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US Army War College

Henry D. Sokolski – Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future

Released  5 May 2022.

Does it matter if more countries have nuclear weapons? Will the weaponization of space make nuclear weapons less of a threat or even obsolete?  In this podcast, author Henry D. Sokolski gives an overview of his monograph, Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, and explores potential future nuclear trends.

Click here to read the monograph.

Keywords: strategy, nuclear energy, drones, nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles

Episode Transcript

 Stephanie Crider (Host)

(Prerecorded Decisive Point intro) Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:

(Guest 1: Henry D. Sokolski)

 (Host)

Decisive Point welcomes Mr. Henry D. Sokolski, author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, published by the US Army War College Press in 2018. Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, DC. He previously served in the Senate as a nuclear military legislative aide, in the Pentagon as deputy for nonproliferation policy, and as a full-time consultant on proliferation issues in the secretary of defense’s Office of Net Assessment.

Welcome, Henry. Let’s dive right in. In your 2018 book Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (Second Edition), you cover a lot of ground. Please give our listeners a brief overview of the book.

(Sokolski)

The reason I wrote the book was, you know, any serious social scientific field—economics, demographics, political science—they all use what they know about the past to give you a bird’s-eye view of what they think the future will be. And I noticed that there was really no book that took the matter of nuclear weapons and projected into the future. The military science, if you will, of nuclear proliferation was a blank sheet.

I took it upon myself to try to take a look at maybe, you know, a half-century, a little more than a half-century, and asked, you know, “What trends do we see?” And based on those trends, and assuming they continue, where are we going to be, you know, in 10 or 20 years? So, I focused on, detailed, four trends. And the trends that I found that were interesting is that the difference between the largest and smallest nuclear weapons arsenals has gotten much, much smaller. It used to be that what we had, which was at one point, during the Cuban missile crisis, 25,000 nuclear weapons, was easily an order of magnitude more than what the Russians had, which was 2,500, and what they had was again another order of magnitude more than the British had—actually two orders of magnitude. So there was, like, a thousandfold difference between the largest arsenal and the smallest at the time.

Now the difference is about one order of magnitude. Russia and the United States have thousands. The smallest arsenals that we know of now are about 100 or thereabouts.

Another trend is that the amount of surplus weapons and civilian materials that could be quickly converted into bombs—that’s highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium—there used to be almost zero. Everything that we had and the Russians had went immediately into weapons. There was very little civilian activity in the way of power reactors. And so, there wasn’t a civilian stockpile or any surpluses. Everything went into weapons. Or naval reactors.

Well, that’s changed. Now there’s tens of thousands of bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. Not only in military stockpiles on reserve in the United States, Russia, France, and Great Britain, but there is civilian stockpiles of separated plutonium in places like Japan. And you can change or convert this material into weapons reasonably quickly. And you’re talking about thousands of weapons’ worth. Well, that’s different, and that’s new.

The third trend was the ability to make this stuff. It used to be there was only two places: Russia and the United States. Well, three. And Great Britain. Well, now there’s lots of places, comparatively, that are separating plutonium or enriching uranium. The ability to make a large amount of this stuff reasonably quickly with these machines and plans is totally new compared to half-century or so ago.

And then, finally, the number of states that have long-range, nuclear-capable missiles has changed. It used to be Russia and the United States were the only ones that had them. And now 31 nations have them.

And if you take the range yards of these missiles, and you just draw them from where they’re based, it’s very disturbing where they overlap. They overlap in places where there’s a history of war or fear and loathing of wars: Eastern Europe, Middle East, Pakistan, India, and East Asia.

Well, that’s new as well. So reviewing these trends I sort of concluded that it was a mistake to celebrate how relatively fewer nuclear weapons there are, and there are a lot fewer. I mean, we got rid of, and the Russians got rid of, at least for deployed weapons, we had up to, together, something like 70,000 weapons. Well, today that number is several thousand. So there’s a big reduction.

And a lot of people celebrate that, and they should. And people say, “Well, OK, there are a few more nuclear states than there were in 1950.” There are now nine, but that’s not too bad. I think emphasizing those points may be less than a complete thought. The reason why is this could change far more quickly today than at any time previously.

