Since the end of the Cold War, considerable intellectual confusion has emerged over nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. A central reason has been the tendency of scholars and public policy figures, goaded by global nuclear-zero types, to associate these weapons with the Cold War. They have apparently been taken in by the historical coincidence that the Cold War and the nuclear age emerged at about the same time; so, when the Cold War ended, it seemed only logical to many that the nuclear age, too, had come to an end—not so much the technology, of course, as its political salience.This is a mistake, based on a prior confusion—namely that the problem with nuclear weapons during the Cold War was the weapons themselves and not the political agents who wielded them. When the politics of the Cold War decompressed, the weapons became vastly less salient and hence amendable to major reductions in U.S.-Russian arms control arrangements. That should have taught people which way the causal arrows had actually pointed between 1948 and 1991, but it mostly didn’t. So when the nature of the politics surrounding nuclear weapons changed after 1991, many Western observers missed it.But not everyone missed it, because not everyone had been confused in the first place. Some scholars and practitioners alike, notably Paul Bracken and Keith Payne, began referring to the “second nuclear age.” Bracken’s 1999 book of that title established the phrase and pioneered the thinking designed to get us from the Cold War strategic environment (in which we were no longer stuck) to one characterized by very different parameters (in which we might well get stuck).Now, 17 years later, we are indeed getting stuck. Rethinking Armageddon: Scenario Planning in the Second Nuclear Age, a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report authored by Andrew F. Krepinevich and Jacob Cohn, seeks to update and elaborate upon Bracken’s seminal work. Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, where Cohn is a senior analyst. Their report provides rich food for thought about the problems that we are likely to face in the coming decades, as nuclear weapons become ever more important to strategic thought in much of Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific. It combines realistic scenario-planning with novel thinking about how geopolitical crises involving major powers may play out. The study takes into account the perspectives of different regional players as well as the potential implications of developments in one region for the security dynamics in others.The report features detailed scenarios involving Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea as the first step in thinking about how U.S. decision-makers might act now to prevent some especially nasty problems from emerging in years ahead. By taking a scenario-based analytical approach, the authors identify potential connections between issues and actors that we might not be able to perceive in current circumstances, and lay out how these might evolve. This helps us understand which variables could change the evolution of the scenarios presented, thus giving us a more nuanced view of potential regional and interregional dynamics.The report begins by outlining the context and conditions that have come to define the second nuclear age. As Bracken, Payne, and others noted, the Cold War nuclear landscape was characterized primarily by a bipolar global strategic competition involving relatively large arsenals and relatively risk-averse actors locked in a roughly symmetrical power relationship. Extended deterrence worked in the context of an inter-bloc dynamic between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Now we face a markedly different global strategic environment. Competition is increasingly multipolar in nature and, at the highest level, a condition of tripolarity could emerge among China, the United States, and Russia. Moreover, the United States and the Soviet Union held their positions at the top of the nuclear pecking order for many years—that stability is unlikely to be replicated in an era in which “there may be several overlapping ‘n-player’ or multipolar nuclear competitions under way, with the prospect of more emerging over the next decade.”Krepinevich and Cohn argue that the Cold War was relatively more nuclear-stable because the nuclear weapons states were more “responsible”—great powers who shaped the structure of the international system and had an interest in maintaining a stable global order. Such powers, aware of the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, deter themselves, in the knowledge that mass warfare will have horrendous consequences. The same may not hold true in a more multipolar setting, if increasing uncertainty over nuclear balances contributes to greater instability in the event of a crisis. Several considerations are at play here, especially the potential dynamics between the United States, China, and Russia. The authors give a hypothetical example: If each player has 500 deployed nuclear weapons, then it is not possible for any one party to have parity with the other two combined. Yet each power might want to hedge against the possibility that its two rivals could join in an alliance against it. For those skeptical of a possible U.S.-China alignment, remember that U.S.-China relations have shifted four times in the space of just seventy years.Krepinevich and Cohn also discuss the role of technology in changing the nuclear-conventional firebreak. For instance, in response to advances in U.S. high-precision sub-nuclear weaponry (such as the Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program), Russia is threatening to use nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” a conflict. The authors conclude:
