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A Summit of Consequence? Great Power Diplomacy and Inadvertent Nuclear War

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In a surrealist year…. some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

While serious questions continue to emerge from the recently-completed Geneva summit,[1] one concern should remain front and center. This is the more-or-less calculable prospect of inadvertent nuclear war, an existential hazard that is integral to America’s deterrence-based framework of national security. This prospect is still expanding.

A Process of Continuous Reassessment

What can be done? For clarifying analyses, periodic re-assessments will be needed. To begin, though an accidental nuclear war would always be inadvertent, not every inadvertent nuclear war need be the result of an accident. Other forms of unintentional nuclear conflict would be the outcome of human misjudgment and/or technical miscalculation. This is the case whether a bellum atomicum were spawned by singular nation-state error or both sides to an ongoing two-party nuclear crisis escalation.

               Also significant here could be various “synergies” (whether foreseen or unanticipated) arising between particular misjudgments or miscalculations.

               Conceptual understanding will always be key. In synergistic intersections, the cumulative “whole” of any specific combination must be greater than the sum of all pertinent “parts.” The quantifiable outcome of two discrete national decisions would be more consequential than a result suggested only by arithmetic summations. Moreover, this heightened importance could be tangible, intangible or somewhere in-between.

Needed Analytic Clarifications

               Above all, these are complex intellectual or analytic issues. They are not mundane or trivial matters amenable to narrow political resolution. The abundant risks of deliberate nuclear war and inadvertent nuclear war could be assessed independently of one another.[2] Accordingly, US President Joe Biden should prepare to deal systematically with variously plausible manifestations of cyber-attack and cyber-war. And these high-technology threats ought to be considered in conjunction with simultaneously expanding activities of “digital mercenaries.”

               In science, language matters. Dangerous false warnings could be generated by different types of technical malfunction or by third-party hacking interference, but should not be included under the causes of an inadvertent nuclear war. Rather, these false warnings would present as cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war. Always, both narratives warrant intellect-based elucidations. While now sounding obvious prima facie, national security decision-making during the Trump era was often incoherent and generally disjointed.

               There are also issues of geometry. Recognizing the territorial loci of prospective nuclear threats to the United States, these corresponding issues should focus especially on Russia, China and North Korea. Concessions offered to Mr. Biden by Russian President Putin might not be meaningfully reassuring vis-à-vis variably unpredictable perils originating from China and/or North Korea. Reciprocally, Mr. Putin could have good reason to be concerned about US concessions offered on behalf of South Korea, Japan and/or specific NATO member states.

               In strategic terms, there is more. Metaphorically, for the United States, there are additional “flies in the ointment.” In coming years, partially because Trump-era “toughness” was wholly contrived and effectively accelerated Iran’s determined efforts at nuclearization, that country, now led by a more conspicuously hardline president, will more likely and more expeditiously join the “nuclear club.” For both President Biden and President Putin,[3] such membership will substantially complicate certain critical elements of national security decision-making.

               Miscalculation and Escalation Dominance

                For Joe Biden’s senior policy planners, conceptual clarity should become a more evident sine qua non for resolving national security problems. In this regard, most worrisome among credible causes of an inadvertent nuclear war would be various errors in calculation committed by one or both sides. The most evident example here would likely involve those assorted misjudgments of adversarial intent or capacity that emerge in determinable conformance with crisis escalation. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an amplified desire by one or several crisis-contending parties to achieve “escalation dominance.”[4]

               Plausibly, in such foreseeable crisis conditions, all rational contenders would strive for escalation dominance without risking high odds[5] of total or near-total destruction. Expectedly, of course, wherever one or several contending adversaries would not appear suitably rational, all usual deterrence “bets” would be off. Most immediately worrisome for the United States should be North Korea. Former US President Donald Trump’s statement that he and Kim Jung Un had “fallen in love” at the Singapore Summit provides no reasonable comfort for still-thinking Americans.[6]

               None at all.

               Nonetheless, false comfort remains a plausible American objective. Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               There exist other potential causes of an inadvertent nuclear war. These causes include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings;  an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one side or the other (or both); adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état among contending adversaries; and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among pertinent presumptive foes.[7]

               There is more. Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by the United States itself or by any of its relevant adversaries. Recalling Carl von Clausewitz On War, even the “simplest” problems could sometime prove “very difficult.”

Rationality and Irrationality

               Strategic thinking would never be “simple.” A potential source of inadvertent nuclear war involving the United States could be “backfire” effect from variously untested strategies of “pretended irrationality.” In principle, at least, a rational enemy that had managed to convince Washington of its decisional irrationality could sometime spark an American military preemption. Conversely, an adversarial leadership that had begun to take seriously any hints of decisional irrationality in Washington might be frightened into striking first itself.

