China’s New Orbital Weapon Underlines That Nuclear Peace Requires Arms Control

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the … [+] 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. Trucks carrying weapons including a nuclear-armed missile designed to evade U.S. defenses rumbled through Beijing as the Communist Party celebrated its 70th anniversary in power with a parade Tuesday that showcased China’s ambition as a rising global force.


China is rapidly increasing the size of its missile forces. Beijing has tested a missile system that can orbit the Earth and then deliver nuclear weapons in ways that missile defenses cannot possibly deal with – a new “Sputnik moment” or close to it, according to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Russia is also testing novel ways to deliver nuclear weapons and upgrading its deterrent. Where are we headed? How bad will arms racing become? Is there any hope for nuclear peace?

The words “nuclear peace” are not in common usage. They sound otherworldly and wildly improbable. When the Bomb first appeared, most people felt as we do now – anxious, intensely vulnerable, pessimistic, and resigned. There seemed to be no way to prevent mushroom clouds from destroying more cities and no way forward to establishing conditions for nuclear peace. And yet, generations of dedicated effort established the conditions for a lasting nuclear peace when the Cold War ended. Then U.S. and Russian leaders decided that hard won gains were unnecessary and inconvenient, and threw them away. 

I tell this story in my book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. My book has two central messages. The first is that deterrence is dangerous by design and is prone to failure. Without arms control, we face a nuclear future that ranges between perilous and catastrophic. Nuclear peace requires arms control. My second message is that previous generations succeeded against the odds to establish conditions for nuclear peace. We can, too.

After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. officials tried three different ways to seek nuclear peace. The first was abolition. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the gifted and tragic figure who harnessed the geniuses assembled at Los Alamos in order to create workable bomb designs, turned his attention afterward to devise a plan for international control. His logic was unarguable: if the means of producing nuclear weapons could be placed under reliable international control, abolition was possible. His thirty-page plan was brilliant in conception but impossible to execute as an Iron Curtain was descending across Europe. 

With abolition well beyond reach, U.S. officials pivoted quickly to the pursuit of dominance to ensure nuclear peace. If Washington maintained a wide quantitative and qualitative lead over Moscow – or so official thinking went — the Kremlin would be foolish to upset the peace. The weaknesses of this approach were soon apparent. The Kremlin had the means to compete, dominance couldn’t prevent terrible U.S. losses, and the Cold War competition continued unabated below the nuclear threshold.

The pursuit of dominance then became intertwined with the concept of deterrence to maintain nuclear peace – or at the very least, to prevent nuclear war. Strategists soon endorsed Winston Churchill’s observation that safety could become the sturdy stepchild of terror. 

Deterrence, however, was much less sturdy than advertised. It repeatedly needed to be strengthened; otherwise, we were told, it would cease to deter. The more it was strengthened, the more dangerous deterrence became, and the more it looked like the pursuit of dominance.

The concept and practice of arms control were introduced during the John F. Kennedy administration. Arms control was devised to take the sharpest edges off deterrence, thereby helping to prevent nuclear war. Ten months after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev agreed to a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests, a clear public health hazard pursued by the dictates of deterrence.

Then began a procession of U.S. and Soviet leaders – every pairing an odd couple – that tried to control strategic arms. There was, however, little reassurance to accompany strengthened deterrence until Ronald Reagan was paired with Mikhail Gorbachev. Both had little regard for deterrence orthodoxy, and both were abolitionists at heart. Their Reykjavik summit ushered in a golden decade for arms control, including a raft of treaties that seemingly set the conditions for lasting nuclear peace. 

One essential condition for nuclear peace was guardrails, limits, and reductions on the dictates of deterrence through arms control. Until conditions for abolition are in view, which seems to be a long way off, deterrence needs to be tamed by arms control. Another reason for combining deterrence and arms control is that both can fail. Nuclear deterrence hasn’t prevented border clashes between China and India and between India and Pakistan. Worse, there have already been two limited border wars between nuclear-armed rivals – the Soviet Union and China in 1969 and India and Pakistan in 1999. Arms control can also fail, such as when Vladimir Putin decided to flight test and deploy missiles banned by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Both deterrence and arms control are stronger when they are linked. 

Other essential conditions for nuclear peace are the norm of not using nuclear weapons in warfare, respecting the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of others, and designing nuclear forces so they convey deterrence but not war-fighting messages. If nuclear-armed rivals seek nuclear peace, they are also obliged to accept national vulnerability; otherwise, deterrence will become increasingly dangerous. Nuclear peace also requires the absence of nuclear proliferation and nuclear testing. Further proliferation will increase the number of nuclear-armed rivals which increases the probability of mushroom clouds. Extending the two-decade-long moratoria on nuclear testing by major and regional powers is essential because every test is a declaration of military utility. 

The conditions for lasting nuclear peace were in place when the Soviet Union dissolved. Unfortunately, the conditions for the demise of arms control were, too. During the Cold War, nuclear arms control with Russia was enabled by bipartisanship and based on parity, mutual vulnerability, and respect for borders. After the Cold War, bipartisanship atrophied, parity was a fiction, and vulnerability became something to be avoided at all costs after 9/11. Over time, NATO expanded, Putin pushed back, trashing the national sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine. Arms control began its downhill slide when George W. Bush was paired with Putin.

Nuclear peace now seems very distant with Russia, and even more distant with China. What China is doing isn’t new, however. The orbital bombardment system it just tested is a throwback to the 1960s. The build-out of its land-based missiles also harkens back to the Johnson and Nixon administrations, when the Kremlin was playing catch-up in anticipation of strategic arms limitation talks.

We’ve been here before. It will take another multi-generational effort to reestablish conditions for nuclear peace. We don’t have to start from scratch because we have a roadmap. We also have key elements of success in place, thanks to the seven-decade-plus norm of no mushroom clouds in warfare, backed up by the norm of no testing. 

We have a long way to go. The first order of business is to lengthen and strengthen the norms we need to live by. Perhaps it will take a harrowing crisis to get back on track. But sooner or later, U.S., Chinese, and Russian leaders will act on the recognition that deterrence alone is too dangerous, and that arms control has to be revived if there is to be nuclear peace — or at least the absence of nuclear war.

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