On the heels of the first and the second nuclear ages, respectively shaped by bipolar nuclear competition and nuclear nonproliferation concerns, the dawn of a “third nuclear age,” a much-debated concept, seems incumbent with the world witnessing a renewed strategic competition between the three superpower states of the United States, Russia, and China. The United States also faces a nuclear rivalry with regional powers like North Korea, which continues to modernize its arsenal, and Iran, which could pursue an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM).
In response to the threat from “rogue states” and “revisionist powers,” the 2019 United States Missile Defense Review (MDR), released by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), has asserted that it seeks to detect and destroy “any type of target” either “before or after launch.” The MDR states an intention in the United States to develop high-end capabilities like space based sensors for launch detection, modified interceptors for the F-35, and drones with mounted lasers to exercise boost-phase interception capability.
The MDR also seeks to develop and test the SM-3 Block IIA Interceptor against an ICBM-class target by 2020 and develop a next-generation “Multi-Object Kill Vehicle” for the ground-based interception of ICBM warheads, decoys, and countermeasures. Whether these capabilities materialize or not, they are very likely to provoke counter-responses from adversaries. However, the destabilizing consequences are likely to travel down the “strategic chain” of the United States, China, India, and eventually Pakistan, with the most potent impact coming on the India-Pakistan dyad.
Will China Abandon its Minimalism?
While both the U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China dyads have been in competition for quite some time, these developments are more likely to intensify competition in the latter. China has numerically a much smaller strategic arsenal than Russia and is more likely to feel threatened by the intent of the MDR.
China fields some 75-100 ICBMs, including those equipped with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). It has a fleet of four to five Jin-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) capable of carrying 12 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Zhao Tong writes that until very recently, Chinese deterrence thinking was based on a principle of “uncertain retaliation,” a capability not sufficient to guarantee retaliation, but enough to plant a doubt in the adversary’s mind that it can completely destroy China’s arsenal in a first-strike.
However, the gradual technological, quantitative, and spatial expansion of missile defense by the United States will incentivize China to inch toward an assured retaliation capability. Its current ICBM inventory includes the DF-5, DF-31, and DF-41 missiles — all of which have a range in excess of 10,000 kilometers. However, if China MIRVs these missiles (except for the DF-41), the associated range reduction will most certainly compromise the DF-5 and DF-31’s ability to hit the U.S. mainland. Travis Wheeler writes that the smallest warhead developed by China before Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) kicked in weighed approximately 500 kilograms; therefore considering that the likely throw-weight of a mobile missile is in the range of 1,000-1,200 kg, the DF-41 is at most likely to carry two warheads.
In the backdrop, strategic stability throughout the strategic chain can potentially be disturbed as China endeavors to deal with the stated intent in the MDR. Its actions will have a reverberating effect on India and subsequently Pakistan, which will react to India. China’s desire to have an assured retaliatory capability to hit the U.S. mainland is manifesting in China developing Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) and Maneuverable Re-entry Vehicles (MaRVs). The trend toward HGVs and MaRVs indicates that China is already wary about U.S. missile defense capabilities.
Though missile defense systems are considered ineffective, Matthew Kroenig writes that these systems have had an impressive record of success in tests and actual conflict and are improving. In the short-term, this is likely to complicate Chinese calculations, whose doctrine until now has been based on minimalism and cost-effectiveness. In anticipation of future missile defense capabilities, Beijing may be forced to improvise. While the development of MaRVs would have necessitated a moderate increase in the warhead stockpile, the fact that future missile defenses could cope with more sophisticated iterations of delivery systems would make it necessary for China to consider seriously expanding the arsenal to simply saturate missile defense systems.
Further Down the Strategic Chain
This could in turn exacerbate counterforce concerns for India, whose nuclear doctrine is based on a retaliatory posture and credible minimum deterrence. More importantly, India doesn’t yet have a secure second strike capability despite the claimed deterrent patrol conducted by INS Arihant. INS Arihant’s first deterrent patrol lasted for only about 20 days; the vessel itself is powered by an 83 MW nuclear reactor that has an output power of approximately 40-45 MW and therefore does not have enough endurance or speed.
The K-15 missiles Arihant carries have a range of just 750 km, which means almost the whole of China will be off limits until the SSBN gets within dangerous proximity to Chinese shores. This, would pressure India to go for MIRVs or MaRVs. India may also have to expand its nuclear arsenal or potentially nuclearize its cruise missiles given that China too has been investing in ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities. These are in turn likely to destabilize the deterrent equation between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan, which has a nuclear strategy based on first-use, is likely to face the brunt of the consequences. Pakistan has a stockpile of approximately 145 warheads and seeks to cross the nuclear threshold by using what it calls tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) delivered by short-ranged systems in case of a conventional ingress by India. In case of small to medium nuclear arsenals, missile defenses can support offensive counterforce strategies by tackling residual nuclear force once a considerable portion of the adversary’s arsenal has been eliminated. They do so however by decreasing “first-strike stability” between adversaries and by inducing the “use or lose” dilemma.
India has been developing a layered missile defense system, including the Prithvi Missile Defense (PAD) system and Ashwin-based Advanced Air Defense (AAD) System. Interestingly, even as India develops its own BMD capabilities, it is in the process of procuring the missile defense-capable S-400 system from Russia. The MDR states a U.S. intention to develop interoperable missile defense systems with India, although this is complicated with S-400 in the mix. However, if this were to materialize, it would aggravate the already existing pressure on Pakistan’s arsenal. Pakistan has diverted its fissile material toward TNWs, affording limited fissile stockpile availability for the strategic arsenal. A recent study contends that Pakistan has been forced to shift to plutonium based weapons due to shortage of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) post-2010, implying that the arsenal of 112 to 156 nuclear weapons at the end of 2014 in the absence of domestic HEU is likely to plateau. Pakistan’s capability to field an expanded arsenal in the short to medium term may also be limited because of a debt-ridden economy. Pakistan’s likely response to this over a period could be to move toward a ready-deterrence stance.
Where to Next?
To conclude, the qualitative and quantitative impact of the strategic competition spawned by the MDR is very likely to travel down through the strategic chain in Asia. China could be forced to deviate from its path of minimalism, leading to India to respond in kind. However, the worst fall out could perhaps fall on Pakistan, which may be constrained in its ability to expand its strategic arsenal because of limited fiscal means and fissile material. Technological progress is continuously challenging the survivability of the nuclear arsenal of many states and the MDR could significantly exacerbate and upset the existing strategic calculus in South Asia.
Joy Mitra is a fellow in the Asia-Pacific program at the EastWest Institute in New York and a visiting fellow in the South Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C..