Same-Same but different: The Evolving Qualitative Arms Race

During the Cold War, an ever-increasing quantity of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles determined the strategic parameters of international security. In the 30 years since then, the global nuclear stockpiles have been reduced gradually. This process has, at least for the time being, come to an end with the New START treaty on deployed strategic nuclear weapons. It was signed by the US and Russia in April 2010. Despite its overall success, the prospects for further (nuclear) disarmament are bleak. Instead, we are witnessing an evolving arms race that will, however, differ significantly from the Cold War tradition. Two main issues drive this process.

The first is the rise of China. Since its inception in the 1960s, nuclear arms control has been a bilateral affair between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Even today, both nuclear superpowers account for approximately 90% of existing warheads. Nevertheless, the US government has frequently called upon China – which, according to public sources, still possesses less than 300 warheads compared to the more than 6000 in the respective US and Russian arsenals – to join strategic nuclear arms control negotiations. Because Washington views Beijing as the main geopolitical competitor in the 21st century, it seeks to protect its technological and strategic edge by either constraining China or lifting formal limits on its own capabilities. The US withdrawal from the INF-treaty is a case in point. Russia’s treaty violations notwithstanding, the US primarily reacts to the growing Chinese arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and radar capabilities that potentially hold US military assets and allies in East Asia at risk. In August 2019, the US for the first time tested a ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, followed by a second test of a ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile in December that year.

Second, technological innovations such as machine learning techniques will enable weapon systems to become increasingly more autonomous in target recognition, command & control, and, prospectively, target neutralization. These developments exacerbate the existing political challenges for arms control, which, in essence, strives to slow down the speed of decision-making and minimize the effect of offensive capabilities. On the one hand, both China and Russia are eager to balance the technological edge of the US by investments in key areas, such as unmanned aerial and ground vehicles and missile technology. Moscow, for example, has developed a variety of hypersonic missiles to circumvent US missile defense, built up its arsenal of cruise missiles and, similar to the US after the collapse of the INF, announced the creation of ground-based versions of these missiles. On the other hand, the competition between the great powers is spreading to new domains that before had been off limits. The most significant one is cyberspace, whose network infrastructure makes attack attribution extremely difficult. Moreover, the civilian/military dual-use character of cyber products creates new vulnerabilities for critical infrastructure. Since many of these systems are dependent on satellite communication, space is turning into yet another frontier of competition.

These two larger trends – one geopolitical, the other technological – negatively affect the willingness of states to engage in (nuclear) arms control. They also require innovative thinking about how to regulate, and possibly reduce, destabilizing weapon systems. Counting and reducing the numbers of “strategic” nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles is already a complex task, but today this quantitative approach of the bygone bilateral age will not suffice to produce the desired effects of more security.

One reason for this insufficiency is the disappearing firewall between nuclear and conventional systems, both on the level of technical capabilities and doctrine. China and Russia traditionally deploy dual-capable systems to compensate for their relative conventional inferiority and to strengthen nuclear deterrence. In case of military conflict, this entanglement may lead to increasing uncertainty that risks nuclear escalation since target states may not be able to tell the difference between a conventional and a nuclear-tipped missile. By contrast, since the end of the Cold War the US has upheld the conventional-nuclear divide by physically separating warheads, delivery vehicles, and platforms. However, by developing the conventional prompt global strike (PGS) program, which allows destroying targets with ballistic missiles globally within an hour, Washington has prompted concerns in China and Russia. Both states believe that PGS – in combination with US conventional superiority in precision-guided stand-off missiles (Tomahawk and JASSM cruise missiles) and regional ballistic missile defense systems (Aegis in Europe and THAAD in East Asia) – could undermine the credibility of their nuclear deterrent.

The existence of hypersonic missiles, that is, cruise missiles and glide vehicles travelling with five to more than twenty times the speed of sound, amplifies problems of ambiguity. Although these systems do not change the overall strategic balance, they will dramatically reduce the reaction time for decision-makers, especially in case of forward deployment in Europe or East Asia. Moreover, because hypersonic glide vehicles do not follow a ballistic trajectory in their re-entry phase, it is often not even possible to clarify the exact target of an ongoing missile strike. Russia has already fielded its hypersonic intercontinental glide vehicle Avangard to be carried by the newly developed heavy ICBM Sarmat. In November 2019, it demonstrated the system to an US inspection group in accordance with the New START treaty provisions. Whereas the Kremlin concedes that both Sarmat and Avangard are subject to the treaty, the US government is keen to find a way to also regulate Russia’s other new weapon systems. These include Kinzhal air-launched cruise missiles, which are already being deployed, but also systems still in development that might be fielded in the late 2020s, for example the underwater nuclear drone Poseidon, and the cruise missile Burevestnik, reportedly propelled by nuclear power.

