed the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, nuclear arsenals would become useless. Nations, over time, would become willing to disarm.

Second, Buzhinsky wonders how the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would correlate with my proposed convention; he asks if membership in the convention would allow non-signatories to the NPT "suddenly [to] gain recognition as nuclear weapon states." What Buzhinsky ignores is that when such countries gained recognition as nuclear weapon states, they would also renounce the right to use their nuclear weapons. It wouldn't matter what status the convention conferred on states outside the NPT.

Third, Buzhinsky objects that the convention would abolish the concept of nuclear deterrence and thus force nuclear-armed countries to rewrite their military doctrines. So? Don't countries already revise their military doctrines periodically to keep pace with changing threats and technologies?

My proposal may well be, as Buzhinsky says, "not appropriate for today's conditions." But it is the prerogative of intellectuals—nay, their duty—to push boundaries.

The real threat. My colleagues in this Roundtable believe that the nuclear status quo is dangerous. But disappointingly, neither seems ready to imagine an international security architecture in which nuclear weapons are not an obsession. Sadia Tasleem, to her credit, identifies several "widely held but untested ideas about nuclear deterrence," such as that nuclear weapons equalize power imbalances and that deterrence has prevented war between nuclear-armed rivals. And she calls for a thoroughgoing reconsideration of such views. But she would contribute most to security if she could convince her fellow Pakistanis that many conventional ideas about deterrence are not based in fact. Meanwhile, Tasleem laments that "the arms control and nonproliferation regimes are flailing," and she fears that they will fail; but her prescriptions for fixing the problem are not sufficiently broad or convincing. The regimes will fail sooner than later if nuclear weapons remain an obsession.

Nearly seven decades have passed since human beings developed nuclear weapons. These weapons have proved to be more a liability than an asset for the security of nations—even nuclear-armed nations whose conventional military capabilities are relatively weak. When countries try to compensate for conventional military inferiority with nuclear weapons, they usually address only phantom threats. But the real threat, the one staring everyone in the face, is nuclear weapons themselves.

Flailing, but not failing

In Round Two, my colleague Manpreet Sethi correctly emphasized that terrorist penetration of sensitive military sites is a matter of real concern. But she focused narrowly on Pakistan's vulnerabilities to terrorism, and this oversimplifies the issue. The recent history of terrorist attacks—against the United States in 2001, London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008, Norway in 2011, and Pakistan's Mehran naval air base the same year—demonstrates that terrorists can strike anywhere, even in the most unexpected places, and can do so using unpredictable techniques. States including but not limited to Pakistan simply face limits when it comes to ensuring security. Global security mechanisms face such limits too.

It is also worth keeping mind that homegrown insurgencies are widespread in South Asia—in Pakistan to be sure, but in India as well. Singling out one state decontextualizes the problem and doesn't solve anything. Rather, nations should cooperate with one another to address complex security challenges. At the same time, countries that are especially susceptible to terrorist threats—countries like Pakistan—must keep their guard up at all times.

Revisiting assumptions. Sethi also suggested in her Round Two essay that I am pessimistic about prospects for universal nuclear disarmament. She is correct. In fact, I believe that the arms control and nonproliferation regimes are flailing. But, so far, they have not failed.

To ensure that they don't fail, the salience of nuclear weapons in international politics must be reduced. Though I largely concur with Evgeny Buzhinsky's Round Three critique of Sethi's proposal for banning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, I believe that nuclear weapons' salience might be reduced through other means.

One important approach is to challenge and change conventional views on deterrence—because as long as political leaders believe in nuclear weapons' deterrent value, the weapons' salience will not decrease. Or in any event, it will not decrease in nuclear-armed nations with comparatively weak conventional military capabilities and national security environments that they perceive as threatening. Therefore, in all countries that have or aspire to have nuclear arsenals, it is important for academics and ultimately policy makers to revisit some widely held but untested beliefs about nuclear deterrence. These include the idea that nuclear weapons equalize power imbalances; that deterrence has prevented war between nuclear-armed rivals; and that deterrence guarantees security and sovereignty, particularly for weaker states.

Groundbreaking work in this vein has been produced by Ward Wilson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in his Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. But the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence deserves further research, study, and discussion. This sort of research, however, depends to an extent on the declassification of archival records, and nuclear matters are often heavily shrouded in secrecy. Research on deterrence and related questions will remain challenging until greater transparency is achieved in all nuclear-armed states.

To close, my colleagues have argued that nuclear weapons cannot solve the problems of the 21st century, and Sethi argues that these weapons serve only entrenched national interests. I would go further, and ask if even national interests are served by nuclear weapons. If they are not, but national leaders continue to believe that they are, it is hard to imagine that nonproliferation efforts, not to mention initiatives toward universal disarmament, can succeed in the long run.

Nuclear weapons will be with us for a while

In her second essay, Manpreet Sethi discussed my assessment that eliminating nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future is unrealistic. In response, I would like to add some additional substance to my assessment that disarmament is unlikely in the near or medium terms—namely, an explanation of why Russia perceives its nuclear deterrent as necessary for the time being.

As a military professional, I would be unenthusiastic, of course, about the global military dominance that the United States would enjoy if nuclear weapons miraculously disappeared from Russia's arsenal.  But that is far from the only reason that Moscow's nuclear deterrent remains necessary. Russia—considering how vast its territory is, how rich it is in mineral and other resources, and how small its population is relative to its own territory and some other countries' populations—simply cannot afford military inferiority to any nation. Meanwhile, a number of countries along or near Russia's borders are carrying out quite ambitious programs of military modernization. Before Russia can discuss further reductions in its nuclear arsenal, including to its tactical weapons, Moscow must feel safe regarding its territorial integrity, catch up with the United States in conventional and high-precision weapons, and somehow resolve the question of US ballistic missile defense.

Russia's position on tactical nuclear weapons deserves some explanation as well, because Russia sees tactical weapons as a national tool of regional nuclear deterrence. The United States, on the other hand, maintains an arsenal of tactical weapons mainly to strengthen its bonds with European allies—the United States faces no significant regional adversaries and does not need tactical weapons to maintain territorial integrity. However, I must concede that Russia's official position on tactical nuclear weapons is too restrictive, and it should be possible for the sake of predictability and global security to take some steps that would increase transparency and build confidence. For example, Russia could disclose the number of nonstrategic nuclear warheads it keeps in storage; do the same for warheads in the dismantlement queue; and also make a commitment not to increase its arsenal of tactical weapons.

Ban the bombing? In Round Two, Sethi proposed a "universal, legally binding convention banning the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons." I have a few objections to this idea.

First, I do not understand the sense in possessing nuclear weapons if you cannot use them. Second, a legally binding and nearly universal treaty on nuclear nonproliferation already exists—but a few states are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so how would the NPT and Sethi's convention correlate? India and Pakistan have not joined the treaty partly because they object to being categorized as non-nuclear weapon states; if they signed up for the convention, would they suddenly gain recognition as nuclear weapon states? Third, Sethi's proposal would simply abolish the concept of nuclear deterrence, and consequently force any nuclear-armed country that joined the convention to rewrite its military doctrine (it would make little sense for a nation to ratify a convention banning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons if its own military doctrine envisioned using nuclear weapons under certain circumstances). So Sethi's idea is not appropriate for today's conditions. Using or threatening to use nuclear weapons should only be banned when universal nuclear disarmament has been achieved, in accordance with Article VI of the NPT. In fact, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could at that point be superseded by a convention that, all at once, banned the possession, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons.


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