Why aren’t nukes ever enough?

Craig Perry has written his sixth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks an important question about nukes and their effectiveness as a deterrent. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

For all their destructive potential, nuclear weapons ushered in an unprecedented era of global stability after 1945, deterring the great powers from the kinds of internecine conflicts that risk their mutual destruction. But this period hasn’t been entirely peaceful, either, as states and non-state actors have sporadically waged more limited wars the old-fashioned way—that is, utilizing “conventional” weapons—whenever they calculate the odds of nuclear escalation are low. Consequently, powers great and small have continued to arm themselves with military capabilities of ever-increasing speed and lethality, determined to gain a decisive advantage on some future battlefield—an unfortunate function of survival in our anarchic international system.

For much of the Cold War, the United States made little effort to match the Soviet Union’s massive conventional-warfare superiority in Europe, calculating that its nuclear arsenal would be enough to offset any Soviet military advantage. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the Pentagon embarked on a new offset strategy incorporating technological breakthroughs in precision-guided munitions, radar-evading stealth technology aircraft, and space-based communications and navigation. Rather than rely on the traditional American way of war—attrition and annihilation—this revolution in military affairs allowed relatively small numbers of highly nimble American and allied forces to defeat numerically superior adversaries, as dramatically demonstrated during such operations as Desert Storm (1991) and Iraqi Freedom (2003), while sharply reducing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Some scholars attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union in part to its failed efforts to keep up with the West in this expensive, high-tech arms race—and for decades afterward the United States had no peers in terms of conventional military capabilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to American global hegemony: while Washington diverted resources away from cutting-edge investments after 9/11, Moscow and Beijing slowly but surely began closing the capability gap through a combination of indigenous know-how, industrial espionage, and lessons learned from U.S. military operations. In recent years, Russia and China have developed increasingly effective air defense systems to blunt America’s signature warfighting advantage, and deployed sophisticated missile systems on a variety of platforms to complicate U.S. ground and maritime operations near their territory. Such anti-access, area-denial measures complement their markedly improved power-projection capabilities now on display in Syria and the South China Sea, respectively.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Department of Defense recently embarked on a third offset strategy to harness innovations in artificial intelligence, automation, additive manufacturing, and other fields. While traditional weapons acquisition processes have become increasingly unaffordable—with more and more money spent procuring fewer and fewer high-end aircraft, ships, and armored vehicles—this latest approach hopes to reduce costs by disaggregating marquee platforms into more specialized networked systems leveraging off-the-shelf commercial technology. Of course, this same technology is accessible to America’s rivals as well, suggesting U.S. forces will soon need to develop new defenses against the very drone swarms and other “futuristic” weaponry they are currently developing, in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

Unfortunately, such military modernization has the potential to make great-power conflict more likely, their credible nuclear deterrents notwithstanding. Both Russia and China perceive America’s superior conventional capabilities—coupled with its expanding anti-ballistic missile networks in Europe and Asia—as destabilizing, since they could facilitate preemptive U.S. attacks targeting their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, each country is developing its own expeditionary forces capable of quickly seizing nearby territory, then (theoretically) holding out against an anticipated U.S.-led conventional counterattack—which may embolden them to resolve a greater variety of regional disputes militarily, especially where they judge the United States unwilling to intervene at the risk of nuclear war.

This combination of mutual distrust and localized military parity is increasing the likelihood of strategic miscalculation, and undermining the logic of nuclear deterrence that has constrained great-power competition for nearly three-quarters of a century. While it remains unlikely that the United States, Russia, or China will launch large-scale attacks on each other in the coming decades, they could very well become embroiled in regional conflicts that devolve into direct military confrontation among the great powers—conflicts with the potential for a much wider global conflagration.

© Craig Perry 2018