You know those trends that I mentioned suggest that it only takes a few short years for the countries that have nuclear weapons to get a whole lot more, and countries that don’t have nuclear weapons to get not just, like, one or two, but, you know, maybe several score of them relatively quickly.

Let’s add to this. They have a way of delivering these things to trouble spots and getting dragged into wars in trouble spots. And then you can add, there are some trends towards launching on warning, and certainly we’ve read about this recently in the case of China, and I think it’s been our policy in the US for at least a decade or two or three to probably do that ourselves.

There certainly are doctrines for early use of nuclear weapons in places like Russia and Pakistan, possibly North Korea. Now all of this kind of makes you a little worried, I think, or it should, and I thought, “Well, this is an important message.”

Now I don’t think any of the worst nuclear use or spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable. And I made some recommendations in the book principally focused on China, which at the time was considered a little edgy.

I originally wrote this book about a decade ago. When I say, “the book,” or at least those two chapters—I wrote a version of it in an article or two.

What really stunned me is how little attention my arguments had or got. At the time, going to zero was all the rage. So I decided to do another chapter on what other people thought. And there are three categories of thinkers. There are arms controllers who oppose nuclear weapons and see their spread as destabilizing. They want these things to be eliminated. The next group are the supporters of nuclear weapons. I guess you would call these people “hawks.” And they see the weapons, at least in current hands, as somehow stabilizing because deterrence. And they oppose the spread as well, but they say, “Well,  if they’re friends, maybe it’s OK.” Then, finally, there’s academics. This group sees the spread of nuclear weapons to all nations either as stabilizing or inconsequential.

The other thing that was odd was that it didn’t matter which group you looked at; none of them really said the commonsensical thing. And I think anyone would say, if they were untutored in these matters, and what would they say? Well, fewer weapons in fewer hands is better, but it’s really risky. You got to know what everyone’s doing. And if you don’t, you might not want to get rid of yours.

(Host)

What in the book has held up well?

(Sokolski)

Well, I guess the short answer is a lot. Quite an extensive discussion in the book about two trends that needed practical policy attention and were focused upon in the recommendation section. One of the trends that I highlight is this spread and the further building of facilities in support of what’s called “a fast reactor.” And these machines are designed to use fast neutrons. It is a terrific machine if you want to make weapons. I noticed that this idea was something that the Chinese were toying with, the Russians had played with a lot. We have put it aside until recently, and it has enormous military applications. You get into this, and the breakout period and the amount of material that you can convert into bombs, in the first instance, will be very short. And there’ll be a lot of material. Do you really want to go down this route unless it’s clearly economic, which it clearly is not. I then focused a little bit on China. If you get the latest copy of China Military Power from the Pentagon—they do this annually—it cites a Western think tank that did a study pointing out just how many nuclear weapons China could have in about eight years if it exploited its civil nuclear program with regard to fast reactors and the recycling of the material.

Well, the numbers were stunning, even under conservative assumptions. And they cited those numbers and took them on and made them official. And the number was at least 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030, which is not that many years from now. That puts China roughly with the United States and Russia, as far as the number of deployed strategic warheads, possibly.

And of course, we’ve seen, recently, photographs where they’ve made 350 silos. We’re now worried about this, so that projection of that concern in the book from a decade ago turned out to be pretty good.

(Host)

What has changed since then that deserves mention?

(Sokolski)

In the second edition, I touch upon forms of diplomacy that might make sense. I’m not sure how viable those forms of diplomacy are now, given the bad relations with China and with Russia. Maybe that’s wrong. I think you’re still going to have to have diplomatic positions on the controllers. Strategic weaponry, if only to have a position that you and your allies can unify around and to identify bad behavior that even if the Russians and Chinese don’t agree to, they will know that we will take umbrage if they go over certain lines.

