The Second Coming of MIRVs

If the Pentagon is to be believed, the second coming of MIRVs is upon us, this time in Asia, with China’s deployment of the DF-5B missile. The advent of MIRVs in the first nuclear age was ruinous to prospects for keeping a tight lid on the superpower strategic arms competition. Once the barn doors were opened to MIRVs in the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement, the best that Washington and Moscow could do two years later was to limit them to 1,320 delivery vehicles in the Vladivostok Accord.

The generosity of the Vladivostok provisions reinforced each side’s concerns over being disadvantaged by rapidly ballooning prompt hard-target-kill capabilities. The SALT process never really recovered from MIRVing, despite the Carter Administration’s attempts at damage limitation.

The second coming of MIRVs in Asia won’t be anything like the first. China has systematically carried out strategic modernization programs at an extraordinarily slow pace. If China continues this slow pace with respect to MIRVing, Beijing could increase its missile warhead totals to between 100-200 warheads over the next 10-15 years.

The lower end of this range seems more likely, but much will depend on US missile defense deployments and the state of bilateral relations. Compare these numbers to the thousands of warheads the United States and the Soviet Union added to their war-fighting capabilities as a result of MIRVs, and the Chinese program will seem pretty modest by comparison.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that any additional source of incremental stockpile growth will cause perturbations in Asia. China, India, and Pakistan are already flight-testing a panoply of new ballistic and cruise missiles. Their complex, interactive, triangular nuclear competition will ratchet upwards with the advent of MIRVs.

Even without the deployment in Asia of a just one multiple-warhead-tipped missile, the combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, China and India could grow by around 250 warheads over the next ten years — if current trends continue.

Even without the deployment in Asia of a just one multiple-warhead-tipped missile, the combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, China and India could grow by about 375 warheads over the next fifteen years — again, given current trends.

If China proceeds with MIRVing, there will be added ripple effects. A new Stimson Center book, The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, to be released on Monday, explores them. India most definitely has the capability to MIRV. Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran, the authors of the India chapter in Stimson’s book, predict that India will follow China down this path. They estimate that New Delhi, like Beijing, will move at a slow pace.

The authors of the Pakistan chapter, Feroz H. Khan and Mansoor Ahmed, predict that if India MIRVs, Pakistan will also place multiple warheads on some of its missiles. Pakistan takes its nuclear-weapon requirements more seriously than India. Its military has, for example, articulated a “counterforce” rationale for its shortest- and longest-range missiles. (Counterforce targeting, as hard-core readers of ACW know, focuses on military-related designated ground zeroes, of which there are many.) Toby Dalton and I have estimated in A Normal Nuclear Pakistan that Pakistan is out-competing India in producing new warheads. But Pakistan, whose economy is nine times smaller than India, would face constraints in ramping up warhead production even more.

The prospects for negotiating a ban or serious constraints on MIRVing in Asia are as poor as during the first nuclear age. At present, there are no meaningful conversations on nuclear risk-reduction between China and India or between India and Pakistan. Bilateral or trilateral treaties are not in the cards.

The most important restraints are self-imposed. China and India have not bought into US and Soviet/Russian concepts of deterrence that rely on nuclear war-fighting capabilities. Nor have they bought into the necessity of counterforce targeting. Both China and India have adopted “No First Use” pledges. They have moved slowly to upgrade their nuclear forces. They do not use nuclear weapons to project power or to leverage diplomatic objectives. While Rawalpindi follows the beat of a different drummer, Beijing and New Delhi are more relaxed about their nuclear requirements, focusing on economic growth as the key to their national strength and domestic tranquility.

Chinese and Indian strategic concepts provide a necessary foundation for strategic restraint. This foundation is insufficient, however. Nuclear stockpiles and capabilities will continue to grow, and more growth is in the offing with MIRVs.

What’s missing is substantive engagement on strategic issues between China and India and between India and Pakistan. Also missing is nuclear risk-reduction and confidence-building measures. China and India have yet to negotiate their first nuclear risk-reduction measure. The last India-Pakistan nuclear risk-reduction measure was negotiated in 2007. When Indian leaders have sought to improve relations with Pakistan, explosions in India have followed, carried out by groups that are not terribly inconvenienced by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services or judicial proceedings.

The second coming of MIRVs in Asia – in addition to new ballistic and cruise missiles – places a greater obligation on national leaders to exercise strategic restraint and to take steps to reduce nuclear dangers. The key to strategic restraint with the second coming of MIRVs is to avoid the pursuit of counterforce capabilities. As Washington and Moscow have so clearly demonstrated, once going down this particular rabbit hole, there is a bottomless pit of targeting requirements.

The article was originally published on Arms Control Wonk