The Second Coming of MIRVs

W78_MK12A_RV_Minuteman_III_busBy: Cassandra Peterson

One of President Obama’s overlooked nuclear weapons milestones is altering the U.S. arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to carry only one warhead. Previously, U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBMs could carry three multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). This “de-MIRVing” process, according to the Obama Administration, allows the U.S. to “enhance the stability of the nuclear balance by reducing the incentives” for any country to strike first. In other words: reducing the chances of a nuclear conflict.

But in other parts of the world, the trend is unfortunately moving in the opposite direction. A recent Stimson Center book, “The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age,” offers interesting insight as to why China, India, and Pakistan are seeking out alternatives to their existing deterrence structure, including the potential use of MIRVs, and ushering in a new nuclear age.

MIRVs are primarily designed for counterforce strikes, or attacks against another country’s military. Each warhead is able to penetrate different ground in a target area, increasing accuracy and maximizing damage. In particular, the technology is useful in targeting underground silos. These “hardened” bases are spread out and reinforced in a way that minimizes risk, but MIRVs can even the playing field. Additionally, the increase in anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense systems means, theoretically, that MIRVs have a higher probability of surviving a strike than a single missile.

The problem with promoting MIRV systems and this idea of counterforce technology is that governments are then entertaining the concept of fighting a nuclear war, a concept President Reagan once labeled dangerous and unwinnable. Nuclear deterrence is largely based on a policy of second-strike, retaliatory use. Warfighting, by contrast, is predicated on uncertainty, with either side able to make the first move.

The heightened risk of a nuclear conflict has kick-started no small number of arms control treaties, and the United States and the Soviet Union have made efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles. In 2014, the United States decoupled the last of their MIRVs on Minutemen III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, but retains MIRV capabilities on the sea leg of the triad.

However, Cold War motivations to accumulate – and then dismantle – MIRV systems in the “first nuclear age” differ from the uptick in interest in MIRV systems now brewing in Asia. The U.S. and Russia built a massive number of warheads to accommodate their arms race. Under treaty obligations, reductions must be made, but that does not mean their capabilities are lost. And, because the United States, Russia, the UK, and France all possess the technology, there is a sense that China cannot consider itself a modern nuclear power without it.

Of course, as China steadily pursues MIRVs, it creates an impetus for other nuclear powers in the region to do the same. India is following in China’s footsteps, and Pakistan will not allow India to advance where it cannot.

The influx of new warheads is inherently destabilizing, placing prominence on a strategy of nuclear warfighting. It is contrary to the narrative that nuclear weapons reductions will ensure peace. Consequently, Stimson’s book recommends China, India, and Pakistan take a step back and closely examine the consequences of their pursuit of MIRVs.