The end of Mutually Assured Destruction?

Via Matt Fay, a very concise statement (PDF) of Daryl Press’ and Keir Lieber’s arguments regarding the end of nuclear “stalemate”, published in the Strategic Studies Quarterly:

[T]he same revolution in accuracy that has transformed conventional warfare has had equally momentous consequences for nuclear weapons and deterrence. Very accurate delivery systems, new reconnaissance technologies, and the downsizing of arsenals from Cold War levels have made both conventional and nuclear counterforce strikes against nuclear arsenals much more feasible than ever before. Perhaps most surprising, pairing highly accurate delivery systems with nuclear weapons permits target strategies that would create virtually no radioactive fallout, hence, vastly reduced fatalities. (p3)

The same models that were used during the Cold War to demonstrate the inescapability of stalemate—the condition of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD—now suggested that even the large Russian arsenal could be destroyed in a disarming strike. Furthermore, the dramatic leap in accuracy—which is the foundation for effective counterforce—is based on widely available technologies within reach of other nuclear-armed states, including Russia, China, Pakistan, and others. (p4)

And why counterforce is a desirable capability:

Fielding powerful counterforce weapons may help deter adversary escalation during war— by convincing enemy leaders to choose a “golden parachute” rather than escalation—and would give US leaders better response options if deterrence failed … the United States should retain and develop nuclear weapons that bring together three key characteristics of counterforce: high accuracy, flexible yield, and prompt delivery (p7)

(An aside: ‘High accuracy, flexible yield, and prompt delivery’ certainly characterizes the direction in which South Asian arsenals are headed, even if at a crawl)


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