The thinking behind the terrifying term was that the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers—America and the Soviet Union—would be maintained at such a level that neither could risk striking first for fear that the other power would be left with enough weaponry to launch a retaliatory strike that would leave planet Earth an irradiated cinder block.
It worked. Earth is still green and blue
But the political landscape has changed and is changing. There are new players and new threats. This would seem to indicate the need for a new strategy. All the reports are that this new strategy will be unveiled in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to be published next month with the term “low-yield” nuclear weapons entering the defence lexicon.
So what is different? Well for a start Moscow and Washington are not the only two countries with nuclear weapons. Throughout most of the Cold War France and Britain were also armed but their arsenals—especially Britain’s—was closely tied to America’s. China joined the club in 1964 and the basic structure of the East V West stand-off was established.
There were also regional nuclear powers. Israel is incredibly tight-lipped about its capabilities, but most experts agree that it has had the bomb since 1966, and its arsenal currently stands at about 80 warheads. The weapons, however, are clearly meant to be a deterrent against an overwhelming conventional attack from hostile Arab neighbours. Nowadays they are also concerned about a nuclear attack from Iran.
India detonated its first big bang in 1974 which confirmed New Delhi as South Asia’s sole superpower until Pakistan arrived on the scene in 1998 with its nuclear test. India now has between 110 and 120 warheads and Pakistan 130. The MAD doctrine appears to be working reasonably well in the subcontinent.
The biggest change is North Korea. Rocketman Kim Jong-un has 15 warheads and, possibly, The means to deliver them to California.
And what about Iran? Will the deal to halt its weapons programme hold? What happens if it doesn’t? Will The Trump Administration supply nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia?
Will the Trump Administration counter rocket man’s threats by supplying nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea? Unthinkable? Not according to Donald Trump.
The big questions, however, still hang over the Russian and American arsenals. They have been reduced and restricted by a series of Cold War treaties—ABM, SALT I, Salt Two, INF and START. The result is that America now holds 6,800 warheads and Russia 7,000. Less than at the height of the Cold War, but global destruction does not begin to describe their potential.
Over the past 18 months, Russia has started moving away from the MAD doctrine and it is likely that it is breaching the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Concerned about NATO troops in the former Russian satellites of Eastern Europe, Putin has jettisoned the no first use policy which is the essential pillar of MAD. Quite simply, if both sides agree they will not strike the first blow then, ipso facto, neither side strikes. MAD is an added guarantee.
Unfortunately, Putin is now saying that he “may” use battlefield and intermediate-range nuclear weapons if he believes that Russia’s vital interests are under threat
Putin’s position is worryingly vague. It has also lowered the threshold at which nuclear weapons can be used. This in turn has prompted US defence planners to push for a “low-yield” nuclear arsenal to counter the Russians, at least according to a number of leaked reports about the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review.
But then low-yield weapons could have uses other than countering Russia’s strategic changes. Their deployment also raises the possibility of a low-yield nuclear attack on North Korea to stop rocket man before he goes any further while limiting the fallout. Low yield weapons could also be used against Iran and could it be argued that supplying such weapons to Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea is politically more palatable than sending them big bang high yield nuclear bombs.
If the TrumpAdministration is dispatching low-yield nuclear weapons to its allies does this change the policies of other nuclear weapons states such as India, Pakistan and Israel? Such weapons would be cheaper and easier to develop maintain, deploy and deliver.
The possibility of a low-level, low-yield and—presumably—survivable nuclear exchange then becomes much more likely. But how do you keep it low-level? What happens when a high-yield nuclear power is facing defeat in a low-yield war? It all sounds a bit MAD.
Tom Arms is author of The Encyclopedia of the Cold War and editor of LookAheadnews.com