More important than what may or may not be found is what was missing. There was some discussion in that diplomatic section of what would constitute bad behavior in space. You know, maybe we want to start saying, “You can’t get your satellites very close to our most important military satellites.” Maybe we need safety zones, or they sometimes call them “keep-out zones” or “defense zones.” I don’t think it was a complete thought in the book though. And what wasn’t a complete thought was—let me be clear—was that space technology and missile technology has become very accurate and very plentiful and very widely available in the form of drones, if not ballistic missiles. Those developments, I think, may be really important to thinking about the future of nuclear weapons. Let me explain.

In 1915, at Passchendaele, the killer app, the strategic weapon par excellence, was chemical weapons. Seventy-five years later, it was so far into the background—we have them, but nobody thought we would use them that much . . . was not considered to be the top-dog strategic weapon anymore. During the 20s, we imagined that chemical weapons would be dropped by airplanes and decide the war overnight.

None of that ultimately was the case. Similarly, in 1915, battleships were the thing. But certainly, after the Second World War, battleships were nothing as compared to aircraft carriers. So what happens is military science changes what is militarily or strategically important as a weapon. And the question is: Could that happen with regard to nuclear weapons? I think, to some extent, it’s actually happening. In the case of space, what’s happening is the front lines of strategic deterrence are gravitating away from the surface of the Earth into space.

Our eyes, ears, voices, and our nervous system for both our civil and military systems on the ground are all based in space. If we lose access to those things or those things are  disabled, it doesn’t matter what our military strength on the ground is, nuclear or nonnuclear.

And so I think the opening rounds of combat in the future may very well be in space. Now, you could say that’s kind of good news because, first, we have an advantage there that I think we can exploit. But, in addition, you’re not killing people.

The model for nuclear weapons, after all, came from the air-war series of the 1920s. And that was if you could bomb away the military capital; the industrial capital; and maybe, literally, the capital—political capital—of the country, and do that quickly with bombers, you would win.

And if you could threaten to do that credibly, you could get your way without fighting. Well, we’re moving toward new forms of warfare where you could disable a nation without doing that level of decimation. We’re seeing this a little bit in the Ukraine war, although the Russians are behaving as though it’s medieval period and they’re in siege tactics. But the Ukrainians are taking out individual generals with drones; they’re taking out tanks and armor with individual drones which are highly precise. And they’re using intelligence to maintain control of the narrative of the war. It is far less destructive a war. If we are moving in that direction, precision and space-based advanced systems and control of space become terribly important in a way that might make nuclear weapons about as relevant as the top weapon as chemical weapons became after the Second World War, which is to say a lot less. Now, that’s a pretty optimistic view, but I think it has to be articulated, and I don’t think it was before.

(Host)

You’ve written several things on new-generation warfare and precision strike. How might they alter the key points of your book?

(Sokolski)

Yes. One article was “Doctor Strangelove’s New Passion: Precision-Guided Mayhem,” which talks about the revolution in precision guidance and how original theories about it may have been a little off. And the second was something called, “Are We Ready for the Next Convulsion?” I don’t think the book did justice to any of those things because I don’t think I had those thoughts.

(Host)

It’s incredible how quickly these things evolve.

(Sokolski)

The Russians were writing about new-generation warfare for some time. What’s odd is that we thought they were masters of disinforming, spooking folks, using precision-guided munitions to take out certain nodes and that they would show this in the war against Ukraine. Well, that didn’t happen. But they had been writing about that for some time. I was not familiar with that literature, and I think, to be honest, it was a little confusing when I did read it, and so it was easy not to understand it, but I think maybe we didn’t pay enough attention to it ourselves, and now we are.

(Host)

The clock has run out on us, I’m afraid. This was a pleasure, Henry.

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Author information:
Henry D. Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Washington, DC. He previously served in the Senate as a nuclear and military legislative aide, in the Pentagon as Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy, and as a full-time consultant on proliferation issues in the Secretary of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. Mr. Sokolski also served as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Advisory Group, on two Congressional nuclear proliferation commissions, and has authored and edited numerous volumes on strategic weapons proliferation, including Best of Intentions: America’s Campaign against Strategic Weapons Proliferation.

If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or any other major podcasting platform.