I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the future of nuclear weapons is Asia, not the Middle East.
The Pacific Realist outlines one reason for this conviction in an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on Tuesday. The piece argues that the U.S., Russia, China, India and Pakistan should negotiate a ban on land-based multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) ballistic missiles. Currently, the U.S. and Russia both deploy such missiles, and Beijing and New Delhi are both intent on acquiring them.
Should they succeed in this endeavor, there is likely to be a nuclear arms race in Asia among China, India and Pakistan, which could very quickly spread to Russia and the United States. MIRVed missiles are highly destabilizing because they put a premium on striking first. Because MIRVed missiles can strike multiple targets at once, and concentrate multiple warheads on single targets, they increase the danger that a nuclear armed power will have its nuclear arsenal destroyed by a surprise first strike. In addition, possessors of MIRVed missiles need more nuclear warheads in order to arm their MIRVs.
This can be seen from the nuclear arms race between the Cold War superpowers. The U.S. deployed the world’s first MIRV missile, the Minuteman III, in 1970, at which point the superpowers had roughly 38,000 nuclear warheads. Ten years later they had over 54,000 nuclear warheads. A decade after the Soviet Union deployed its first MIRV missile in 1974, the superpowers had around 63,000 nuclear warheads. As this suggests, the introduction of MIRVed missiles had a disproportionally large impact on the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, which was more reliant on ICBMs than the United States.
This doesn’t bode well for the current Asian nuclear powers who generally have quite small nuclear arsenals, and rely heavily on ballistic missiles to deploy them. Should India and China acquire MIRV capabilities, as current trends suggest they will, each one is likely to expand its nuclear arsenal significantly, as well as further disperse them to ensure they have a secure second strike capability. They will also build more nuclear weapons to arm their new MIRVed missiles.
Of course, the expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal will prompt Pakistan to expand its own, as well as further disperse it. Russia, which relies on nuclear superiority vis-à-vis China to negate its mounting conventional weakness, could also be counted on to build more nuclear weapons in order to retain its edge. The U.S., in turn, would be pressured to retain strategic parity with Russia.
Thus, the failure to ban MIRVs would likely result in an expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race in Asia. This is just one of the reasons why nuclear weapons’ future is in Asia. As I’ve noted before, China’s expanding conventional military power, as well as its more assertive claims to other countries’ territory, will put considerable pressure on its non-nuclear neighbors to acquire strategic weapons in order to deter Chinese aggression.
Similarly, while America’s post-Cold War conventional superiority has made it a proponent of nuclear disarmament, it relied heavily on nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union in Europe for most of the Cold War. Should China’s conventional military buildup continue unabated over the coming decades, the U.S. will come to find it nearly impossible to defend Eastern Asia through conventional military means alone. In this scenario, if the Cold War is any guide, the U.S. could come to find it must rely on nuclear weapons once again.
Interestingly, while most of the concern about nuclear weapons in Asia these days centers on North Korea, this isn’t likely to be the case in the future.