The Utility of Multilateral Arms Control Agreements in Nuclear Weapons Policy

Non Partisan Pundit joins the discussion of nuclear weapons policy with a post that introduces two substantial contributions, first, that looking forward multilateral agreements have certain advantages over bilateral agreements:

While acknowledging that the cold war is certainly over, I believe we remain in a period of strategic ambiguity as the world continues to change and reorganize away from the bipolar cold-war era toward one probably more fractious, contentious and chaotic in nature. As this change takes place, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what future threats might develop, from what quarter they might come and how serious they might be. In such an environment, nations and leaders are naturally hesistant and are more likely to err on the side of more capability than less – in other words, to hedge their bets. In a nuclear context, this means that restricting one’s capabilities unilaterally or through treaty is more difficult because doing so may a produce future vulnerability.

and, second, that delivery systems may be just as important as nuclear weapons:

Additionally, nuclear policy, particularly with regard to weapons, cannot be assessed without examining delivery systems. I would argue that too much emphasis is placed on weapons and not enough on the means to deliver them – primarily ballistic missiles. Let’s look at the US and Russia as examples. Both nations have large numbers of warheads on alerted missiles that can strike virtually any target on the planet with impugnity in less than forty minutes. If those warheads were on bombers or tactical aircraft their threat would be significantly diminished simply because delivering the weapons would take much longer and the delivery platforms are much more vulnerable to interdiction. Time is critically important here – the threat posed by the capability to deliver x number of warheads in under 30 minutes is orders of magnitude greater than that posed by the capability to deliver those same warheads in hours or even days, even if x were a single digit number.

I’ll admit to reservations about both of these propositions. While there may be some issues of vulnerability should the numbers of weapons possessed either by the U. S. or Russia become very small, so long as the numbers are in the many thousands as they are now or would be even if the numbers of such weapons possessed either by the U. S. or Russia were cut in half I don’t think there’s much likelihood of that sort of vulnerability being introduced. I don’t see any of the countries we’re really concerned about getting or developing nuclear weapons as having the wherewithal to make or acquire a really large arsenal. Nuclear weapons may be less expensive than conventional forces but they’re still expensive and, if I had my way, they’d become significantly more so. And the issue of warheads or bombers is limited to great power war. When the possibility of introducing nuclear weapons by stealth is added, nearly every vehicle or vessel is a delivery system.

1 comment… add one
  • Dave,

    Thank you for the criticism and comments.

    I see now I should have been clearer with regard to numbers of weapons. The point I tried to make was to note out some of the real difficulties in reducing stockpiles to a limited number of weapons or eliminating them altogether. I believe, for better or worse, the US and Russia will maintain warheads that number in the thousands and not the tens or hundreds for the forseeable future, but I think greater reductions might be achieved through appropriate multilateral agreements that would serve to limit worldwide stockpiles more generally. I may go back and modify my post to make this point clearer.

    On the issue of warheads and bombers, I used bombers simply as a counterpoint to highlight the advantages that missiles provide. One must always be concerned with stealth delivery, but such efforts are one-shot deals that carry extreme risk of discovery. Even if successful, with no alternative delivery means, the nation that initiated the attack will have to take whatever punishment the victim decides to deliver as they have no immediate and credible deterrent available. In other words, stealth delivery is good for a first strike, but it is ultimately suicide for any nation-state that attempts it, whether successful or not (terrorists are another matter obviously). Only missiles or perhaps aircraft can provide the kind of immediate response that deterrence requires.

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