The Duck of Minerva

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Not such a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, world?

April 26, 2006

Rob mentions the provocative article in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press on the possible achievement of nuclear primacy by the United States. In the article (as well as a more detailed analysis forthcoming in International Security), the authors claim that

[t]oday, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike. This dramatic shift in the nuclear balance of power stems from a series of improvements in the United States’ nuclear systems, the precipitous decline of Russia’s arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China’s nuclear forces. Unless Washington’s policies change or Moscow and Beijing take steps to increase the size and readiness of their forces, Russia and China — and the rest of the world — will live in the shadow of U.S. nuclear primacy for many years to come.

The thesis is provocative and the analysis quite solid. A number of defense analysts who work on this very issue have vetted the research and found little to complain about.

As for the thesis being provocative, the article has caused a major stir in Russia. Monday’s Christain Science Monitor ran an article describing the uproar that the piece has created in Russian political and military circles. President Putin has been placed on the defensive by the press over the issue, not something he is accustomed to:

Putin issued a statement following the article’s publication last month, insisting that Russia will increase its weapons spending and do whatever necessary to keep its strategic edge.

Russia has stated that it will soon (and already has to some degree) inform Washington of key changes in its strategic arsenal. The changes include Russia’s planned

deploy[ment of] a new generation of nuclear missiles that could penetrate any possible US defense shield. Those weapons are now coming online, they say, with the first regiment of mobile Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, which feature warheads that can evade interceptors…

For my money, the most interesting part of the analysis is what this may mean for the effectiveness of an American missile defense system. We continue to claim that our SDI system will be limited so that it can’t be aimed at states such as China and Russia. The problem raised by Press and Lieber is that if you are confident that a first strike would likely only miss a handful of missiles in Russia (and even China) then a limited missile shield is all one would need to ensure a successful first-strike capability.

The purpose of the article was not to advocate a US first-strike or to claim that it is certain such an attack would be successful, but rather to highlight the possible deterioration of MAD and the likely political and strategic consequences that are likely to result as states such as China and Russia adjust to this new reality. I recommend it to all.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.