Authors: Troy J. Bouffard, Elizabeth Buchanan & Michael Young*
For over two decades, key stakeholders have been confident that the Arctic Council was the appropriate forum for discussing most non-military Arctic issues. At the same time, UNCLOS, IMO and various international legal agreements, along with numerous forums, helped to manage a significant portion of the remaining challenges. Today, security concerns are heightening with new Arctic players and the days of a stable Arctic region, free from intervening security concerns, may be facing headwinds as military activity and rhetoric have increased over the past few years. Strategic competition in the Arctic has reemerged and is bolstered by recent rhetoric and increased investment from Washington in its national security agenda in the Arctic as well as associated NATO military activity.
Russia uses these developments as further justification to securitize the state’s largest open frontier. It is unsurprising Moscow views this behavior as foreign strategy to undermine Russia’s legitimate interests in the Arctic. In effect, the Arctic may be host to a new security dilemma which is driving militarization and strategic competition in the region. The problem is: there is no effective forum for Arctic defence authorities to discuss the potentially emerging security dilemma or the spectrum of associated and relevant issues involving Arctic non-/State interests.
Recognizing this apparent strategic forum gap, there have been recommendations from Arctic security scholars and strategists to consider the establishment of a designated Arctic security forum to lead collective and inclusive military-security dialogue. These calls are now echoed in some Arctic state policy circles, indicating the appetite for a security forum is growing. Tellingly, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, during a high-level Arctic international conference with Putin in April 2019, suggested that annual meetings of the Chiefs of General Staff of the Arctic Council’s member-states should reoccur. For Lavrov, such meetings could become an effective mechanism of maintaining regional security, stating, “unfortunately, since 2014 these meetings have been suspended. For the purposes of resuming joint work we suggest as a first step to establish contact at the level of military experts of Arctic states.” In theory, such a proposal could effectively manage a growing security dilemma, in order to confront concerns of militarization and sharpened strategic competition in the Arctic. However, implementation of high-level security discussions between Arctic Council member states would not be easy in the contemporary political environment. Moreover, there must be an absolute separation between the purpose of the Arctic Council and any Arctic defence issues and forum. Such a requirement is not only based on the Council’s charter mandate, but also from a practical standpoint to avoid undermining or overlapping well-established practices.
Some current security forums capable of hosting dialogue on Arctic military-security affairs do exist, but these are inadequate for any real strategic discourse due to the fact that the Arctic’s largest stakeholder is not considered an ‘equal member’ in these fora. To date, limited study has been conducted into the feasibility of a circumpolar Arctic security forum, of which all Arctic-rim powers are considered equal. The authors explore the concept of establishing an Arctic military-security forum to navigate the resurgence of strategic competition in the region. To do so, the article examines challenges and opportunities associated with the establishment of an effective Arctic security forum through diplomatic aspects, including 1) establishing acceptable protocols, 2) the role of military diplomacy and 3) sustaining meaningful diplomatic commitments and outcomes.
Establishing Acceptable Protocols
The central goal of establishing formal protocols through a forum to discuss Arctic security issues is to prevent security related actions by one state from escalating to higher level military conflict due to misunderstandings among other Arctic states. There are already several agreements that include the United States and Russian Federation which govern the behavior of military forces when operating in close proximity to each other or in international waters, such as the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA, 1972), the Dangerous Military Activities Agreement (DMA, 1989), and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES, 2014).
Given that these agreements have no geographical limitations, they would also apply to military actions in the Arctic. What is not covered by these agreements, and what is missing in the Arctic currently, is a formal dialogue between Russia and the other Arctic states regarding issues of national security in the Arctic. Such dialogue is important so that all sides understand each other’s actions and the motives behind them, or at least provide a forum to discuss misunderstandings. There have been fora in the recent past which attempted to accomplish this in the Arctic, such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, and the Arctic / Northern Chiefs of Defence meetings. These ended in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea when mil-to-mil engagements with Russia were suspended. However, an exception was later made for the ACGF. The ACGF now regularly meets and rotates chairmanships every two years according to the same schedule as the Arctic Council. The ACGF is an excellent forum for the Arctic states to “foster safe, secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic,” but it does not specifically address military or national security issues. This is precisely why it was able to obtain an exemption from the ban on mil-to-mil activity. This is to Arctic security’s detriment.
