From No Nukes to new Nukes – Russia/US Arms Control
This blog is predicated on the assumption that nuclear arms control is a good idea and that India and Pakistan have a mutual interest in pursuing it. The blog does not directly address either states nuclear doctrine, as literature already exists in this field. The conclusion reached is that stable and effective deterrence relies on both sides actually acquiring more weapons, but with a finite limit established beforehand.
In a previous blog post ((Almost) Forty years of Star Wars), I noted that the New START treaty was the only significant arms control system that remained in place between Russia and the USA: ‘The 2011 New START treaty will now operate until 2026, assuming that neither side decides to abandon it in the light of the deterioration of US-Russia relations caused by the 2022 Russian military operation in Ukraine.’
The New START treaty was due to expire in February 2021, but was rather hurriedly extended for 5 years. It is probable that a second-term President Trump would have allowed it to lapse, due to a combination of enthusiasm for new nuclear weapons deployment and a general antipathy towards Russia. Unusually, Presidents Biden and Putin agreed to the extension by phone, before it was turned into a formal extension. It appears that Russia has more enthusiasm for arms control in general and the New START treaty in particular than the USA. It has been the USA that has left previous arms control treaties, notably the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and then The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces INF) Treaty. The USA has shifted to nuclear rearmament for three broad reasons:
First, is the general movement of US politics to the right. This has not just manifested itself in the Trump presidency, even Democrats have had to take more right-wing positions on foreign policy under President Obama and now President Biden. For example, President Biden has not yet been able to secure a rapprochement over the Iranian nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), although this may be about to change.
Second, September 11, 2001, continues to cast a nuclear shadow. The relatively low-tech attacks against the world most powerful nation exposed the inherent limitations of relying on nuclear weapons as the primary guarantor of one’s security. Under President Bush the Pentagon and the civilian consultancy sector devoted considerable intellectual effort to how nuclear weapons might be applied to address the problem of attacks by non-state actors. The overall theme was that relatively small nuclear weapons might be used at the sub-strategic level, against non-state actors or their state sponsors. This generated a considerable literature, but it was hard to take at all seriously. Any use of nuclear weapons against non-state actors would have to be on the territory of some other state. States might be willing to excuse or ignore drone strikes on their territory, but a nuclear explosion was an entirely different matter. Even using nuclear weapons against the state sponsors of terrorism seemed unlikely. Making the necessary linkage explicit is always difficult. Even if the link could be more clearly proven than it was in the case of Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda, the USA would be constrained by the international humanitarian law principles of discrimination and proportionality. There was some wooly thinking in these endeavours, with the emphasis on building and using smaller nuclear weapons emblematic of this. It seemed doubtful that nuclear weapons could ever be made small enough that their use would be acceptable to other international legal actors. This is the reason why I avoid use of the terms ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’ when describing nuclear weapons. These should properly be considered indicators of how the weapons are used, rather than their size.
This attempt by the Americans to justify the existence of nuclear weapons outside of the overall framework of great power deterrence was not a novel phenomenon. In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s the use of nuclear weapons had been contemplated in scenarios short of a full-scale nuclear exchange. This began with the Korean War in 1950, through the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the Vietnam War and finally to the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Korea was probably the closest that the USA came to using nuclear weapons again. The huge manpower advantage of North Korean/Chinese forces made nuclear weapons an attractive means of evening the odds. More crucially, the lack of a sizeable nuclear arsenal in the Soviet Union meant that the chances of meaningful retaliation were slim. This became less true as time went on.
Overall, the attempt to describe how nuclear weapons could be used in a limited way in an armed conflict, or against non-state actors generally suffered from the same problem that afflicted National Missile Defence: it was an example of the Pentagon placing the cart of the existence nuclear weapons before the horse of how they might be used. The capability existed and it had cost a lot of money, so attempts to justify its existence were necessary. These attempts are ongoing in the USA. The fact that they have been a failure so far does not mean they can never succeed. Meanwhile, Russia has subtly raised the prospect of nuclear use in the context of their special military operation in Ukraine. This idea is not going away.
Third, the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West has led to a new cold war. For the sake of simplicity, I shall refer to the First Cold War as 1945-1990, and the Second Cold War as 2014-present The Western economies are stronger than Russia’s and so can afford to spend more money on defence. President Putin is aware of this and in a 2018 speech he announced a series of new superoruzhie or ‘super-weapons’ that would employ new technologies to even the odds in combat with Western militaries (or more likely, militaries using Western technology). These included the nuclear-powered drone Burevestnik (Petrel) and the hypersonic missile Kinzhal (Dagger). Just to reinforce the James Bond theme, the drone has been given the NATO reporting name Skyfall. Developments in Western technology are not announced as publicly. This is an interesting reversal from the First Cold War, where weapons developments were secretive in the USSR and more open in the West. This reflected the political structures of those societies. In the Second Cold War, the relative economic, political and military weakness of Russia encourages the regime to talk-up its weapons rather than hide them. A similar effect is noticeable in North Korea’s relationship to the West, where nuclear tests are almost solely carried out for Western consumption.
