1 March 2018

An Arms Race Toward Global Instability

By Omar Lamrani

The United States is shifting its focus to great power competition as it works to address the challenges of Russia's and China's growing confidence and capabilities.

Combined with this rivalry, weakening arms control regimes and the emergence of disruptive weapons technologies will erode global geopolitical stability.

Declining trust and increased competition will spark discord and conflict between the United States on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. 

The United States is gearing up once more for a struggle between giants. On Jan. 19, the Pentagon released a new National Defense Strategy, the first in 10 years, in which it called strategic competition the "central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security" as Russian and Chinese military capabilities expand. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis echoed that concern Feb. 2 in the preface of the Nuclear Posture Review, arguing that the United States could no longer afford to pursue a policy of nuclear arms reduction given the steady growth of the Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals. The U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review, due for publication soon, is expected to emphasize the same key points, namely that the United States should bolster its missile defenses to better repel threats as strategic competition builds.

Among these documents, the common thread is that great power competition, and not terrorism, will be the next focus of the U.S. security strategy. Washington has outlined how it will move to redirect its resources, capabilities and approach to overcome the challenges that the growing confidence and abilities of China and Russia pose. Beijing and Moscow, however, show no sign of backing down. And new, destabilizing weapons technology is entering more common use, while long-standing arms control agreements are deteriorating. These developments together promise to usher in a new era of international competition that could rival the Cold War.

A Shift in Focus

Even before the latest string of U.S. defense and policy reviews, the emerging power competition with China and Russia was on Washington's radar. The United States pursued a "pivot to the Pacific" during President Barack Obama's administration, mostly in an effort to counter China's growing dominance in the region. Similarly, since Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the United States has bolstered its military deployments in Europe, reversing its drawdown on the Continent. The Pentagon also touted the "Third Offset" strategy — an initiative to encourage the development of promising military technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence — during the previous administration in an effort to stay ahead of its mounting competition.

Yet counterterrorism was the true focus of the U.S. security strategy, not only under the last president but also under his predecessor. Enduring conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia continue to draw the lion's share of military deployments, resources and focus to this day. China and Russia, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the United States' diverted attention, making great strides in building arsenals and honing their military capabilities. In a few areas — such as anti-ship missiles, rocket artillery and ground-based air defense — the two Eurasian countries may even have surpassed the United States. 

In light of these trends, Washington has every reason to be worried about a great power rivalry. But trying to stay ahead in the competition will only accelerate it. As the United States works to fortify its defenses, China and Russia will redouble their efforts to strengthen their own capabilities. The two countries — revisionist powers that want to alter the current geopolitical balance, whether in the South and East China seas or in the former Soviet Union — won't give up their geopolitical ambitions just because the United States tries to foil them.

Raising the Stakes

As the power competition between Russia, China and the United States intensifies, the emergence of disruptive weapons technologies will drive them deeper into a destabilizing arms race. Increasingly capable missile defense systems, for example, will play a central role in the struggle going forward, though the technology is still evolving to better address ballistic missiles. To appreciate the disruptive effect of ballistic missile defense, one must consider the limited inventory of ballistic missiles available to the United States, Russia and China. The fear among these countries is that as missile defense technology improves and becomes more prevalent, it will render their modest arsenals ineffective. A disarming nuclear strike from one power would further reduce the number of viable missiles in the target state's holdings, and the remaining weapons may not be powerful enough to overcome the aggressor country's missile defenses in a retaliatory strike. Consequently, while the United States' early lead on missile defense technology will spur Russia and China to keep working on their own missile defenses, it will also push them to beef up their offensive weapons.

Nuclear weapons will be another point of contention. According to the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the United States is preparing to shift its stance on the use of nuclear weapons and to introduce new ones, including a low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Low-yield nuclear weapons aren't a new development for the United States, but putting them on a ballistic missile submarine is. The move is intended to address the growing concern that a potential enemy — be it a great power such as Russia or a rogue state like North Korea — would resort to an "escalate to de-escalate" strategy. Under that strategy, the inferior military power would use a low-yield or "tactical" nuclear weapon to discourage continued attacks from the United States on the assumption that Washington wouldn't strike back with its strategic nuclear arsenal for fear of starting a devastating war.

Positioning low-yield nuclear weapons on ballistic missile submarines will give the United States greater speed and flexibility in their use. The decision is not without its risks, however. For one thing, a single strike with a low-yield nuclear warhead may well escalate to a full-blown war with strategic weapons. For another, since the U.S. ballistic submarine fleet carries a large portion of the country's strategic nuclear weapons arsenal, adding low-yield nuclear weapons to the mix could create a discrimination problem for adversary states in the event of a launch. An enemy would detect an incoming ballistic missile fired from a submarine without being able to tell whether it carried a low-yield warhead or it was the opening salvo in a massive first strike with strategic nuclear weapons.

The advent of super-fuze warheads will compound the risk. Super-fuze technology dramatically enhances the effectiveness of weapons against hardened targets, such as nuclear missile silos, by optimizing a warhead's ability to home in on and detonate directly on top of its mark. Although it's currently in use only on U.S. W76 strategic nuclear warheads, the super-fuze could conceivably work for low-yield nuclear weapons as well. And because low-yield nuclear weapons are not subject to the same arms treaty restrictions that limit the number of strategic nuclear weapons a country may hold, improving their accuracy with super-fuze technology could upend the current nuclear balance. The more countries acquire low-yield nuclear weapons — much less super-fuzed warheads — the greater the potential for their use.

Further complicating matters are hypersonic missiles. The missiles' high speed — at least five times the speed of sound — facilitates their rapid use and boosts their rate of survival by making them difficult to intercept. In addition, some hypersonic weapons come equipped with a glide vehicle that extends their range, enabling forces to launch the weapons from beyond an enemy's reach. These factors offer militaries great incentive to incorporate hypersonic missiles into their arsenals. As more and more countries adopt hypersonic missiles, the weapons' offensive abilities may prove destablizing. States may opt to strike first — perhaps with nuclear weapons — to take out an adversary's hypersonic missile caches before the enemy has a chance to use them.

An artist's rendering shows a hypersonic missile glide vehicle, designed to enhance the weapon's range.(Stratfor)

Losing Control

While weapons technology is developing at a rapid clip, arms control treaties are deteriorating just as quickly. Key agreements between the United States and Russia were foundering well before Washington shifted its focus back to great power competition. The United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, and the critical Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is showing signs of considerable strain, which is bound to increase as Washington bolsters its defenses. Alarmed by the United States' growing investment in missile defense and super-fuze technology, Russia and China will try to enhance their offensive capabilities in kind. The resulting arms race would probably drive the last nail into the INF's coffin and perhaps even jeopardize the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Beijing, meanwhile, will strive to keep its competitive edge in hypersonic weapons development in an effort to get ahead of Washington's advancing missile defense capabilities. Though the countries will try to craft new arms control agreements to accommodate their changing world, the challenges of striking a deal among three great powers with disparate strengths will get in the way.

Coupled with the fall of critical arms control regimes and the rise of disruptive weapons technology, the next great power competition could erode global stability. Tightening arms races and moribund arms control agreements will undermine the trust between the great global powers and discourage cooperation. Instead, more discord and conflict will erupt between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other.

Editor's Note: This column has been adjusted to reflect U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis' title.

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