Clearly, after six years it is apparent that the ban on mil-to-mil engagement with Russia is adversely affecting all Arctic states. There is an obvious need for crafting a defence forum for the Arctic states. As such, it would be useful to establish a mechanism for all Arctic states’ senior military leaders to engage annually for the purpose of discussing Arctic security issues. And this is in the US national interest. The question now becomes what the format, protocols and limitations should be so that such a forum could prove successful for all participants. It should also be considered apart from other mil-to-mil engagements with Russia, and therefore mostly exempt from sanctions. The following proposed components should be considered with regard to development of an Arctic security forum:
-Heads of delegation from each Arctic state would be their senior commander who has responsibility for their country’s Arctic defence. For example, the US would send the Commander, US Northern Command (4-star), Russia would send the Commander, Northern Fleet Military District (3-star Joint Arctic Command) and the Deputy Defence Minister of the Russian Federation – Chief of Main Directorate for Political-Military Affairs of the Russian Armed Forces (3-star). Normally equivalent rank and position is a basic protocol requirement. However, Russia does not maintain nearly the same amount of 4-star generals as does the United States. As a result, the disparity would not be considered inappropriate or detrimental to the process. Each commander could designate a subordinate as the working representative during the year in the lead up to the conference, but each defence principal would be expected to attend the actual conference in person.
-Hosts for each annual meeting would rotate every year on a prescribed schedule among each of the eight Arctic states.
-The agenda for the annual meeting would have set, required topics each year, which at a minimum would include: 1) Arctic defence philosophy, 2) most important defence challenges in the Arctic, and 3) greatest threats to Arctic security, as perceived by each state. An additional mandatory topic would be ways to improve Arctic security cooperation and reduce tensions.
-The deliverable from the conference would be a report to all member states from the host country summarizing the discussions and outcomes. A joint statement would be optional.
-The conference would be nominally scheduled for one full working day, unless an extension is agreed to by all parties in advance.
However, this forum must stand completely apart from other forums, such as the Arctic Council, even though its membership would still consist of the eight Arctic states that hold sovereign territory in the Arctic. The Arctic Council functions well as an intergovernmental forum on Arctic issues, but its founding documents specifically exclude any discussions on defence or security. Trying to bring security issues into the Arctic Council runs the risk of damaging a well-functioning mechanism.
It should also not involve NATO specifically, even though five of the Arctic states are also NATO members. Since the purpose of the forum is to engage in Arctic-specific security issues, the involvement of NATO could detract from the Arctic nature and openness of any discussions. Any NATO role in an Arctic security forum must be defined and accepted by Russia, if at all. First and foremost, the forum must be able to function from a setting of sovereign equals, of which any alliance would certainly complicate to say the least – a notion that diplomatically parallels the exact difficulties presented by consideration of the EU as an official Arctic Council observer. In the Arctic security forum, membership would only consist of the eight Arctic states – no observers.
While an Arctic defence forum described above is important, it should not exist as the only engagement between the Arctic states in understanding each other’s defence postures. Ongoing traditional diplomacy and military diplomacy would continue to play important roles, as will existing bilateral security agreements. However, as mentioned previously, a new Arctic security forum must be able to function unilaterally with defined authority and jurisdiction.
The Role of Military Diplomacy
The role of military power in today’s world exemplifies a much different meaning from the past. Use of military might by developed nations to resolve or influence global issues increasingly represents options to be employed only as a last resort, if at all. The ever-growing economic interdependence and strong institutional architectures that help facilitate global relationships provide just an initial understanding concerning such world order, and such forces likely apply throughout the Arctic region also. One of the ways in which military organizations could integrate into constructive circumpolar affairs is through use of defence diplomacy. The Oxford Handbook provides a definition as ‘the employment, without duress, in time of peace of the resources of Defence to achieve specific national goals, primarily through relationships with others” as seen by “the shift from ‘club’ to ‘network’ diplomacy” reflective of advanced civilization. The Arctic Eight all have significant military resources and capabilities as well as experience around the world managing tensions. Certainly, the degree to which Russia participates in such endeavors remains difficult to ascertain meaningfully, but it does occur, and moreover, the Arctic region is somewhat of an exceptional case.
Defence diplomacy involves a desire to use military channels, and/or those of experts on defence issues, to help create a climate of trust and a convergence of interests. Those familiar with the Arctic region and its many issues might already be thinking of how the military could contribute within these definitional understandings. The most concerning defence-related issue still centers on continued Russian military buildup in their north, including significant bastion defence, several dedicated brigades, and an advanced coastal and offshore air-defence network. Such developments outpace the rest of the Arctic Eight combined by an order of magnitude, although not necessarily representative of individual or cumulative national capability. The lack of post-Crimea Western mil-to-mil contact with Russia as well as a collective Arctic security forum continues to suppress opportunities to build trust and confidence with purpose. Eventually, the United States and NATO will increase military capabilities and presence in the Arctic, and without dialogue, misunderstanding of intent and perceptions, among other things, will likely worsen.