[A]s conventional weapons have become increasingly precise and capable of achieving strategic effects, and as nuclear weapons design has enabled the fielding of more discriminate weapons, the clear distinction that existed in the first decades of the nuclear era between conventional and nuclear weapons has become progressively blurred.
This speaks to a much bigger issue that has thus far received much less attention than the balance between strategic nuclear forces: the relationship between nuclear and conventional arms control.To what extent should the nuclear weapon states focus on reducing their arsenals as a precondition for conventional disarmament? We have tended to think that it would be a good idea to reduce nuclear weapons first before reducing conventional forces. However, nuclear weapons are but one component of the overall military balance between states. Countries like Pakistan, for instance, have developed their nuclear arsenals not only because of advances in nuclear weaponry by their rivals but also because of perceived conventional imbalances.1 The “more may be better” logic that Thomas Schelling and others controversially applied to nuclear weapons is also relevant to the conventional realm. Could the Conventional Forces Treaty in Europe be revived? What are the prospects for conventional arms control agreements in Asia? Again, present-day Chinese and especially Russian concerns over U.S. conventional prowess illustrate the importance of these issues.2Historically, the East Asian region, not to mention the wider Asia-Pacific, has been much less interested in arms control than Europe. Indeed, nearly all arms control and disarmament policies (both conventional and nuclear) have been conceived and adopted by non-Asian countries. This was true during the Cold War and throughout Asia’s military history more generally. Under what circumstances could the United States, Russia, and China discuss not only nuclear arms control, but also conventional arms control? These discussions would inevitably have to take into account Washington’s alliances, for one thing. The issues are complex, but they deserve serious attention.Indeed, as the authors point out, bipolar arms control may be the artifact of a bygone era, since U.S and Russian arsenals have declined so dramatically. The exceptionalism of Cold War summitry is not repeatable in an era when Pakistan doubles its arsenal, Israel deploys real-time satellites to spot Iran’s missile alerts, and North Korea deploys a whole new class of uranium bombs. For this reason it may be imprudent to continue with arms control without including other powers like China, India, and Pakistan, especially since all of their arsenals are growing.Krepinevich and Cohn suggest using the Washington Naval Conference (WNC) as a baseline for future multilateral negotiations, but they do not specify what the metric for negotiations would be. The WNC, moreover, was not based on a model of “stability” as such but was rather an attempt to freeze the arms race between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan altogether. That is highly unlikely to be the goal of future negotiations. Besides, the “traditional” concepts of nuclear and conventional arms control that might serve as starting points would become problematic, as the authors point out, on account of the growing precision and lethality of the weapons. This and the emergence of cyber weapons are complicating factors in defining and managing both arms race stability and crisis stability.Rethinking Armageddon also highlights the problem of decreased warning time for attacks. The authors point to a number of situations in which the warning times for nuclear attacks are being reduced to levels that threaten to erode crisis stability. In the situations they outline, states’ early-warning and command-and-control systems are placed under enormous strain—assuming they have the technical, human, and materiel resources to field, man, and maintain these systems at high levels of readiness in the first place, which is not an assumption one can casually make. Depending on how missile forces are deployed, the same situation could quickly obtain with respect to Chinese and Russian nuclear forces, as well as Chinese and Indian nuclear forces. A similar problem may arise if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, given its geographic proximity to Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and Europe. The problem is compounded by the fact that new proliferants lack the strategic depth of the United States and Russia regarding second-strike capabilities. The geographic size of, say, Iran, Israel, or Saudi Arabia does not lend itself as well to a second-strike capability; it would take many fewer nuclear weapons to destroy these countries’ counter-value targets than to destroy those of the United States, China, or Russia. If one accepts the theories of deterrence