SAV Review Series: Learning from the U.S. Pursuit of Counterforce and MIRVs

Review of “The Geopolitical Origins of U.S. Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs” by Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long in The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age

Chapter Summary

The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age attempts to extrapolate from the Cold War hard-target-kill (HTK) strategy to the geostrategic context of southern Asia and its potential cascading effects. The study assumes that the harbinger of the race for HTK capability will be China followed by India and then Pakistan, which is “most susceptible to this [action-reaction] dynamic as it seeks to keep pace with India” (p. 197). More importantly, given the absence of any treaty constraints in southern Asia, the editors contend that “there are no realistic prospects for banning multiple-warhead missiles” and introspectively argue that “modest increments in multiple-warhead missiles… will ratchet up the triangular, interactive nuclear competition in Asia” (p. 8).

Premised on these assumptions, Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long – the authors of the U.S. retrospective chapter entitled “The Geopolitical Origins of U.S. Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs” – scrupulously delve into the nuances in America’s policy decisions on strategic stability, HTK counterforce, doctrinal changes, etc. during successive administrations from Nixon to Carter. According to the authors, the “domestic political forces and the military played an important, but mostly secondary, role” in lobbying for multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and HTK (p. 25). When Congress was divided on the issue leading to project delays, only the executive branch was advocating for these capabilities.

The rationale behind many U.S. policymakers support for HTK capabilities, as the authors say, was their actual political and deterrence utility, which helped maintain perceptions of the strategic balance in the United States favor. Consequently, both superpowers’ reluctance to negotiate “serious limitations on MIRVs and missile modifications” greatly worsened the counterforce calculus of both sides (p. 24), proving the objective of strategic stability an illusion. At the end, the authors give a clarion call to southern Asian nations to draw lessons from the Cold War experience as “there are some enduring similarities” between the two environments (p. 48).

Convincing Arguments

Green and Long have comprehensively dealt with the U.S. domestic-political–military orientations to maintain a favorable strategic stability vis-a-vis USSR. Most pertinent is the authors’ assertion that “the objective of strategic stability proved illusory” (p. 19). Despite arms control initiatives, both superpowers remained vulnerable to each others’ capability to destroy each other, largely owing to the advent of MIRVs, powerful warhead yields, and improved missile accuracy. Similar to the case of the emergence of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in the Cold War, the advent of MIRVs in Asia are likely to undermine strategic stability. Undoubtedly, the southern Asian decisionmakers must draw lessons from this Cold War experience.

Equally important is their assertion that the “second nuclear age” in vogue is not similar to the first one. Given that “stronger impulses for strategic modernization programs reside in the international environment” (p. 48) today, the checks and balances at the domestic level would fail leaving little space for crisis management. Therefore, the authors suggest the Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani decisionmakers to be wary of HTK strategy.

Reasoned Critique

The authors have undoubtedly given a comprehensive account of the U.S. decisionmaking on the HTK capabilities, but theirs cannot be the final words. Frist, the watertight compartmentalization of domestic and international domain – and bestowing one domain premium over the other – is not feasible if one applies Robert Putnam’s Two-Level Game Theory. The domestic-international interface is constant and complex affair, extremely difficult to fathom in black and white.

A second discussion that is missing from Green and Long’s analysis is the role of the linkage between political leadership and scientific community, the lobby for specific program funding, etc. The authors could have specified in the beginning that this chapter focuses only on the domestic political dynamics, as a separate chapter is devoted to enquire about the role of the research and development establishment.

Third, Green and Long’s analysis suffers from an over-concerned parallelism in drawing comparisons to the South Asian context. Often Western scholars are pessimistic about Indo-Pak nuclear balance. As I stated in my 2006 book review of Rajesh Rajagopalan’s Second Strike: Arguments About Nuclear War in South Asia, “nuclearized South Asia is a reality with a reasonable nuclear stability, invalidating the conventional wisdom that the region is on the verge of a nuclear warfare… Contrary to their belief, this region has experienced relative nuclear stability and the chances of nuclear war between India and Pakistan are remote… This protracted nuclear peace, argues Rajagopalan in the book, is an offshoot of the nuclear doctrines India and Pakistan have adhered to and the consequent functioning of ‘existential deterrence’ between them.” Even if both sides embrace counterforce targeting capability, they will learn to live with it as nuclear deterrence logic is well understood by the southern Asian nuclear neighbours. In any case, the line between counterforce and countervalue target is extremely thin in this part of the world because of their close proximity.

Fourth, as far as China is concerned, the understanding in vogue in India at the highest political levels is that: (1) India neither “see itself in competition with China” nor “see itself as in competition with any country” in any sphere (Beijing is far ahead of India, especially in terms of military technology); and (2) in the case of Pakistan, New Delhi can deter and deal with the entire menu of Islamabad’s provocations. This is not to deny the fact that there would be cascading effect from the military technology evolution in the South Asian security complex.

