I have written previously about the importance of nuclear deterrence, when supported by strong conventional forces, in maintaining security between states, but I have recently read an article that has led me to think further about this topic.
The author in this posits that an expansion in the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be an asset in the quest to maintain the status quo with America’s strategic rivals, citing their own advancements as a key reason to do so. Whilst he argues that a strong nuclear arsenal provokes peace by allowing a country to feel secure, this line of thinking should not extend to counter-expansion in the face of this apparent source of security.
The nuclear arms race of the Cold War is daily becoming something studied in history, rather than discussed as recent memory, but to tie one’s sense of security to maintaining such devastating power would see a rapid return to such destabilising escalation. That such policies are being considered demonstrates all too clearly that veterans of the Cold War are retiring from positions of influence, leaving in their place those with no memory of the true dangers nuclear weapons could put states in if mis-handled.
The increased sabre-rattling from Russia is a major cause for concern, particularly Putin’s apparent willingness to use his nuclear arsenal if provoked. Such a situation, however, need not lead to an actual nuclear exchange. The greatest deterrent to use of nuclear force is the apparent willingness to reciprocate; NATO armaments could easily obliterate the Russian Federation, and demonstrating a willingness to do so (as both future President Trump, and PM Theresa May have publicly done) should be sufficient to give Putin pause for thought.
Maintaining a modern nuclear arsenal is vital – the deterrent capacity counts for nought if the missiles cannot be launched – but to suggest a hugely expanded arsenal at the expense of a significant portion of the defence budget would appear folly. Conventional forces remain the first line of deterrence, whilst nuclear forces need only maintain the power of an assured and devastating second strike. The British deterrent, who modernisation has just begun, are well maintained at this standard – the submarine launched Trident missiles retain enough power to knock out almost all the major cities of any nation or region, from a position of safety.
The author’s fixation on the offensive use of rival nuclear arsenals seems to belie the current strategic situation; Vladimir Putin is seeking to expand Russian influence, but as a buffer against an expanding, nuclear-equipped NATO. It is right to be alarmed at the actions of Russia’s de-facto tsar, but to see him as plotting a nuclear first strike seems a step too far. China, likewise, seeks to assume the mantle of regional superpower in Asia, and maintains its deterrent as a means to avert any excessive outside intervention in its efforts to dominate the region. Both states are a major cause for concern in the West, but both have been modernising their arsenals as a means to offset the enormous U.S. military advantage and secure breathing space to further domestic interests.
It is my supreme hope not to see a return to a form of international diplomacy in which atomic weapons are seen as the primary method by which to negotiate. If any legacy of the Cold War has most damaged nuclear security it was the SALT agreement against developing defensive arsenals; far better had more time and effort been invested in protective weapons than offensive. In this turbulent time I would hope that greater effort would go into creating defensive systems to offset a potential attack, than see a ramping up in expenditure on new delivery systems.