New START, New End?
This is a gloomy picture, and one could argue it should be balanced by the fact that New START was extended and will now be in force until 2026. However, New START may be coming to a new end. There is the suspicion that the Russians were anxious to extend it before they began their special military operation in Ukraine, because President Biden would never agree to the extension with the political facts as they are now. The Russians seem to have underestimated the Western response to the operation and are now looking for ways to hit back. On August 8 2022, Russia suspended the inspection of its weapons by the US side, citing the fact that reciprocal inspections of American weapons were made difficult by the travel ban and other aspects of the sanctions regime against Russia. This may be true. Either way, it is hard to see the travel bans being altered or rescinded any time soon. This means the inspections cannot continue, which means the treaty may continue to 2026 but will be rendered meaningless. Alternatively, the USA may decide to denounce the treaty, as another form of political pressure on Russia.
Russian/USA arms control may not yet be dead, but it is on life-support and both sides want to pull the plug, albeit for different reasons.
Regional Arms Control
The focus on Russia and the USA sometimes blinds us to the fact there are about 190 other states in the world. We also tend to over-focus on nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, have, by comparison with other types of weapon used throughout history, hardly killed anybody. Bullets and explosives remain by far the most lethal weapons developed. Poison gas, used by both the Germans and Japanese, killed more people in World War Two than nuclear weapons did. Even if we focus solely on states with nuclear weapons, that would still leave seven other states in the nuclear club: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the prospects for arms control at the most of the regional levels are slim
The United Nations has an Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). Its most notable achievement in the nuclear field has been the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January 2021 and has 86 signatory states, of which 66 have also ratified. There are about 40 more states that are likely to sign soon. The TPNW mandates the destruction of nuclear weapons stockpiles and prohibits the manufacture of anymore. The problem is that none of the 86 signatories actually possess nuclear weapons and nor are they likely to do so. The members of the nuclear club have either argued that the treaty is a distraction from more genuine issues or have simply ignored the proceedings completely. Russia and the USA could also argue, although they have not pursued this line very strongly, that their obligations under New START would conflict with TPNW. The most charitable interpretation is that TPNW is a genuine, good faith attempt to start a process by which nuclear weapons might eventually be eliminated. The less charitable interpretation is this is a unique case of Lawfare, unusual because it involves weaker states using it against stronger ones.
Although TPNW purports to be a universal treaty, it is better regarded as a kind of upside-down regional treaty precisely because it only applies in very specific regional areas – those states that do not have nuclear weapons.
UNODA pursues disarmament in other fields and some specific geographic regions. In terms of fields, the Nuclear weapons section is but part of a wider remit on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). There have been notable successes in this field. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) 1972, entered into force in 1975 and has been almost universally adopted. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CMC) 1992 entered into force in 1997 and has also been almost universally adopted. There have probably been breaches of the CWC, most notably during the ongoing Syrian Civil War, but they have been isolated and may have actually contributed to the more forceful pursuance of the objectives of the treaty. Although not strictly part of WMD, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) 1997 has made a huge difference in reducing the misery caused by these weapons, even if it has not been adopted by all states.
In terms of geographic regions, UNODA has three such centre’s:
- The UN Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC, located in Lima, Peru),
- The UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific (UNRCPD, located in Kathmandu, Nepal), and
- The UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC, located in Lomé, Togo).
The second one is obviously of most interest to Pakistan, yet in truth, none of these centre’s or regional initiatives a have achieved very much. Both India and Pakistan have been steadily increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals with little to no dialogue on suggesting eventual limits. My contention in the next section of this blog, is that this should happen.
The problems with regional arms control – the Emperor Has No Clothes
Arms control at the Russian-US level is currently comatose. However, it has flourished in recent history and could conceivably return to life in the future. The question is, why has it been possible at the Russian-US level, but not between India and Pakistan?
It’s important to note that arms control agreements on nuclear weapons have never existed outside of the Russia/Soviet Union-US dialogue. All nuclear arms control treaties are strictly bilateral and between these two states. There are several reasons for this. First, bilateral treaties are much easier to agree than multilateral treaties. This is both a general observation, but is also especially true when it comes to nuclear weapons. States may choose to possess nuclear weapons for multiple reasons. India’s nuclear forces are addressed towards Pakistan but also towards China, complicating any decisions on arms control. France has always sought to justify its nuclear forces as a general guarantor of political independence rather than as a purely military capability. Israel does not even acknowledge that it possesses nuclear weapons, which makes negotiating about them virtually impossible.