               “Everything is very simple in war,” says von Clausewitz, “but even the simplest thing is very difficult.”

               Once again, metaphor may be instructive. Joe Biden must be wary of “nightmare.” According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary says this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which regarded nightmares as the product of demons. This would make it a play on, or a translation of, the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In all such interpretations of nightmare, the inherently non-rational idea of demonic origin is central.

               Today, for the United States, the demons of nuclear strategy and nuclear war take a markedly different form. For the most part, their mien is neither confused nor frightful, but rational and ordinary. If these demons are ever thought to be sinister, it is not because America’s adversaries necessarily crave war or wanton bloodshed, but because they may be seeking maximum safety amid a rapidly growing global chaos.[8]

               That primal search could be rational.

               While the state of nations has always been in the “state of nature”[9] – at least since the seventeenth century and the historic Peace of Westphalia (1648) – current conditions of nuclear capacity and worldwide anarchy portend an expanding cauldron of possible aggressions.[10] Among other things, the correct explanation for such dire portents lies in the indispensability of rational decision-making to viable nuclear deterrence,[11] and in the interpenetrating fact that rational decision-making may suddenly become subject to massively corrosive deteriorations.

The Importance of Synergy

 Now, even after surviving a persistently dissembling Trump strategic policy, America faces formidable national security risks that remain immediate and existential. Such risks can be fully understood only in light of believable or at least conceivable intersections arising between them. Such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion based on formal logic, and not on any actual history); on occasion, some of these reinforcing intersections could prove synergistic. Contradicting what we first learned in primary school, this means that the “whole” of  intersectional risk effects could be greater than the discernible sum of all component “parts.”[12]

 Presumptively, under US Constitutional law (Article l), holding Congressional war-declaring expectations aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would warrant obedience. To conclude otherwise in such incomparably dire circumstances would be law-violating. In essence, any chain-of-command disobedience in these circumstances would be impermissible on its face.

Ordering an American “First Use”

 There is more. Any American president could order the first use of American nuclear weapons if this country were not under actual nuclear attack. In principle at least, some further strategic and legal distinctions need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.” While there does exist an elementary but still-substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that former President Donald Trump failed to understand. The nation survived this experience with a profoundly unsuitable president, but previous episodes of luck need not be meaningfully predictive.

               Trump is gone.  Still, with even a more reasonably thinking president at the helm, structural decisional risks obtain.[13] Quo Vadis? Where should President Joe Biden go from here on managing such plainly urgent security issues? A coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared in response to the following basic question:

               If faced with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such variable expressions of disobedience?

               In such unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of principal possible outcomes. This is because all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. Any other bases could provide only a more-or-less intelligent guess.

               In any prospectively relevant matters of nuclear war, there could be nopertinent past events. Though this is a fortunate absence, of course, it remains one that would stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. Whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is the present.

Facing Already-Nuclear North Korea

               In the specifically urgently matter of North Korea,[14] President Biden must take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants Trump-style calculations. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own willingness to push the nuclear envelope, America’s current president could sometime find himself faced with an intolerably stark choice. This would be deciding between outright capitulation and nuclear war.

How to choose?

               To avoid being placed in any such portentously limited option environment, Mr. Biden should understand from the start that having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button,” to use his predecessor’s unfortunate metaphor) might not bestow any bargaining advantage. To the contrary, it could generate or reinforce unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and certain resultant forms of strategic miscalculation. In any such unfamiliar, many-sided and basically unprecedented matters, size might truly “matter,”but inversely.

Although counter-intuitive and ironic, a nuclear force of exclusively high-yield destructiveness could appear militarily less credible and/or diplomatically less persuasive.

               Within the broad parameters of Realpolitik[15] or geopolitics, the field of nuclear policy decision-making is largely without tangible precedent. While the search for “escalation dominance” may be common to all imaginable sorts of military deal-making, the plausible costs of nuclear bargaining losses would likely be incomparable. After all, no other losses could reasonably be compared to losses in a nuclear war, whether intentional, inadvertent or accidental.

               Never.

               In such a war, whether occasioned by miscalculation, human error or hacking-type interference, there could be no identifiable “winner,” Even after the United States was able to survive the egregious moral and intellectual debilities of Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of significant and generic risks continue to obtain. Looking ahead, the very best way for America to forestall being placed in extremis atomicum is for President Joe Biden to stay focused on intellectual[16] and analytic explanatory factors. On all such complex matters, narrowly political judgments should always be deemed unworthy and extraneous.

