Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Case Against a New Arms Race

Photo: Russian nuclear missile during a military parade in Moscow, June 2020 Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Nuclear Weapons Are Not the Future

By Rose Gottemoeller

Foreign Affairs

August 9, 2022 - As Russian President Vladimir Putin marched his army into Ukraine on February 24, he issued dire warnings to the West. Any state that sent its troops to fight Russia, he said, would face “ominous consequences”—the likes of which the world has “never seen in [its] entire history.” His country was ready to act and had made “the necessary decisions” to respond if attacked. “I hope that my words will be heard,” he declared.

Putin didn’t explicitly state what those consequences would be, or what attacks he had in mind. But to anyone listening, the message was clear enough. If the West directly intervened in Ukraine, Russia would use its nuclear arsenal.

Putin’s invocation of nuclear war has reignited debates about deterrence and the utility of nuclear weapons. It has led Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command responsible for nuclear deterrence, to argue that the United States may need more nuclear weapons to deter and defend against Russia and also China, which are both modernizing their nuclear forces. “We do not necessarily have to match weapon for weapon,” he said in March. “But it is clear what we have today is the absolute minimum.” Proponents of a nuclear buildup point out that in the coming years, China could rapidly acquire more nuclear weapons, or that Iran, a newcomer, could develop and deploy them for the first time. The United States, the argument runs, risks weakening its own security if it doesn’t amass a larger nuclear arsenal to maintain its advantage over rivals.

But it would be a mistake for the United States, or any state, to embark on a nuclear arms race during this time, when a revolution is afoot in other types of military technology. New defense innovations promise not just to transform warfare but also to undermine the logic and utility of nuclear weapons. With advances in sensing technology, states may soon be able to track and target their adversaries’ nuclear missiles, making the weapons easier to eliminate. And with nuclear weapons more vulnerable, innovations such as drone swarms—large numbers of small automated weapons that collectively execute a coordinated attack—will increasingly define war. A fixation on building more nuclear weapons will only distract from this technological revolution, making it harder for the United States to master the advances that will shape the battlefield of the future.


Although the Soviet Union considered using nuclear weapons for warfighting, for decades, nuclear weapons have primarily been seen as instruments of deterrence. These bombs, the thinking goes, are so destructive and invite such uncompromising retaliation that their use in wartime imperils the very existence of the human race. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev captured this idea at a 1985 summit when they declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”