China's Deployment of MIRVs Risks Ratcheting Up Nuclear Competition in Asia

May 16, 2016

The second coming of multiple warhead missiles after the Cold War, this time in Asia, has begun with Beijing’s long-awaited deployments of the DF-5B missile. A new book released today by the nonpartisan Stimson Center, The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVS: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, finds that India and Pakistan are likely to respond by placing multiple warheads atop some of their missiles. The advent of multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles — or MIRVs — during the Cold War increased superpower arsenals by thousands of warheads, prompting concerns of pre-emptive strikes and foiling attempts at effective strategic arms control.

“The good news,” says Michael Krepon, co-editor of the book and Co-founder of the Stimson Center, “Is that China, India, and Pakistan won’t go overboard on MIRVs like the United States and the Soviet Union. The bad news is that even limited deployments will further complicate the triangular nuclear competition in Asia.”

The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs looks back at the U.S.-Soviet competition and ahead to the triangular competition in southern Asia. The Soviet chapter, by Alexey Arbatov and General Vladimir Dvorkin, provides a rare look at Soviet decisionmaking on MIRVs. The U.S. chapter, by Austin Long and Brendan Rittenhouse Green, recounts fateful strategic nuclear decisions by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations and the reasons for them. Jeffrey G. Lewis, the author of the book’s China chapter, does not anticipate marked changes in China’s strategic posture as a result of MIRVs. Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran, co-authors of the chapter on India, predict that India will follow China’s example. The authors of the Pakistan chapter, Feroz H. Khan and Mansoor Ahmed, predict that Pakistan will deploy multiple warhead missiles if India does so, but in a limited way. The book was edited by Krepon and Stimson Center Research Associates Travis Wheeler and Shane Mason. 

Krepon’s concluding chapter finds that the triangular nuclear competition in Asia will differ greatly from the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. China will likely continue to build its arsenal at a moderate pace, adding fewer than 200 warheads to its arsenal over the next 10-15 years — perhaps one half as a result of MIRVs. But even small increments of stockpile growth and multiple warhead missiles will ratchet up the triangular nuclear competition among China, India, and Pakistan. Krepon concludes that success in dampening this competition will require improved relations and nuclear risk reduction measures between China and India, and between India and Pakistan. Most importantly, China and India can avoid the lure and pitfalls of MIRVs by continuing to avoid counterforce nuclear targeting strategies.

“If decisionmakers in China, India, and Pakistan wish to avoid repeating the missteps of the United States and the Soviet Union during the first nuclear age, they will limit the extent to which multiple warheads are placed atop missiles,” Krepon said. “They will proceed at a slow pace — and reject the lure and pitfalls of Cold War-era counterforce targeting strategies.”

Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. 

For Immediate Release: May 16, 2016
Contact: Jim Baird; [email protected]; 202.478.3413

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