In parallel to technical developments, strategic thinking about nuclear weapons and their function seems to be changing. Since the late 1960s, the dominant approach was that the existence of nuclear weapons is a kind of life insurance in case of all-out war, but otherwise their role was limited to strategic deterrence. Strategists and politicians alike rejected the scenario that a “limited” strategic nuclear exchange as part of warfighting could avoid escalation. In the US, however, there is the conviction that Russia has just developed such an “escalate-to-de-escalate” doctrine. Although the empirical basis for this assumption is quite weak, the Pentagon suggests that Moscow could resort to a limited nuclear first strike to end a conventional conflict that it started itself, for example in Eastern Europe.

Whether right or wrong, US policy builds upon this assumption and, in reaction, has developed low-yield warheads that were recently deployed on Trident submarines. The US Nuclear Posture Review from 2018 emphasizes that “this is not intended to, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting’” and argues that the greater flexibility in nuclear options is “important for the preservation of credible deterrence”. By contrast, a prominent group of former US officials, including Secretary of State George P. Schulz and Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, have warned that the warhead is “dangerous, unjustified, and redundant”, and that it may be the beginning of a “slippery slope to nuclear war.”

For Europe, these trends are particularly worrisome, yet for different reasons than is usually assumed. For example, the end of the INF-treaty is less dramatic from a military than from a political perspective. Compared to the 1980s, both Russia and the US are equipped with a considerable arsenal of sea- and air-based intermediate-range missiles that can strike targets within the regional theatre. Most recently, Moscow demonstrated these abilities when firing Kalibr cruise missiles at targets in Syria from warships in the Caspian Sea more than 1,500 kilometers away. The US has likewise frequently used its Tomahawk cruise missiles in various wars since 1991, ranging from Iraq to Afghanistan and Syria. Placed on warship and submarines they can strike deep into Russian territory. Thus, the military significance of the INF treaty had been diminished even before Russian violations were identified.

Nevertheless, it is clear that NATO members have different views on how to react to the deployment of Russian SSC-8 (9M729) cruise missiles. Whereas Germany warns of a new arms race and is reluctant to consider the deployment of US ground-based intermediate-range missiles as a possible answer, Eastern European NATO-members are more open to such a scenario. For the moment, the alliance remains cautions in its reactions, referring to a “balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures”. Nevertheless, a publicly visible dispute or domestic protests similar to those during the Euro-missile crisis in the 1980s would be very counterproductive and deepen the current impasse in transatlantic relations.

Thus, the growing military-political competition between the United States, China, and Russia puts Europe in a difficult position. On the one hand, most European states are part of the US guaranteed security system within NATO. This means that strategic disputes, which in theory are unrelated to the regional context, almost automatically turn into points of contention. On the other hand, from a regional perspective, it would be a mistake to sacrifice transparency, risk reduction and verification measures on the altar of great power competition. In this context, the preservation and possible extension of existing arms control and disarmament treaties would be an essential intermediate step to address both the geopolitical and the technological challenge.

New START is a case in point. The treaty expires in February 2021 but could be extended for another five years, if both parties agree. Although Moscow has publicly announced its willingness to extend New START, the Trump administration remains undecided, because it wants to bring in China first. The current security benefit of New START, however, exists less in the overall reduction of warheads and delivery vehicles, but in the inspection regime established to verify this process. Each side is required to provide extensive information on treaty-limited items and allow the other side to conduct 18 short-notice inspections per year. These measures cannot be fully replaced by national intelligence. Hence, losing the treaty would further increase uncertainty about intentions and capabilities in US-Russian relations, which are already deteriorating due to the armed conflict in Ukraine, the war in Syria, and various cyber operations. Extending New START will not end this unfortunate state of affairs, but it would provide the time that is necessary to seriously consider the possible participation of China in future strategic arms control and the integration of new weapon systems.


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