Modernization and arms control don’t have to be enemies.

by GentzelThe Consequentialist1 min read12th Jan 20196 comments

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On a recent panel on nuclear modernization and arms control at Brookings, there were a few points made about the potential synergies between arms control and modernization.

While modernization and arms control seem contradictory, it really depends on what you are trying to do with each. For example, if you want to reduce the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. has in its stockpile, it may actually make sense to improve the ability of the U.S. to produce new weapons. Why would that be you might ask? It’s because current stockpiles are a hedge, a hedge to replace warheads that are too old and to buy time for a future ability to produce warheads again faster rates. Toward the end of the Bush administration, maintenance and production were so bad that officials were worried that nuclear testing would become necessary again to verify that weapons worked.

Stranger yet about this dynamic is that due to U.S. difficulties in production, one of the panelists argued Russia currently has an advantage at warhead production that may incent them to race with the U.S. in the short-run. What are the potential results of this? It may partially explain Russia’s pull-out of the INF treaty: Russian leadership may not have perceived much of a risk to pulling out given lack of current U.S. ability to keep up at warhead production, and a lack of public support in the U.S. for new weapons generally. With the development of new intermediate-range missiles, the Russians will be able to free up some of their longer range nuclear missiles to aim at the U.S. instead of closer targets. If New START isn’t extended in 2021, it doesn’t seem unimaginable that Russia may seek to gain negotiation advantage unconstrained by numbers limits, until the U.S. ramps up its production ability again.

While I am not sure I agree fully with the panel, an implication to be drawn from their arguments is that from an equilibrium of treaty compliance, maintaining the ability to race can disincentivize the other side from treaty violation: it increases the cost to the other side of gaining advantage, and that can be especially decisive if your side has an economic advantage. This just generally seems to be an instance of the idea that it is important to maintain leverage in negotiations.

Speaking more broadly than just about nuclear weapons: a lack of technological development by a leading country is not sufficient to prevent an arms race. If a weaker power finds low hanging technological fruit, that it knows it can exploit due to the political constraints of its competitors, it may have strong incentive to pursue even risky capabilities since the gains in relative power may be large. If on the other hand, a technologically leading country can credibly signal that it would win an arms race or that gains would be minimal, then the incentive to pursue risky capabilities may be diminished. Modernization is how a country can credibly show that it has the will and ability to race. What a country actually decides to deploy is an independent choice.

 

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I'm curious about something that maybe you can answer, since you seem to have a strong interest in nuclear strategy and arms control: why does Russia have so many more nuclear weapons than China? The answer I've been able to find online are:

  1. Russia wants to have the option of doing a first strike (like the US) instead of just a second strike (like China). (But why does Russia feel a need for this and China doesn't?)
  2. The Cold War arms race caused the Soviet Union to have many more nuclear weapons than China, which Russia inherited. (But why doesn't Russia unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal to China's size?)

Let me know if you have any thoughts on this, or can point me to any papers or articles.

You may be interested in The Great American Gamble: Deterrence Theory and Practice from the Cold War to the Present by Keith Payne. It details the development of the deterrent paradigm with which we are familiar, and describes the differing thoughts of Schelling (who is otherwise popular here) and Herman Kahn. I have started but not finished the book, and it is very interesting.

It relates to your questions because nuclear arms development was driven by the European military situation. Summarizing from the book, the process went like this:

1. The Soviet Union has an overwhelming numbers advantage within easy reach of Western Europe.

2. For the US and Western Europe to counter this advantage was deemed too expensive, as the US was far away and Europe was rebuilding.

3. Nuclear weapons were stockpiled by the United States in order to retaliate against a conventional Soviet invasion. This was cheap enough to accomplish.

4. The Soviets developed and stockpiled nuclear weapons to deter any such retaliation.

5. The ICBM program enables first-strike capability, which would pre-empt a successful ground invasion.

6. The Soviet missile program also enables first-strike capability, to deter such pre-emption.

7. Both sides develop second-strike capabilities to ensure first-strike capabilities are not used.

None of these calculations applied to China, which focused its military development on defending China proper from invasion. Further, all technical aid and support for China was withdrawn by the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet Split of 1959.