Defence organizations often track sensitive, conflict-laden issues within categories often known as elevated, escalated, and the most dangerous, zones of miscalculation. Other issues involve tensions regarding international maritime law and increased control over disputed Arctic waters Russia considers internal. Such an ‘excessive maritime claim’, per the United States, would likely benefit from defence discussions and subsequent counsel amongst individual national authorities. Most recently, the United States and United Kingdom conducted a naval exercise in the Barents Sea from 03 – 08 May 2020. Although advanced notification was provided to Russia and the media largely conflated the event and meaning, Russian authorities were able to conduct observations and consequently reported findings (figure 1). While characterizing the exercise as provocative, Russian authorities noted that Northern Fleet capabilities effectively deployed to track NATO weapons and thereby avoid any incidents. When conducting the official briefing, Colonel-General Rudskoy stated that “the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has always adhered to a course aimed at building a constructive dialogue with NATO” and furthermore, emphasized European concerns that “all our proposals to reduce military tension and prevent incidents were set forth in a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In fact, our suggestions were ignored.” Although possibly a demonstration of aggrandized rhetoric, such messages could be much different through use of military diplomacy and dialogue. National interests are often conveyed through strategic communications and military activities, and as a component of foreign-policy objectives already, the addition of deliberate discourse can leverage the influence of military capability and experience toward purposeful defence diplomacy.
Figure 1: Russian Ministry of Defence briefing on recent NATO activity in the Arctic
Source: Russian Ministry of Defence
Sustaining Meaningful Diplomatic Outcomes
The pace at which media attention and policy rhetoric is focusing on calls of a ‘new’ Cold War in the Arctic is representative of renewed global attention in the High North. Ultimately, in an age of social media, this attention creates strategic fog for northern stakeholders and indeed can cultivate strategic distrust further between Arctic neighbors. All the official dialogue in the world matters little unless it can be sustained and implemented meaningfully. Nor can a representative principal and staff conduct hasty preparations and expect to be effective during diplomatic maneuvering and negotiations. An established cycle of dialogue helps to develop and enable an active national program that requires substantial time, money and effort toward preparations that categorically culminate through the dialogue events. Such processes foster purposeful information development and sharing by Arctic defence staffs, both domestically and within the network, further elevating an understanding of each other’s’ policies, strategies and intent. Furthermore, regularly scheduled diplomatic events require continuous learning and processing, leading to more sustained and confident diplomatic outcomes as opposed to sporadic events.
Preparation involves more than studying different tier-level issues. A delegation must be effectively empowered to participate in a diplomatic setting, to include delivery and status of domestic positions on matters, extent and limits of compromise on issues, and introduction of propositions and interests, to name a few. Such preparations also require domestic prioritization of issues and executive agency synchronization as well as input in order to avoid inadvertent internal marginalization of national interests – again, not nearly as efficacious in an ad hoc fashion. At the same time, a major component of successful preparations – far more complex and difficult – requires an understanding of adversarial as well as competitive positions on agenda and relevant non-agenda items. Indeed, it can be a very bad day when a delegation is diplomatically outmaneuvered as a result of inadequate preparation on a reasonably expected issue. This circumstance might represent a best-case scenario when a competitor out-prepares another and scores a diplomatic win without the need to give up anything through a compromise on equal settings. Such an instance occurred on Day 10 of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a UN Security Council meeting, when US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson thoroughly ‘dressed down’ Soviet Ambassador Zorin through superior preparation in anticipation of the USSR position. Similarly with regard to the Arctic, having a forum ready to host this security discussion could be the difference in preventing Arctic conflict, especially when domestic and foreign goals tend to universally prefer that issues remain within the cooperative or competitive realm. The Arctic is naturally geared for sustaining diplomatic outcomes and ironically, all Arctic states hold a common strategic interest: stability.
Additionally, the value of multinational defence dialogue not only benefits from agreements, but also in the development and implementation of national strategies. Domestic policies can significantly gain advantage from positive results of dialogue as well as clarification of issues involving tension, not to mention reference to the forum itself as a venue of reliable structured discussion. Furthermore, such fora often facilitate and promote inclusivity and coverage of issues through agenda setting. However, while agendas can be abused by more influential states, today’s advanced understanding and conduct of diplomacy and negotiation can help overcome inequalities through thoughtful charter establishment.
