Back in the day — that would be the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80’s — arms racing was the norm. The “action-reaction” phenomenon ruled. If one superpower unveiled a new weapon system or improved hard-target-kill capabilities, the other superpower was sure to follow. MIRVs begat MIRVs, cruise missiles multiplied, and target lists expanded as deployed warheads reached stratospheric numbers. No potential strategic offensive advantage could go unanswered. “Overkill” was trumped by the imperative to avoid being placed at a disadvantage. Anxiety overruled common sense.
The offense-defense competition made everything worse. If one superpower demonstrated interest in national ballistic missile defenses, the other would act to ensure that warheads would still get through. The “mad momentum” of the arms race was a constant. The best the superpowers could accomplish in the 1970s was to limit deployed capabilities, and even then, prospective limits prompted end-arounds and bargaining chips.
It was not until the advent of the Reagan Administration and a radical reformer in the Kremlin that unorthodoxy held sway and the Rules of the Game changed. When the dealers overrode the squeezers around President Reagan, previously unimaginable outcomes became possible. Missiles with shorter ranges that were well-suited for preemption were eliminated in return for the dismantlement of missiles threatening U.S. allies. The threat of space-based missile defenses was traded in for deep cuts in strategic forces. Reagan and Gorbachev broke the mad momentum of the arms race by dismissing the underlying war-fighting capabilities behind their nuclear deterrents.
Is arms racing now picking up speed again? We still use the terminology of arms racing out of habit, just as we talk about arms control when we now mean arms reduction. A careful look suggests change as well as familiar behaviors. Nuclear arms have indisputably staged a comeback. Four of the NPT Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) are undertaking or are planning to undertake expensive strategic modernization programs. India and Pakistan have flight-tested more new types of missiles since 1998 than any of the NWS. North Korea brandishes its nuclear arsenal and tests devices. Vladimir Putin views nuclear weapons as backstopping Russia’s resurgence.
All of this is well worth worrying about – especially since there is comparatively little happening on the other side of the ledger to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear arsenals. Treaty-making is at a standstill, and will remain slow-footed even if the Conference on Disarmament revives. The next best shot at negotiated reductions may not arrive until New START is nearing expiration — if Moscow and Washington are looking to cut expenditures for nuclear excess. This is a very long time to wait and watch aging weapon systems being replaced by new ones.
Everyone justifies these expenditures in the name of deterrence, but the flip side of deterrence has always been nuclear war-fighting. What has changed is that, with the exception of China, the NWS’s ongoing and prospective strategic modernization programs are about replacement, not about build-ups. Replacement in some cases will accompany shrinkage. Budget constraints do not fade when negotiations lag. There are no technical revolutions on the horizon that would lend major impetus to arms racing, as there were during the Cold War (with the possible exception of boost-glide vehicles). And while regional missile defenses will become more important, plans for national missile defenses are likely to remain on the shelf.
The testing of nuclear devices was always the handmaiden to arms racing, but testing is now confined to one outlaw state. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s norm against testing becomes more meaningful every year, even without the Treaty’s entry into force. The taboo against the detonation of mushroom clouds on battlefields is now over 70 years old. The extension of these norms cannot be taken for granted, but they constitute powerful restraints. Because of them, the utility of nuclear weapons is shrinking much faster than existing arsenals. Russian and U.S. nuclear enclaves haven’t gotten this message.
In Asia, where stockpiles are growing, the pace of expansion is far slower than during the Cold War. The two major powers in Asia that could greatly pick up this pace – China and India – are taking their time. So far, they have not signed up Cold War strategies that equate nuclear deterrence with war-fighting capabilities. The possibility of strategic restraint in Asia, despite the absence of arms-control arrangements, is greater than most Western strategists anticipated. The triangular strategic competition among China, India, and Pakistan is interactive and serious, and will be tested by the advent of MIRVs. But there is still a decent chance that Beijing and New Delhi will not go overboard.
The enterprise of arms control was a Western construct conceptualized in the early 1960s as a needed replacement to hollow superpower pronouncements championing general and complete disarmament. The practice of arms control accomplished much, despite its limitations – including constraints on nuclear testing, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and strategic-arms limitation accords. But the concept of arms control didn’t prevent arms racing until immediately before and after the demise of the Soviet Union, when significant strategic arms reduction treated were negotiated.
We have been eating this seed corn ever since. The challenge before us is to conceptualize the next goal and the next phase of reducing nuclear arsenals and nuclear dangers. This time around, conceptualization in the West will be insufficient; a more inclusive approach will be needed. The end goal is abolition, but we have learned that abolition is not an effective organizing principle. So, what is the next phase and the next goal? And then, even harder, how do we achieve the conditions necessary for success?
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 20, 2016.