An Opportunity for Progress on Nuclear Issues in India

In the less than two weeks that have passed since his ascension to office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already begun making headlines. A colorful mixture of controversial past and optimistic future, Modi entered office with a hardliner reputation from his time as chief minister of Gujarat, only to immediately surprise the world by inviting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration, a gesture that has never before been extended in the history of either country.

As Another North Korean Nuclear Test Looms, What’s Washington’s Response?

This week, OtherWords published a piece I wrote alongside Lt. General (USA, Ret) Robert Gard on the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea. Here is an excerpt:

It’s time to put North Korea back on the foreign policy agenda and re-engage it in serious and responsible negotiations.

Given Chinese support for North Korea, heavy sanctions won’t compel Kim Jong Un to comply with American preferences or engage in negotiations on dictated terms. However much the United States may detest the authoritarian North Korean regime, it’s in America’s interest to engage in a dialogue to protect its national security and that of its Asian allies.

Refusing to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they make concessions dictated by Washington is counterproductive. Watchful waiting simply results in further advances in the North Korean nuclear weapons program, making America and its allies less secure. Kim Jong Un is willing to talk, and it’s in America’s interest to pick up the phone and call him.

Read the full piece here.

A Case for the Zero Option in Afghanistan

“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counter-terrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.” –President Barack Obama, January 28, 2014

The Global Impact of a Limited Nuclear War in South Asia: Famine, Disease and War

Earlier this week, the nuclear watchdog group Physicians for Social Responsibility, published their report authored by Ira Helfand “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?” The report summarizes, synthesizes and expands upon a number of findings made in previous scientific studies by independent sources on the likely consequences of a ‘limited’, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan on global food supplies.

China’s Nuclear Weapons – Tempering Fears with a Dose of Reality

Several reports about China’s nuclear weapons program have come out in the past few weeks, and they are causing imaginations to run wild and some fears to grow beyond the realm of reality. The fact is that China has indeed been modernizing its arsenal, but it is important to put this modernization in perspective and to not overstate the Chinese nuclear threat.

The primary source of the panic is a map supposedly detailing Chinese nuclear attack plans in the event of conflict that would leave 5 to 12 million Americans dead. This “plan” and the map have made their rounds on many major news sites. Fortunately, a little detective work by the Federation of American Scientist’s Hans Kristensen has revealed that the map wasn’t even produced by the Chinese government. Instead, it seems to have been part of a slideshow posted on a military technology website unaffiliated with the Chinese government.

The map was released around the same time that the Chinese government unveiled details about their development of a small fleet of ballistic missile submarines. These details caused even more dramatic stories about how these submarines could attack U.S. cities with JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles. Aside from the fact that no Jin-class submarines have ever sailed on deterrent patrols, there are several major technical problems that prevent this from being reality.

First, according to Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, the current fleet of three Jin-class subs is not currently armed with nuclear weapons because China’s Central Military Commission forbids the mounting of warheads on missiles unless they are about to be used (this doctrine has, so far, extended to submarine launched ballistic missiles as well). This means the submarines leave port with no ability to fulfill their purpose as a deterrent. Second, China’s submarine fleet is incredibly loud and easy to track. The Jin-class is reported to be louder than Soviet submarines that were built 30 years ago. Third, the JL-2 missile only has a range of about 7,200 km. If the missiles were actually armed with warheads; they would be able to threaten U.S. bases in the region but would be unable to reach any major U.S. cities. To even target Washington, D.C., the submarine would have to sail almost to Hawaii without detection. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, has summed up these shortcomings quite effectively: “For a submarine-launched ballistic missile to be effective it has to be accurate, and you have to be stealthy and survivable and I’ll leave it at that.”

China is also expanding its arsenal of land based ballistic missiles; however, some of this expansion is temporary as certain systems are being developed to replace older missiles like the DF-3A and DF-4 which were deployed in the 1970s and 80s, respectively. Even with the 2007 unveiling of the DF-31A, which has a range of 11,000 km and the under-development DF-41, which has a range of 13,000 km, China will only have around 50 (out of about 240-300 total) land based missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. The usefulness of these missiles, however, is limited because firing them at the U.S. would mean firing the missile over Russian territory, which could provoke a nuclear response from Russia.

The modernization of nuclear weapons by a foreign power is rightfully bound to cause some concern; however, much of the media reporting has painted the picture of a possible doomsday scenario that could happen today or tomorrow, and this is simply not the case. As Gregory Kulacki has noted, “under the counting rules of the New Start agreement between the United States and Russia, the size of China’s nuclear arsenal would officially be counted as zero. This is because the several hundred warheads China is believed to possess are not mated to the missiles that can deliver them, but are kept in storage, like the several thousand warheads the United States and Russia each hold in reserve in addition to the 1,550 each of the two nuclear superpowers are allowed to deploy under the treaty.”

It is also important to remember that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is more than enough to deter any actual attacks from China against the U.S. homeland, forward deployed U.S. troops, and U.S. allies. The United States has almost 2,000 warheads mounted on missiles that can reach China compared to the 45-50 warheads that can reach the United States, and this fact is well known by the Chinese government.