and escalation control, this situation contributes to undermining crisis stability.While Krepinevich and Cohn point to the issues surrounding a potential crisis in the Asia-Pacific, they do not discuss the differences inherent in extending deterrence in a maritime rather than a land context. Historically, the foundation of U.S. power projection has been sea-control. Since the end of World War II, U.S. power in Asia has been uncontested. What contributed to making the United States such a decisive power in the region for over sixty years was a robust sea-control capacity with low risk, and therefore little cost. Since the late 1990s, however, China has been gradually building up its sea-denial capabilities, which have progressively increased the costs of U.S. sea-control.Moreover, compared to the logistics of deterrence in Western Europe, the difficulties in extending conventional deterrence in a maritime environment as vast as the Asia-Pacific are immense. Europe was, and remains, a single geostrategic entity connected by land. In the Asia-Pacific, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan are more dispersed and further apart from each other, and many neutral and non-aligned states stand in between them. U.S. forces need to be able to move a lot of vessels, aircraft, troops, and munitions. Tasks include the prompt replacement of destroyed combat ships, the establishment of defensive perimeters for fleet support, and ensuring the safety of fleet replenishment oilers and dry cargo/ammunition supply ships, to name but a few.Unless the U.S. military maintains permanent bases on allied territory, it might not be able to deploy replacement capabilities on short notice if its ships or aircraft carriers were destroyed. This poses some difficult choices for planners. It is difficult to concentrate large numbers of strike aircraft anywhere other than on aircraft carriers (which are limited in number to begin with), and this substantially reduces sortie rates. True, placing more forces in-theater and closer to allies makes them vulnerable to surprise attacks. Then again, the same holds true for enemy forces, since closer basing results in shorter warning times for enemy forces and compressed decision times for enemy leaders. In addition, placing aircraft carriers away from enemy forces (to reduce vulnerability) in a crisis reduces sortie rates, thereby diminishing the potency of the deterrent threat they can bring to bear. Penetrating long-range bombers may offer an advantage here, but they may not be sufficient on their own to perform all war-fighting and deterrence tasks. In addition, having more shore-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems would reduce the demand for BMD ships, which are more vulnerable to enemy missiles.Also, there are more air bases across the western Pacific islands suitable for aerial tanker-refueling operations than there are for combat aircraft. A lack of bases increases the demands and stresses on an aerial fleet and complicates the logistics involved in keeping U.S. forces adequately supplied. It also makes for significantly longer ship and submarine transit times to and from more distant resupply points. The U.S. Navy does not procure war reserve replacement equipment, weapons, or sensors. These items would need to be purchased and built at the outset of a war. Submarines and many surface combatants are unable to replenish their missile magazines without sailing back to the U.S. West Coast.The authors present a range of useful scenarios as a way of thinking through the possible challenges Washington will face in this dynamic Second Nuclear Age. These include, for instance, preventing Iran from becoming the hegemon of the Middle East; preventing Hizballah from becoming a more powerful actor; anticipating the possible posture of a nuclear-capable Iran, its interactions with Israel, and the conditions that might push Tehran to use a nuclear weapon; the implications of potentially shifting U.S. air and missile defense forces from Eastern Europe and the Far East (for instance, it may undermine U.S. alliance relationships in those regions while encouraging aggressive behavior on the part of regional rivals); and the possibility of Israel using nuclear weapons against Iran (and the reasons why this would be preferable to the U.S. military’s doing so). The authors here highlight an important issue in the current debate—that the United States has not designed a new nuclear weapon since the Cold War, let alone diversified its nuclear arsenal with weapons of smaller yields and more discriminate effects.They also discuss the implications of certain developments and issues for Saudi strategic thinking. Among these is the possibility of “purchasing” a nuclear bomb from Pakistan to counter Iran’s power, potentially under a dual-key system whereby both countries need to authorize the launch of the weapon. The authors outline the conditions under which such an eventuality could occur and how Washington might respond in a crisis, addressing as well the issue of withholding critical intelligence about Iran (including targeting information) from Israel, which might strain the alliance.In the Russia chapter they present a scenario wherein the Baltic states, in particular Latvia, see an increase in discussions and protests over the status of Russian ethnic minorities. In