The Challenge of Nuclear-Armed Regional Adversaries
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For U.S. adversaries seeking to threaten targets within their regions, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles provide the most effective delivery means. When deployed on mobile launchers, these weapons have proven to be highly survivable against air attacks. Moreover, despite some progress in the development of "hit-to-kill" missile defenses, warheads delivered by ballistic missiles have a substantial probability of reaching their targets. Point defense systems, such as Patriot, have small footprints, making it impractical to defend large populated areas with such systems. And any "thin" deployment of missile defenses can be overwhelmed by modest-sized (between 10 and 20 missiles) salvo attacks, which are well within the capabilities of U.S. regional adversaries. Regional adversaries might also seek to employ manned aircraft or cruise missiles as nuclear delivery vehicles, though U.S. forces have shown themselves to be quite adept at defeating attacks by enemy aircraft.
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Motivations and perceptions such as those discussed in Chapter Three point to some insights about possible future behavior. For example, if the desire for greater influence and prestige were a factor motivating the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons, then it follows that, once the weapons are operational, the regime is likely to act in ways that reflect the belief that it is entitled to greater influence and respect, at least at first. History supports this: New nuclear powers seem to undergo a process of learning and adjustment as they attempt to gauge the utility of their new weapons. As part of this process, a new nuclear power may take actions intended to test the responses and limits of other powers. In the past, these tests most often occurred in the diplomatic sphere, although there are some cases of limited acts of aggression, often through proxies.One early historical example of this type of behavior was General Secretary Josef Stalin's approval in 1950 of Kim Il Sung's plan to invade South Korea. Prior to January 1950, Stalin had repeatedly turned down Kim's request for military support, fearing that a war in Korea would spark a wider confrontation with the United States, for which the Soviet Union was unprepared. However, after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in September 1949, Stalin seems to have been convinced that a "second front" was feasible in East Asia and that the United States, in the face of the Soviet Union's atomic potential, was unlikely to respond.3 Another example from the Cold War period was China's attack on Soviet border forces in 1969. This mostly forgotten incident, which is one of few direct confrontations between two nuclear powers, provides further indication that new nuclear powers may believe that they can engage in limited military confrontation with more powerful adversaries despite the risks of retaliation.
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A nuclear-armed Iran might exhibit similar behaviors. For example, it might begin to press the other members of OPEC (none of which has nuclear weapons) to give more weight to its preferences regarding oil-production quotas. Or it might try to coerce the governments of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) states into making concessions over rights to offshore oil and gas fields. We might also see stepped up Iranian support to terrorist organizations and additional efforts to prevent a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For its part, North Korea might adopt an even harder line in negotiations over military dispositions on the peninsula. It might also seek additional financial support and economic assistance with the threat of further proliferation of nuclear technology in the background.In short, both history and logic suggest that the leaders of adversary states may feel entitled to a greater degree of deference from their neighbors and from the United States once they have demonstrated their possession of nuclear weapons. In the "shadow games" that policymakers constantly play as part of their assessment of their options, the realization that military options against a regional adversary state now armed with nuclear weapons have become riskier and less attractive will affect those decisionmakers' willingness to pursue confrontational policies vis-à-vis that adversary. And while the presence of a nucleararmed adversary in the neighborhood may strengthen the attraction between other regional states and their security partner, the United States, it could also result in a net reduction in U.S. influence over the region's affairs.
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Notwithstanding these considerations, it is important not to overestimate the utility of nuclear weapons. To date, nation-states have not found them to be useful as instruments of overt military aggression. While the possession of nuclear weapons may allow North Korea and Iran to pursue more vigorously objectives that run counter to U.S. interests, it seems likely that these adversaries will do this in a constrained fashion. In fact, we have no historical cases in which an emerging nuclear power undertook large-scale military aggression to advance revisionist claims. So we do not foresee a nuclear-armed North Korea becoming likelier to invade South Korea. Nor do we expect that Iran would use nuclear weapons, should it acquire them, as a shield to facilitate large-scale conventional aggression against Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, or adversaries further afield, including Israel.
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All of this points to the need for much more effective capabilities for preventing nuclear weapons from being used—in particular, to some combination of counterforce capability and wide-area defenses against the most important means of delivering nuclear weapons. Both tasks—finding and neutralizing nuclear weapons and intercepting their delivery vehicles—pose daunting technical and operational challenges. Seriously pursuing these capabilities will require major investments—requirements that will be seen as threats to a host of other budgetary priorities. But without such capabilities, the United States and its allies will find themselves compelled to live with new limits on their freedom of action when it comes to confronting nucleararmed regional adversaries.
