Could “Virtual Deterrence” Actually Increase the Chances of Nuclear War?

Virtual deterrence, while not new, has gained some currency in recent years as a means to both avert nuclear war and expedite nuclear disarmament. “Virtual,” in this instance, means abolishing nuclear weapons, which the United States maintains primarily to deter, or prevent, other states from attacking us with theirs. Instead, only the know-how and production capacity (as well as the fuel) to reconstitute them would be retained in case of a perceived national security emergency.

In its inability to signal a true commitment to nuclear disarmament, virtual deterrence is hardly ideal. But it sounds like a step in the right direction, right? In fact, the sad irony is that divesting ourselves of the hardware and retaining only the knowledge might actually increase the risks of nuclear war. Worse, it might hasten it.

In a paper that the Hudson Institute published in November titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of “Weaponless Deterrence”, fellows Christopher Ford explains why as well as anybody. First, though, let’s deal with a questionable claim he makes first.

The logic of reconstitution would seem to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but what is in fact a highly contested issue — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of similar weapons by others.

He also alluded to this in a recent talk he gave on nuclear deterrence.

Discussions of nuclear deterrence, in some quarters, tend to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but which is, in fact, a highly questionable claim — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of other nuclear weapons by others. This is a seductive idea [which seems] to offer a kind of “fast-track” to nuclear disarmament. . . . because nuclear deterrence is assumed not really to “touch” any of the other structures of our lives, it could simply be lifted up and tossed away. [But if] nuclear weapons turn out to be entangled in various ways with broader security or other issues . . . it is much harder to imagine them being surgically excised, and nuclear deterrence so cleanly disposed of.

Among the ways in which nuclear weapons are entangled in broader security is deterring the use of not only nuclear weapons, but a larger conventional army, a service nuclear weapons ostensibly performed during the Cold War in Europe versus the massive Red Army. Also, states seek to proliferate for reasons other than national security, such as prestige. Besides, like a national airline, it’s just what a state often thinks it should do to show it’s arrived on the international scene.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assert that disarmament advocates believe that deterrence is the only use of nuclear weapons. More likely, they were originally inspired to take up the cause and, for the most part, still are by the fear that states will use nuclear weapons offensively. It’s hawks and realpolitik types who have homed in on deterrence.

In recent years replacement of the phrase “nuclear weapons” with “our nuclear deterrent” has become commonplace. It’s as if not only is deterrence the primary reason that nuclear weapons are maintained by the United States, but nukes have no actual use in fighting a war. This phenomenon can be seen in the title of the most recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Schultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn (the Four Horsemen of the Un-Apocalypse): How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent.

I’ve been unsuccessful in discovering who “re-branded” nuclear weapons thusly. But this kind of “messaging” is an attempt to convey the notion that instead of the principal threat to life on earth (along with global warming), nuclear weapons actually make us safe.

We’ll return now to how virtual deterrence can make us less safe. In his talk, Christopher Ford cites nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, who expressed a concern that, if nuclear weapons are de-mobilized

. . . “every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely.” As a result, “there will be at least covert frantic efforts . . . to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.” Worse yet, there might be incentives for the country that acquired nuclear weapons first actually to use them preemptively. . . . employing a temporary monopoly upon nuclear weaponry. . . . in order to halt its opponent’s analogous rush toward nuclear armament.

In short, Schelling

. . . suggests that a world without nuclear weapons would become one in which many countries “would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons. . . . The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.”

Hawks and realpolitikers both discount disarmament because the road to it is filled with potholes or, if it were a healthcare policy, gaps in coverage. But, even if one believes that proceeding down that path is more of a risk than retaining nuclear weapons, the balance of power that deterrence supposedly affords is an illusion. States that aspire to nuclear weapons aside, some that possess them, such as North Korea, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel, haven’t given up the notion that they’re just as essential for their offensive, first-strike capability than for deterrence.