With the end of the Cold War, we believed that the discussion about nuclear weapons had shifted from the superpowers to ‘proliferating’ middle powers, such as Pakistan, Iran or North Korea.
The signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between Moscow and Washington reassured the Europeans by calling for the dismantling on our continent of nuclear-related missiles with long range capabilities of between 500 and 5500 km.
It was part of a general movement towards nuclear disarmament. In the 1990s, the START negotiations (reduction of strategic weapons of intercontinental scope) took over from the SALT of the 1970s. The process continued with the signature of the Treaty of reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals (SORT), and ended with the New START in 2010.
We were all disappointed that the maximum level of nuclear arsenals remained high (1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 launching devices for each of the two nuclear superpowers). But we welcomed the effective implementation of this New START treaty that was ratified by a large majority in the US Senate in December 2010, and that went ahead despite deteriorating Russian-American diplomatic relations starting in 2014, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis.
Did we sin by being excessively optimistic?
The question arises because of the strong and negative Russian and Chinese reaction to the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a 72-page political document, published by the Pentagon on February 2. This NPR – which summarises the goals and doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons in the American arsenal – does not call for a return to the accepted maximum levels of nuclear weapons. It advocates the replacement of a number of powerful nuclear warheads by less powerful warheads – whether embedded in submarines, planes or land-based missiles. The NPR also proposes that some of the cruise missiles on board US Navy ships be equipped with low-power nuclear warheads.
Though it may seem paradoxical, effective deterrence of any potential enemy requires a move from big payloads to smaller payloads. Moving from the sledgehammer to the hand hammer.
It’s worth bearing in mind that when we talk about ‘small payloads’, we are talking about H-bombs carrying a dozen kilotons – half the amount used in Nagasaki and which killed 70,000 people in August 1945.
Classical large payloads have so much power that they can never be used, except with the risk of mutual assured destruction. The Pentagon strategists believe they need intermediate power weapons to deter an enemy from advancing on a local battlefield that directly threatens America’s allies. They believe that an extreme but credible weapon is needed to dissuade Russia from thinking of seizing, for example, the Baltic states. Or the Chinese navy, from seizing the Japanese Senkaku reefs. The NPR says it all: it’s a matter of dissuading Russia from thinking about using low-power nuclear weapons in the European theatre, and to deter China from Asian expansionism.
Fortunately we are not yet there. But the goal of the nuclear deterrence that American strategists now seek to establish is to prevent potential adversaries from even thinking about aggressive territorial expansion. The Pentagon fears that Moscow will one day attempt to recover that part of the Russian empire that President Yeltsin let go in 1991 between two glasses of vodka.
Neither does the Pentagon exclude the possibility that China may one day seek to control militarily the Asian maritime routes used by its merchant ships. Today, Singapore and its American ally control the highly strategic Straits of Malacca.
On February 3, the Russians and Chinese reacted angrily to the NPR. They accused the USA of wanting to revive the Cold War. But, despite the apparent good relations, there is no alliance between Moscow and Beijing. The Kremlin will never admit it, but, in retaining low-power nuclear weapons, Russia’s primary goal is the defence of Siberia – an area of 10 million square kilometers that holds only 10 million people.
In spite of what Russian and Chinese strategists are saying, an American nuclear posture that calls for a wide and credible range of weapons is not, in itself, a provocation. It is simply a reinforced deterrent. But to be effective, a deterrent must be accompanied by constant, high quality diplomatic dialogue. It is this that, alas, is missing today.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.