Air University Review , July-August 1980
Dr. Lewis A. Dunn
ONE aspect of the future global strategic environment that is often overlooked in discussions of U. S. strategic force needs for the late 1980s and beyond is the prospect of nuclear weapon proliferation. But notwithstanding current policy efforts, a growing number of countries may decide to acquire nuclear weapons in the next decades. More important, living in such a world of five to ten additional nuclear weapon states probably would affect directly the requirements for U.S. offensive and, in some situations, perhaps even defensive strategic forces, while the indirect repercussions of Soviet reactions within that changed security environment also could be far-reaching.
prospects for proliferation
References to a deteriorating international environment of the 1990s with upwards of fifteen additional nuclear weapon states may seem farfetched. After all, in the first thirty-five years of the nuclear age only six countries--the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, and India-detonated nuclear explosive devices: one other--Israel--is widely thought to possess nuclear weapons. But within the next decades a range of factors that can only be touched on here could erode the particular equilibrium of restricted technical opportunities, limited incentives for acquiring nuclear weapons, and compelling disincentives against doing so which resulted in only the slow and limited spread of nuclear weapons.1
First, because of the global process of industrial and technological development as well as the continuing spread of civilian nuclear power programs, more and more countries are coming to possess the technical capability to make at least rudimentary nuclear weapons. As early as the mid-1980s, for example, several dozen countries will have sufficient plutonium within the spent fuel of their civilian nuclear programs to make three to six nuclear weapons--assuming their probable capability to build and operate a reprocessing plant to separate the plutonium from the spent fuel.2 Many of these countries also would be capable of building a plutonium production reactor and the associated facilities if it re thought desirable to take a non fuel, cycle-based route to nuclear weapons. Further, such activities as the reported Israeli diversion of several hundred kilograms of highly enriched uranium from an Apollo, Pennsylvania, fuel fabrication plant may be only the first visible sign of more extensive nuclear black-and-gray market dealings in the future.3 Of especial importance in that regard would be the increasing availability in this decade of gray market nuclear mercenaries selling technical expertise up to and including nuclear weapon design information. Put simply, technical constraints to going nuclear appear at most to be a wasting asset.
Second, varied incentives for acquiring nuclear weapons are most likely to increase in future decades. For example, the resumed erosion of American alliances in Asia would enhance security-related incentives in key prospective proliferators there. Or in other regions where the United States is not heavily involved, one or another traditional rival--whether Argentina or Brazil in Latin America or India or Pakistan in South Asia--well might slide into a nuclear weapon program, either in pursuit of greater regional influence and status or out of concern and uncertainty about what its rival was planning to do. More important, there sometimes will be a proliferation multiplier-effect: if not defused, a decision by one country to go nuclear is quite likely to trigger chains of similar decisions by other now technically capable neighboring countries, while inadequate responses by the United States and other countries to the first outcroppings of more widespread proliferation in the 1980s would increase the chances for even more countries going nuclear in the 1990s.
Third, to the extent that they are an important element in the policy calculus of prospective proliferators in the first place, disincentives to acquiring nuclear weapons are also very likely to decline in the next decades. Even fear of an adverse foreign reaction and the imposition of sanctions seems unlikely to counterbalance pressing security rationales for acquiring nuclear weapons. Furthermore, particularly once some additional proliferation has occurred, other foreign and security considerations will increasingly make countries reluctant to carry out the threat of sanctions. In addition, if more countries go nuclear, any domestic opposition to following suit in yet other countries may be undermined and wane. And to elaborate the initial caveat, it is far from clear that future decisions to acquire nuclear weapons--anymore than in most past decisions--will carefully balance possible costs and gains. Instead, probably only a limited rationality would prevail, stressing the more immediate payoffs of acquisition and not attending to longer-run complications.
limited strategic force retailoring
and the lesser nuclear powers
Thus the possibility must be taken seriously that in the next decades of the nuclear age there could be an increasing breakdown of equilibrium among technical constraints, limited proliferation incentives, and compelling proliferation disincentives that resulted in the limited scope and pace of proliferation in the first decades. In order to assess the impact of such a breakdown on the requirements for future U. S. offensive and defensive strategic forces, it is important, however, to distinguish between two categories of new nuclear weapon states: lesser nuclear powers, a group encompassing countries such as India, Iraq, South Africa, Libya, Pakistan; and other developing or even advanced developing countries, and the proto-superpowers such as Japan and West Germany, countries most likely to go nuclear only in the event of the most extreme breakdown of the first decades' equilibrium.
