A New Missile Gap?
In 1960, Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy pilloried Republicans for allegedly allowing the Soviet Union to overtake the United States in producing nuclear missiles. Upon taking office, however, JFK quickly learned that such a missile gap did not in fact exist.
Fast forward to 2015. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, coupled with troublesome Russian rhetoric in the nuclear area and frequent military flights near NATO air space, has prompted warnings from some in Washington that, despite a powerful and diverse arsenal of approximately 2,000 deployed nuclear warheads, the United States has a serious deficiency in its nuclear capabilities vis-à-vis Moscow.
Call it a new kind of missile gap. Yet today’s gap is just as illusory as the 1960s version and acting as if there is such a gap will undermine – not strengthen – U.S. security.
There is growing concern in Washington and other NATO capitals that Russia’s military doctrine purportedly envisions the use nuclear of weapons in a limited fashion to compel NATO to back down in the event of a conventional war (a war NATO would almost certainly win).
Some analysts say this doctrine could come into play if NATO responds militarily to the potential Russian employment of the hybrid warfare strategy it used to annex Crimea to grab territory in one of the Baltic States. To ensure that NATO is not faced with a decision between accepting Russian nuclear-backed aggression or threatening a suicidal large-scale nuclear strike, they argue, Washington must close the gap by developing more useable and discriminate U.S. nuclear options.
Russia’s challenge to Europe requires a tough and unified Western response, but the challenge should be met by NATO acting to maintain its conventional force advantages, not by augmenting U.S. nuclear capabilities.
For starters, U.S. nuclear capabilities are already highly credible, flexible, and robust. The arsenal includes lower-yield weapons that can produce more “limited” effects, including the B61 gravity bomb, which is being modernized at an estimated cost of $10 billion.
Though the urge to respond in kind to Russian nuclear saber-rattling may be understandable, that does mean that it is wise. Gen. Phillip Breedlove, the head of U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 30 “that the security situation in Europe is less stable, but it's not based on the nuclear piece….That’s not what worries me.”
Russia is likely to continue to use nuclear threats to try to intimidate, coerce and split NATO, but Putin would have to be delusional to think he could get away with the actual use of nuclear weapons and face little or no risk of a nuclear response. Given that Putin and his cohorts consider NATO to be Russia’s number one threat, it’s hard to believe they have a nuclear strategy based on the view that the alliance is a house of cards.
That said it’s not inconceivable that if Putin is faced with a humiliating conventional defeat or his grip on power is at risk, he might consider the use of nuclear weapons.
To strengthen deterrence against a Ukraine-style campaign or larger conventional military assault by Russia against one of the Baltic states, NATO’s top priority must be to ensure that it has adequate conventional forces capable of quickly and proportionally countering the aggression. In particular, NATO must have the capability to deal with Russian irregular forces in ways that also reduce the risks of further escalation, thereby reducing Moscow’s incentive to send them across the border in the first place.
More broadly, NATO must be able to fight a robust yet limited engagement that spans the conventional military, political, and economic domains. Much of this has already been on display in the alliance’s response to the Ukraine crisis.
If Russia is not deterred from climbing the escalation ladder by such conventional forces, backed up by existing U.S. nuclear forces, then it’s hard to argue that greater emphasis on limited nuclear options would appreciably change Moscow’s calculus. The onus should be on advocates of new options to point to specific evidence, historical or otherwise, that more nuclear weapons with diversified yields would offer more suasion than troop rotations, joint conventional military exercises, and other non-nuclear measures. To date they have failed to do so.
At a June 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work criticized loose talk about controlling nuclear escalation, noting that “Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”
This is wise counsel and speaks to the limited utility and added risks of seeking to fine-tune deterrence. Nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the fact they have not been used in 70 years. Moreover, Moscow is unlikely to stand pat in the face of changes to NATO’s nuclear doctrine, and could take risky steps to respond to new alliance plans and capabilities, which would further increase tensions and the risk of nuclear use.
The United States should be seeking to strengthen the dividing line between nuclear and conventional weapons, not blur that line.
It’s not even clear that a NATO response in kind to a limited Russian nuclear attack would be in the alliance’s best interest. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Mount has written, it may be more advantageous for NATO to continue to press its goal of reversing Russia’s aggression by using conventional weapons. This would demonstrate that Moscow could not avoid conventional defeat on the battlefield by resorting to nuclear weapons and put the onus on Moscow to climb the nuclear escalation ladder.
It would also send a wider signal about the limited benefits of nuclear weapons more generally, which would be beneficial to larger U.S. nonproliferation objectives.
Attempts to develop more discriminate means of nuclear deterrence would also be highly controversial within NATO, threatening alliance cohesion at a time when it is vitally important. Allies don’t want to have a “limited” nuclear war fought on their territory.
In addition, developing more usable nuclear capabilities wouldn’t be cheap. At a time when U.S. and NATO defense spending is at a premium and the Pentagon is fretting about the affordability of its plans to rebuild the existing arsenal, every dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent to provide central and eastern NATO allies with the additional conventional military support that is more relevant to their predicament.
As it seeks to buttress conventional deterrence, NATO should also more vigorously engage Russia in high-level military-to-military talks designed to avoid unintended military encounters, enhance stability and predictability, and reduce the risk of escalation.
Reinforcing NATO’s conventional forces while keeping channels of communication with Moscow open will be much more likely to achieve stability than chasing missile gap mirages.