Countering China’s nuclear threat: The cost to play is cheaper than the cost of sitting out

On Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced with the new flag of Russia. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Behind us were the days of the “duck and cover” drills — the exercise in anxiety that Americans conducted for decades. The bipolar world of competing nuclear titans gave way to the unipolar world we enjoy today.

Though Russia inherited the massive arsenal once wielded by the Soviet Union, several of the rungs in the escalation ladder were removed. There was no conceivable situation in which post-Soviet Russia would escalate past the brink of nuclear war. For the average American, Russia became a second-tier priority. It was less menacing than the rash of terror that characterized the following three decades and the associated fears of proliferation of nuclear weapons into less stable, former Soviet states. The world was largely safe from the threat of nuclear war, and the American ideals of freedom, liberty and democracy flourished and spread across the globe.

The fall of the Soviet Union meant more than simply reducing the likelihood of nuclear weapons usage, however. For as long as nuclear weapons have existed, nations have been scrambling to find an effective counter. As early as the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union worked to develop anti-ballistic missile systems to shoot down and, hypothetically, defang the nuclear threat. The ABM system was a double-edged sword: While it protected the country that deployed the systems from nuclear strike, their existence could potentially embolden that country to progress further up the escalation ladder.

Furthermore, as ABM evolved, so did technologies designed to evade it. Supposing one anti-ballistic missile could shoot down one intercontinental ballistic missile, it would follow that the likelihood of a successful nuclear strike would be improved by increasing the number of warheads on that ICBM.

Enter multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, or MIRV: One missile is launched into orbit, and multiple warheads are released from space. Now the number of anti-ballistic missiles required to shoot down these warheads increases by an order of magnitude. In this system, missiles and warheads are not limited to a 1-to-1 ratio: The number of warheads in a country’s arsenal is incentivized to increase exponentially. So disruptive was MIRV, that it prompted the United States to propose the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed on May 26, 1972, by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The treaty rose from the fear of an arms race, but in effect it stymied ballistic missile defense development for decades.

Ultimately, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the bilateral support for this agreement began to wane. On June 13, 2002, the United States withdrew from the treaty and recommenced work on ballistic missile defense. Some pointed to advances in ballistic missile defense as heralding the end of mutually assured destruction. I wish I could agree, but again, for as long as nuclear weapons have existed, nations have found effective counters — and counters to those counters. Now the world takes another deep breath as it watches history begin to repeat itself.

On March 1, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the development of new missile systems in response to the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. On May 15, 2020, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. was developing a missile that could travel “17 times faster than what we have right now”. These are glimpses into the coming age of hypersonic weapons and a return to the multipolar era of mutually assured destruction. Ballistic missile defense didn’t end the age of strategic deterrence — it merely challenged adversaries to develop yet another counter. We aren’t returning to the bipolar world of the 20th century, however.


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