National Security

Deterrent Effect

How high-tech weapons could make states hang on to their nukes. 

After two decades of steep reductions, the pace of nuclear disarmament has begun to slow. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world's nuclear armed states still possess about 4,400 operational nuclear weapons -- 2,000 of which are kept on high alert -- and some 14,600 additional warheads are in storage for possible use. About 95 percent of these weapons of mass destruction -- around 18,000 warheads -- are held by Russia and the United States, more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War.

Of course, nuclear disarmament was always going to be hard slogging. Many decision-makers have a deep interest in retaining these weapons for political and security reasons. And, yes, there is a certain accepted comfort level, or even complacency, with the decades-long existence of nuclear weapons and the dark logic of deterrence. Even under these conditions, nuclear disarmament has seen some significant progress in recent years -- but only as long as nuclear-armed parties believed deterrence could be preserved even as overall numbers of nuclear weapons were reduced.

Looking ahead, however, the longstanding theories of nuclear stability are likely to come under increasing strain with the continued development of advanced conventional weapons technologies that can substantially affect nuclear capabilities. Such technologies are not entirely new, but their improved effectiveness -- especially as overall numbers of nuclear weapons decrease -- increasingly erodes what has been a traditional operational and doctrinal distinction between nuclear and conventional forces. This in turn raises critical questions about nuclear postures and deterrence strategies, which will affect disarmament efforts.

What are some of these conventional capabilities? Let's look at three that have received a good bit of attention.

Perhaps the best known are anti-ballistic missile technologies, or missile defenses, which come in a variety of forms and missions. But in a nutshell, these are weapons systems that can track, intercept, and destroy an enemy missile. Current versions of these weapons tend to be of the "kinetic kill" variety -- a "bullet hitting a bullet" -- but other forms, such as directed-energy weapons (e.g., lasers), have also been explored.

Strategists have long debated the impact of missile defenses on nuclear stability; after all, if one side can entirely negate the other's ability to launch a nuclear strike, then it may not be deterred from launching one itself. Missile defenses were an early sticking point in arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union -- and they remain one today. Judging from Moscow's repeatedly expressed concerns about America's growing anti-ballistic missile capabilities and the impact its leaders claim they have on Russia's deterrent, further bilateral reductions will surely be slowed.

Countries that have a far smaller arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems -- for example, China has perhaps only 30 to 40 nuclear-armed missiles with ranges capable of reaching the U.S. mainland -- are especially concerned about advances in anti-ballistic missile technologies. Their answer? More missiles with more modern capabilities. And, to further complicate the picture, countries such as China, Russia, and India are pursuing their own anti-ballistic missile capabilities as well, which will in turn affect their potential nuclear adversaries' thinking about the wisdom of smaller arsenals.

A second set of conventional weapons capabilities are conventional long-range (or global) precision-strike weapons. In the United States, such systems -- which fall within the Prompt Global Strike initiative -- have gained some currency over the past decade as the result of a perceived need to be able to attack targets anywhere in the world with great accuracy, to do so quickly, and, if necessary, to do so from the U.S. homeland and not from forward bases. The types of systems foreseen for this mission would include long-range missiles converted from a nuclear to a conventional role.

Also within the Global Prompt Strike effort are hypersonic glide vehicles. These weapons are still in testing phases, including recent flight tests by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. In essence, this weapon system consists of two parts: a launch vehicle and a glide vehicle. Boosted toward space by a rocket, a glide vehicle about the size of a fighter aircraft is released at the uppermost edge of Earth's atmosphere onto a controlled, non-ballistic glide path. Traveling at speeds of more than Mach 20 and covering enormous distances in a short period of time -- one newspaper account noted the vehicle could travel from Sydney to London in about 49 minutes -- the vehicle, armed with conventional munitions, can be guided to hit its target with devastating effect.