Second, the size of the nuclear stockpiles of Russia and the US are so much larger than the other members of the nuclear club. This has led to several implications: At the height of the First Cold War, both sides simply had too many weapons. The huge numbers of weapons were not a source of military utility, but rather an indicator of resolve. The Nixon administration was especially concerned with the idea of ‘will’ as a force in in international relations. Using nuclear weapons was obviously a risky endeavour, so the next best thing was building them. When the First Cold War ended, getting rid of large quantities of nuclear weapons made economic sense. Everybody felt good about this, but one should note that both Russia and the US still each possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy our civilisation. This leads onto the next implication of these large force numbers: it was possible to negotiate large cuts in Russian and US stockpiles whilst making little material difference to their actual military capabilities. The difference in efficacy between 10,000 and 1000 warheads was not a factor of ten, because 1000 was probably already enough. The other 9000 would, in a phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, simply ‘make the rubble bounce.’
Third, the more junior members of the nuclear club have never enjoyed conditions of such nuclear plenty that they could entertain voluntarily removing them. There have been reductions in warheads numbers, but these were unilateral and usually as much for technical and economic reasons as political considerations. For example at the conclusion of the First Cold War, the United Kingdom abandoned its aircraft-based deterrent, but this was not a very effective delivery system by this point. The submarine based Trident system had its warhead count reduced, but this could be easily reversed as and when it might be needed.
Finally, France and the United kingdom are allies. Neither Israel nor North Korea have any obvious regional nuclear armed rivals. This means that the only region with any real prospects for arms control is China/India/Pakistan.
India-Pakistan arms control?
As suggested above, a frequent mistakes is to discuss the interdependence of the nuclear deterrents of only India and Pakistan and to thus ignore China. It is impossible to imagine that there could be three-way arms control negotiations involving China, but this may not be necessary. China fielded its first nuclear weapons in 1964. China developed a comparatively small nuclear arsenal and the Chinese Communist Party frequency stated that this would be their policy. They regarded nuclear weapons as defensive – a guarantee against intimidation by another nuclear power, namely the Soviet Union or USA. Ten years later in 1974, India conducted the Pokhran I nuclear test, but this did not lead to a weapons programme. The mere demonstration of capability and intent was felt to be enough of a response. By 1998, China’s growing economic, diplomatic and conventional military strength were felt to be threatening enough to lead to the Pokhran II test and the initiation of a weapons programme. Pakistan followed suit with the 1998 Chagai I test and the imitation of weapons development. The key point here is that India did not regard Chinese nuclear weapons as a sufficiently existential threat that they instantly felt the need to respond in kind. China has recently been upgrading its nuclear capabilities to make them more selectively useful and improve command and control. There has been a movement away from vulnerable liquid fueled missiles to more survivable solid fueled systems. There is an emphasis on neutralizing the US Navy’s influence in the region. India undoubtedly sees their own nuclear weapons as providing a deterrent against China, but this is only part of their utility. The greater part is directed against the now nuclear Pakistan.
The point is that arms control, between India and Pakistan can be meaningful, providing the figures involved are not set unrealistically low. India needs to be able to deter China. This creates a base figure of nuclear weapons which India needs to possess, which can be referred to as IvC (India v China). IvC does not need to match Chinese force numbers, it merely needs to provides a sufficiently high cost towards China in the event that they initiate nuclear use against India. IvC thus becomes a function of how many Indian warheads and delivery systems would survive a Chinese attack and could be delivered to Chinese targets. The actual figure IvC decreases as India modernizes its own systems and develops second strike, counter-value nuclear systems. India now has two Arihant Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN) that provide this capability. Two more of the class are building. In line with the UK and French experience, four vessels means one can always be at sea, guaranteeing the capability in practice rather than merely in theory. India also needs to deter Pakistan and this adds an additional number of weapons, called IvP (India v Pakistan).
IvC + IvP = TRNF (Total Required Nuclear Force). As long as this combined figure is large enough to enable India to achieve both objectives (responding to near simultaneous attacks by both China and Pakistan) it is sound. Pakistan then simply matches the same force numbers. This theoretically gives Pakistan far more weapons to use against a single enemy, whereas India might have to divide its weapons between two enemies. However, exact parity in numbers is not the objective of the force – it is only to ensure a sufficiently high cost is imposed on an enemy that they will not initiate nuclear use. This formula probably leads to a figure that is greater than the 100 or so warheads that both India and Pakistan currently possess, but it also has the advantage of setting out a targeted end point beyond which nuclear arms development and construction can be dramatically scaled back. This is surely preferable to an open-ended arms race which consumes resources that Pakistan in particular can ill afford. One might object that as China improves its capabilities, IvC rises. This is unlikely as China has only niche areas which it can fill with new capabilities. The ideal small deterrence force is one that is relatively survivable and offers extensive options to the Commander in Chief. China’s force already meets these tests.
