The Geopolitical Origins of U.S. Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs

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Editor’s note: The Stimson Center recently released The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, an edited volume that takes a retrospective look at the U.S.-Soviet experience with MIRVs and explores the second coming of MIRVs in contemporary Asia. In this SAV review series, SAV contributors Sitakanta Mishra, Amina Afzal, Rabia Akhtar, Sadia Tasleem, and Debak Das review each chapter with special attention to the implications for South Asia and future research. Read the entire series here.

SAV Review Series: “The Geopolitical Origins of U.S. Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs” by Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long

By Sitakanta Mishra

The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age attempts to extrapolate from the Cold War hard-target-kill (HTK) strategy to the geostrategic context of southern Asia and its potential cascading effects. The study assumes that the harbinger of the race for HTK capability will be China followed by India and then Pakistan, which is “most susceptible to this [action-reaction] dynamic as it seeks to keep pace with India” (p. 197). More importantly, given the absence of any treaty constraints in southern Asia, the editors contend that “there are no realistic prospects for banning multiple-warhead missiles” and introspectively argue that “modest increments in multiple-warhead missiles… will ratchet up the triangular, interactive nuclear competition in Asia” (p. 8).

Premised on these assumptions, Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long – the authors of the U.S. retrospective chapter entitled “The Geopolitical Origins of U.S. Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs” – scrupulously delve into the nuances in America’s policy decisions on strategic stability, HTK counterforce, doctrinal changes, etc. during successive administrations from Nixon to Carter. According to the authors, the “domestic political forces and the military played an important, but mostly secondary, role” in lobbying for multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and HTK (p. 25). When Congress was divided on the issue leading to project delays, only the executive branch was advocating for these capabilities.

The rationale behind many U.S. policymakers support for HTK capabilities, as the authors say, was their actual political and deterrence utility, which helped maintain perceptions of the strategic balance in the United States favor. Consequently, both superpowers’ reluctance to negotiate “serious limitations on MIRVs and missile modifications” greatly worsened the counterforce calculus of both sides (p. 24), proving the objective of strategic stability an illusion. At the end, the authors give a clarion call to southern Asian nations to draw lessons from the Cold War experience as “there are some enduring similarities” between the two environments (p. 48).

Convincing Arguments

Green and Long have comprehensively dealt with the U.S. domestic-political–military orientations to maintain a favorable strategic stability vis-a-vis USSR. Most pertinent is the authors’ assertion that “the objective of strategic stability proved illusory” (p. 19). Despite arms control initiatives, both superpowers remained vulnerable to each others’ capability to destroy each other, largely owing to the advent of MIRVs, powerful warhead yields, and improved missile accuracy. Similar to the case of the emergence of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in the Cold War, the advent of MIRVs in Asia are likely to undermine strategic stability. Undoubtedly, the southern Asian decisionmakers must draw lessons from this Cold War experience.

Equally important is their assertion that the “second nuclear age” in vogue is not similar to the first one. Given that “stronger impulses for strategic modernization programs reside in the international environment” (p. 48) today, the checks and balances at the domestic level would fail leaving little space for crisis management. Therefore, the authors suggest the Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani decisionmakers to be wary of HTK strategy.

Reasoned Critique

The authors have undoubtedly given a comprehensive account of the U.S. decisionmaking on the HTK capabilities, but theirs cannot be the final words. Frist, the watertight compartmentalization of domestic and international domain – and bestowing one domain premium over the other – is not feasible if one applies Robert Putnam’s Two-Level Game Theory. The domestic-international interface is constant and complex affair, extremely difficult to fathom in black and white.

A second discussion that is missing from Green and Long’s analysis is the role of the linkage between political leadership and scientific community, the lobby for specific program funding, etc. The authors could have specified in the beginning that this chapter focuses only on the domestic political dynamics, as a separate chapter is devoted to enquire about the role of the research and development establishment.

Third, Green and Long’s analysis suffers from an over-concerned parallelism in drawing comparisons to the South Asian context. Often Western scholars are pessimistic about Indo-Pak nuclear balance. As I stated in my 2006 book review of Rajesh Rajagopalan’s Second Strike: Arguments About Nuclear War in South Asia, “nuclearized South Asia is a reality with a reasonable nuclear stability, invalidating the conventional wisdom that the region is on the verge of a nuclear warfare… Contrary to their belief, this region has experienced relative nuclear stability and the chances of nuclear war between India and Pakistan are remote… This protracted nuclear peace, argues Rajagopalan in the book, is an offshoot of the nuclear doctrines India and Pakistan have adhered to and the consequent functioning of ‘existential deterrence’ between them.” Even if both sides embrace counterforce targeting capability, they will learn to live with it as nuclear deterrence logic is well understood by the southern Asian nuclear neighbours. In any case, the line between counterforce and countervalue target is extremely thin in this part of the world because of their close proximity.

Fourth, as far as China is concerned, the understanding in vogue in India at the highest political levels is that: (1) India neither “see itself in competition with China” nor “see itself as in competition with any country” in any sphere (Beijing is far ahead of India, especially in terms of military technology); and (2) in the case of Pakistan, New Delhi can deter and deal with the entire menu of Islamabad’s provocations. This is not to deny the fact that there would be cascading effect from the military technology evolution in the South Asian security complex.

Fifth, as is common in many Western and Pakistani narrations, Green and Long suggest that “Pakistan might feel impelled to pursue MIRVs” (p. 48) in reaction to any Indian action vis-a-vis China – implying that India would initiate a new arms race. The real cause of arms race in South Asia is surprisingly overlooked. The Cold Start strategy is India’s response to Pakistan’s Limited Probe doctrine; India’s ballistic missile defense program is partly a response to Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship; cruise missile defence would be India’s response to Pakistan’s nuclear tipped cruise missiles and TNWs; so on and so forth.

Future Research

The pertinent question to ponder is – can the system be unlearnt? The United States recently de-MIRVed its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. This is a step in the right direction, but nuclear weapons remain paramount in U.S. and Russian security strategies. While emphasizing the futility of MIRVs is a positive step, there is more that the United States must do, especially when it comes to devaluing and outlawing nuclear weapons. Consequently, MIRV-type delivery systems would take their own course of diminution, the reverberations of which would be felt automatically in the southern Asian geostrategic discourse.

Photo credit: U.S. Government Work via Flickr
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