In short, China was not a part of strategic situations which strongly motivated developing nuclear weapons, and both nuclear powers were motivated not to provide nuclear capability to them. They had a nuclear detonation in 1964, and a hydrogen detonation in 1967, ~20 years behind the US.

if you want to reduce the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. has in its stockpile, it may actually make sense to improve the ability of the U.S. to produce new weapons.

If you've reduced the stock but increased that rate at which new warheads can be produced, have you actually made the situation any safer?

To the extent that increasing the production rate funges for maintaining a stockpile from a strategic perspective, aren't the two also interchangeable from a risk-of-catastrophe perspective?

(I suppose one could argue that the risk of terrorists getting their hands on part of a stockpile is greater than the risk of them seizing control of production facilities. But it's not obvious to me that that's necessarily the case, and also I would have guessed that risk of weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is only a small percentage of the total risk from the stockpile.)

While I am not sure I agree fully with the panel, an implication to be drawn from their arguments is that from an equilibrium of treaty compliance, maintaining the ability to race can disincentivize the other side from treaty violation: it increases the cost to the other side of gaining advantage, and that can be especially decisive if your side has an economic advantage.

This is an idea/argument I hadn't encountered before, and seems plausible, so it seems valuable that you shared it.

But it seems to me that there's probably an effect pushing in the opposite direction: 

  • Even from an equilibrium of treaty compliance, if one state has the ability to race, that might incentivise the other side to develop the ability to race as well. That wouldn't necessarily require treaty violation. 
  • Either or especially both sides having the ability to race can increase risks if they could race covertly until they have gained an advantage, or race so quickly that they gain an advantage before the other side can get properly started, or if the states don't always act as rational cohesive entities (e.g., if leaders are more focused on preventing regime change than preventing millions of deaths in their own country), or probably under other conditions.
    • I think the term "arms race stability" captures the sort of thing I'm referring to, though I haven't yet looked into the relevant theoretical work much.
  • In contrast, if we could reach a situation where neither side currently had the ability to race, that might be fairly stable. This could be true if building up that ability would take some time and be detectable early enough to be responded to (by sanctions, a targeted strike, the other side building up their own ability, or whatever).

Does this seem accurate to you?

I guess an analogy could be to whether you'd rather be part of a pair of cowboys who both have guns but haven't drawn them (capability but not yet racing), or part of a pair who don't have guns but could go buy one. It seems like we'd have more opportunities for de-escalation, less risk from nerves and hair-triggers, etc. in the latter scenario than the former.

I think this overlaps with some of Schelling's points in The Strategy of Conflict (see also my notes on that), but I can't remember for sure.

I agree with this line of analysis. Some points I would add:

-Authoritarian closed societies probably have an advantage at covert racing, at devoting a larger proportion of their economic pie to racing suddenly, and at artificially lowering prices to do so. Open societies have probably a greater advantage at discovery/the cutting edge and have a bigger pie in the first place (though better private sector opportunities compete up the cost of defense engineering talent). Given this structure, I think you want the open societies to keep their tech advantage, and make deployment/scaling military tech a punishment for racing by closed societies. -Your first bullet seems similar to the situation the U.S. is in now, Russia and China just went through a modernization wave, and Russia has been doing far more nuclear experimentation while the U.S. talent for this is mostly old or already retired + a lot of the relevant buildings are falling apart. Once you are in the equilibrium of knowing a competitor is doing something and your decision is to match or not, you don't have leverage to stop the competitor unless you get started. Because of how old a lot of U.S. systems are/how old the talent is, Russia likely perceived a huge advantage to getting the U.S. to delay. A better structure for de-escalation is neutral with respect to relative power differences: if you de-escalate by forfeiting relative power you keep increasing the incentive for the other side to race.

There are some other caveats I'm not getting into here, but I think we are mostly on the same page.

Authoritarian closed societies probably have an advantage at covert racing, at devoting a larger proportion of their economic pie to racing suddenly, and at artificially lowering prices to do so. Open societies have probably a greater advantage at discovery/the cutting edge and have a bigger pie in the first place (though better private sector opportunities compete up the cost of defense engineering talent).

These are interesting points which I hadn't considered - thanks!

(Your other point also seems interesting and plausible, but I feel I lack the relevant knowledge to immediately evaluate it well myself.)