MIRVs Matter: Banning Hydra-Headed Missiles in a New START II Treaty
34 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2017 Last revised: 13 Apr 2018
Date Written: September 27, 2017
Nuclear multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on global-range ballistic missiles are at once Cold War relics, unfinished business of the bilateral arms control regime, and potential threats to strategic stability if the United States and Russia find themselves in a nuclear crisis – a confrontation in which the use of nuclear weapons is a real possibility. By concentrating many warheads on single missiles that present attractive targets, in a crisis land-based MIRVs could undermine deterrence and incentivize shooting first. This article reviews the history of MIRVs and analyzes their limited and abortive regulation in the nuclear arms control legal regime. This article explains that reliance on MIRVs is growing in Russia and China, MIRVs may be fielded by Pakistan and India, and MIRVs could return to U.S. land-based ballistic missiles, at a time when the risk of conflict among nuclear powers is significant and could grow. Nuclear states have operational and cost-efficiency reasons for relying on MIRVs, and therefore it will be difficult to negotiate a partial or full ban. But the stakes dictate that MIRVs should be a top agenda item when the bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control process eventually resumes. Enhancing strategic stability, lowering potential costs of nuclear accidents, and improving prospects for convincing rising nuclear powers to forego MIRVs are all compelling reasons for Washington and Moscow to make every effort to negotiate a ban on hydra-headed nuclear missiles in a “New START II,” beginning with a ban on more than three warheads per land-based missile.
Keywords: nuclear weapons, deterrence, arms control, nuclear arms control, treaties, Russia, China, India, military, Cold War, detente
JEL Classification: K10, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation