Since the Cold War, nuclear weapons gradually lost their importance in political, social, and national security discussions. The multi-decade nuclear arms race was over, and there is no longer a continuous threat of a nuclear war breaking out. To some extent, atomic weapons lost their symbolic value, but remain a highly volatile and expensive arsenal to maintain. Many countries continue to rely on nuclear weapons as a primary mode of strategic deterrence as a central part of national security strategies for the last fifty years. However, nuclear weapons can only serve as a pillar of deterrence and international security in conjugation with diplomatic negotiations and nonproliferation (Arbatov). While major forces are no longer massively producing nuclear weapons, the landscape has changed towards modernization of existing arsenals and the development of new strategic delivery methods. Nuclear weapons are not strategically obsolete and serve as a critical element of national security and deterrence, but the technology of nuclear weaponry is shifting to highly precise and small-scale applications that have the potential to be used in regional and local theaters of war rather than global.
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Second Nuclear Age
The end of the Cold War brought forth what is known as the Second Nuclear Age. Deterrence concepts of the Cold War continue to be useful in modern-day contexts. However, 21st-century actors, particularly ‘rogue’ nuclear states such as North Korea or Iran, may not act in a manner consistent with developed assumptions between the United States, Russia, and other nuclear states. Nuclear deterrence is not a universal solution, and most modern threats cannot be easily solved with the Cold War strategies, with many assumptions about risks being conditional on the reliability of deterrence (Baylis et al. 214). Nuclear deterrence as a strategic policy is highly controversial. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union designed and implemented highly sophisticated systems for command and control of nuclear forces, which served as the backbone of deterrence. Nuclear forces, to this day, must be ready to use so that they are not destroyed in a surprise attack, but also kept under control to prevent accidental or unauthorized use. This strategic approach that ensured mutually assured destruction (MAD) during the Cold War days remains relevant in the Second Nuclear Age. Despite its controversy in theory and practice, deterrence can be considered a successful strategy since no nuclear war erupted, albeit with numerous military and political tensions (Gray 217).
This biggest risk is the proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly to rogue nations or groups, which are more common now than in the hegemonic world of the latter 20th century. Albeit well-designed counterproliferation efforts can be effective, the spread of nuclear weapons will continue with time, as seen with Iran and North Korea coming very close in their programs. More powers having the means to initiate a nuclear war, even locally, complicates the deterrence environment, with the risk of conflict expected to increase. Unlike countries such as Russia and the United States that have well-established nuclear doctrines and decades of experience in balancing the power and responsibility of nuclear weapons, the decision-making of highly volatile states is unknown and unpredictable (Baylis et al. 2016).
A significant effort in nuclear strategy in the modern day has been focused on the challenges of counterproliferation, which has numerous challenges. The strategic initiatives have been by nuclear countries to use counterproliferation as a method of a national strategy to prevent and defend the country from WMD attacks. Interventions may range from defensive protections to direct military interventions which destroy hostile nuclear facilities, driven by practical considerations (Baylis and Smith 216). Although counterproliferation does not refer to the use of nuclear weapons themselves, it highlights the tremendous strategic importance of this arsenal. The significant resources that go into political, intelligence, and military efforts to prevent the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons suggest that the technology holds tremendous strategic value even in the modern-day, and nuclear nations are unwilling to accept proliferation to other states in any form.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear nations, particularly the United States and Russia, have begun to rapidly modernize their nuclear arsenals and create new delivery methods of nuclear warheads. Russia started the trend of developing tactical nuclear arsenals, which are precise, low-yield nuclear weapons that can be used in local theaters of war and have relatively short ranges compared to ICBM’s. Although uncertain, Russia is estimated to have approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, but Russia is not believed to be increasing the number of warheads, but rather new delivery platforms. This includes land-attack cruise missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles termed as the Kalibr launch system capable of being installed on both ships and submarines. It has the long-range hypersonic, dual-capable Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile, and the land-based SS-26 Iskander-M missiles of a range of 350km (Kristensen and Korda 256).