Arms control is rarely concerned solely with numbers, but also with capabilities, i.e. types of weapon and delivery system and the doctrine that accompanies this. There have been attempts to develop arms control agreements that were solely based on numbers. The Global/Nuclear Zero Option is a numbers-based project, albeit one that by definition makes relative comparisons of capabilities irrelevant. Since it is utterly unrealistic, it does not need to be considered here: its unrealism stems from the fact that a nuclear free world would require a kind of scientific and technical amnesia across the globe. The Nuclear Freeze movement of the late 1970’s suggested no new weapons systems should be developed. The advantage of this was its ideological simplicity. The Nuclear Freeze movement was able to gain some traction because the numbers of weapons that the Soviet Union and USA possessed at the time were so large as to seem obscene. The disadvantage was that it went against 30 years of scientific and doctrinal instinct ingrained into the military and defence contractors, to try and develop better and more useful weapons. Nuclear Freeze was a grass roots protest movement, rather than a serious approach to arms control negotiations. Its supporters dreamt of an ultimately nuclear free world, whereas arms control negotiators merely dreamt of a less expensive one.
Arms control negotiations inevitably involve attempts to calculate equivalences in capabilities, rather than simplistic comparisons of numbers. For example, solid fueled Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) are superior to liquid fueled missiles. Solid fueled missiles can sit in their silo’s for months and be launched instantly. Liquid fueled missiles have to be stored without fuel, because it has a tendency to boil off over time and is a combustion risk. This makes them more vulnerable to attack. An enemy satellite might see missiles being fueled and regard this as evidence of an enemy preparing an imminent attack. Liquid fueled missiles were thus not only technically inferior, but politically destabilizing. In fact, the US has no liquid fueled missiles left in its arsenal. Similarly, Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM’s) were not directly equivalent to land-based ICBM’s. SLBM’s tend to be less accurate, but are more or less immune to pre-emptive attack. Bombers are not technically equal. Russian bombers tend to be larger and possess greater payload, whilst American bombers are harder to detect. All of this makes straightforward numerical comparisons difficult. Arms control treaties in the First Cold War did attempt to introduce calculations of capability equivalence, but this was not as common as one might think. The calculations tended to become so detailed that they made the exercise almost impossible. Verification and permeance were also significant problems. For example, for the purposes of SALT, bombers were defined as ‘strategic’ based on their range. The Soviet Union thus removed the air refueling probes from its Tu22M bombers, lowering their range below the thresholds in the treaty. Yet reinstating them would be relatively easy. How could this be subject to rigorous verification?
In terms of India v Pakistan, capabilities have been largely similar for the first nuclear decade. Both sides could deliver nuclear weapons of similar size via aircraft and relatively short ranged ballistic missiles. In recent years however, Indian capabilities have improved. India has developed a credible second-strike capability through its SSBN force. SLBM’s have to be solid fueled and require greater ranges than land-based missiles, since the submarine will hide in the deep ocean. The Indian K-5 missile probably has a range of 5000km. Indian is also putting significant resources into Ant-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defence systems. The relatively low number of weapons currently deployed means that analysis of equivalence between India and Pakistan should be easier than it ever was between the Soviet Union and USA. However, the secrecy of both sides about capabilities, in comparison with France, the UK and USA, where much information is simply publicly available, means that this is not the case. This Gordian Knot can be avoided however, by simply ensuring that force numbers on both sides are sufficiently high that precise capabilities are irrelevant. The leaders in New Delhi might have more and better weapons than Islamabad, but if war with Pakistan allowed just 20% of Pakistani weapons to hit Indian targets it would be the single greatest loss of life in human history.
Conclusions – Warfighting with Nuclear Weapons?
There is a cliché that neither belligerent can ever win a nuclear war. The costs of victory are said to be so high as to render it pyrrhic. This is clearly incorrect. There has been a single nuclear war fought, and it worked out great for the USA and badly for Japan. The notably pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell perversely argued that the USA should fight and defeat the Soviet Union immediately after World War Two, before the Soviets developed nuclear weapons. This would avoid a later conflict in which both sides had the weapons, which would be much more destructive. The statement perhaps thus needs modifying, that neither belligerent can win a nuclear war where both sides have nuclear weapons. Yet even this may be incorrect. When both sides have thousands of weapons, some on land-based ICBM’s, some SLBM’s at sea, some delivered by bomber, whatever strategy is employed is likely to lead to massive damage to each society. Yet it is possible to imagine two belligerents having a sufficiently small number of nuclear weapons and of sufficiently uniform type, that how they are used does make a difference to the outcome of the conflict. Various figures have been suggested for this, with 100 weapons per side often suggested as a magic figure (the cultural and social significance of the number 100 seems too suspicious to be coincidental). Removing this temptation is another reason why India and Pakistan should consider building more weapons, with a finite limit set in advance.