Of those lesser nuclear powers, with rare exceptions their nuclear arsenals may be directed primarily at their local rivals and to number in the dozens of fission warheads deliverable by nuclear-capable aircraft or, in a few cases, short-range surface-to-surface missiles. Moreover, to the extent that one or more of these lesser powers did seek to threaten either the U. S. or Soviet central homelands, a significant asymmetry would exist. Because of the peculiarities of geography and their limited technical capabilities, at least well into the 1990s, any such lesser new proliferator seeking to threaten the United States probably would have to rely for delivery on smuggling a weapon into the country by air or sea--what can be called "clandestine insertion." By contrast, during the 1980s the Soviet Union might find itself threatened by new proliferators capable of reaching targets within the Soviet territory using high performance aircraft as delivery vehicles. In ways to be noted, this asymmetry could color the respective U.S. and Soviet responses to these lesser nuclear powers.
Several potential missions against such lesser nuclear powers can be identified. As with existing hostile nuclear powers, it, of course, would be necessary to deter an attack on the United States by the threat of retaliation. In addition, U. S. strategic forces might have to be capable of carrying out a surrogate nuclear retaliatory blow for a nonnuclear ally or friend attacked by a new proliferator.4 For example, in a nuclearized Middle East, Saudi Arabia's importance to the United States might warrant providing it with a security guarantee, including the promise of responding tit for tat to any nuclear blow against it. Or in some scenarios U.S. strategic offensive forces might be used to suppress the nuclear force of a new proliferator, destroying his stockpiles, delivery vehicles, command and control, and associated nuclear assets. Such a preemptive disarming attack, for example, might be the needed prelude to military intervention with naval and ground forces to support a beleaguered nonnuclear friend or ally facing invasion by a lesser nuclear power. Saudi Arabia again comes to mind as such a potential friend in need. Finally, carrying out punitive nonnuclear strikes against radical lesser nuclear powers engaging in highly disruptive actions--whether allowing a terrorist group to "steal" a nuclear weapon or helping a fellow radical country to build a bomb--might be another mission.
At first glance it may appear to some that carrying out any of these missions against lesser nuclear powers would require virtually no modifications of existing or planned future U.S. strategic forces. But that conclusion could be erroneous. Examination of the problems with the alternative means of performing these missions with available capabilities suggests that some limited retailoring of offensive strategic forces could be required in a nuclear-proliferated world.
One possibility would be reliance on obsolete intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) such as Titan II, Minuteman II, or, eventually, Minuteman III to carry out these missions. But these systems may be unable to reach targets within distant new proliferators. The Minuteman II has an approximate range of 6000 + statute miles and the Titan II a range of 7000 + miles,5 while the targets within many of these countries often are more than 8000 miles or, in some cases, 9000 or 10,000 miles from the U.S. heartland. The Minuteman III also would have difficulty meeting the range requirement although in its case it would be possible to off-load payload to increase range, an option ruled out by the single large warhead on the Titan II and the Minuteman 11.6
Aside from their possible inability to meet these range' requirements, obsolete ICBMs might be precluded by another factor--their lack of discrimination. Not only would accuracy decrease at the distances in question but the high-yield warheads on the Titan II and Minuteman II as well as, relatively speaking, on the Minuteman III may inflict far more damage than required or desirable. Particularly for carrying out a limited, tit-fortat, surrogate retaliatory blow in response to use of a crude nuclear device of, say, a 20kiloton yield, a capability for more discriminate and selective strikes is required. In fact, for such a blow it even might be desirable to be able to select one of several yields in the sub-100-kiloton range.7 The availability of such a more discriminate response, in which collateral damage would be minimized, could be a critical requirement for the disarming mission. Here, above all, the readiness of political decision-makers to respond to or carry out prior commitments would probably be affected by the availability of a more discriminate response than that provided by the off-the-shelf, obsolete ICBMs such as Titan II, Minuteman II, and Minuteman III. These systems with their nuclear warheads would be unable to carry out a punitive nonnuclear response if that were desired against a country abetting nuclear terrorists.