Fifth, as is common in many Western and Pakistani narrations, Green and Long suggest that “Pakistan might feel impelled to pursue MIRVs” (p. 48) in reaction to any Indian action vis-a-vis China – implying that India would initiate a new arms race. The real cause of arms race in South Asia is surprisingly overlooked. The Cold Start strategy is India’s response to Pakistan’s Limited Probe doctrine; India’s ballistic missile defense program is partly a response to Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship; cruise missile defence would be India’s response to Pakistan’s nuclear tipped cruise missiles and TNWs; so on and so forth.

Future Research

The pertinent question to ponder is – can the system be unlearnt? The United States recently de-MIRVed its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. This is a step in the right direction, but nuclear weapons remain paramount in U.S. and Russian security strategies. While emphasizing the futility of MIRVs is a positive step, there is more that the United States must do, especially when it comes to devaluing and outlawing nuclear weapons. Consequently, MIRV-type delivery systems would take their own course of diminution, the reverberations of which would be felt automatically in the southern Asian geostrategic discourse.


The Stimson Center recently released The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, an edited volume that takes a retrospective look at the U.S.-Soviet experience with MIRVs and explores the second coming of MIRVs in contemporary Asia. In this SAV review series, SAV contributors Sitakanta Mishra, Amina Afzal, Rabia Akhtar, Sadia Tasleem, and Debak Das review each chapter with special attention to the implications for South Asia and future research. Read the entire series here.


Image: Michael Smith-Getty Images News, Getty

Posted in , MIRVs, Missiles, Nuclear Weapons

Sitakanta Mishra

Sitakanta Mishra

Dr Sitakanta Mishra is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Studies at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the Cooperative Management Centre of the Sandia National Laboratory, Albuquerque. He was formerly a Research Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi and Associate Editor of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, New Delhi.

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3 thoughts on “SAV Review Series: Learning from the U.S. Pursuit of Counterforce and MIRVs

  1. Sitakanta:
    Thank you for this thoughtful review of the US chapter in Stimson’s new book.
    Can the US do more to devalue MIRVs? We have already de-MIRVed land-based missiles. I don’t foresee extending this to sea-based missiles. So, that leaves two possibilities: changing prompt launch for ICBMs, and adopting a No First Use posture. The former is rather technical, surprisingly complicated, and easily reversible. The latter (NFU) is essentially political rather than technical, relatively uncomplicated, and hard to reverse (because it is more political than technical). I am in favor of the latter. The United States, the world’s most powerful country — economically, conventional militarily, and nuclear deterrence-wise — can afford to embrace NFU.
    But Russia poses a set of complications. The Russian Federation is on a path of re-MIRVing, not de-MIRVing. It is working on a 10 RV, silo-based, liquid-fueled missile. A textbook case of inviting deterrence instability. This makes it harder for the US to adopt NFU, as DC does not wish to encourage unwise moves by Moscow. Adoption of NFU could be seen as a green light to proceed with new silo-based MIRVed missiles.
    Stay tuned…

  2. A very well written review Sitakanta. According to your analysis the super powers remained unable to ban MIRVs despite arms control agreements. As the authors highlight, the absence of treaty constraints in South Asia will hinder the prospects for a banning MIRVs, which in turn would increase the arms race in Asia. If at all South Asia is able to reach consensus on a possible arms control agreement, how successful do you think it would be in curbing the advent of MIRVs in Asia?

    While completely dismissing the notion that India would be responsible for initiating an arms race in the region, you argue that the Cold Start strategy is India’s response to Pakistan’s Limited Probe doctrine, it’s BMD programme a response to Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship, its cruise missile defence a response to Pakistan’s nuclear tipped cruise missiles and tactical nuclear weapons. Contrary to your arguments, Feroz Hassan Khan’s chapter on South Asia in the Routledge Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation and Policy argues that Pakistan adopted its military concepts in response to India’s doctrinal evolution and moreover that Pakistan added TNWs to its arsenal as a riposte to India’s Cold Start doctrine. It would be beneficial for both India and Pakistan to revisit these arguments in the context of nuclear signaling and associated perceptions in South Asia and work their way towards a South Asian strategic restraint regime.

  3. Dear Sita, a great review. However, I am surprised that you have completely absolved India of leading an arms race in the region. Just take a look at the missile ranges India is building if nothing else! How do you justify that? What is driving India’s missile development? Not Pakistan for sure. It’s hard to wrap my head around your argument that Pakistan is the driver for India’s BMD and cruise missile defenses! Seriously? Moreover, if India goes for MIRVng, it won’t be because Pakistan will push it in that direction but that it wants to play the big game with the big boys. I think you give too much credit to Pakistani nuclear establishment for designing strategies just to invoke strategic responses by India pushing India towards nuclear and missile modernization!

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