Many fora already exist to address most issues in the Arctic from a circumpolar perspective (see Figure 2). The Arctic Council provides an excellent forum to jointly tackle environmental issues and scientific research, and it also has provided an excellent platform to negotiate several joint agreements between the Arctic states, such as search and rescue, oil spill response, and scientific cooperation. The International Maritime Organization provided a framework to negotiate the Polar Code for shipping traffic in the Arctic. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum proves to be excellent at discussing and solving shared maritime law and regulatory challenges across the Arctic. The Arctic Economic Council facilitates sustainable Arctic economic and business development. A glaring gap in these fora is one that addresses Arctic security or defence issues. The need for an Arctic security forum is clear. Given the increasing re-militarization of the Arctic in recent years and unproductive rhetoric likely to continue, the time to establish an Arctic security forum has already passed. Dialogue between senior Arctic defence leaders and their staffs could complement other Arctic national efforts through the conduct of military diplomacy, leading to enhanced mutual understanding of defence challenges as well as the prevention of unintended conflict escalation.
Figure 2. Example of Current Arctic Organizations and Responsibilities
To move our proposal forward, we offer the following considerations as areas for further research. First, initiative could be seized by Moscow during its forthcoming Arctic Council Chairmanship (2021-2023) to officially propose and promote a forum – an enterprise opportunity completely separate from the work of the Arctic Council yet benefits from the overall Arctic emphasis during its leadership. Moreover, Russia could craft the forum and keep it void of mandated leadership, instead recommending an acceptable rotation schedule – similar or otherwise to the Arctic Council. Second, in terms of the security forum’s construct, we see three viable options. Option A: The forum is limited to the Arctic Eight defence authorities and their select delegations. This is the ideal approach as it affords the most lateral movement for military diplomacy in the Arctic. Option B: Implement Option A but also develop an observer mandate. Using similar criteria to that of the Arctic Council, this would allow for NATO to engage as a clear subordinate to Russia. This signal acknowledges Moscow’s concerns and perhaps also helps get around NATO’s ‘limited engagement with Russia’ policy still in effect. Most importantly, this option ensures that any potential NATO forum role develops under Russian required consensus. This option also easily extends toward further research consideration and potential roles of other interested participants, such as China. A final study option is Option C: the development of a security forum led by the Arctic ‘Western’ states with an offer extended to Russia to join. This may be the least viable option given Moscow would likely reject ‘junior partner’ overtures. Additionally, the current fragmented Arctic defence efforts somewhat demonstrate problems with this option.
The Arctic needs a productive forum for military dialogue – one already established, functioning well and possessing the institutional maturity ready to confront future strategic challenges. It is in the best interests of the Arctic region to have a credible body in place to navigate and preemptively negotiate military-security issues and threats involving mutual interests. Military tensions in the Arctic could severely marginalize years of stabilizing accomplishments, not the least of which includes critical natural resource and environmental activities. Compelled dialogue driven by negative incidents will only invoke frustrated hindsight from stakeholders and concerned advocates. The situation is clear, and prospects obvious. Defence authorities should pursue the opportunity to effectively steer military-related Arctic security issues before circumstances force preventable crisis management.
*Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is Lecturer of Strategic Studies with Deakin University for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC) at the Australian War College and a Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. Dr. Buchanan holds a Ph.D. in Russian Arctic strategy from the Australian National University and was recently the Visiting Maritime Fellow at the NATO Defense College. Experiences also include a recent discussion she moderated with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, during an official visit to Australia.
Michael J. Young is a Fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy focusing on Arctic policy and security. He is a retired Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State whose tours include working as the Arctic Affairs Officer in the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs and the Foreign Policy Advisor to Special Operations Command North, where he also focused on Arctic issues. He was the U.S. Head of Delegation to the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group from 2013-15. He previously served as a Surface Warfare Officer and nuclear engineer with the U.S. Navy for 15 years.
The Nuclear future of East Asia
In the face of North Korea and China’s continuous expansion and advancement in their nuclear arsenal in the past decade, the nuclear question for East Asian countries is now more urgent than ever—especially when U.S.’s credibility of extended deterrence has been shrinking since the post-cold war era. Whether to acquire independent nuclear deterrent has long been a huge controversy, with opinions rather polarized. Yet it is noteworthy that there is indeed gray zone between zero and one—the degree of latency nuclear deterrence.