Dedicating a fraction of the SSBN (nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine) force to these antinew proliferator missions would resolve the problem confronting existing land-based ICBMs in meeting the range-to-target requirement. But with growing dedication within the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) of some of that force to missions involving a European theater conflict, earmarking even a further small fraction to this future mission could draw down needed capabilities. Besides, existing and planned submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) appear likely to do excessive damage. Without modification, both the Polaris A-3 MIRVed warhead package and the Poseidon C-3 and Trident MIRVed packages could be too indiscriminate in their use for most of the limited purposes being discussed here.
There also would be various defects in planning on future reliance on air-breathing delivery systems, some mixture of manned bombers with cruise missiles or short range attack missiles (SRAMs). Manned bombers refueled in the air would be capable of meeting the requirement of extended range. And by the late 1980s the availability of longer-range advanced tankers than the current KC-135s would permit staging the tankers as well as the planes from the continental United States. This could be especially important because of the possible reluctance of allied countries to permit the United States to use their bases to mount such nuclear strikes against new proliferators. Much more problematic for some missions, however, would be the extended time to target of these aerodynamic systems since it could provide sufficient warning to permit even a lesser nuclear power to relocate its nuclear force and counter a U.S. disarming strike. Of course, time urgency would be somewhat less of a consideration in carrying out either the surrogate retaliation or the punitive strike missions. A further potential problem with reliance on manned aircraft would be the threat posed by local air defenses because U.S. political calculations might place a premium on avoiding aircraft losses. This threat could be minimized by use of standoff missiles or cruise missiles; but the available warhead yields of SRAMs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs)--upwards of 200 kilotons8--could be thought too high for many purposes.
Taken together, this brief run-through of available off-the-shelf systems points to the conclusion that performing these missions described against lesser nuclear powers in a nuclear-proliferated world would require limited retailoring of a portion of U.S. strategic offensive forces. The purpose of that retailoring would be to enhance the degree of discrimination, flexibility, and range of forces earmarked to these missions. This might entail, for example, dedicating a limited number of MX ICBMs with suitable payload modifications to this mission or partial reliance on suitably configured airlaunched cruise missiles where time urgency was not a factor and prior efforts had been made to acquire the necessary terrain data. But how, specifically, to meet those additional requirements for greater discrimination, flexibility, range, and selectivity of response exceeds the scope of this article, which turns now to another aspect of strategic forces design in a more proliferated world.
strategic defensive forces and
unconventional nuclear threats
The prospect that virtually all those lesser nuclear powers that might seek to threaten the U. S. homeland in the 1980s will have to rely on unconventional modes of delivery has important implications for U.S. strategic defensive forces. For this aspect of the antiproliferator mission, increased emphasis on restoring deteriorating U. S. air defense capabilities and on augmented capabilities for border surveillance are critical. In addition, means of linking together in an ad hoc fashion civilian and military air traffic control, surveillance, and monitoring capabilities--perhaps after intelligence warning of an attempt to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States by ersatz commercial or corporate aircraft--also might payoff. But what of other damage-limiting systems such as light area missile defense?
By the late 1990s some lesser nuclear powers will probably acquire longer-range ballistic missile technology, especially if space booster technology becomes a legitimate item of international commerce. Both Brazil and India, for instance, are already engaged in research in this area, and other advanced developing countries could follow suit. But none of these more advanced new proliferators appear likely to target the United States in the next decades. Thus, taking account of probable cases, as opposed to hypothetical possibilities, one finds it difficult to conclude that light ballistic missile area defenses would be required to limit damage at least from these new proliferators within that time period.
