The United States have been undermining nuclear deterrence

by Prof Dr Albert A. Stahel, Institute for Strategic Studies, Wädenswil

Since the US dropped the two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, nuclear weapons have become a reality in our world.  The reality of the presence of nuclear weapons resembles a Janus face. On the one hand, these weapons are extremely threatening because of their enormous destructive power, especially for those countries that do not have nuclear weapons. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are also a guarantee of security because of their destructive potential, as, in view of their destructive effect, no nuclear power will dare to use these weapons in a conflict with another nuclear power. The number of countries having nuclear weapons at their command has increased since the fifties of the last century. Apart from the US and Russia, these countries also include the two European states of medium power Great Britain and France, as well as China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
The United States and the former USSR mutually recognised the mutual deterrence of their nuclear offensive weapons in their first armaments control agreement SALT-I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) of 26 May 1972, by means of numerically limiting their offensive weapons. Since the disintegration of the USSR at the end of 1991, this recognition also applies to the Russian Federation as the successor state of the USSR.
There are different definitions of deterrence to be found in strategic literature. Thus deterrence is described as the attempt,

“[…] not to fight a war but to prevent it by threatening any attacker with retaliation that will bring him more harm than that which he may wreak by means of his recourse to violence.”1

The authors Schwarz and Hadik define mutual deterrence as the

 “[…] situation of nuclear-armed States, each of which is in possession of a sufficiently protected weapon of destruction, which allows it to prevent an attack by threatening that any such attack will be answered in the form of a crushing retaliation.”2

Robert S. McNamara, US Defence Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson, formulated the following objective for the US power of nuclear retaliation in 1967:

“What causes the deterrence is not our ability to limit the damage to ourselves but our ability to destroy an aggressor as a viable nation of the twentieth century. We cannot say exactly what kind and what degree of destruction we should have to inflict on an attacker to achieve this deterrence. However, it seems reasonable to assume that in the case of the Soviet Union, the destruction of say one-fifth to one-quarter of the population and one-half to two-thirds of the industrial potential would mean that it would be excluded as a major power for many years.”3

A year later, McNamara noted that the Soviet Union’s deterrence would be the same in respect of the US. From this point in time onwards, the nuclear strategy was designated as “Mutual Assured Destruction”, abbreviated MAD. Both superpowers of that time were supposed to be able to engage in a crushing counter-attack with nuclear weapons against civilian and industrial targets of the enemy power, even after suffering an enemy first-strike with nuclear weapons directed against their own nuclear-strategic weapons. This meant that, after an initial enemy strike, there would remain a sufficiently large potential of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), submarine-assisted ballistic missiles (SLBM), and long-range bombers for the counter-attack. For a credible mutual deterrence the mechanism of the MAD strategy had to be based on the potential of the nuclear-strategic offensive weapons belonging to the two powers.
In order to prevent one side’s power of retaliation with offensive weapons being eliminated, the establishment of missile defence systems on both sides was numerically limited by the ABM Treaty (Anti-Ballistic Missile(s)), which was also an integral part of SALT-I.4 A comprehensive deployment of defence systems would not only have been able to outmanoeuvre the retaliatory and thereby the deterrence ability of both powers, but it would also certainly have triggered an expensive armament race on both sides. Thanks to their adherence to the ABM Treaty, a stable balance of deterrence prevailed for decades between the two powers.
Until the investiture of the Bush jr. administration in 2001, the ABM Treaty was considered as sacrosanct in the relations between the US and the USSR. Under the influence of his power-hungry Defence Minister Donald Rumsfeld the younger President Bush unilaterally revoked the ABM Treaty soon after his appointment. Without paying any attention to Russia, the Bush administration decided to build a missile defence system that would not be restricted to the US. Amongst the elements of this defence system there had to be radar traps and missile defence systems put up in Poland and Romania. With their one-sided approach, the US has put an end to the ultima ratio of nuclear deterrence. Today there can no longer be any question of a truly stable balance of nuclear deterrence between the two powers. Instead, the US and Russia are increasingly confronted with a degree of mutual uncertainty about their possible use of nuclear weapons in a crisis.     •

1    Legault, A., & Lindsey, G. . The dynamics of the nuclear balance. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. (1976)
2    Schwarz, U. and Hadik, L., Strategic Terminology, A Trilingual Glossary. Econ-Publishers, Dusseldorf and Vienna, 1966, p. 62
3    Legault, A. and Lindsey, G.
4    Legault, A. and Lindsey, G.

Source: www.strategische-studien.ch  (strategic-studies) of 30 October 2016

(Translation Current Concerns)