The Perils of Primacy

Benjamin Shwarz has a thoughtful piece on how America must deal with it’s primacy. He argues that since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not fully dealt with its new position, and must seriously consider it’s position, and soon. He notes:

Defense analysts have grown increasingly nervous about the convergence of several strategic developments. In “The End of Mutual Assured Destruction?,” a brilliant and sobering study of military analysis that is being prepared for publication in an academic journal, Keir A. Lieber, a scholar at Notre Dame, and Daryl G. Press, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant to the Defense Department and to RAND, have trenchantly surveyed the trends that are troubling the experts. The first is the precipitous erosion of Russian nuclear capabilities. Compared with its forces in 1990, Moscow has 55 percent fewer intercontinental ballistic missiles, 39 percent fewer strategic bombers, and 80 percent fewer ballistic-missile submarines, or SSBNs (the component of a nuclear arsenal most likely to survive a first strike). Moscow itself has stated that its nuclear forces will decline by an additional 35 percent in the coming years, but many experts believe the total Russian arsenal could shrink even more, from about 3,800 strategic warheads today to as few as 500 (the United States currently has more than 5,200). More important than this quantitative reduction, though, has been the even steeper qualitative decline. Owing to financial constraints, Russia can’t ensure unbroken monitoring of American ICBM fields, and can’t plug the holes in its missile-warning networks that render it blind to attacks from U.S. submarines in launch areas in the Pacific. Maintenance, supply, and training deficiencies afflict Russia’s nuclear forces generally and its submarines most crucially. A viable Russian deterrent demands that a number of SSBNs be at sea at any given time and that they successfully evade the U.S. attack submarines that stalk them. But in fact most Russian SSBNs must now remain pierside—the Russians weren’t able to conduct any patrols in 2002 and could carry out only two in 2004. This makes the SSBNs highly vulnerable to a U.S. first strike, and it means that the skills Russian SSBN crews need in order to elude U.S. subs have been greatly vitiated (most Russian crews haven’t been on patrol in years). Largely for these reasons former commanders of Russia’s ballistic-missile fleet warned as long ago as 1998 that their supposedly invulnerable submarines would be detected and destroyed in a conflict with the United States.

And he concludes, crucially:

Confronted with the growing nuclear imbalance, Russia and China will be forced to try to redress it; but given America’s advantages, that effort, as Lieber and Press note, could take well over a decade. Until a nuclear stalemate is restored—if it ever is—Moscow and Beijing will surely buy deterrence by spreading out their nuclear forces, decentralizing their command-and-control systems, and implementing “launch on warning” policies. If more than half a century of analyzing nuclear dangers and “crisis stability” has taught us anything, it is that all these steps can cause crises to escalate uncontrollably. They could trigger the unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons; this could lead to inadvertent nuclear war.

American military preponderance now embraces the entire “spectrum of conflict,” as Pentagon planners put it. That is to say, we’re miles ahead of everyone in every type of warfare. But if that preponderance is leading to a world in which Russian and Chinese launch commanders are fingering nuclear hair triggers, the game may not be worth the candle. Without any public scrutiny or debate the United States has emerged as the nuclear hegemon, in possession of a destabilizing first-strike capability. It does not matter whether this has come about by accident or design, or whether America’s motives are worthy or malign; the condition itself is the problem. The ramifications of this state of affairs are of the gravest significance to America’s security—and the world’s. It’s time for scrutiny and debate to begin.