In other words, it is by no means time to bring back the nuclear attack drills taught in American schools during the Cold War, nor is it necessary to consider expanding our own nuclear program because of China.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Buildup: The End of US ‘Strategic Silence’?

While most nuclear weapons states around the world have reduced their nuclear weapons stockpiles in recent years, Pakistan has been rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. Current estimates place the country’s stockpile at 100-120 nuclear warheads, up from 70-90 in 2010. If this trend continues, the country will have a larger nuclear weapons stockpile than the United Kingdom, which has approximately 225 warheads, by 2021.

Of particular concern is the country’s build up of its short-range tactical nuclear missiles; a response to Indian conventional superiority. Due to their design and deployment, these tactical nuclear weapons could potentially aggravate an already dangerous decade-long standoff between Pakistan and India.

Firstly, tactical nuclear weapons are less destructive than strategic nuclear weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and, almost exclusively target an enemy’s conventional forces. Because of their lower-yield and designated deployment, they may be launched in the belief that they constitute a more legitimate use of force than more destructive higher-yield weapons. This risk is especially high if ground commanders believe the weapon will stop an enemy’s conventional advances. However, the conflict could easily escalate as states respond to the use of tactical weapons with strategic weapons.

Secondly, because tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on the battlefield, the risk of an inadvertent launch due to misperception and/or miscommunication is relatively high. A battlefield commander in charge of a tactical missile unit could receive wrong information or misjudge the overall situation, which could easily lead to a nuclear launch. Considering these weapons would be deployed along the already fragile militarized Pakistan-India border, the danger of misperception in the Pakistani context is particularly real.

These inherent risks of tactical weapons have the potential to further destabilize an already unstable region. Relations between Pakistan and India worsened considerably following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks by Pakistani militants and little progress has been made in repairing the rift. Instead, both countries have developed new strategies and weapon systems primarily designed for a military conflict with the other side.

The Obama administration most likely realizes the dangers of Pakistan’s buildup; however it has remained largely silent on the issue. Following a recent meeting between President Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif three weeks ago, both sides issued a joint statement outlining their agreement on an array of issues. Aside from a relatively vague section on Pakistani nuclear security, nothing was mentioned about Pakistan’s nuclear arms growth or the wider military situation in South Asia.

This silence is primarily due to concerns about the larger US-Pakistan strategic relationship. The administration is aware of the national prestige associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons along with the pervasive belief within wider Pakistani society that the US wishes to acquire and destroy Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. Weary of this, and weary of its problematic relationship with Pakistan since the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the administration has avoided the issue in an attempt to keep Pakistani support for more immediate U.S. strategic interests. Chief among these are Afghanistan and the wider war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Going forward, it is unclear whether the US will maintain this ‘strategic silence’ policy towards Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear buildup. Next year, US forces are set to leave Afghanistan, which will entail a reduction in Pakistan’s strategic value to Washington. As the administration’s regional interest shifts from the immediate to the long-term, it may find it difficult to ignore Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.

How exactly this problem will be tackled is a significant challenge if the US does indeed decide to take action. Issuing sanctions in a manner analogous to those issued against Iran is unlikely to be pursued. Previous US sanctions against Pakistan while it was developing a nuclear capability did not stop the country from developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, these sanctions damaged US-Pakistani relations and caused widespread resentment among its population.

A more likely policy would be one where the US attempts to bring Pakistan and India into formal talks with one another. The negotiating table would serve as a confidence building measure for both sides, while at the same time providing a forum in which a formal arrangement that dampens mutual concerns could be worked out. On the Pakistani side, this dampening could persuade it to limit its tactical nuclear buildup. At the same time, the US would play the role of mediator, thereby avoiding the potentially negative consequences of sanctions.

Whatever the policy response will be, it is clear that Pakistan’s build up demands some form of US action. The distressing implications of Pakistan’s policy will become too great for the current US silence to be maintained – or at least it should.

The Sequel’s Not Any Better: Why the US Should Be Wary of Pyongyang’s Shift in Rhetoric

Let’s start this post off with a pop culture confession: I didn’t like The Hangover. I realize that this probably puts me in the minority of the American movie-going public (the film earned nearly a half-billion dollars at the box office, making it the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all-time), but I found it to be a bit too crass and a bit too formulaic for my taste.

The Changing Taliban

A recent New York Times article revealed that the Obama administration is considering withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal date, raising questions about what the country might look like after foreign forces exit – whenever that may be. The answer is critical, as the future of post-withdrawal Afghanistan has implications for the entire Asian continent.

The Pentagon’s 2013 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat Assessment: Why There’s No Need to Panic

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s (NASIC) 2013 “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat” assessment, issued on July 11, is likely to cause some consternation within the US national security community. While the press has focused primarily on the Pentagon’s assertions about the Chinese nuclear program (according to the report, China “has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world,” and the number of its warheads capable of reaching the US could grow to “well over 100 within the next 15 years”), the report also contains a few ominous-sounding claims about North Korean and Iranian missile capabilities.