The Soviet response to these lesser nuclear powers will probably be to emphasize enhanced Soviet air defenses. As with the United States, renewed Soviet interest in light area ballistic missile defense would be held down by the absence of lesser nuclear powers armed with ballistic missiles and threatening the Soviet Union. Thus, at least this aspect of the Soviet response would have few indirect repercussions on the U.S. defensive strategic posture. But Soviet responses to emerging Japanese or West German nuclear weapon programs would probably differ somewhat.
strategic force implications
of West German
or Japanese nuclearization
Though admittedly far less likely than the emergence of additional lesser nuclear powers in the next decades, there are foreseeable conditions which probably would result in Japanese or West German decisions to acquire nuclear weapons before the end of the 1990s.9 Moreover, the resultant programs in all probability would be serious ones, most likely placing these countries' nuclear forces at a level of sophistication between those of the existing medium nuclear powers and those of the superpowers. Such decisions and these serious programs would have significant indirect consequences for U. S. offensive and defensive strategic force requirements stemming from the probable direct Soviet reactions to what would be perceived in the Kremlin as a marked worsening of the Soviet Union's security environment. And if the emergence of either of these countries as a nuclear weapon state was accompanied by a reversal of alliances and increased hostility to the United States, there would be important direct effects for the U.S. strategic posture as well.
Confronted by the emergence of Japanese and West German nuclear forces, Soviet offensive and defensive forces would be subject to pressures for augmented growth. Both unilateral responses and Soviet calls for renegotiation of any existing strategic arms restraints would be the most likely outcome.
On the one hand, a partial Soviet response to meet this perceived requirement for additional land-based missiles is likely to be the acquisition of additional intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) to target West Germany and Japan. But calls to renegotiate upward limits on strategic force levels to permit acquisition of additional ICBMs to use on more distant targets in Japan also may occur. Also expected are efforts to renegotiate the restrictions on numbers of SLBM launchers to permit the Soviets to match any Japanese and West German deployment of SSBNs.. Particularly underlying such Soviet stress on matching that buildup would be the attempt to preserve its claim to overall equality with the West both militarily and politically. A comparable claim, it is worth recalling, was reflected in the Soviet Union's unilateral statement on the NATO allies' SSBNs that accompanied the SALT I interim agreement. There the Soviets claimed a right to increase correspondingly their missile submarines if the NATO allies increased their submarines beyond the number operational or under construction when the agreement was concluded.10
On the other hand, Japanese and West German acquisition of nuclear weapons would probably produce great pressures on the Soviet leadership to renegotiate--or, barring that, even abrogate--the 1972 Treaty on Limitations of Antiballistic Missile Systems. Probably coming on top of prior acquisition of nuclear weapons by new proliferators such as South Korea, Israel, Turkey, and perhaps Yugoslavia, their going nuclear would greatly reinforce the by then heightened Soviet fears of encirclement. The resultant psychology would reinforce the emphasis of Soviet strategic thinking on engaging in a nuclear conflict, and that in turn would probably reverse--at least in this situation--the anomalous Soviet shift of the 1970s from strategic defense.
Both of the preceding Soviet responses would indirectly affect the requirements for U.S. strategic forces. If only to maintain a relative international bargaining position, the United States would find it difficult not to match in part augmented Soviet ICBM and SSBN force levels. Concomitantly, negotiated mutual deployment of augmented strategic defenses would probably be preferable to Soviet abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and U.S. acquiescence in a unilateral Soviet capability. Aside from any possible benefits of a light area ballistic missile defense against unexpected lesser-level threats or accidental attacks, negotiation would facilitate efforts to restrict that Soviet defensive capability, to set checks on ease of sudden upgrading, and otherwise to minimize the consequences for the central strategic balance.