At least three important implications for disarmament arise from the deployment and possible use of such conventional systems. The first is the possibility that when such weapons are readied or launched, nuclear-armed adversaries cannot be certain they are actually conventionally-armed, and may be prompted to launch a nuclear response. Second, such conventional weapons, being both highly accurate and tremendously destructive, could be capable of destroying all or key parts of an opponent's nuclear arsenal and related infrastructure. Finally, some countries, such as China, have stated for decades that they would not use nuclear weapons unless attacked by nuclear weapons first. But what if their nuclear arsenal or other strategic infrastructure is destroyed or seriously debilitated by conventional weapons? Does that elicit a nuclear response nonetheless? Will this possibility lead the Chinese to rethink their longstanding nuclear "no-first-use" principle? In all of these scenarios, advanced conventional capabilities of long-range precision strike could undermine nuclear restraint and disarmament.

The Americans are not the only ones who are looking for advantage in the widening gray zone between conventional and nuclear capabilities. As John W. Lewis and Xue Litai recently explained in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, China's co-mingling of conventional- and nuclear-armed missiles on the same bases may well lead to the same problem noted above: potential adversaries might assume the worst and respond in kind when only conventional missiles were actually launched. Or, as some Chinese strategists would prefer to believe, an adversary is not likely to launch its nuclear weapons precipitously for fear that an unwarranted nuclear attack would invoke a devastating Chinese nuclear response. Either way, the introduction of Chinese conventional forces into this strategic picture does not argue in favor of nuclear reductions.

Finally, cyber weapons are a third conventional capability that will likely affect nuclear arsenals and deterrence strategies, but that have received little attention in this context. The strategic capabilities of cyberattacks are still in their infancy. But as revelations about U.S. and Israeli cyberattacks against Iranian nuclear facilities show -- including the so-called "Stuxnet" computer worm, which destroyed centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant -- much time and investment has gone into advancing this frontier in weapons science, and this will surely continue.

Those tasked with protecting their countries' nuclear weapons will surely be concerned that those capabilities could be disabled by cyberattacks and will take steps to prevent that from happening. In addition, the origins of cyberattacks are difficult to trace. The possibility of an anonymous cyberattack could also prompt nuclear-armed states to be even less forthcoming in "softer" areas of arms control, such as transparency and other confidence-building measures, for fear that such information could be exploited. In the face of these challenges, a rational response is probably not further reductions, but rather steps to strengthen nuclear arsenals, certainly qualitatively, and possibly quantitatively as well, to assure deterrence through redundancy, higher readiness, and the maintenance of sufficient numbers of weapons.

Looking ahead, expectations for further nuclear reductions are not entirely doomed. U.S.-Russia talks will continue and their arsenals will shrink somewhat further under current agreements. It is possible that China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- the five recognized nuclear powers under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- may even formalize multilateral discussions on how to achieve further cuts amongst themselves.

But overall -- with the improvement and proliferation advanced conventional capabilities -- the major nuclear powers are coming to a critical disarmament crossroads that will demand far greater confidence amongst them so that significant new reductions are possible while still preserving a fundamentally stable deterrence dynamic. As such, all nuclear-armed states will increasingly rethink the foundations of strategic stability, their own nuclear postures, and the benefits of smaller arsenals. The phrase "fewer but newer" may best sum up the future disarmament situation: fewer nuclear warheads, but newer systems -- especially in the conventional realm -- with the potential to transform the global strategic landscape and make the task of complete nuclear disarmament an even more difficult prospect.

Israeli Aircraft Industries via Getty Images


Putin's Miscalculation

It was a big mistake to pick on a pregnant human rights activist. The world must hold whoever was responsible to account.

I wasn't surprised that she would become the target of threats. Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch's intrepid researcher in Moscow, has long been an irritant for Russian authorities. Her petite size and casual demeanor belie a tenacity and courage that are exceptional among the world's leading human rights researchers. In the darkest, most violent days of the Chechen insurgency, Tanya was one of the few willing to take the risks required to document and publicize the indiscriminate shelling, torture, and "disappearances" that characterized Russia's response. She brought a similar singularity of purpose to atrocities in other war-torn provinces of the Northern Caucasus -- Ingushetia, Dagestan -- and, these days, increasingly, to the crackdown on dissent in Moscow.

