Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

The Pitfalls of Nuclear Primacy

Posted by K.E. White on September 7, 2007

America’s nuclear policy falls broadly into two categories: a) reactive—how will America react to a dirty bomb attack—and b) proactive—how will America develop our current nuclear arsenal in the era of terrorism and creeping proliferation. 

The threat of another terrorist attack in America and the Iraq War has dominated the ’08 election foreign policy discussion, leaving that second proactive largely devoid of meaningful discussion. But it might be even more important, in the long-term, than question over another 9/11 or the Iraq War. 

Carl Robichaud takes down one proactive pathway: nuclear primacy, i.e. the ability to strike a nation with nuclear weapons without detection. Robichaud claims 1) that this policy is will and capable of being pursued, if it hasn’t been already; 2) that this policy destabilizes the international community; 3) remains an infeasible project. 

Robichaud then leaves with three options: 1) pursuing primacy, 2) slowing it down for stability, or 3) finally constructing a post-nuclear security policy. Unfortunately that third pathway still remains to be clearly sketched out, and relies on international transparency and cooperation—a highly variable aspect of the international community. 

From Robichaud’s article:

The Cost of Primacy

Nuclear primacy offers strategic benefits. Even if a nuclear surprise attack on an adversary is considered beyond the pale, the objective capacity to launch it can give the possessor an edge when bargaining with potential adversaries. Nuclear dominance gave the United States some leverage during its standoff with “Red” China over the Taiwan straits in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the benefits of primacy are easy to overstate: America’s nuclear primacy did not deter non-nuclear China in Korea or Vietnamese guerillas in South Vietnam.

Moreover, primacy has costs. The first is reduced conflict stability, which heightens risks even for the dominant nation. If Russia knows that it is at risk of being disarmed by a bolt from the blue, it is likely to disperse its weapons, shorten launch times, and devolve control to sub-commanders. Such a posture would exacerbate the risk of accidental or unauthorized launch in the context of a crisis. Depending on how Russia responded to American primacy, these risks could well outweigh whatever modest bargaining benefits it offered. Already Russia is taking some provocative steps to mitigate its vulnerability—including the announcement last month that its nuclear bombers will, for the first time since 1992, resume long-range patrols “on a permanent basis.” Second, the search for primacy directly undermines the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which remains our best defense against nuclear terrorism. One of the reasons that progress on these programs has slowed to a crawl is Russia’s suspicion that the initiative is a cover for espionage into its nuclear installations.

Finally, any moment of primacy is likely to be short lived. The article by Lieber and Press no doubt stirred as much attention in their Russian and Mandarin translations as they did on America’s newsstands. Any attempt at primacy will provoke an eventual arms buildup by those it threatens that tomorrow’s generations might regret—and with energy-rich Russia having reversed its post-Soviet economic decline, it now can afford to reverse a U.S. bid for nuclear primacy.

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