this scenario, Russia is undergoing a period of economic hardship and backlash from its annexation of parts of Ukraine. President Putin’s goal in the initial discussion over Russian ethnic minorities’ demonstrations in Latvia is not to annex additional territory, but to demonstrate Russia’s role as the protector of ethnic Russians throughout the former Soviet Union and to rally the Russian populace behind his government. After a series of incidents involving domestic political unrest in Latvia, Russia intervenes by deploying security forces to protect Russian minorities. Latvia requests the deployment of NATO troops, but everyone involved suspects that U.S. commitment may not be forthcoming because of its weak response to the Ukraine and Syria crises.Eventually, Russian minorities take over Latvian territory and declare themselves the legitimate governmental authority of the areas in question. The unexpected declaration of independence by these partisans forces Putin’s hand. He cannot claim to protect ethnic Russians throughout the former Soviet Union and then ignore a declaration of independence. To retain that mantle, Putin signals his support for the new republic by announcing on national TV that Russia will support the new government as it consolidates control over its territory and continues its development as a new country. NATO eventually invokes Article V and deploys forces. Conflict with the West escalates to the point where Russia considers using nuclear weapons. The authors argue that Russia has a more diverse and flexible (in terms of delivery systems and yields) arsenal than the United States, which only has bombers stationed in Europe. As a result Russia threatens to use tactical nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” the conflict. Part of Russia’s strategy also involves refraining from attacking NATO forces outside of Latvia to avoid presenting NATO with the justification to escalate the conflict horizontally and begin striking targets on Russian territory.NATO could respond with conventional forces, but both paths require NATO to overcome Russia’s integrated air and missile defenses. The authors point out that electronic and cyber warfare could be effective in jamming, spoofing, or disrupting these battle networks. At the tactical or operational levels of warfare, these capabilities would likely function as highly effective force multipliers for kinetic capabilities, but they are not useful at these levels of warfare in isolation, nor are they a sufficient retaliatory response to restore nuclear deterrence if Russian leaders break the nuclear taboo.Krepinevich and Cohen suggest that NATO has several options: heighten the readiness of its nuclear forces, conduct a demonstration nuclear shot, conduct conventional strikes to provide an “opening” for limited nuclear retaliation, or otherwise escalate dramatically and use a limited number of strategic weapons. Overall, the analysis here is useful in highlighting the conditions that could push Russia to threaten to use, or indeed use, tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict.The North Korea scenario centers on Pyongyang’s decision to launch a missile attack on Japan to demonstrate the seriousness of the regime, as Kim Jong-un demands more oil and food supplies from Japan and the United States. As North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities, the U.S. government has been unsuccessful in negotiating a settlement, in part because U.S. leadership refuses to acknowledge China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea.China’s economic growth has slowed, reducing China’s willingness to fund the regime. Pyongyang’s belligerent behavior only isolates North Korea further. Still, it continues nuclear tests and raises the alert level of the country’s armed forces. This leads the U.S. government and its allies to place their forces on high alert as well, but questions remain as to U.S. ability to effectively deploy BMD assets in Eastern Europe and the Middle East should a crisis emerge in the Asia-Pacific.Increasing concern over whether North Korea will use its arsenal against U.S. regional allies leads the DoD to draw up options that include attacking military installations in North Korea. South Korea and Japan have diverging opinions on the regime’s intentions. Japan’s Prime Minister sees the crisis as a major test of his policy of restoring his country’s position as a “normal nation,” one that is willing to assume risks and take concrete action to defend its interests against an increasingly assertive China and its North Korean client. In the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, Japan expects the United States to employ nuclear weapons against North Korea to ensure there is no follow-on attack. South Korea’s President has a different perspective. Rather than sounding the alarm, in this scenario Seoul claims that war is “unthinkable” because the consequences of an all-out conflict on the peninsula would inflict unimaginable destruction on both the North and the South.Debates within the White House continue: If North Korea used a nuclear weapon against Japan or South Korea, what would happen if the U.S. government did not respond in kind? Would this severely undermine the credibility of Washington’s security commitments elsewhere, or not?The China chapter discusses issues