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Time for dialogue to manage new risks to nuclear stability

Global Times | Published: August 07, 2019 18:24:13


-Reuters photo

In its recent National Defence White Paper, China declared, "Nuclear capability is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security." As is the case with other nuclear weapons states, for China, an assured, survivable second strike capability is indeed at the core of nuclear deterrence.

China has achieved this with a well-developed and successful nuclear modernization effort since the 1980s. With silo ballistic missiles, mobile missiles, bombers, and increasingly capable nuclear submarines, China has an effective triad. Moreover, China's modernization has been more focused on quality than quantity. So far, China has roughly 300 nuclear warheads.

So, it is no surprise that China has refused arms control talks with the US, which has some 5,000 warheads, most recently proposed by President Donald Trump. The US leader proposed US-Russia-China talks as a condition for extending the US-Russia New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord which expires in 2021. Beijing's reluctance reflects the huge numbers gap. And in any case, the US and Russia should extend New START on its merits.

Yet Trump may be half-right, though not for the reasons he thinks.

New realities of the tech revolution require not traditional arms control, but new ways to manage risks to strategic stability. Why? Emerging non-nuclear technologies - AI/autonomous weapons, offensive cyber, anti-space weapons and hypersonic missiles all threaten to undermine stability among nuclear states - a secure second strike capability. These new vulnerabilities threaten China, the US and Russia alike, and could result in nuclear weapons states facing a disastrous "use it or lose it," dilemma in the event of a crisis.

The US, China, Russia and other nuclear states such as India and France are developing versions of all these fourth industrial revolution technologies. All are developing hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles that travel at Mach 5 and up to Mach 10 - five-to-10 times the speed of sound - and could preemptively strike command or control or nuclear weapons themselves. In March 2018, General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee, "We [US] don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon [hypersonic missiles] against us."

Increasingly capable anti-space technology like lasers could blind or destroy satellites impeding command and control of nuclear weapons. AI-powered cyberattacks could disrupt nuclear command and control mechanisms. And as AI develops, the risk of autonomous weapons that could be used without a human decision may loom ahead.

These emerging technologies have already begun to undermine longstanding assumptions about crisis stability. Yet there are no codes of conduct, agreed standards, norms or rules for these technologies that risk changing the military calculus of nuclear powers.

Most worrisome, these new risks to strategic stability come at a time of resurgent major power competition and an unraveling of the framework of arms control restraints erected during the Cold War and its aftermath. Each side seeks to develop superior, dominant technologies.

Yet, the reality is that the US and China are only increasing their mutual vulnerability. For example, in space, until recently, the US was most vulnerable having by far the most satellites and dependence on space for military operations. Now China has more than 200 satellites in orbit and launches annually more than the US and Russia combined - 39 in 2018.

Can the US, China or Russia really assume that they have - in operational terms - an "advantage?" The notion of "absolute security" is an illusion. The danger is that in the quest to master new technologies, the US, China, Russia and others may be starting to repeat the mindless arms racing of the Cold War.

Only after the US and the former Soviet Union went to the nuclear brink did they realize the need to manage competition. This led former US president Ronald Reagan to the conclusion that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

The logic of mutual vulnerability should lead Washington and Beijing to initiate dialogue on how to manage these new risks. Should autonomous weapons be banned? Should the US and China lead efforts to end the race for hypersonic missiles, define rules and norms for both? Or perhaps codes of conduct for space, which is governed only by an outdated 1967 UN Treaty on Outer Space.

As the US and Russia have 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, extending the New START accord would put a ceiling on numbers of US and Russian nuclear weapons. But the Trump administration has been more eager to withdraw from international treaties - from the INF to the Paris Climate Accord - than to agree to them, New START may be its next victim.

China would be wise to turn Trump's trilateral proposal on its head, and quietly signal that it is willing to start a US-China-Russia dialogue not on nuclear arms control, but on how to manage on new threats to stability if the US and Russia extend New START and preserve this remaining architecture of restraint. This would be a difficult, problematic exercise, but a necessary one.

Unfortunately, if history is a guide, it may take a near-death crisis before the major powers reverse the logic of all-out competition, accept the reality of mutual vulnerability and find ways to manage it. One Cuban Missile Crisis was more than enough. The world may not be so lucky next time.

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