Turning to the Poets

               Sometimes the poet sees more clearly than the policy-maker.[17] Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti, America should never allow itself to be caught unaware on the “nineteenth green.”[18] In playing such high-stakes “games” as nuclear strategy and escalation dominance, there could be no comforting “do overs.” Instead, at any late stage of bargaining and brinksmanship, even a single and seemingly minor “loss” could prove grievously lethal and irreversible. If the recent June 2021 Swiss summit between Presidents Biden and Putin is ever to be regarded as successful, there will first have to be determinably calculable progress on several intersecting fronts.

Most important of all, perhaps, will be the prevention of inadvertent nuclear war.[19]


[1] See: https://geneva.usmission.gov/genevasummit/

[2] The respective physical harms of course would be the same. For earlier looks at the expected consequences of  nuclear war effects by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986). 

[3] Ipso facto, this “joining” would significantly impact Israel, and its own still-evolving nuclear strategy This author, Professor Louis René Beres, was Chair of “Project Daniel” (PM Sharon) in 2003-2004. See his Report to Mr. Sharon, Israel’s Strategic Future (ACPR):  http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm.  See also: Louis René Beres,  https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol37/iss1/2/; Louis René Beres,  https://besacenter.org/us-iran-war-israel/; and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016 (2nd ed. 2018):  https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy.

[4] This goal would be a specific iteration of a traditional search for “victory.” But on pertinenhttps://besacenter.org/us-iran-war-israel/t risks, by this author, see, at Oxford University Press, Louis René Beres:  https://blog.oup.com/2016/04/war-political-victories/

[5]The measurable criteria of “severe risk” here would necessarily remain subjective.

[6] When meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un on June 11, 2018, Trump dismissed all usual presidential obligations to prepare. Instead, he emphasized offhandedly: “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s all about attitude.”

[7] The problem of such pre-delegations was examined by this author much earlier in his Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980) and in articles co-authored with General John T. Chain, a former Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command: See Professor Beres and General Chain: https://besacenter.org/living-iran-israels-strategic-imperative-2/  See also Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely deter a Nuclear Iran? The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel; and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. Though dealing with Israeli rather than American nuclear deterrence, these articles are fundamentally conceptual and clarify variously common analytic policy elements.

[8] Whether it is described in the Old Testament or any other major sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can be viewed as something positive, even a source of human betterment. Here, chaos is taken as that which prepares the world for all things, both sacred and profane. As its conspicuous etymology reveals, chaos further represents the yawning gulf or gap wherein nothing is as yet, but where all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate. Appropriately, the classical German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic which stands at the roots of the things and which prepares all things.” Even in the pagan ancient world, the Greeks thought of such a desert as logos, which should indicate to us today that it was never presumed to be starkly random or without evident merit.

[9] Says Thomas Hobbes: “But though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet in all times, Kings and Persons of Sovereign Authority, because of their Independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another…(Leviathan).

[10] On the actual crime of aggression under international law, see: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[11] In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on very specific meanings. More precisely, an actor (state or sub-state) is presumed determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of conceivable preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[12] See earlier, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School): https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[13] See by this author, Louis René Beres, at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:  https://thebulletin.org/biography/louis-rene-beres/; and Louis René Beres,  at US Army War College, The War Room: https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/

[14] See, by this author, at Yale Global: Yale University: Louis René Beres, https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/too-late-north-korea-denuclearization.  See also, by Professor Beres, at War Room (West Point):  https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/author/louis-rene-beres/

[15]  The classic statement of Realpolitik or power politics in western philosophy is the comment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” (See Plato, The Republic, 29, Benjamin Jowett, tr., World Publishing Company, 1946.) See also: Cicero’s oft-quoted query: “For what can be done against force without force?” Marcus Tullus Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to his Friends, 78 (D.R. Shackleton Baily tr., Scholars Press, 1988).

[16] The Founding Fathers of the United States, including early presidents, were intellectuals. More precisely, as explained by American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[17] Before “Beat” poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, there was the avant-garde of Zürich Dada, most notably Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. Like “Beat,” Dada urged an expanding relationship between life and art, one where art can not only enrich life, but help to better understand and elucidate it.

[18] Underlying the technical issues here are individual citizen identifications with sentiments of belligerent nationalism, identifications that were strongly encouraged by former US President Donald J. Trump. In the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[19] The emphasis here on inadvertent rather than intentional nuclear war reflects this author’s subjective judgement of relative probabilities. Also, acknowledging world politics as a system, Washington will increasingly have to consider the role of Israel’s nuclear strategy vis-à-vis a still-nuclearizing Iran, a role with patently serious and substantial implications for America’s nuclear strategy. See, for example, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres,,https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Defense

The Nuclear future of East Asia

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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

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Defense

Test of Agni Prime Missile and India’s Counterforce Temptations

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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.

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Defense

Unmanned Aircraft Systems & The Annihilistic Future

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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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