The United States and Russia — and before it, the Soviet Union — have been in a nuclear standoff since 1949. This 68-year-old standoff has been very tense at times, such as during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. At other times it’s been defined by cooperation, like when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty into effect in 1988. Today, however, that standoff is about to enter a new, far more dangerous phase.
American high schoolers still often hear the phrase “mutually assured destruction” in their lessons on the Cold War. Mutually assured destruction — or MAD, as it’s commonly known — is when each side in a nuclear standoff knows that the other could destroy it if things went wrong. This “balance of terror” forms the basis of nuclear deterrence. Each side is incentivized to avoid pushing the other too far, since doing so could lead to war. And if they do go to war — even a small war — the possibility that it could escalate to a nuclear war is too great to risk.
The world has changed a great deal in the almost 70 years since 1949, and today it is changing far more rapidly and in more ways than in decades past. This is especially true when it comes to military technology. Nuclear deterrence depends on each side’s ability to persuade the other that it will always be able to strike back. That is, even if the United States launched its missiles first, Russia would still be able to retaliate with enough force to obliterate the United States — or vice versa. But a series of new military technologies are about to enter the field. And when they arrive, they may pose a serious threat to U.S. and Russian secure second-strike capabilities. This could mean the end of MAD.
Cyberspace is always in the news these days — and for good reason. The cyber domain is being contested by militaries all over the world. This could pose a serious threat to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials fear that malicious code could delay the launch of U.S. nuclear missiles just long enough to allow a country like Russia — or maybe China in the future — to wipe them out.
But cyberspace is not the only place where MAD may be under threat. Americans have long looked to outer space as an area for exploration. Today, however, outer space is becoming a new battlefield. The United States especially relies on satellites to conduct military operations around the world. As a result, competitors are looking for ways to disable or destroy U.S. satellites in order to defeat the U.S. military asymmetrically. The problem is that outer space is home to U.S. early-warning and nuclear command-and-control satellites. These systems are extremely vulnerable — and they’re essential parts of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Without them, the United States would be unable to quickly launch nuclear retaliation in the face of a Russian first strike. This could undermine the U.S. second-strike capability.
Other technologies also pose new threats to MAD. Militaries around the world are investing in new directed-energy — or laser — weapons and electromagnetic railguns. If these systems mature, they could be used to shoot large numbers of nuclear missiles out of the sky. States are also investing in hypersonic missiles that can fly faster than Mach 6. If these missiles are ever produced in large enough quantities, they might allow states to destroy one another’s nuclear arsenals before the victim has a chance to respond. And then there are robots. Advanced nations like the United States, Russia, and China are working quickly to harness automation for military purposes. Automation could allow states to target one another’s nuclear arsenals in entirely new ways. For instance, states might eventually be able to use large swarms of robotic submarines to find and destroy enemy nuclear submarines.
Americans have long looked to outer space as an area for exploration. Today, however, outer space is becoming a new battlefield.
If MAD fails — or if states think it could fail — it would dramatically raise the risk of nuclear war. If Russia, for instance, thinks the United States is about to acquire the ability to neutralize its nuclear deterrent, then it has every incentive to take drastic action to preempt that outcome. That could mean using nuclear weapons early on in a conflict to try to frighten the United States into backing down. This may all sound theoretical. But it is not. Mounting evidence shows that this is precisely what many Russian strategists — and possibly Chinese ones — are calling for today.
Nuclear weapons themselves are not necessarily the problem. The states that control them are. And if those states are frightened enough, then they are liable to take very dangerous risks — risks that could trigger nuclear war. The assured ability of nuclear-armed states to retaliate and thereby deter enemy aggression in the first place has long kept those fears in check. But 1949 is long past. To avoid nuclear war today will require new ways of thinking about nuclear deterrence and, above all, preserving MAD.
— Alexander Velez-Green (@Alex_agvg) is a research associate with the defense strategies and assessments program at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of CNAS’s recent report The Unsettling View from Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Pre-emption.