However, one caveat to the proposition implicit within the preceding discussion that the main impact of Japanese and West German nuclearization on U.S. strategic forces would be these indirect consequences of direct Soviet reactions bears mention though not much elaborahon. Should Japanese and West German acquisition of nuclear weapons, as some persons fear,11 be accompanied--if not preceded by--a radical anti-American political shift, the United States itself might eventually be sufficiently threatened to respond with augmented offensive or defensive capabilities. Nevertheless, while granting that even more far-reaching alliance reversals have occurred, it equally appears highly unlikely that the degree of resultant hostility would be so great as to warrant U.S. targeting of these former allies or seeking to acquire a light area defense against their targeting the United States. Rather, U.S. efforts to integrate these countries' new nuclear forces into a broader if looser alliance framework would be more likely. But that most. probably would reinforce Soviet fears of a consortium of nuclear opponents and its incentives to match what would be seen as accretions to overall Western nuclear capability represented by these proto-superpowers.
ONE often overlooked aspect of the environment within which decisions about U.S. strategic force requirements for the late 1980s and beyond will have to be made is the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. With that in mind and by way of conclusion, two sets of propositions about the impact of more widespread proliferation on U. S. strategic force requirements bear reiterating: First, responding to the threat posed by lesser nuclear powers would require some limited retailoring of U.S. offensive strategic forces to provide them with sufficient range, discriminating capability, and flexibility for carrying out antinew proliferator missions. And though when compared to other force posture determinants the changes invoked are marginal, they still may be critical to protecting U.S. interests in a world of widespread proliferation. Second, though admittedly less probable, the nuclearization of proto-superpowers such as Japan and West Germany would fundamentally undermine strategic arms restraint by creating new requirements first within the Soviet Union and then within the United States for augmented offensive and defensive strategic capabilities. For the United States as for the Soviets, both political and military calculations would provide the animating logic of response. It is not too early to begin recognizing these potential impacts for U.S. strategic force requirements of more widespread nuclear weapon proliferation.
Hudson Institute, Inc.
Croton-on-Hudson, New York
1. See Lewis A. Dunn, Beyond Nonproliferations: U.S. Policy in a Proliferating World (Twentieth Century Fund, 1981).
2. Albert Wohlstetter et al., Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd? Pan Heuristics, April 22, 1976, p. 14, pp. 249-61. Report prepared for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
3. Nucleonics Week, 13 October 1977, p. 7.
4. Possible security guarantees or guarantees of surrogate retaliation to nonuclear weapon states threatened by new proliferators are discusses, inter alia, in Richard L. Garwin, "Reducing Dependence on Nuclear Weapons: A Second Nuclear Regime," in Nuclear Weapons and World Politics, David G. Gompert et al. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977), pp. 130-32; Herman Kahn, "Nuclear Proliferation and Rules of Retaliation," Yale Law Journal, November 1977, pp. 82-87; Lewis A. Dunn, Changing Dimensions of Proliferation Policy, 1975-1995 (Hudson Institute, H1-2497/2-RR, February 15, 1977), pp. 89-96, 104-6.
5. Colin S. Gray, The Future of Land-Based Missile Forces, Adelphi Paper No. 140 (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 1977), p. 32.
7. See, for example, the discussion by Garwin, in Gompert et al., p. 132.
8. Gray, p. 36.
9. See Dunn, Beyond Nonproliferation, chapter three.
10. See Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements, U.S. Arms Controls and Disarmament Agency, Washington, D.C., pp. 148-49.
11. William H. Overholt, "Nuclear Proliferation in Eastern Asia," in Asia’s Nuclear Future, William H. Overholt, editor (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977), pp. 149-57.
Lewis A. Dunn(A.B., Cornell; Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a political scientist on the staff of the Hudson Institute. He has background in the analysis of international politics and U.S. foreign policy, and his special interests include nuclear proliferation, national security policy issues, and alliance relationships. Dr. Dunn is principal author of the Hudson studies Trends in Nuclear Proliferation, 1975-1995 and Changing Dimensions of Proliferation Policy, 1975-1995, and he is completing a book, Beyond Nonproliferation: U.S. Policy in a Proliferating World, for the Twentieth Century Fund.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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