By Henry Sokolski
Seventy-five years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, one wonders what the next 75 might bring. Will nuclear weapons’ strategic status decline, much as chemical agents’ primacy did 75 years after their first use? Or will a future shot in anger validate the bomb’s security utility?
The answer is unclear. Military advances in precision guidance and targeting are making city busting (the massive murder of innocents) far less attractive or necessary. Yet for relatively small, weak states that lack such non-nuclear options, acquiring and using the bomb may remain attractive no matter what advanced states might do. Also, despite governments’ public denials, threatening mass terror and casualties may prove irresistible for any nuclear-armed state.
For most experts in and out of government struggling with these questions, ideology usually short circuits the fight. Believe in progress? Going to zero nuclear weapons becomes imperative. Skeptical and hawkish? Nuclear deterrence will keep us safe. Fatalistic? Nuclear proliferation and use are inevitable. That’s it. Pick your prejudice, run with it, and voila, the nuclear problem is made relatively simple.
For the curious and self-aware, though, matters are more complicated.
We are in the midst of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth generations of warfare. This progression toward less violent combat has hardly precluded military planners from threatening nuclear attacks to shape their battlefields. Yet few are eager to fire nuclear weapons. Instead, leading Russian, American, and Chinese strategists favor using more discriminate weaponry—accurate precision munitions, stealth, maneuver warfare (as used in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom), gray operations (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), political propaganda and cyber operations (China’s, Russia’s, Israel’s, America’s, and others’ latest gambit).
Advancing technologies are fortifying this penchant. The “internet of things” is enabling damaging non-kinetic strategic messaging and cyberwar operations. Advances in aiming accuracy and targeting intelligence keep driving down military requirements for massively destructive munitions. The United States can now fire modern missiles remotely to kill a specific terrorist in the back seat of a moving car. Although range still increases the cost of warhead delivery, precision targeting is no longer a function of range. Static airfields and moving aircraft carriers, which previously required a handful of nuclear tactical missiles to knockout, now can be disabled with a few precise missiles carrying modern conventional munitions.
This accuracy trend first received popular notice in the closing years of the Vietnam War, where laser guided glide bombs dramatically reduced the number of bombing runs needed to destroy point targets (for example, a single bridge pylon). This same trend made it possible to reduce by more than half U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear warheads from 1986 to 1996, and by another 70 percent from 1996 to the present. Call it arms control without diplomacy. It still is in play: The number of deployed strategic weapons in the U.S. stockpile continues to decline.
As noted, the superpowers still hold key hardened, deep, and tunneled military targets at risk with nuclear weapons. But they also are perfecting cyber, laser, kinetic, and jamming weaponry to blind, disrupt, and lobotomize these hardened targets’ eyes, ears, and nervous systems.
Why bother? Although enthusiasts for nuclear deterrence put a brave face on the first or early use of nuclear weapons, such strikes produce as a many worries as they might eliminate. If there is some way to accomplish military missions without resorting to nuclear arms, most military planners favor it. A key reason why is the inability to know, after the nuclear shooting begins, when and where it might stop. A “surgical” nuclear strike against a nuclear-armed state’s strategic command centers, for example, could easily set off nuclear retaliatory strikes against one’s capital, prompting further political face-saving eye-for-an-eye nuclear exchanges. To help avoid this outcome, most nuclear states preemptively threaten to use their nuclear arms in this total fashion, in hopes of bolstering “deterrence.”
Killing innocents, though, hardly helps neutralize, much less win, the hearts or minds of an adversary’s population—the key objective of the latest style of warfare. If, for example, the United States was eager to undo Xi’s and Putin’s brutal style of rule, wouldn’t targeting these leaders’ sources of power and pledging not to threaten the Chinese or Russian people be the thing to do? If so, perhaps the heyday of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence (holding populations hostage) is behind us.
As pleasing as this prospect might be, though, a worrisome countercurrent still remains: the spread of nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, security experts assumed only advanced, medium sized states (for example, France, Italy, Japan, Germany, Sweden, and so on) would acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, most didn’t, but weaker states did—China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea. This trend could easily continue with states such as Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Egypt going nuclear. Who, after this, would be next is anyone’s guess, but Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and Turkey come to mind.
Why might such proliferation occur? Relatively weak states are drawn to desperate acts if they believe they are in danger and lack confidence that anyone will protect them. Pakistan went nuclear and now relies on first use to protect itself against India’s much larger military. Israel went nuclear in the 1950s for much the same reason. Arguably, North Korea also did so for similar reasons in the 1980s. At the very least, others, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea, will want an option to acquire nuclear arms quickly.
A proven way to accomplish this is to develop “peaceful” nuclear energy. The UK, India, Taiwan, North and South Korea, Sweden, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, and France all developed civilian nuclear research and power programs before, or as a part of, their efforts to acquire weapons. By now, this history should have made nuclear supplier states wise to how large reactors are bomb-starter-kits. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
Russia, financially stretched by economic sanctions, still hopes to make a killing (or at least keep Russian nuclear workers employed) by subsidizing the export of reactors. China and South Korea, eager to capitalize on their massive state-supported domestic nuclear investments, are also keen to use state-backed financing to break into dodgy, “frontier” markets. Even the United States government is now antsy to bankroll otherwise uneconomic “advanced” U.S. nuclear reactor exports in hopes of making America’s enfeebled nuclear industry great again. Many U.S. next-generation reactor designs need uranium and plutonium fuels that, in turn, require new enrichment and reprocessing plants—facilities that could bring states within days of getting the bomb. This is not a story that’s likely to end well.
