ISSN 2330-717X

Nuclear Deterrence In The 21st Century – OpEd


The first atomic weapon was tested in 1945 and after that when nuclear weapons were dropped on Japan the world was suddenly changed forever. Use of the first weapons seemed necessary to end the war in the shortest time and prevent the estimated one million American casualties required to occupy the island of Japan. Besides bringing World War II in the Pacific to an end, it was also meant to be a manifestation to the rest of the world. With the use of nuclear weapons and with the Soviet’s development of the bomb in 1949, the nuclear war strategy changed to battle avoidance also known as deterrence. If there was a nuclear war between super powers, the assumption is that both sides would be destroyed, otherwise known as mutually assured destruction.

In 1968, growing concerns for the proliferation of nuclear weapons lead to the 18-nation Disarmament Commission which drafted the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty recognized five nations as possessing nuclear weapons; United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France. These countries had all conducted nuclear detonation tests. Such a test not only demonstrated technical capability but also indicated that the state had made a nuclear commitment; testing was a membership claim to the nuclear club, a way to acknowledge the state’s new international status and remove political ambiguity. Non-nuclear signatories to the treaty agreed to forgo nuclear weapons based on two concessions by the nuclear states. First, all nations had the right to the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and that states should share technology and material for the peaceful use of the atom. Second, the nuclear states would stop the arms race and commit to total nuclear disarmament. No time frame was set for disarmament negotiations, and 40 years later, despite the end of the cold war, all five nations maintain a nuclear arsenal.

The largest and most noticeable change to nuclear strategy since the end of the cold war is that the United States can no longer focus on one enemy in a bipolar world. Now the United States faces a number of states and terrorist groups attempting to attain Weapons of Mass Destruction. With the fall of the Soviet Union, both US & USSR maintain an adequate nuclear arsenal to be referred to as near peer competitors; Russia and China. Of the other five original nuclear weapons club members, the United Kingdom and France, are allies to the United States and did not build up an arsenal of nuclear weapons at a rate to become true competitors. During the Cold War the United States designed its strategic nuclear forces to deter a single foe, the Soviet Union, and generally treated all others as a lesser included nominal threat. With the fall of the Soviet Union, United States and Russia have entered a new era of nuclear arms limitations. Under the terms of a 2002 arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, the two countries committed to reducing the number of deployed warheads from approximately 6,000 each to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. In doing so, Moscow and Washington preserve their nuclear deterrent as the ultimate weapon in total war and weapons of coercion in crises short of war and regional conflicts.

There are three non-signatories that have obtained nuclear weapons after the 1968 signing, Israel, India, and Pakistan. There are also four members of the NPT that have cheated; Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Of these NTP violators, Iraq and Libya are no longer of nuclear proliferation concern, while the verdict is still out on Iran’s intentions. A standard to determine the level of threat of a rogue nation is the willingness of the state to cooperate with the international community to safeguard its nuclear weapons. Similarly, a rogue nation would be more of a menace if the action or rhetoric of its leaders were contrary to world peace. In this same vein, a state that funded and supported terrorists would be considered a greater threat.

India first tested a nuclear weapon in 1974 and again in 1998. The United States had led the world in erecting and upholding barriers to India’s participation in the global nuclear fuel and technology market because some parts of the device used in India’s 1974 explosion originated from Canadian and United States exports designated for peaceful purposes. The Bush administration has sought to end India’s nuclear isolation in order to draw India closer to the United States.

India is attempting to backdoor its way into the NTP by securing a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to cover nuclear facilities and materials that India declares are used for civilian purposes. But India intends to maintain eight nuclear power plants in the military sector to maintain a firm holds on its nuclear weapons capabilities. Because of its willingness to work with the international community, India is not considered a serious threat to world stability, but it is a regional concern due to its history of confrontation with Pakistan.

After the Indian nuclear test in 1998, Pakistan demonstrated its nuclear capability in 1998. Recognizing the international concerns regarding its proliferation threat, Pakistan established a central command-and-control system to manage nuclear infrastructure and strategic assets. The two most prominent creations were the National Command Authority and the Strategic Plans Division. The creation of these agencies was important in changing the mindset inside the Pakistani nuclear structure, especially among individuals and facilities that previously had operated autonomously or with minimal oversight or auditing. Despite these measures, the concerns of nuclear leakage and seizure of nuclear assets by radical groups or individuals remains. Pakistan is willing to engage with international partners in an attempt to further strengthen its security and control processes of nuclear weapons. But regardless of its recent efforts, the mistakes of the past and the global uneasiness caused by unrest in Pakistan, shows the need to minimize the number of nations with nuclear weapons.

The nuclear terrorist creates a serious threat because these actors are extraordinarily difficult to deter. First, they are willing to die. Secondly, they provide limited targets to hold at risk. And finally, striking the terrorist with nuclear weapons becomes problematic. The backlash caused by the United States detonating a nuclear weapon in a third party country to take out a few terrorists would be severe. A nuclear retaliatory strike may be just what a terrorist group like Al Qaeda wants the United States to do. The devastation that would follow such a strike would be used as propaganda to prove that the United States is the great Satan. This is particularly why policy makers need more flexible options, nuclear and non-nuclear to defeat enemies of peace when they attack or deter plans for attack.

Nuclear weapons are unique in that they can impose massive and instant loss of life. For this reason they provide a special appeal to terrorist and rouge states. According to the National Security Strategy, the best way to block aspiring nuclear states and nuclear terrorists is to focus on controlling fissile material by focusing on two objectives. The first objective is to keep states from acquiring the capability to produce weapons grade fissile material. The National Security Strategy points to a loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows states to produce weapons grade fissile material under the cover of a civilian nuclear power program. The strategy calls for leading nuclear exporters to provide a safe and orderly system to provide reliable access to reasonable cost fuel for civilian nuclear power plants. In exchange for this access to fissile material for nuclear power plants, states would remain transparent and would renounce enrichment and reprocessing capabilities that could produce nuclear weapons.

The second objective is to keep fissile material out of the hands of terrorists. The National Security Strategy points to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. This initiative addresses the danger posed by inadequately safeguarded nuclear materials worldwide. Nuclear stockpiles are located, tracked, and reduced. Nuclear material trafficking is discouraged by placing detection equipment in key shipping nodes and targeting maritime, air, and land shipping routes. The United States also leads an effort to cut off proliferators from their financial resources needed to fund their activities.

There are more than 60 years of successful deterrence when dealing with nation states, but 9-11 stands as the first lost battle at the hands of terrorism. The United States must learn from this setback and adapt its nuclear strategy as the world environment changes. As much as everyone would like nuclear weapons to go away, they are here to stay. And as long as there are nuclear weapons, the United States must continue to deter and dissuade its enemies and ensure its allies. There are several ways to achieve these goals, which the new nuclear deterrence strategies outline. The United States must continue to maintain a credible nuclear arsenal and at the same time lead the world in reducing the overall number of nuclear weapons. The United States should continue to reduce the overall inventory and eliminate or at least minimize one or more of the old legs of the triads. But while the nuclear inventory is reduced it must be modernized.

There is a need to encourage cooperation between the tripolar powers, China, Russia, and the United States, working together to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons while keeping a lid on the arms race. This cooperation should focus on dissuading rogue nations from their nuclear weapons ambitions. But, if unable to keep the rogue nations from obtaining a nuclear arsenal, the partners must contain them so they do not use these weapons or give them to terrorists. Terrorism will continue to be the most challenging area in the nuclear deterrence. The United States will need to deter, frustrate, delay, and when necessary respond to attacks with overwhelming force to defend itself and its allies.

The author may be reached at [email protected]

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