International platform for disarmament and non-proliferation dialogue, research and education

Modern Conventional Weapons and Nuclear Disarmament

Dr. Nikolai Sokov, Senior Fellow, CNS

On 23 June 2017, the VCDNP hosted a seminar on “Modern Conventional Weapons and Nuclear Disarmament,” by Nikolai Sokov, Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. The seminar examined the proliferation of long-range precision-guided conventional weapons and the potential impact these weapons could have on the prospects for nuclear disarmament. The discussion was moderated by Laura Rockwood, VCDNP Executive Director, and followed by a question and answer period.

At the outset of his presentation, Dr. Sokov challenged two divergent beliefs about nuclear disarmament: one categorically asserts that the elimination of nuclear weapons will make the world safer; the other claims that the elimination of nuclear weapons will make large-scale conventional war more likely. The speaker did not wholeheartedly agree with either of these camps, highlighting that, while one downplays the consequences of a non-nuclear war, the other implies that nuclear weapons should be preserved permanently. The speaker asserted that a middle ground must be found.

Carl von Clausewitz’s famous aphorism stating that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” no longer seemed to be relevant during the Cold War, since nuclear weapons were not suitable tools for pursuing a proactive foreign policy and conventional weapons could not yield tangible results without avoiding high collateral damage. The speaker highlighted how this situation changed during the Gulf War, when high-precision conventional long‑range strike assets were used without causing high collateral damage, thus bringing military power back into international relations. The United States’ superiority in the realm of conventional weapons lasted for 25 years, until Russia acquired a similar capability in 2015. Since China and India are moving on a similar path, the nature of international politics is bound to undergo substantial long-term changes: perhaps the most significant change will be an increased irrelevance of geographical distances as countries acquire the capability to launch intercontinental strategic strikes from their own territories with little or no warning time. However, the extent to which humans will continue to be involved in the decision-making process of launching such strikes remains to be seen.

These developments could halt nuclear disarmament talks and even lead some non-nuclear-weapon States to consider acquiring nuclear weapons, which have come to be known as “the conventional weapons of the poor,” as a deterrent against technologically advanced conventional weapons. The “big questions” that remain unresolved are: (1) whether Russia will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy once it achieves full capability in the area of advanced conventional weapons; and (2) whether the United States will, conversely, enhance its reliance on nuclear weapons. The speaker noted that, while we currently do not know what will happen, there is reason to believe that either of these developments could take place. The main risk he identified was an imbalance in conventional and nuclear capabilities, which could lead to less caution when using advanced non-nuclear weapons, creating an escalatory dynamic involving nuclear weapons. Given the uncertainty of the future, the speaker concluded that arms control mechanisms needed to also address advanced conventional weapons along with nuclear weapons in order to maintain sustainability in the long term.

The question and answer period was dominated by a discussion of the state of relations between the United States and Russia. The speaker suggested that the Vienna Document of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe could be expanded in order to enhance transparency with respect to conventional weapons. There was general agreement that the current political environment is not conducive to new arms control negotiations, with neither country seeming to have an interest in pursuing such discussions. It was remarked that it might be easier for the United States and Russia to eliminate their nuclear weapons than to stop their mutually hostile propaganda.

The seminar left participants with “food for thought” on the need to include conventional arms when discussing deterrence, and to assess the implications of emerging security threats, such as those posed by the proliferation of long-range precision-guided conventional weapons, which have received little attention.

For more information consult Dr. Sokov’s seminar presentation available here.