of regime legitimacy within the People’s Republic of China, and how an important economic downturn may push the leadership to use nationalism to shore up its position at home. The scenario posits a situation in which, despite Beijing’s warnings to the United States to refrain from transiting air and naval forces in these areas, the new U.S. administration sees this as an early test of its resolve to make good on its commitment to support its allies and friends in the Western Pacific. The demonstration of U.S. resolve thus far, sustained by the support of key allies in the region and by the strong approval of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) states, has led Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam to seek closer security ties with the United States.The section also discusses elements of China-Russia relations, including interactions between Chinese and Russian migrants and companies across Siberia. More importantly, it discusses elements of conventional and nuclear force imbalances, as well as the potential for escalation, between Russia and China, but also between China and the United States. The authors point to Chinese and Russian concerns that the U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike. capability is a potential means for the United States to achieve “absolute security” when combined with cruise and ballistic missile defenses. For some Chinese writers, as the authors point out, certain strategic conventional forces might be more readily employed than nuclear weapons, and against a wider range of targets. While China’s nuclear force is far more imposing now than it was in the mid- and late 1960s, the range of U.S. strategic strike weaponry and delivery systems is likewise more imposing, as are its defenses. And the Russians have improved the design and the accuracy of their nuclear weapons and delivery systems as well.In the scenario, China declares that it will embark on an even greater expansion of its nuclear forces, and the U.S. administration considers possible options, such as multilateralizing the existing Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to include China. U.S. officials also discuss how this new multiplayer game between major powers might shift how the U.S. military thinks about force sizing; as discussed earlier, it is not possible for each player to have nuclear weapons equal to the combined forces of the other two. Attempting to do so will almost certainly lead us to a nuclear arms race with no end in sight. How should the U.S. government size its nuclear force? To deal with one crisis at a time with Russia or China? Multiple crises? To deal with two simultaneous confrontations, one with a major nuclear power and the other with a minor? How might the United States establish some dominant position on what has been traditionally referred to as the ladder of escalation? The report also points out that Russia may become increasingly worried about losing strategic depth, with China now armed with the ability to threaten Russia’s forces beyond the Urals in ways NATO could not.In summary, Krepinevich and Cohen highlight several themes: first, that the strategic balance between conventional and nuclear force is far more complex, and now includes cyber warfare as an added dimension; second, that U.S. decision-makers now face a multipolar strategic competition that entails a rethinking of the escalation ladder; third, that the challenges to extended deterrence remain daunting; fourth, that nuclear weapons may increasingly be seen as “equalizers” that offset adversaries’ conventional superiorities.That said, Rethinking Armageddon does not discuss certain other issues, including how developments in one region regarding nuclear use could affect perceptions of nuclear use and the breaking of the so-called nuclear taboo. Neither do the authors discuss how the demonstration of U.S. commitment in Europe, or lack thereof, could affect Japanese and South Korean perceptions of alliance credibility. Although for now it is perhaps an unrealistic proposition, the authors do not discuss the prospects for and consequences of Japanese or South Korean proliferation. Would that necessarily be destabilizing for the region?Notwithstanding these omissions, Krepinevich and Cohen have done a laudable job in clarifying the key problems and pointing the way toward thinking coherently about them. The scenario-based approach, in particular, helps us to identify potential connections between issues and actors that we might not otherwise see. It also helps us understand the potential types, numbers, and relative importance of variables that could change the evolution of scenarios, thus giving us a more nuanced view of potential dynamics. The report encourages us to think carefully and creatively about a world in which nuclear weapons become more essential to strategic thinking in critical regions, not less, as so many assumed back in 1991. It is a sobering but necessary assessment.
1See also, for instance, Russian concerns over U.S. high-precision conventional weaponry. CSIS Track-II Dialogue on Limiting Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2015, p.11.2See for example, Eugene Miasnikov, “The Air-Space Threat to Russia,” Carnegie Moscow Center, 2013; Alexander Yakovenko, “Russian Approaches to Nuclear Disarmament,” RT, October 30, 2014.