This paper suggests that developing nuclear weapons may not be the wise choice for East Asian countries at the moment, however, given the fact that regional and international security in the Asia-Pacific is deemed to curtail, regardless of their decision to go nuclear or not, East Asia nations should increase their latency nuclear deterrence. In other words, even if they do not proceed to the final stage of acquiring independent nuclear deterrent, a latent nuclear weapons capability should at least be guaranteed. Meanwhile, for those who have already possessed certain extent of nuclear latency—for instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—to shorten their breakout time whilst minimize obstacles for a possible nuclearization in the future.
The threat is ever-present—The Nuclear North Korea
Viewing from a realist perspective, the geographical locations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have always been a valid argument for their nuclearization—being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, namely China and North Korea—these countries have witnessed an escalation of threat on an unprecedented scale since the cold war.
Having its first nuclear weapon tested in 2006, the total inventory North Korea now possess is estimated to be 30-40. With the misstep of relieving certain sanction during the Trump era, North Korea was able to revive and eventually expand its nuclear arsenal, making future negotiation between the Biden administration and the Kim regime much harder and less effective. Not only has North Korea’s missile test on March 25—which is the first since Mr. Biden’s presidency—signaled a clear message to the U.S. and her allies of its nuclearization will and stance, Pyongyang’s advancement in nuclear technologies also indicates a surging extent of threat.
For instance, North Korea state media KCNA claimed that the latest missile launched was a “new-type tactical guided projectile” which is capable of performing “gliding and pull-up” manoeuvres with an “improved version of a solid fuel engine”. In addition to these suspected “new type of missiles” that travels in low-attitude, the diversity of launches Pyongyang currently possess—from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as well as the transporter erector launchers (TELs) and the cold launch system—increase the difficulty in intercepting them via Aegis destroyer or other ballistic missile defense system since it is onerous, if not impossible, to detect the exact time and venue of the possible launches. Indeed, the “new type of missile” could potentially render South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) useless by evading radar detection system through its manoeuvres, according to a study from 38 North at The Henry L. Stimson Center.
Moreover, the cold launch (perpendicular launch) system used by the North also indicates that multiple nuclear weapons could be fired from the same launch pad without severely damages caused to the infrastructure. Shigeru Ishiba, the former Defense Minister of Japan, has noted that not all incoming missiles would be able to be intercepted with the country’s missile defense system, and “even if that is possible, we cannot perfectly respond to saturation attacks”.
The Chinese nuclear arsenal
According to the SIPRI yearbook 2020, China’s total inventory of nuclear deterrent has reached 320, exceeding United Kingdom and France’s possession of nuclear warheads, of which London and Paris’s nuclear deterrent were considered as limited deterrence. In spite of the fact that China’s current nuclear stockpiles is still far less that what the Russians and Americans have, its nuclear technologies has been closely following the two military superpowers. For instance, the Chinese have successfully developed Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRVs) and Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle (MARVs)—its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) DF-41 is capable of equipping up to 10 MIRVs while its Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) DF-21D could carry MARV warhead that poses challenges to the BMD systems—these advancement in nuclear technologies are the solid proof that the Chinese nukes are only steps away from Moscow and Washington. Yet China’s nuclear arsenal remains unchecked and is not confined by any major nuclear arms reduction treaty such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), of which US and Russia has just reached a mutual consensus to extend the treaty through Feb 4, 2026.
In addition to China’s expansion of military capabilities and ambition in developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and new MARVs, there is no lack of scepticism of its no-first use policy, especially with Beijing’s coercive diplomacy and provocative actions in the East and South China Sea, regarding “freedom of navigation” and other sovereignty rights issues. These all raise concerns and generate insecurity from neighboring countries and hence, East Asia states i.e. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would inevitably have to reconsider their nuclear option.
In spite of having advanced BMD system, for instance, Aegis Destroyer (Japan), THAAD (South Korea), Sky Bow III (Taiwan), the existing and emerging nuclear arsenal in Pyongyang and Beijing still leave East Asian states vulnerable under a hypothetical attack as mentioned above. Future could be worse than it seems—merely having deterrence by denial is not sufficient to safeguard national security—particularly with a shrinking credibility of U.S.’s extended deterrence since the post-cold war era.
America’s nuclear umbrella and the Alliance Dilemma
Theoretically speaking, alliance relations with the U.S. assure a certain extent of deterrence by punishment against hostile adversaries. For example, U.S. is committed to defend Japan under the 1960 Mutual Defense Treaty. Yet in reality, security could never be guaranteed. In a realist lens, state could not rely on others to defend their national interests, especially when it puts America’s homeland security at risk. Is U.S. willing to sacrifice Washington for Tokyo? Or New York for Seoul?
