Of nuclear and conventional deterrence

On April 11-12 a group of Canadian civil society organizations hosted a workshop in Ottawa on the theme: “Towards a Nuclear Weapons Convention: A Role for Canada.” Panels focused on legal, verification, and security imperatives for world without nuclear weapons and on possible Canadian policies and initiatives. All the presentations and other details are available  here. The following is excerpted from Ernie Regehr’s paper on “Alternative Security Arrangements.”

In their most recent joint article on nuclear disarmament, Henry Kissinger and his gang of four colleagues concluded that a “world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today’s world minus nuclear weapons.” [i]

They are right. There is no denying that for a world without nuclear weapons to be secure and stable it will have to be different in some fundamental ways from a world with many nuclear weapons – that latter itself obviously being an insecure and unstable world.

But let’s not forget that today’s international security environment is already fundamentally different from what it was when nuclear arsenals were at their peak. The Cold War is over. A greater awareness of the proliferation incentives generated by existing arsenals along with heightened concerns about non-state groups getting their hands on the bomb[ii] have helped to galvanize a new constituency of support for nuclear abolition.

So the world security environment can and does change, even for the better.

Nuclear disarmament presages a major change in that it proposes to take nuclear deterrence off the table but that in turn raises the obvious question: does nuclear deterrence need to be replaced by conventional deterrence? Without nuclear deterrence, will we need the threat of devastation by other means? Destruction by conventional arms could never approach the scale of nuclear destruction, so removing the latter is a fundamental step toward a much safer world, but a post-nuclear world will not be more stable if it is heavily militarized through competing, offence-oriented, national and alliance military postures.

The new US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)[iii] unfortunately anticipates such a world organized around heightened conventional deterrence. While it articulates a welcome reduction in US reliance on nuclear weapons, it proposes to gradually replace nuclear deterrence with what it calls “the growth of unrivalled U.S. conventional military capabilities” (p. vi). 

While it cites other factors as facilitating reduced reliance on nuclear deterrence, notably the easing of Cold War tensions and the development of missile defences (p. vii), it assumes “US conventional military pre-eminence” (p. ix) and “the prospect of a devastating conventional military response” (p. ix) must be the alternative to nuclear deterrence. The NPR repeatedly links declining reliance on nuclear weapons with the pledge to “continue to strengthen conventional capabilities” (p. ix). In other words, it proposes that deterrence by weapons of mass destruction be replaced with deterrence by weapons that are massively destructive.

One particularly provocative emblem of the continuing US quest to maintain unrivalled conventional military pre-eminence is the “conventional prompt global strike capability” (CPGS)[iv] that is now coveted by US military planners. The NPR asserts a commitment to “preserving options for using heavy bombers and long-range missile systems in conventional roles” (p. x). A conventionally-armed strategic-range missile is, of course, generally regarded as extremely destabilizing since it could easily be misinterpreted as a nuclear attack. Furthermore, in a crisis, CPGS attacks would be militarily most effective in pre-emptive strikes, attacking an adversary’s military assets before they are operationally deployed – and any state fearing such pre-emption could itself try to escape such an attack by deploying early and thus escalating a crisis situation. 

High levels of competing offensive conventional military forces are now and will continue to be a primary source of nuclear proliferation pressure. Those pressures will not vanish with nuclear disarmament. Nuclear materials and technology will continue to exist and spread through civilian programs, and states that feel an existential threat from militarily superior powers will be no less tempted to acquire a nuclear weapons capability (even as a virtual deterrent) than are some states now, even though they have made unqualified and solemn political and legal commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons.

Long before the US and Russia get close to zero nuclear weapons, the NATO-Russia conventional imbalance will become an impediment to further progress. The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty – suspended by Russia in 2007 in response to European missile defence plans – is one attempt to address the imbalance. Russia has the added concern about Chinese conventional capabilities. Indeed, comparative Chinese and American conventional capabilities will also come into play – as will, of course, Indian and Pakistani imbalances.

The point is that conventional arms restraint and reductions, not escalation, are essential to continuing progress in nuclear disarmament and to reducing the demand for nuclear weapons.



[i] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, “Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation: The doctrine of mutual assured destruction is obsolete in the post-Cold War era..,” the Wall Street Journal, 7 March 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703300904576178760530169414.html.

[ii] In fact, in the current security environment, as pointed out by Mohamed ElBaradei some time ago, the only actors on the international stage that could “rationally” use (that is, actually detonate) a nuclear weapon to their perceived advantage would be a non-state extremist group. Mohamed ElBaradei, “In Search of Security: Finding an Alternative to Nuclear Deterrence,” 4 Novmber 2004, Speech to the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation. http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/statements/2004/ebsp2004n012.html.

[iii] Nuclear Posture Review Report, US Department of Defense, April 2010. http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20nuclear%20posture%20review%20report.pdf.

[iv] Amy F. Woolf, Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues, Congressional Research Service, 1 March 2011. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R41464.pdf.

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