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#43 - The Return of Nuclear Warfighting
How to Channel Your Inner Cold Warrior
On 16 October 1964, the People’s Republic of China detonated Miss Qiu (邱小姐) in southeastern Xinjiang, becoming the 5th nuclear power in the world and the first in Asia. From that time until fairly recently, China has relied on a nuclear strategy of minimal deterrence and no first-use. This is a strategy where the state maintains a nuclear capability no more than is necessary to stop an adversary from attacking while making a public statement to not use nuclear weapons against a nation unless that nation has already used nuclear weapons.
In accordance with the minimal deterrent, Beijing fielded only hundreds of very large ground-based nuclear ballistic missiles likely designed to prosecute countervalue targets (things an adversary values like cities and civilian infrastructure).
Taking a 180 degree turn starting on or around 2012, Beijing has begun significantly expanding, modernizing, and diversifying its nuclear arsenal. It seems likely that China will seek to move towards a strategy of complex deterrence in the future, relying on a modern nuclear triad.
The United States is now in a more complex world of nuclear deterrence than during the Cold War. The US must deal with Russia’s extensive nuclear arsenal as well as China’s rapidly growing nuclear capability. Including Washington, there are now three major nuclear players with different strategies applied to two different theaters, which are now all interlinked because nuclear expenditure in one theater will affect nuclear reserve in another.
Those involved in national security need to get the Cold Warrior hat back on. This includes being familiar with nuclear issues, including technology, deterrence, and employment. A review of key terms:
Deterrence: Deterrence is not a theory but the practice of restraining a nation from taking unwanted actions (like military attack). It involves efforts to prevent adversary action.
Compellence: The practice of forcing a nation to do something. It involves efforts to coax an adversary into action.
Direct Deterrence: Restraining a nation from taking unwanted actions against your own territory.
Extended Deterrence: Restraining a nation from taking unwanted actions against an ally or partner.
Deterrence by Denial: Fielding capabilities to deny an adversary’s military objectives.
Deterrence by Punishment: Fielding capabilities to punish an adversary during the course of or after accomplishment of his military objectives.
General Deterrence: The day-to-day environment which includes the correlation of capabilities, peacetime policies, and common communications which communicate deterrent messages.
Immediate Deterrence: Attempts to deter during a crisis.
Nuclear Triad: The Russo-American convergent evolution of deploying three main types of nuclear weapon-armed platforms: bombers, silo-based missiles, and submarines.
Bombers: Nuclear-capable bombers are by far the most mobile, visible, and vulnerable leg of the triad. The advantage of bombers is that they can be re-based forward in order to signal intentions to adversaries.
Silo-based Missiles: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) may be emplaced into ground silos. This is by far the most resilient, responsive, and low-cost leg of a nation’s deterrent. It has the added bonus of being permanently sited on a nation's territory. Therefore, to attack these silos, an adversary would likely have to make unambiguous attacks against the nation’s home soil.
Submarines: Nicknamed “boomers,” nuclear submarines are likely the most survivable leg of the triad. The US, Russia, and China maintain numerous nuclear powered submarines with nuclear missiles loaded whose mission is to hide in readiness within the great expanse of the oceans. Boomers allow for assured second strike.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons: This class of weapons encompasses all smaller yield nuclear weapons (sometimes sub kilo-ton yields) which can be installed on weapons with shorter range than ICBMs as well as traditional ICBMs. Some nations may envision using these weapons during conventional war in order to freeze an unfavorable battlefield, defend home territory, prosecute a powerful nuclear-backed offensive, or simply enhance deterrence.
Counter-Force: Targets generally defined as uniformed military or direct support to military operations.
Counter-Value: Targets generally defined as primarily civilian or civilian infrastructure.
Minimal Deterrence / Limited Deterrence / Minimum Deterrence: A strategy of maintaining a nuclear arsenal large enough only to deter adversary attack.
Complex Deterrence: A strategy of maintaining a large and varied nuclear arsenal to provide flexible options in the event of crisis.
Mutually Assured Destruction: The idea that a full-scale nuclear attack against a state with assured second strike capability would cause complete annihilation of both attacker and defender.
Nuclear Defense: Originally thought impossible during the high Cold War, a number of US tech programs made nuclear defense not only a reality, but inevitable.
Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM): Nuclear defense tech that led to current US capabilities such as the MIM-104 PATRIOT and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). Adversaries have similar systems in the S-400, HQ-9, and HQ-19.
Hardening: Construction of defenses against nuclear attack. These almost always take the form of underground facilities (UGFACs). A great example is the design of the Moscow subway system.
Hypersonics: Nuclear warheads may be installed on hypersonic weapons able to travel Mach 5 to Mach 25. These hypersonic weapons almost certainly are able to bypass many forms of modern missile defense. There is a very early hypersonic defense capability in its infancy with the Russian S-500 air defense system.
Consequences for Strategic Competition
After discussions with an expert in the field of nuclear deterrence, it is clear that there has been little scholarship devoted to the study of nuclear employment and strategy in a tri-polar (Russia, China, US) or multipolar nuclear world. More research and theorizing must be done to ensure the US can develop a high quality strategy. The few works of note can be found here and here.