Column 3 Addressing the Increased Salience of Nuclear Weapons
by Tytti Erästö, Shannon Kile & Petr Topychkanov
There is growing international concern about the recent decisions taken by some nuclear-weapon states—in particular, Russia and the United States—to give new or expanded roles to nuclear weapons in their military plans and doctrines. The decisions reflect the increased salience of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies that marks a significant reversal of the post- cold war trend toward the gradual marginalization of nuclear weapons.
Among other changes, there has been a shift away from the goal of seeking to limit the role of nuclear weapons. Instead, several states have expanded the roles and missions given to nuclear weapons. For example, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of the United States, US nuclear capabilities will be postured ‘to hedge against multiple potential risks and threat developments… including chemical, biological, cyber, and large-scale conventional aggression.1 This formulation, like the doctrines of several other nuclear weapon states, leaves room for considerable ambiguity regarding the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.
In addition, the concept of limited nuclear war appears to have gained new traction among military planners. Russia’s alleged ‘escalate-to-de-escalate’ doctrine—meaning the limited use of nuclear weapons to terminate a conflict—has raised Western concern about an increased Russian readiness to resort to the use of nuclear weapons. This concern also contributed to what many view as the de facto lowering of the nuclear threshold in the 2018 US NPR. The document sought to counter the presumed Russian doctrine by ‘[e]xpanding flexible U.S. nuclear options…to include low-yield options’ and building new nuclear-armed cruise missiles.2
These developments coincide with a deep crisis in US–Russian nuclear arms control as well as with the erosion of political trust between Russia and the United States and NATO. The resulting loss of transparency and channels of communication is adding to the existing ambiguity about nuclear doctrines, potentially contributing to new armament dynamics and the increased risk of nuclear weapon use as a result of miscalculation.
What is to be done?
There are several measures that the nuclear weapon states could take to reverse the current negative trends and to put themselves on the path to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons.
Declaratory policies The nuclear weapon states could demonstrate restraint through declaratory policies along the lines of the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.3
Another measure would be for them to adopt the doctrine of no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, which China has already done. In addition, existing commitments to not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states—so-called negative security assurances—should be strengthened.
Transparency measures If the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in February 2021, the United States and Russia will lose the transparency provided by the treaty’s verification regime. A US–Russian agreement to extend New START would be a straightforward step for preventing misperceptions about their respective force postures and capabilities.
More generally, nuclear weapon states could build on the emergent international consensus on the need to reduce nuclear risks. In this context, attention should be given to clarifying ambiguities in nuclear doctrines. The discussion on nuclear doctrines among the five nuclear weapon states parties to Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—planned as side-event at the 2020 NPT Review Conference—could be used to help begin a broader multilateral dialogue on nuclear forces and doctrines.
Strategic stability dialogue Ultimately, the nuclear weapon states should move beyond nuclear risk reduction steps and declarations of nuclear restraint to address the underlying issues that have contributed to the increased salience of nuclear weapons in their strategies and doctrines. Specifically, there should be a sustained dialogue between China, Russia and the United States on their respective approaches to achieving strategic stability (defined here as the absence of incentives to use nuclear weapons first and the absence of incentives to build up a nuclear force). One key issue to be addressed has to do with the interrelationship between strategic offensive and defensive forces, which has been a growing source of friction among the three countries.
While it is the responsibility of the nuclear weapon states to address the increased salience of nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapon states and civil society groups can play a significant role by reinforcing the stigma against nuclear weapons and promoting nuclear risk reduction efforts. At the same time, they should actively encourage the nuclear weapon states to demonstrate restraint in their nuclear weapon policies and to engage in a sustained strategic stability dialogue that could eventually lead to verifiable arms control and disarmament agreements and practical measures.
Dr. Tytti Erästö, Senior Researcher, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Mr. Shannon Kile, Director of the SIPRI Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non- proliferation Programme & Dr. Petr Topychkanov, Senior Researcher, SIPRI
1 The U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review 2018, February 2018.
3 “Joint Statement by Reagan, Gorbachev,” Washington Post, December 11, 1987, https://www.washington post.com/archive/politics/1987/12/11/joint-statement-by-reagan-gorbachev/cd990a8d-87a1-4d74- 88f8-704f93c80cd3/.