Meanwhile, the United States is assumed to have only 230 tactical nuclear weapons. The majority of them are B61 gravity bombs that can only be carried by aircraft such as the F-15E. U.S. modernization efforts are also focused on producing a B61-12 guided nuclear bomb. However, as evident, this tactical arsenal falls far behind Russia’s and relies on aircraft delivery, which can be easily intercepted by air defense systems in conflict (Kristensen and Korda 258). The Trump administration announced in 2019 that it will be shifting focus toward producing new low-yield nuclear weapons. The first would be W76-2, a variation of the well-known Trident missile, which most likely cuts one of the stages from a traditional two-stage nuclear device. The administration argues that the development of low-yield weapons would further prevent nuclear war by providing a more flexible deterrent. Adversaries would usually believe they have an advantage with tactical missiles because the U.S. traditional nuclear arsenal consists of substantial kiloton equivalents that would cause tremendous civilian casualties. With low-yield weapons, a calculated approach would allow for equal advantage in nuclear escalation, making nuclear deployment in any form less likely (Borger).
The biggest issue with this approach, as argued by arms control advocates, is that it can lower the threshold for nuclear conflict (Borger). If the order is given to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Syria, for example, and it affects Russian forces working with Assad, it may result in retaliatory attacks of similar proportions against American troops in the region by Russian tactical nuclear missiles. A direct nuclear attack on American troops will spark an international crisis that may easily spiral out of control into a large-scale nuclear war, either in the region of conflict or globally, since the U.S. and its NATO allies, as well as Russia and China, continue to maintain sizable nuclear arsenals.
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Despite the name “nonstrategic” given to low-yield nukes, military experts believe they hold strategic utility in extending America’s nuclear deterrent as modern-day American forces are thinly spread out throughout the world, and can counter Russia’s and China’s military expansion and similar deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Russia utilizes a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate,” creating escalated military pressure, including nuclear, as a deterrent against NATO in Europe. Through this approach, Russia can control the level of conflict escalation and its mechanics or circumstances. Russia has adopted a nuclear posture of using tactical weapons early in a potential conflict, to attain a strategic battlefield advantage to supplement its conventional military inferiority. The United States believes with having a low yield option to respond to tactical use by other countries; it would be forced to launch a larger yield nuclear weapon that would escalate the conflict to a full-blown nuclear war (Tertrais 35).
To some extent, arms advocates are correct in assuming that low yield delivery methods lower the threshold of using nuclear weapons. However, the geopolitical reality and modern arms development which is focusing on high precision weaponry that can bypass air defenses (hypersonic cruise missiles) create the need for developing nonstrategic tactical delivery methods. Nuclear weapons are transitioning from being a global deterrent that prevents attacks on the mainland United States to potentially being a local strategic deterrent, preventing major attacks against American forces abroad. However, such weapons are purely offensive, and some experts believe that spending should be directed at more defensive nuclear command, control, and communications, which have proven to be a reliable and safe nuclear deterrent for U.S. national strategy (Borger).
Nuclear weapons strategy has shifted from conventional global deterrents and arms competition to more localized strategic elements. These include aspects of counter proliferation and the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons. However, the traditional nuclear triad remains in place as a central element of strategic national defense. Nuclear weapons are unlikely to be strategically obsolete shortly, as countries will adopt the technology to push national interests in new ways such as small-scale use or potentially space-based delivery systems. The fact remains that nuclear weapons are inherently powerful and serve as the best strategic deterrent until a new military technology of the same magnitude can replace it.
Arbatov, Alexey. “Nuclear Deterrence: A Guarantee or Threat to Strategic Stability?” Carnegie Moscow Center, 2019. Web.
Baylis, John, et al., editors. Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies (5th ed). Oxford University Press, 2015.
Baylis, John, and Mark Smith. “The Control of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies, edited by Baylis, John, et al., OUP Oxford, 2007, pp. 227-244.
Borger, Julian. “US Nuclear Weapons: First Low-Yield Warheads Roll Off the Production Line.” The Guardian, 2019. Web.
Gray, Colin S. War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction To Strategic History. Routledge, 2007.
Kristensen, Hans M., and Matt Korda. “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, 2019.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 75, no. 5, 2019, pp. 252-261. Web.
Tertrais, Bruno. “Russia’s Nuclear Policy: Worrying for the Wrong Reasons.” Survival, vol. 60, no. 2, 2018, pp. 33-44. Web.