Still, once the threats started coming, I admit to being taken aback by their brazenness and depravity. Visibly pregnant, Tanya had been planning a last investigation in Dagestan before heading off on maternity leave. Someone didn't want her to continue her work.

The communications came this week by text message. In a transparent effort to suggest, falsely, that Tanya was complicit with the Islamist insurgents facing Russian security forces in Dagestan, the sender pretended to be speaking on behalf a group of rebel fighters, even if he mangled the spelling of Allah to have only one L.

Most of the messages were crude and direct, making clear that the sender or his accomplices were following Tanya. The authors claimed to be "nearby" and coming after her, and predicted that she would have an "uneasy 'birth.'" They referred to personal details about her movements and those of relatives, her pregnancy, and her unlisted home address. Some of this information would have been known only to someone monitoring Tanya's communications and surveying her.

The point was obviously intimidation -- so that she, and Human Rights Watch, would stop our reporting on rights abuses in Russia. Instead, we held a news conference. In a last-ditch effort to force us to cancel it, two text messages that morning threatened to reveal concocted information about Tanya's personal life. We ignored them and told the media that the threats would redouble our determination to document and publicize human rights violations in Russia.

Tanya's plight is emblematic of the crackdown under way today against Russian human rights defenders and other members of civil society. The large-scale demonstrations beginning in December 2011 against alleged fraud in the parliamentary election and Vladimir Putin's decision to return to the presidency seem to have shaken his confidence. The softer era of Dmitry Medvedev is over. In the hope of preventing further protests from getting out of hand and triggering the "color revolution" that he has long feared, Putin is tightening the screws.

The result is a spate of repressive laws, proposals, and practices. Participants in unauthorized protests face massive new fines, as harsh as those of the penal code but imposed administratively without the due-process benefits of a criminal trial. Human rights groups that receive foreign funding will now have to wear the demonizing label of "foreign agent." The U.S. Agency for International Development, a funder of many Russian non-governmental organizations, has been expelled. Penalties for criminal defamation have been re-introduced. A broadening of the law against treason is in the works, designed to dissuade human rights advocates from international advocacy.

Currently 17 demonstrators face trial, mostly on flimsy charges, and 12 are in custody. Short-term detentions in connection with protest rallies have become epidemic. So far, the number of completed prosecutions remains small. The most famous -- of the Pussy Riot women for a 40-second anti-Putin "punk prayer" stunt near the altar in an Orthodox Church -- was an easy target that the Kremlin could not resist playing to the hilt in appealing to Putin's conservative political base in the Russian hinterland.

The effect of these new laws is to induce fear -- to discourage public dissent and the continuing protests by showing what can be done to shut them down. The authorities seem to be calculating that memories of Soviet rule are not so distant that imaginations fail to apprehend how ugly a return to overt repression could be.

But Putin, notorious for his disdain of the Internet and of the liberals behind the protest movement, seems to be miscalculating if he thinks it will be easy to return to the past. Despite the new restrictions, there is a vibrant civil society in Russia today. Social media are thriving, allowing ordinary people to circumvent the pro-Kremlin propaganda that pervades the government-dominated television stations. The atomization of society that was essential to Soviet rule is no longer.

That is not to say that change will come quickly or easily. Few doubt the Kremlin's willingness to use the new repressive tools that, at its request, the Duma is obligingly enacting. And like the threats against Tanya, the struggle may not be pretty.

The international community could help with more sustained pressure on Putin and more overt solidarity with Russians seeking a deeper democracy. U.S. President Barack Obama may need Russia's help on Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, but there should be no more talk of "resetting" relations with a man who is demonstratively trying to turn back the clock to the Soviet era. The European Union's Russia policy, dominated by Germany, should move beyond seeing Russia as a source of gas for heating European homes, and abandon the view that speaking firmly to Moscow is the equivalent of a return to the Cold War.

Western governments have been firm and vocal in support of Tanya. I can only hope they will channel her mettle when they next meet the Kremlin. Putin may sneer, but they should tell him that if Russia wants respect in the international arena -- if it wants the normal relations that it needs to modernize its increasingly one-horse economy -- it must end the kind of harassment of civil society exemplified by its threats against one tough, pregnant human rights activist.