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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 115. The Future of Nuclear Warfare

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As the world stands on the brink of a new era in nuclear warfare, attention now shifts to the United States' ambitious modernisation programs and the burgeoning arms race in nuclear weapons development. This surge in advancement raises pivotal questions about the future of global security, the balance of power, and the implications of cutting-edge atomic technologies. Yet, these moves also ignites an international arms race, with nations scrambling to not only match but surpass each other's nuclear capabilities. Amid this whirlwind of technological escalation and strategic repositioning, the essential question arises: How will the United States navigate this new nuclear landscape, balance the thin line between deterrence and aggression, and what implications will this arms race have for global peace? To dissect these complex issues, we ask our panel of experts.




PART I: Atoms and Arsenals - (05:30)

with Andrew Futter

- Prof of International Politics at the University of Leicester

- Author of "The Politics of Nuclear Weapons"

- Head of the "Third Nuclear Age Project"

  1. Global Nuclear Landscape Evolution: The end of the Cold War marked a significant reduction in nuclear arsenals, but recent developments indicate a shift towards a "third nuclear age" characterized by increased nuclear actors, competition, and the re-emergence of nuclear weapons' importance. This shift suggests a more complex and potentially dangerous global security environment with more actors and uncertainties.

  2. Modernization of Nuclear Arsenals: Major nuclear powers, notably the US and the UK, are undergoing significant overhauls of their nuclear forces, including replacing outdated systems with more capable and stealthy ones. This modernization is driven by the need to maintain credible deterrence capabilities in light of adversaries' advancements in anti-nuclear defenses.

  3. Strategic Shifts and Doctrinal Ambiguities: The potential abandonment of the "no first use" policy by China and the strategic motivations behind nuclear stockpile expansions reflect evolving nuclear doctrines. These changes, coupled with the inherent ambiguity in nuclear strategies, complicate the predictability of state behavior in crisis scenarios, raising concerns about miscalculation and escalation.

  4. Impact of Additional Nuclear States: The entry of new nuclear actors like India, Pakistan, North Korea, and potentially Iran introduces additional complexity into the global nuclear order. These developments could make the geopolitical landscape more volatile, as regional tensions and proliferation risks increase.

  5. Deterrence, Defense Technologies, and Strategic Stability: Advances in missile defense systems and space-based nuclear capabilities challenge the traditional balance of power underpinned by mutually assured destruction (MAD). These technologies could destabilize strategic stability by creating perceptions of vulnerability or invulnerability, potentially prompting arms races and undermining efforts towards nuclear disarmament.

PART II: Mutually Assured Construction - (26:59)

with William Alberque

- Dir. of Strategy, Technology and Arms Control at IISS

- Dir. for NATO's Arms Control Disarmament and WMD Proliferation Center

- Arms Control and Proliferation Expert

  1. Innovation in Nuclear Delivery Systems: The primary advancements in nuclear weapon technology have shifted from the warheads themselves to the delivery mechanisms. This includes faster, stealthier missiles capable of traveling thousands of kilometers, and the exploration of space-based delivery vehicles by nations such as China and potentially Russia. These innovations aim to bypass missile defenses and provide less warning time to the target, enhancing the first-strike capability.

  2. Modernization and Arms Race Dynamics: Russia has significantly advanced in modernizing its strategic nuclear forces with new ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, positioning itself ahead in the current nuclear arms race. Conversely, the United States has lagged in modernizing its nuclear infrastructure, a neglect that began post-Cold War and has resulted in a pressing need to catch up, as evidenced by the development of the Sentinel missile system. China's efforts in nuclear capabilities, particularly through the development of plutonium-producing reactors, indicate a potential future escalation in their nuclear arsenal.

  3. Challenges in Nuclear Arsenal Maintenance: The United States faces significant challenges in maintaining its nuclear arsenal, notably in the production of nuclear pits and the acquisition of tritium, essential components of nuclear weapons. The aging of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the closure of production facilities at the end of the Cold War have led to a bottleneck in production capabilities, risking the safety and stability of the arsenal.

  4. Cybersecurity and Technological Transition Concerns: As the U.S. transitions from outdated technologies (e.g., floppy disks) to more modern missile systems, cybersecurity emerges as a critical concern. Ensuring the security of these new systems against cyber threats is paramount, highlighting the need for a balance between adopting new technologies and maintaining secure and reliable deterrent capabilities.

  5. Psychological and Strategic Aspects of Nuclear Deterrence: The diversity of delivery systems and the size of nuclear arsenals are as much about the psychological aspects of deterrence and assurance as they are about strategic military needs. The numerical strength of an arsenal, along with the variety of delivery platforms, plays a crucial role in deterring adversaries and reassuring allies. This complexity underscores the importance of nuclear weapons in preventing major conventional wars through a balance of power and the threat of mutual assured destruction.

PART III: Power Vs Peace - (49:36)

with Donald N. Jensen

- Snr Advisor for Russia and Europe at the USIP

- Fmr US Diplomat based in Moscow

- Member of the First 10-Man Nuclear Inspection Team into the USSR

  1. Strategic Nuclear Force Prioritization: Russia continues to prioritize its strategic nuclear forces as a counterbalance to perceived conventional military disadvantages against NATO. Despite reductions from Cold War levels, Russia's military-industrial complex maintains a significant capacity for nuclear arms production, unlike the U.S., which scaled back its nuclear arms production in the late 80s and 90s. This prioritization reflects a strategic emphasis on nuclear deterrence due to technological and resource constraints.

  2. Shift in Nuclear Warhead Yield Strategy: Both the U.S. and Russia have transitioned from deploying larger-yield nuclear warheads to smaller, more precise ones. This shift reflects technological advancements allowing for more accurate delivery systems, reducing the need for larger yields to ensure target destruction. The trend towards smaller yields is also indicative of a strategic preference for minimizing collateral damage and controlling escalation in nuclear engagements.

  3. Technological Advancements and Delivery Systems: Russia is investing in modernizing its strategic nuclear forces and developing advanced delivery systems, including long-range hypervelocity and space weapons. This diversification of delivery platforms, including submarine-launched missiles, mobile missile systems, and strategic bombers, aims to ensure survivability and flexibility in nuclear force projection.

  4. Future Nuclear Arms Control Negotiations: There is openness to future nuclear arms control negotiations, similar to a potential "START III" treaty, between Russia and the U.S. Such agreements are viewed as beneficial for establishing predictability and allowing for strategic planning. However, the multifaceted nature of modern security challenges, including advancements in space weaponry and non-nuclear strategic weapons, underscores the complexity of achieving comprehensive arms control.

  5. Multi-Dimensional Warfare and Security Challenges: The dialogue highlights the increasingly multi-dimensional nature of warfare and security challenges, particularly from Russia's perspective. This includes the use of satellite weaponry and other non-traditional means of engagement. The nuanced Russian view of war and peace, which does not strictly adhere to Western dichotomies, suggests a complex and evolving security environment that extends beyond traditional nuclear deterrence paradigms.

The Future of Nuclear Warfare

(Released February 22nd 2024)



I: The Politics of Nuclear Weapons

- By Andrew Futter

II: A Technical History of America's Nuclear Weapons

- By Peter A Goetz

III: Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy

- By Matthew Fuhrmann and Todd S. Sechser


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This episode is dedicated to our Patreon members: Bartek, Adam Kalyniuk, Gavin Thomson, Tanith, Vadim Kovalskiy, JAGormley, Phil Aubin, Dave Edmonds, Rahul, and Nathaniel Dennis


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