Nuclear Rumbles

April 1, 2000

The Russians announced Dec. 17 that they were lowering the nuclear threshold. From here on, they warned, they are ready to use nuclear weapons in smaller-scale conflicts.

This more aggressive nuclear doctrine is part of a broad–and very popular–program in which Russia is remilitarizing itself.

The Russians have just fielded another increment of their new ICBM, the SS-27 Topol-M. It is said to be more accurate than Russia’s older missiles, and more effective against ballistic missile defenses. A new generation of nuclear submarines is under construction at the shipyards at Severodvinsk.

Despite dire economic circumstances, the Russians have found money to prosecute their campaign in Chechnya, and military spending is on the rise.

The Cold War is not quite as over as we thought it was.

On Feb. 21, China threatened to invade Taiwan unless it negotiates for a return to Chinese control. A week later, the official Chinese army newspaper said China might attack the United States with nuclear missiles if we stand in the way of a military takeover of Taiwan.

China has about 20 CSS-4 ICBMs that can reach any part of the United States. Several newer missiles, including the long-range Dong Feng-41, are in development. These programs will make good use of warhead and guidance system technology stolen from the United States.

China’s military spending has increased by a double-digit percentage in each of the past eight years. The theme that permeates Chinese military and strategic writing is war with the United States.

Lately, Russia and China have been patching up the quarrels that drove them apart in the 1960s. They are re-establishing a partnership of sorts, based on their common concern about the dominant position of the United States in world affairs.

North Korea, a second-string member of the Communist club at midcentury, is also on the move. A scientist who defected in February says North Korea has developed a missile that can reach California.

His report is unconfirmed and subject to doubt. However, the North Koreans surprised us in 1998 when they launched a three-stage missile across Japan, a capability that US intelligence said they would not have for another 15 years.

Russia, China, and North Korea are enthusiastically selling weapons to nations on the international fringe.

US leaders downplay the importance of these developments. President Clinton dismissed what he called “fairly inflammatory language” from China on the grounds that “it is political season over there.” He continued to push for China’s admission to the World Trade Organization.

The Administration takes a conciliatory stance toward Russia as well. The nuclear rumblings from Moscow have not slowed the flow of economic aid to Russia from the West, which allows the Russians to divert additional money to their military buildup.

The problem is more serious than our national security establishment appears to believe.

The circumstances under which the Russians would actually use nuclear weapons are ambiguous by design, but as a Web site analysis said, “The mere threat of a nuclear reaction makes it impossible to treat Russia with the contemptuous indifference shown during the Iraq and Kosovo affairs.”

Russia, a world power by no standard except its possession of nuclear weapons, is back in the game, and with improved arms. Fortunately, Russia is still deterred, as it was during the Cold War, by countervailing US nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Korean missiles are less reliable and fewer in number than the Russian missiles. However, as the national intelligence estimate given to Congress in February said, the capability to generally target a large urban area will be sufficient to deter and constrain the United States.

It also said that “the probability that a missile with a weapon of mass destruction will be used against US forces or interests is higher today than during most of the Cold War, and will continue to grow.”

Aside from worldwide nuclear disarmament–which isn’t going to happen–there are three possible responses to a nuclear threat. You can surrender to it, deter it, or defend against it. The United States may cut its nuclear-armed adversaries some extra slack, but we are not about to surrender to them.

Both of our other options, traditional nuclear deterrence and national missile defense, are under simultaneous ideological attack.

The Administration itself is leading the effort to revive the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Doing so would scarcely bother the proliferators and arms control cheaters, but it would prevent the United States from conducting tests to keep its aging nuclear weapons reliable and credible.

We should not wait until a rogue nation lobs a crude weapon at San Francisco to discover that we need at least some ballistic missile defense. If we stay at it, we will solve the technical problems. The main political objection to a missile defense is that it supposedly would push rival nations to develop new missiles. But they seem to be doing that anyway.

Our best choice, among the imperfect choices available, is to pursue a combination of missile defenses and strategic deterrence. The best model for threading our way through the dangers ahead will be our own experience from the Cold War, the end of which we declared somewhat prematurely.