The Second Coming of MIRVs: The Future of Strategic Arms Competition

Opinion
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War on the Rocks

The Second Coming of MIRVs: The Future of Strategic Arms Competition

Some 18 years ago, India and Pakistan conducted successive nuclear tests, joining China as Southern Asia’s three overt nuclear powers and transforming the region into a nuclear trilemma. Both India and Pakistan have developed their arsenals at a measured pace, at least compared to historical standards. Today, however, there are concerns that we could be witnessing a potential slow-moving, but cascading, arms competition in the region following China’s deployment of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), or multiple-warhead missiles, in 2015. In contrast to city-busting nuclear payloads sufficient to hold population centers at risk, MIRVs enable a single missile to carry several nuclear warheads, potentially to strike several distinct targets. MIRVs are particularly destabilizing because they enable the possessor state to target an adversary’s nuclear assets in a preemptive first strike.

Between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union inducted MIRVs into their nuclear arsenals, moves that encouraged massive growth in warhead stockpiles and led both sides to entertain counterforce targeting and nuclear warfighting scenarios. If the Cold War competition is any guide, the reemergence of MIRVs could put strategic stability in Southern Asia to the test. Indeed, a recently released Stimson Center book — The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVS: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age — concludes that India and Pakistan may follow China in deploying multiple-warhead missiles just as the Soviet Union sought to match U.S. capabilities during the Cold War.

Such technical discussions often remain confined to the nuclear security community, but the second coming of MIRVs contains broader implications for international security. Whether MIRV developments escalate into arms races over the next decade will depend on the influence of five critical variables: perceptions, doctrine, management, deliberations, and costs.

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