To some, the phrase “strategic deterrence” may sound like an archaic term straight out of the Cold War. But in fact, it never went away. Dormant and out of the public eye during that period of optimism that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, along with nuclear weapons, Strategic Deterrence is storming back into public view.
We see this play out with increasing frequency in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since the outset of the war, Russia has not been shy making nuclear threats and brandishing their newly re-capitalized strategic nuclear forces. Taking a step back, you can discern that the nuclear weapons of Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France all cast shadows on the Ukrainian war. And while tensions across the Taiwan Strait have not yet reached a boiling point, China has been making extraordinary strides to enhance their own strategic deterrent through the expansion of their nuclear arsenal.
Nuclear weapons have lost nothing of their power to command attention and respect since their first use. Although considered primitive today, the Uranium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Little Boy, is no less effective in its ability to destroy. In the intervening years, scientists and engineers have created new and more powerful devices. They have scaled nuclear weapons into something so small that you could carry it to a target in a backpack all the way to 100 times more powerful than Little Boy delivered halfway around the globe.
The nuclear era began with a short-lived American monopoly. It wasn’t too long after that the United States was joined by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. In the intervening decades, other nations have joined the nuclear club, chosen not to join, and significantly, decided to leave the club by giving up their weapons or ambition. Even more surprisingly to many is the fact that no weapon has been used in combat since Nagasaki. Paradoxically, this is due in no small part to the engineered effectiveness of these systems. Among the more exquisite technology ever invented, nuclear weapons are routinely operated at a level of readiness and reliability unmatched by most engineered systems. It is their very effectiveness and the assurance that they will work when used that underwrites the core dynamic of strategic deterrence by nuclear weapons.
While the principles of deterrence are evident in the historical record going as far back as the Peloponnesian War, it wasn’t until the early Cold War era that the thinkers began developing systematic models of how to operationalize the art of influencing someone to NOT take a grievously severe action such as using nuclear weapons against another country. This is the essence of strategic deterrence.
Since Stalin’s first nuclear weapon detonated in 1949, United States and the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, have grown up together as nuclear weapons states. Their technologies, policies, and modes of operation and mutually self-informed. This is nowhere more evident than in the arms control treaties that have been in effect, in one form or another, since 1963. As Russia announced on February 21st, 2023, that they are suspending participation in their last remaining nuclear weapon treaty with the United States, New START, we are amid a transition away from what was largely the bipolar superpower nuclear relationship into something that has not been previously seen. With China’s rise, we are potentially facing a tripolar nuclear superpower regime where familiar patterns of operation and our critical assumptions about the adversary may no longer be true. Certainty about the technology and operations of nuclear weapon will remain but the same cannot be said about the effectiveness of existing paradigms for strategic deterrence.
If you’d like to learn more about this subject, consider the upcoming new course, Nuclear Weapons and Strategic Deterrence. Over two days it will cover the physics, technology and operations of strategic nuclear weapons and will also discuss different theories of strategic deterrence and use around the world. It will also review nuclear weapons have been used and brandished around the world since 1945.
There will be an hour-long free-session preview on March 27 at 12:30 that will cover course outline and highlight the major points that you will learn. Even if you don’t plan to take the course, please consider joining us for the free preview; maybe we will change your mind and you will enroll in the full course.
You can register for the March Free-Session, or the full course, at www.aticourses.com.