Strong rhetoric or even defense pact would not be able to ensure collective security, let alone strategic ambiguity, which is a strategy adopted by Washington for Taipei that is neither a binding security commitment nor the stance is clear. Regardless of the prospect of a better future than mere war and chaos, state should always prepare for the worst.
Besides, with Trump’s American First policy continuously undermining alliance relations in the past four years, East Asian countries may find it hard to restore mutual trust since diplomatic tracks are irreversible, despite Biden’s administration intention and effort to repair alliance and U.S.’s integrity as the global leader.
Moreover, even if alliance relations and credibility of extended deterrence is robust at the moment, but the bigger question is—could and should East Asian countries shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella forever? If they choose not to go nuclear, these states would be constantly threatened by their nuclear-armed neighbors, without a credible direct (nuclear) deterrence to safeguard national security; and forced to negotiate, or worse, compromise in the face of a possible nuclear extortion.
Undeniably, horizontal nuclear proliferation is always risky. Not only is it likely to deteriorate diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, but also generates a (nuclear) regional arms race that eventually trap all nations into a vicious circle of security dilemma due to the lack of mutual trust in an anarchical system, which will consequently lead to a decrease in regional, as well as international security.
Yet with the expansion and advancement of Pyongyang and Beijing’s nuclear arsenal, regional and international security is deemed to curtail, regardless of East Asian countries’ decisions to go nuclear or not. As the official members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Japan’s and South Korea’s withdrawal may encourage other current non-nuclear weapon state to develop nukes. However, current existence of the NPT has already proven futile to prevent North Korea from acquiring its own nuclear weapons; or Israel, India and Pakistan, who are UN members but have never signed any of the treaties, to join the nuclear club.
The major concern about nuclear proliferation is never about the amount of warhead one possesses, but if they are in the wrong hands; for instance, a “rogue” state like North Korea. It is almost certain than none of the latent nuclear East Asia states would be considered “rogue” but just developed nations with rational calculation. In fact, the actual risk for these states joining the nuclear club in reality is not as high as most imagined. It may, indeed, help further bolster alliance relations between U.S., Japan and South Korea if they are able to come to some mutual consensuses in advance—developing independent nuclear deterrent is not an approach of alienating America’s presence as an effective ally but to strengthen security commitment with each other, and that US would support her allies in the Asia-Pacific in such attempt. The current existence of extended deterrence should not be a barrier for nuclearization. Rather, it should act as an extra protection for allied states.
Pave the way for future nuclearization
Admittedly, the road for any East Asia countries to go nuclear would be tough. Taipei’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons would imaginably trigger provocative response from Beijing, if not impossible, a pre-emptive strike that could lead to an escalation of war. Same situation goes for Seoul and Pyongyang even though the risk is relatively lower. As for Japan, although direct military confrontation is less likely comparing to Seoul and Taipei, the challenges Tokyo face for its nuclear option is no easier than any of them.
As the sole nation that has suffered from an atomic bomb explosion, Japan’s pacifism and anti-nuclear sentiment is embedded in its culture and society. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Sankei News in 2017, 17.7% of the respondents agreed that “Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons in the future” whilst 79.1% opposed to that idea. Despite having the imperative skills and technologies for an acquisition of independent nuclear deterrent (the breakout time for Japan is estimated to be about 6-12 months), Japan also lacks natural resources for producing nuclear warheads and has to rely heavily on uranium imports. Upholding the three non-nuclear principle since WWII, Japan’s bilateral nuclear agreements with the U.S., U.K, France and Australia specified that all imported nuclear-related equipment and materials “must be used only for the non-military purposes”. Violation of these agreements may result in sanctions that could cause devastated effect on Japan’s nuclear energy program, which supplies approximately 30% of the nation’s total electricity production. These issues, however, are not irresolvable.
Undeniably, it may take time and effort to negotiate new agreements and to change people’s pacifism into an “active pacifism”, yet these should not be the justifications to avoid the acquisition of independent nuclear deterrent as ensuring national security should always be the top priority. It is because in face of a nuclear extortion, the effectiveness of a direct nuclear deterrence guaranteed by your own country could not be replaced by any other measures such as deterrence by denial via BMD system or deterrence by punishment via extended deterrence and defense pact. Therefore, if there are too many obstacles ahead, then perhaps the wiser choice for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the moment is to increase their nuclear latency deterrence, shorten the breakout time and pave their way clear for future nuclearization. In other words, to keep their nuclear option open and be able to play offense and defense at its own will when the time comes.
