‘Light bulb’ moments: strategic weapons in the 21st century

3 February, 2011


Mark Smith, Programme Director, Defence and Security, writes:

I was in a very snowy Washington DC on Thursday for the Lawrence Livermore-Los Alamos annual meeting on Strategic Weapons in the 21st century.

Every conference worth its salt should have its light bulb moments when subtleties are illuminated or new insights provided.  One such moment came during a discussion on the often-overlooked but important distinction between nuclear deterrence and assurance.  The former is concerned with a nuclear posture that deters a potential adversary, the latter with one that provides assurance to an ally.

What happens in cases where the two overlay each other in a single nuclear posture, such as that of the US strategy on the Korean Peninsula? The weapons used may be the same, the posture may be the same, but different ends are served and different audiences addressed.

That raises some significant questions, and the answers to them may differ depending on whether we are talking about deterrence or assurance.  How effectively is it working, and how will we know?  Is it possible to know when it is weakening before outright failure occurs?  Are the components of successful deterrence and assurance compatible?

These issues matter, because the costs of failure in either case are grave.  A failed deterrent strategy has obvious results, but the consequences of failed assurance may also have far-reaching implications.  If a state under the US nuclear umbrella loses confidence in the efficacy of that commitment, then it might well opt for a nuclear capability of its own rather than accept a non-nuclear alternative from Washington as the last half-century has demonstrated, the taste for nuclear deterrence as the ultimate guarantor of security can be a hard one to relinquish once it has been acquired, and that counts for many non-nuclear-armed states too.

A decline in nuclear assurance is therefore laden with the potential to drive proliferation.  This looms particularly large for the US, with its extensive global security commitments in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.  Alone of the nuclear-armed states, the US can plausibly claim that precipitate nuclear reductions or outright disarmament on its part will not necessarily help with a global process of reductions on the contrary, it might in fact have exactly the opposite effect.

None of this struck me as presenting an irrefutable case against further nuclear reductions, or abandoning President Obamas vision for nuclear elimination.  They are simply questions that will need answers if further progress is to be made from where we are.  If Im allowed a bit of shameless promotion, this summer Wilton Park will be probing what some of those answers might look like in our forthcoming conference provisionally titled Nuclear Deterrence and Nuclear Assurance in the NATO Area, scheduled for 12 15 June.  Come and join us.


Mark Smith

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