Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict

  • Published

Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, Vipin Narang. Princeton University Press, 2014, 360 pp.

As the US Air Force (USAF) continues to strengthen its nuclear deterrent capabilities, one of the more challenging tasks is to understand the nature of deterrence in today's post–Cold War environment. In general, there has been insufficient attention posed to the question of how regional nuclear powers, with more limited nuclear arsenals and lacking global ambitions, intend to use their nuclear weapons. The focus has traditionally been on how states gained their nuclear weapons or what types of nuclear weapons they have developed—but not to what purpose. We cannot afford to mirror-image old notions of strategic deterrence to guide our views on these new nuclear weapon states.

In Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, Vipin Narang seeks to develop an analytical framework that helps to explain why regional nuclear states have adopted particular nuclear postures in light of their security environment. He offers an "optimization theory" with several "yes/no" gates that guide one to assess what nuclear posture a regional power should have adopted and, to test his framework, compares that assessment to what those states actually have demonstrated. He also considers structural realism, technological determinism, and strategic culture as other potential indicators of a state's nuclear posture. This sounds simple in theory, but it is difficult to prove in practice. He applies his framework to Israel, South Africa, India, China, Pakistan, and France, and postulates how North Korea and Iran might develop their nuclear postures—assuming they become functional nuclear weapon states.

Based on the results of the optimization theory, Narang suggests that regional nuclear weapon states might use nuclear weapons as a catalyst for involving major powers in regional conflicts, as an escalation in response to conventional warfare threatening the nation, or as assured retaliation against an adversarial nuclear strike. It may be that a nation starts out in one category, and as its nuclear weapons program matures and its security conditions change, the planned use of its nuclear weapons changes as well. What becomes most interesting in Narang's discussion is whether nuclear deterrence works in preventing conventional warfare, as has been traditionally assumed for decades. His discussion on the relationship between conventional and nuclear conflict is particularly fascinating and relevant.

Narang has done an impressive amount of research in this book. He dedicates a heavily footnoted chapter to talk about each of the regional powers—describing not just the nuclear weapons programs of each nation but also the plans and decisions made by the respective national authorities. Each chapter could stand alone as a well-researched case study. With authority, he discusses the conventional conflicts between nuclear weapons states and why those states did not go nuclear. The book is very strong in its review of individual regional powers' motivations and development efforts, and the author's optimization theory is simple enough to understand at a glance, while encouraging the reader to continue through the chapters to see if the theory stands up. To his credit, Narang acknowledges that the theory is not perfect. His theory suggests that Israel's nuclear posture following the end of the Cold War should be asymmetric escalation, when in practice, it appears that Israel prefers assured retaliation today. Still, his theory stands up much better than realist theory, technological determinism, or strategic culture.

The book can be heavy on statistical analysis at times; the statistics are necessary to test and evaluate the optimization theory, but may be boring to the general military student. In addition, Narang has a habit of repeating some assumptions and findings in the same chapter, almost as if it were a mental foot-stomp to remind the reader of the parameters of each case study. He does not offer any discussion as to the nuclear posture of the United States or Russia, and to be fair, the optimization theory is clearly designed for regional powers. However, one has to wonder whether aspects of this theory could be expanded to discuss the changing nuclear posture of the superpowers over time.

Overall, this book presents a unique and challenging perspective that helps explain how—not why—regional powers develop their nuclear postures to be used in contemporary national security scenarios. As the US military engages these nations during international security crises, it behooves us to better understand these nations' perspective on nuclear weapons postures. Both scholars and general military readers will find much to think about in these pages, and the book breaks ground in a particularly important area to the USAF in particular.

Al Mauroni

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."