Nevertheless, in addition to strengthening one’s latency nuclear deterrence, as well as obtaining a more equal relationship in the official and unofficial alliance with America, East Asian countries that have similar interest and common enemies should united to form a new military alliance which included security treaty regarding collective defense like the NATO; and focuses more on countering hybrid warfare like the QUAD. If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan ever choose to go nuclear, a common mechanism could be established to ensure that these states would pursue a minimum to limited deterrence capability that do not endanger each other’s security but rather to strengthen it, which would help minimizing the destabilization brought to regional security while constituting a more balanced situation with nuclear-armed rivalries.
After all, proliferation may not be the best solution, it is certainly not the worst either.
From our partner International Affairs
Test of Agni Prime Missile and India’s Counterforce Temptations
South Asia is widely regarded as one of the most hostile regions of the world primarily because of the troubled relations between the two nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan. The complex security dynamics have compelled both the countries to maintain nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis each other. India is pursuing an extensive and all-encompassing military modernization at the strategic and operational level. In this regard, India has been involved in the development of advanced missiles as delivery systems and improvement in the existing delivery systems as well. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are solely aimed at India; however, India aspires to fight a ‘two-front war’ against Pakistan and China. Therefore, the size and capability of its nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are aimed at countering both threats. However, most of the recent missile delivery systems made by India appear to be more Pakistan-centric. One recent example in this regard is the recently tested nuclear-capable cannisterized ballistic missile Agni Prime, which is insinuated as Pakistan-centric. These developments would likely further provoke an action-reaction spiral and would increase the pace of conflict in South Asia, which ultimately could result in the intensification of the missile arms race.
Just quite recently, on 28th June 2021, India has successfully tested an advanced variant of its Agni missile series, namely Agni Prime or Agni (P). The missile has a range between 1000-2000 kilometers. Agni Prime is a new missile in the Agni missiles series, with improved accuracy and less weight than Agni 1, 2, and 3 missiles. It has been said that the Agni-P weighs 50 % less than the Agni-3 missile. As per the various media reports, this missile would take the place of Agni 1 and 2 and Prithvi missiles, however officially no such information is available. This new missile and whole Agni series is developed as part of the missile modernization program under the Defence Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) integrated guided missile development program.
Agni-P is a short missile with less weight and ballistic trajectory, the missile has a rocket-propelled, self-guided strategic weapons system capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Moreover, the missile is cannisterized with the ability to be launched from road and rail. The DRDO claimed that the test flight of the missile was monitored by the telemetry radar stations and its trajectory met all the objectives of the mission successfully with high level of accuracy. Agni-P missile because of its range of 1000 to 2000 km is considered a weapon against Pakistan because within this range it cannot target China. Although, India already has different missiles in its inventory with the same range as the newly developed and tested Agni-P missile, so the question arises what this missile would achieve.
Since the last few years, it has been deliberated within the international security discourse that India’s force posture is actually more geared towards counterforce options rather than counter-value options. Although, India’s nuclear doctrine after its operationalization in 2003, claims “massive retaliation” and “nfu” but in reality with developing cannisterized weapons like Agni-P, Agni 5, and testing of hypersonic demonstrative vehicles, India actually is building its capability of “counterforce targeting” or “splendid first strike”. This reflects that India’s nuclear doctrine is just a façade and has no real implication on India’s force modernization.
These developments by India where it is rapidly developing offensive technologies put the regional deterrence equation under stress by increasing ambiguity. In a region like South Asia, where both nuclear rivals are neighbors and distance between both capitals are few thousand kilometers and missile launch from one side would take only a few minutes in reaching its target, ambiguity would increase the fog of war and put other actors, in this case, Pakistan in “use it or lose it” situation, as its nuclear deterrent would be under threat.
In such a situation, where Pakistan maintains that nuclear weapons are its weapons of last resort and to counter threats emerging from India, its nuclear deterrence has to hold the burden of covering all spectrums of threat. It might be left with no choice but to go for the development of a new kind of missile delivery system, probably the cannisterized missile systems as an appropriate response option. However, as Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence is based on principle of “CMD” which allow Pakistan to seek deterrence in a cost-effective manner and also by not indulging in an arms race. Therefore, other than the threat of action-reaction dynamic developments like Agni P by India, would make weapons more accurate and lethal, subsequently conflict would be faster, ambiguous, and with less time to think. In such a scenario, as chances of miscalculation increase, the escalation dynamics would become more complex; thus, further undermining the deterrence stability in South Asia.