Indeed, with any bad luck, this trend could easily race ahead of the military scientific slog that’s pushing nuclear weapons into the background. The proper response would be to get serious about nonproliferation by promoting more economic nonnuclear energy alternatives, tightening the rules on nuclear exports—“peaceful” or otherwise—and restricting trade in advanced military delivery systems.
Unfortunately, current events are not cutting in that direction. Although it received scant attention, last month a long-simmering border dispute flared up again between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In response, Azerbaijan threatened to attack Armenia’s nuclear power reactor with precise ballistic missiles that Israel had recently sold Azerbaijan’s military. Such a strike could release deadly radioactivity. Armenian commentators and officials immediately recoiled, making international legal arguments against the “terroristic” targeting of its population (and balefully disavowed any retaliatory intent to attack Azerbaijan’s dams and oil and gas facilities).
Turkey reassured Azerbaijan that it still had Ankara’s back (by means of advanced arms sales). Then the Russians got involved. First, a Russian security expert noted that Russia would militarily deter any attack against Armenia’s reactor (or at least that it could not resist militarily intervening if Azerbaijan did attack Armenia’s nuclear plant). Shortly thereafter, Putin phoned Erdoğan to “coordinate efforts for stabilization in region.” It is unclear, however, if any stabilization occurred. Several days later, Turkey instead escalated matters, sending Turkish F-16 multirole fighters to Azerbaijan as part of a responsive, tailored joint military exercise.
Use whatever historical analogy you like: This neglected news stream suggests a not-so-brave future spiked with occasional nuclear Sarajevos. High on this future’s list of ingredients is the further operation and construction of sympathetic targets in the world’s hotspots. These include large reactors in Central Asia (Armenia has such a plant; Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan plan on building them), in the Middle East (the UAE and Iran have reactors on line; Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are in the midst of building their own), in Southwest Asia (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all building or operating them), and in East Asia (North and South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China). Besides such reactors, large dams and oil and gas facilities could also serve as sympathetic targets that, if hit, could drag in nuclear-armed allies.
Dial in bitter, lasting historical rivalries between armed contestants (Pakistan versus India, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, Turkey versus Armenia, North Korea versus South Korea). Fortify each with a nuclear-armed sponsor (China for Pakistan, Russia for Armenia, China for North Korea, the United States for South Korea, Russia for Iran, the United States for Saudi Arabia). Sprinkle in relatively small numbers of super-accurate, non-nuclear missiles and related technology exports under ever looser missile restrictions to South and North Korea (from Russia, China, and the United States), to Armenia (from Russia), to Azerbaijan (from Israel), to Iran (from North Korea, Russia, and China), to India (from Russia), to Saudi Arabia (from China), and to the UAE (the same). The result: Yet more ways for existing scraps to catalyze into broader contests that could go nuclear. And assuming no countervailing efforts to break these trends, the list of regions and contestants will grow.
Could International agreements or laws help head this off? In theory, yes. Tightening international missile and nuclear technology exports would definitely help even if this may not be worked until after a clear disaster. A more optimistic take is that what we need most already exists and should be controlling: In specific, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the 1977 Additional Protocols, and the U.S. Defense Department’s regulations regarding the conduct of war. These prohibit intentionally targeting civilians, demand efforts to avoid harming innocents, and stipulate that whatever military harm civilians suffer in wars must be proportionate to identifiable military gains.
Properly interpreted, these strictures should make future Hiroshimas illegal. It is unclear, however, if this alone could prevent them. Why? First, what is “proportionate” is in the eye of the beholder. Victors almost always insist their military actions were proportionate; their victims don’t. Second, the public’s taste for vengeance in both large and small states generally grows if the war drags on and becomes ever more bloody. Political leaders ignore this at their own peril and so generally don’t. This helps explain Truman’s decision to drop the first two bombs, and why there are still military legal experts who believe nuclear strikes against cities are legal.
This, then, brings us to the matter of deterrence. Ultimately, leaders are “all in” when it comes to deterring aggression and are quite vocal about their willingness to inflict “unacceptable damage” (that is, killing innocents) to achieve it. Such cold-hearted hard-headedness is not just to be found among the truculent right, but also from sectors of the arms control left that oppose “massive, destabilizing” nuclear “counterforce” targeting of military assets. Their preference: Go to a “deterrence only” strategy that would use far fewer weapons primarily against “the enemy’s economic capacity” (located in or near a relative few, large cities).
We need to let this go. An idea worth revisiting is to agree to stop the nuclear targeting of cities. Political leaders might still want to bomb them. But the prospect of postwar criminal proceedings should focus their minds and do more to deter the worst than any threatening of nuclear mass murder ever could. Other forms of diplomacy would also help. These include tighter nuclear and missile technology export controls. Also needed are restraints that would encourage further development of weaponry designed to make strategic offensive surprise and massive, indiscriminate attacks like Hiroshima an ever more distant memory.