The narrowing gap between nuclear and conventional weapons

Memorial de la Paz de Hiroshima.
Memorial de la Paz de Hiroshima.
Memorial de la Paz de Hiroshima.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

The nuclear arms issue is back, in its strategic rather than its tactical or battlefield dimension. And not only in North Korea. Russia has deployed Iskander missiles (known as SS-26 in NATO-speak) capable of carrying nuclear payloads (whether they do in fact carry them is unknown) in the enclave (some call it an exclave) of Kaliningrad (the capital of which is the former Königsberg of Immanuel Kant), in response to the deployment of 4,500 allied troops in Poland and the Baltic states. If the Kaliningrad Iskanders are armed with nuclear warheads, Russia would be in breach of the 1986 INF Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreed –with its “zero-zero” formula– by Reagan and Gorbachev. This is dangerous.

For its part, the Trump Administration has published a new nuclear doctrine (a ‘Nuclear Posture Review’) to renew its arsenal, especially with lighter payloads (although greater than at Hiroshima), which could make them ‘more usable’, or at least more ‘thinkable’. The expert Stephen Walt argues that the Pentagon is answering ‘questions that nobody should be asking’.

The modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal, essentially in response not to North Korea but to Russia and China’s modernisation of nuclear weapons, did not start with Trump but with Obama, despite his prematurely being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, among other things for being the first US President to advocate a ‘world without nuclear weapons’. But at the end of his term in office, as this blog noted at the time, he launched a programme to overhaul the arsenal, admittedly bringing down total numbers. The notion of less potent nuclear arms also dates back a long way.

The current US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, goes much further in his new doctrine. Contrary to the Obama Administration, which had scrapped them, he advocates the reintroduction of updated sea-launched cruise missiles loaded with nuclear warheads. He proposes, although it has not yet been ratified, respecting the terms of the 2010 START III Treaty, the last major arms control agreement between Russia and the US prior to the cooling of relations that followed the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. START III, which Moscow also adheres to, limits both sides to 1,500 nuclear warheads. This is far fewer than in the Cold War, but enough to destroy the world many times over. However, it remains to be seen whether the two powers will be capable of reaching a new agreement when the current one expires in 2021. They are not working on it. The US continues to respect the treaty that bans nuclear testing, although it too has never been ratified.

The new nuclear strategy involves a modernisation of the arsenal. According to its authors, the doctrine simply ‘clarifies’ the situation. ‘Our goal is to convince adversaries that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the use of nuclear weapons’, Mattis declared at the presentation of the review. But it may signal a major change, because it also means that such adversaries ‘must understand that there are no possible benefits from non-nuclear aggression or limited nuclear escalation’.

Above all, the new US nuclear doctrine calls for the development of smaller weapons, and a ‘flexible, tailored nuclear deterrent strategy’, in order to have all possible options available in an escalation –an idea that has staged a comeback– or even in ‘extreme circumstances’ leading to the use of these weapons to defend the vital interests of the US, its allies or its partners, including in the face of ‘significant non-nuclear strategic attacks’. In other words, it broadens the scenarios in which the US may use nuclear arms, including that of nuclear against non-nuclear (which was, lest it be forgotten, at the root of the Cold War in Europe). The document advocates strengthening ‘the integration of nuclear and non-nuclear military planning’. There is a danger of trivialising these weapons; especially when, as the review itself says, there is ‘an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space and cyber threats, and violent non-state actors’. Deterrence continues to be the rule, albeit in a very different guise. It is no longer a matter of two sides, but rather three or more, including non-state actors. While nuclear weapons would not deter terrorists of the Islamic State variety or others, the fear of nuclear terrorism of some sort is ever present.

The fact is that the boundary between the nuclear and the non-nuclear is blurred by this doctrine. It is also being blurred in another way: with the building of the increasingly powerful conventional bombs being developed by the US (as well as Russia and China), such as the so-called hypersonic weapons. The US used what it dubbed the ‘mother of all bombs’, its largest conventional weapon, launched from an aeroplane, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), in Afghanistan in April 2017 against a network of Islamic State tunnels in the province of Nangarhar. In other words, nuclear weapons are downsizing while their conventional counterparts become ever-more powerful.

‘Let it be an arms race!’ Trump proclaimed during his election campaign. There is just such a race, again, in the nuclear domain, without even counting the new proliferators such as North Korea. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, but they can be reinvented. And it seems that this is what we face: not the prospect of a quantitative race this time, but rather a qualitative race, one that corrodes the boundaries between the nuclear and the non-nuclear.