Nuclear deterrence: An outdated theory?

Chan Kung

‘Emergence of Mutually Assured Destruction mechanism is understandable’

Aerial photo after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, Aug 9, 1945. AFP

Since the conception of nuclear weapons, the theory of deterrence was quite well-received for a long period of time.

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The basic strategy of the world’s nuclear states has been more or less affected by it. Therefore, such a theory has had a great impact on the world’s security environment.

The system content of nuclear deterrence theory is rather complicated, but its main ideological composition is not exactly that complex to understand.

It is generally believed that deterrence is achieved mainly through two aspects, be it through “punishment” or “denial”.

The former refers to the establishment of a force with sufficient destructive power, so that the other party will be forced to give up its offensive behaviour in consideration of its own losses.

This method is defensive in nature. The latter refers to deterrence by reducing the success rate of the other party’s offensive behaviour, and this method is offensive in a certain sense.

US military strategist Bernard Brodie’s view in 1959 was that a country with a reliable nuclear deterrent must always be ready to use nuclear weapons, but they must not already be used beforehand, else deterrence would be impossible.

US economist and professor of foreign policy, national security, nuclear policy and arms control Thomas Schelling’s 1966 classic Arms and Influence argues that the ability to inflict harm on another country is now used as a factor in preventing the country from doing something. He believes that the power of bargaining based on force makes the basis of the deterrence theory.

Naval Group CEO Herve Guillou poses during the official launch of the new French nuclear submarine Suffren in Cherbourg, France. AFP

Relative equilibrium


During the Cold War period, the world order was established beneath the nuclear protection umbrella of the US and Soviet Union.

This setup was possible because of the formation of a relative nuclear equilibrium.

Therefore, the deterrence theory had its own unique value, and hence it made sense that it was developed during this period.

A relatively weak but nuclear-holding force could use the extreme destructive power of nuclear weapons to stop another more powerful adversary.

As long as this particular relatively weak country could survive the first wave of sudden attacks, then it would have its voice in the new international world order system.

This view has prompted more countries to desire possessing nuclear power, and has actually promoted the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology.

Since the beginning of the new century, with the development of nuclear technology and the popularisation of nuclear weapons in the world, more and more countries have begun to come into possession of nuclear weapons and this has greatly questioned and challenged the existing value of nuclear deterrent theory.

In 2004, US political science professor Frank Zagare proposed that the theory of nuclear deterrence was logically inconsistent and empirically unreliable.

Geopolitical experts and scholars such as Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, George Schultz and Sam Nunn also expressed similar views.

They believe that nuclear deterrence is far from making the world a safer place and that nuclear weapons have become an extreme risky element.

In China, having tracked the risk of nuclear warfare, Anbound has warned numerous times that since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, because of the miniaturisation of nuclear weapons, especially the universalisation of nuclear states, the world is facing unprecedented risks of nuclear war.

In other words, Anbound’s main point of view is that the theory of nuclear deterrence is now outdated, and the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war is actually kind of self-numbing in nature.

As the world enters an era of nuclear confrontation, nuclear strategy is now a norm that is part of the greater scope of military strategy.

Barack Obama hugsShigeaki Mori, who survived Hiroshima. AFP

Alarming scale


In the current world, the countries with nuclear weapons have developed from the United States and the Soviet Union to the five permanent members of the United Nations.

All of them now have nuclear weapons, and now India, Pakistan, and North Korea have also joined the Nuclear Club.

This does not include Israel that presumably possesses nuclear weapons and South Africa that formerly possessed them.

If we look at the projection power of nuclear weapons, the scale of development is even more alarming.

About 20 countries in the world have various types of ballistic missiles and other projection vehicles. These countries with nuclear weapons have developed from two to five and further expanded to eight.

Moreover, the ideological differences between these countries are very huge and the strategies they have adopted are rather targeted as well. It is therefore unimaginable for these countries to strike a new form of nuclear equilibrium.

Therefore, the emergence of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) mechanism is entirely understandable.

This “all-in-one” military strategic move is actually a catastrophic scenario should it take place after the disillusionment of nuclear equilibrium.

If the world’s strategic theory of nuclear deterrence is obsolete, what kind of nuclear confrontation model will best take its place then?

The world’s few main forms of potential models of nuclear confrontation can be summed up as follows.

  1. The Israeli-Iranian nuclear threat model that ensures the military geography superiority formed by the possession of nuclear weapons.
  2. North Korea’s nuclear provocation model that ensures geopolitical bargaining power.
  3. The India-Pakistan nuclear superiority model that ensures conventional military superiority.
  4. The nuclear equilibrium model of the United States, Russia and China that ensures the nuclear order holds true among the major powers.

Among these nuclear confrontation models in the world, North Korea’s nuclear provocation model is the most unstable one.

This is mainly because of its concentrated strategic goals and geographical conditions that make it impossible for North Korea to withstand a nuclear strike and launch a revenge nuclear attack afterward.

Obviously, North Korea also understands its limitations in such limited geographical conditions.

Therefore, North Korea’s nuclear strategy tends to be pre-emptive, which is actually the cause of the long-standing denuclearisation disputes on the Korean peninsula.

Objectively speaking, we believe that any solution to the Korean peninsula issue without the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is meaningless. It is far less realistic and feasible than maintaining the status quo.

The other great danger of world nuclear confrontation lies in its first application.

Today, it will have been 75 years since humans first launched nuclear weapons.

During this period, the development of nuclear weapons technology has been tremendous.

US President Barack Obama (C) delivers his speech next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) after laying wreaths at the cenotaph to offer a prayer for victims of the atomic bombing in 1945, at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on May 27, 2016. – Obama on May 27 paid moving tribute to victims of the world’s first nuclear attack. (Photo by KIMIMASA MAYAMA / POOL / AFP)

Greater strategic appeal


The emergence of precision guidance and GPS technology, the continuous development of rocket technology, the miniaturisation of nuclear weapons, multiple independently re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology and the maturity of “clean” nuclear weapons technology all indicate that the tactical effectiveness of nuclear weapons have great strategic appeal.

Once the door is opened to the tactical use of nuclear weapons, there will be no turning back, and the world will certainly enter into an era of nuclear warfare.

In fact, the greatest danger in this regard would be the oceans. Anbound’s researchers have previously pointed out in research briefs that the world’s oceans have had a huge impact on the current structure of the world economy, but they have now become “nuclear oceans”, with a large number of nuclear weapons and their carriers floating in the ocean.

In addition, an unknown number of nuclear weapons are always in a ready state.

When it comes to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, oceans and navies would be among the first tactical options for countries.

This is undoubtedly a huge and serious area of risk to the globalisation of world markets, world trade and the global order that has so far never been taken seriously in the negotiation of a nuclear deal.

With the change of times, the dated model of nuclear deterrence that relied on “punishment” and “denial” simultaneously is disintegrating.

In the era of nuclear confrontation, the future nuclear forces and its related theory will gradually tilt toward the “denial” approach.

The operational objective of nuclear weapons will be to (quickly) transit from “counter value” to “counter force”.

The future of nuclear deterrence will be ever more aggressive.

This also means that the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used will be ever higher and the risk of a real nuclear war taking place in the world will be more shocking and confusing than ever before.

This is not only about the collapse and reconstruction of the global nuclear arms control system.

It is also about world peace and global development.

Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now Anbound Chief researcher. He is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of his outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

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