India’s counter-force temptations and development of offensive weapons are affecting the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia. The deterrence equation is not getting affected just because India is going ahead with the development of offensive technologies but because of its continuous attempts of negating the presence of mutual vulnerability between both countries. Acknowledgement of existence of mutual vulnerability would strengthen the deterrence equation in the region and help both countries to move forward from the action-reaction spiral and arms race. The notions such as the development of offensive or counterforce technology or exploiting the levels below the nuclear threshold to fight a war would not be fruitful in presence of nuclear weapons. As nuclear weapons are weapons to avert the war and not to fight the war.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems & The Annihilistic Future
The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones were introduced as a useful means to military, commercial, civilian and humanitarian activities but yet it ends up in news for none of its original purposes. Drones have rather resulted as a means of mass destruction.
The recent attacks on the technical area of the Jammu Air Force Station highlights the same. This was a first-of-its-kind terror attack on IAF station rather the Indian defence forces that shook the National Investigation Agency to National Security Guard. The initial probe into the attacks directs to involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based out of Pakistan, in the drone attacks as the aerial distance from the point of attack was just 14 kilometers. The attacks took place via an Electric multi-rotor type drone between 11:30 P.M to 1:30 A.M on 27th June, 2021.
The above incident clearly points out the security issues that lie ahead of India in face to the asymmetrical warfare as a result of drones. The Indian Government after looking at the misuse of drones during the first wave of the pandemic realised that its drone regulations were nowhere sufficient and accountable and hence passed the Unmmaned Aircraft Rules, 2021. These rules imposed stricter requirement for obtaining license and authorisations by remote pilots, operators, manufacturers or importers, training organisations and R&D organisations, thereby placing a significantly high burden on the applicants but at the same time they also permit UAS operations beyond visual sight of line and allowing student remote pilots to operate UAS.
But these rules still don’t have any control on the deadly use of drones because multi-rotor drones are very cheap and readily available and what makes them lethal is their ability to be easily detected, additionally the night time makes it even worse. Their small size grants them weak radar, thermal, and aural signatures, albeit varying based on the materials used in their construction.
The pertinent issue to be understood here is that these rules can never ensure safety and security as they cannot control the purpose for which these drones maybe used. There are certain factors that are to be accounted to actually be receptive to such imminent and dangerous threats. Firstly, significantly increasing urban encroachments in areas around defence establishments, particularly air bases, has proved to be fatal. If frontline bases like Jammu or be it any other base when surrounded by unbuffered civilization poses two pronged problems, first it acts as high chances of being a vantage point for possible attackers and second, it also hampering the defence mechanism to come to an action. It is not limited to drone concerns but there have been cases of increased bird activity that has once resulted in engine failure of an IAF Jaguar and has caused similar problems all along.
Another important factor is that of intelligence. The Anti-drone systems will take their time to be in place and it is still a distant call to ascertain how effective will these systems be, so in the time being it is pertinent to focus on intelligence which may include sales and transfers of commercial drone, or the hardware that is required to build a basic multi-rotor drone. These are not something extraordinary because it is even in news when Pakistani drones were being used to supply weapons and ammunition to terror networks on Indian soil. Also, the past experience in handling ISIS have shown the weightage of intelligence over defensive nets.
Intelligence is no doubt a crucial factor in anticipation of drone attacks but what cannot be done away with is the defense mechanism. Efficient counter-drone technology is the need of the hour. DRDO has developed such technology that could provide the armed forces with the capability to swiftly detect, intercept and destroy small drones that pose a security threat. It is claimed that solution consists of a radar system that offers 360-degree coverage with detection of micro drones when they are 4km away, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors for detection of micro drones up to 2 km and a radio frequency (RF) detector to detect RF communication up to 3 km and is equipped for both soft kills as well as hard kills.
Hence, the above analysis brings out the need of the application of an international instrument because the technology used in such drone attacks is at an evolving stage and the natural barriers still have an upper hand over be it either flying a pre-programmed path aided by satellite navigation and inertial measurement units (IMUs), or hand controlled to the point of release or impact, both methods have significant limitations as satellite and IMU navigation is prone to errors even when it comes to moderate flight ranges while manual control is subject to the human limitations such as line of sight, visibility as well as technical limitations such as distance estimation of the target, and weak radio links. An example of this could be the Turkish-made Kargu-2 model of killer drone can allegedly autonomously track and kill specific targets on the basis of facial recognition and Artificial Intelligence (AI). As the AI becomes better and better, these drone attacks become more and more terminal.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an eye opener for India as well as the world as none of the countries considered the possibility of bio-defenses or made a heavy investment in it even when there was awareness about lethal effects of genetic engineering. Hence, it should be the priority of the government to invest heavily in research and make the development of defensive technologies a national priority else the result of artificially intelligent killer drones would be much more catastrophic.
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