We have entered the second nuclear age. The emerging international nuclear order is no longer defined by a bipolar strategic nuclear balance between the two opposite great powers capable of destroying the world multiple times over. On the other hand, the end of the cold war has triggered a second nuclear age, characterised by an extremely unstable peace as a result of the newly emerging nuclear multipolarity.
This new era has marked the emergence of regional nuclear powers with the ability to determine proliferation patterns and the new landscape of global conflict. The resulting unbalanced preponderance has further been reinforced by a number of factors, including the spread of nuclear weapons into unstable regions and the growing vulnerability of the global nuclear stockpiles to attack.
However, where all strategic experts find themselves in agreement is that we are racing towards nuclear precipice. The nuclear picture has become complex because many nuclear-armed states like Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel are embroiled in multiple regional conflicts, and often face the threat of nuclear terrorism due to the absence of strong domestic nuclear security frameworks.
Whereas the first nuclear age was defined by a global ideological conflict and the superpowers’ nuclear arms competition, the second nuclear age is being shaped by convoluted nature of nuclear conflicts between several nuclear powers.
Yet the most pressing question remains: What are the structural differences between the first and second nuclear ages? Some analysts have pointed towards command-and-control problems in emerging nuclear nations. But command-and-control problems existed even earlier when policymakers in the United States and the Soviet Union were worried about the likelihood of an unauthorised launch in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The defining characteristic of this new era is that the ‘security dilemma’ of the cold-war period has given way to what famous security experts Mira Rapp-Hooper and Linton Brooks termed the “security trilemma.” In such a situation, actions taken by a state to enhance its security provoke similar response from a third state, thus increasing the likelihood of war.
In an anarchic domain, changes in one state’s nuclear posture can raise security concerns for other nuclear-armed states. The problem arises because, in the second nuclear age, most nuclear powers have to defend themselves against security threats from more than one source.
This is a logical corollary of the fact that the classic deterrence model of nuclear strategy is not applicable anymore. Many regional nuclear powers face different security constraints and relatively complex security environments. Furthermore, there is little evidence to prove that the behaviour of emerging nuclear powers will follow the same patterns of conflict and confrontation that existed during the cold war.
Regional nuclear powers with relatively small nuclear arsenals have different deterrence experiences. For instance, over the past three decades, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might have deterred an Indian conventional attack, but India could not achieve the same deterrence results, as the 1999 Kargil conflict demonstrated.
Another defining feature of the second nuclear age is the emergence of nonnuclear military technologies, including anti-missile defence systems, anti-satellite weapons, sophisticated cyber weapons, and long-range precision strike weapons. These developments can offset the strategic effects of nuclear weapons but they have the potential to endanger strategic stability by threatening the survivability of nuclear assets.
Missile defence systems, despite being unreliable, have undermined strategic stability by limiting ability of a state to second nuclear strike after suffering a first strike. The success rate of a deployed ballistic-missile defence system (BMD) is supposed to be very low. The Indian BMD does not even provide reliable defence against Pakistani stealth cruise missiles like the Hatf-VII and would surely be unable to provide India’s two cities – New Delhi and Mumbai – a shield against Chinese Dongfeng-41 missile with ‘multiple sub-warheads with separate trajectories.’
If a trident missile is launched to attack an underground WMD laboratory in Iran, it could immediately be recognised by the early-warning systems of Russia or China, much like the launch of an atomic weapon. In such a scenario, the governments of Russia and China would have less than 10 minutes to decide on the appropriate reaction to the real or supposed nuclear attack. An unfortunate chain of events could lead to an order being issued for a nuclear counter-strike before the actual target of the conventional weapon is determined.
Pentagon officials consider that secure emergency communication lines can be used to clear up any such kind of misunderstanding. However, it is also true that, in times of crises, the country planning to launch missile attacks will not be very truthful about its intentions. In 1995, a nuclear war was barely avoided when Russia’s early warning satellites detected a US research rocket shot from a Norwegian island, triggering an alarm at the highest level in Moscow.
Other optimal weapons for the realisation of the CPGS plan are cruise missile, stealth aircraft, and B1 and B2 bombers, but the US air force is not in a position to maintain a worldwide network of airbases in order to reach possible targets expeditiously. Other questions about the ability of intelligence-gathering networks to provide adequate support as well as the capacity of existing intercontinental delivery systems also increase apprehensions.
The pressing requirement for locating underground weapons laboratories or missile launching pads is a foolproof method of gathering and judging intelligence, which is perhaps impossible in most cases. Many critics of conventional prompt global strike programme (CPGS) have also raised the possibility that the US initiative of developing conventionally armed long-range ballistic missiles will be followed by similar initiatives in other countries. Thus CPGS could lead to a new type of arms race.
Despite continuing joint efforts by the US and Russia to limit strategic nuclear warheads, technological advances such as CPGS have strengthened the arguments of different lobbies in Moscow that oppose any reductions in nuclear arsenals.
Nuclear Multipolarity | Rizwan Asghar