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Pending the fielding of much more effective capabilities for preventing an enemy from using nuclear weapons, it seems clear that the United States will be compelled to temper its objectives vis-àvis regional adversaries when those adversaries possess even modest numbers of nuclear weapons that can be delivered only to targets in their regions. The distinguishing feature of the post–Cold War security environment has been the United States' ability to impose its will on recalcitrant states that resort to violence in persistent violation of international norms. The fact that the United States possessed military forces whose capabilities were unquestionably superior to those of its potential adversaries made this possible. This "golden era" of conventional power projection may be coming to a close in important parts of Eurasia. If the United States and its allies cannot find ways to neutralize small arsenals of nuclear weapons or prevent them from being delivered to targets outside of their home countries, they will have to accept that military operations to impose regime change must be reserved for situations of only the direst sort.
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As if this accumulated evidence of the difficulty of destroying an enemy's nuclear weapons were not discouraging enough, the performance of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed that things have not improved significantly. After 12 years of closely monitoring WMD-related activities in Iraq, most of which included having teams of UN inspectors on the ground there, U.S. intelligence spectacularly overestimated Iraq's holdings of WMD prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And North Korea, with its penchant for building important military facilities underground, its ruthlessly repressive regime, and its nearly complete isolation from the rest of the world, must be considered to be a "harder" target for outside intelligence than Iraq ever was.In short, pending some dramatic breakthroughs in intelligence collection techniques, no U.S. decisionmaker should be confident that U.S. and allied forces will be able to neutralize an enemy's arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery means prior to their being launched. Nuclear weapons and the missiles that deliver them are prized strategic assets, and enemy regimes can be expected to exploit a wide range of techniques to protect them, including hardening, dispersal, decoys, camouflage, and concealment. Even nuclear weapons would have only limited effectiveness against targets that are deeply buried or dispersed over a wide area.
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Such a scenario will perhaps appear manageable, if not attractive, to Western strategists. We would lament the potential loss of the option to "finish the job" with impunity against an adversary, but the "nuclear weapons as last-ditch deterrent" scenario grants the initiative to the side whose conventional forces are dominant: As long as U.S. leaders understand where the enemy's red lines lie, they can prosecute military operations up to those points and then assess the balance of risks and gains before considering their strategy for war termination. However, it would be imprudent to assume that future nuclear-armed adversaries will necessarily behave in this way. There are several reasons for this.First, adversary leaders may fear that their lives and their regimes are at grave risk from the very outset of the conflict. In Afghanistan and in Iraq, the United States demonstrated that it had the intention, if not the capability, to kill enemy leaders by bombing the buildings they were thought to be occupying. And while those particular attacks failed to kill their intended targets, the regimes themselves were overturned within a matter of weeks following the commencement of serious fighting. To the extent that U.S. forces are credited with the capability to carry out decapitating strikes or to rapidly take down enemy regimes, the belief will likely grow that one must act early to stop the U.S. military operation before it is too late.
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Second is the classic use-or-lose dilemma: Adversary leaders may fear that, even if they survive U.S. bombing attacks, the United States and its allies might locate and destroy their small arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery means before they can be brought to bear. Or if the weapons themselves are secure, the communications or other infrastructure needed to employ them effectively may be vulnerable. Concerns such as these will add to the pressures that enemy leaders will feel to escalate early. (We argue later in this chapter that U.S. counterforce capabilities against plausible regional adversaries are not impressive, but that may change over time, and, in any case, it is the perceptions of the adversary leaders that count here, not the reality.)
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Third, operational considerations might also argue in favor of early use of nuclear weapons by the regional adversary. U.S. forces deploying to a distant theater in a crisis or conflict are likely to be weakest at the outset of that deployment, before the bulk of the force and its sustainment assets arrive. U.S. air and missile defenses in theater at the commencement of an operation may be thin, making it more probable that an adversary's aircraft or missiles carrying nuclear payloads will reach their targets. Also, regional adversaries may believe that some sort of nuclear "demonstration shot" could deter regional governments from granting U.S. expeditionary forces access to facilities or deter U.S. decisionmakers from prosecuting further military operations.