Despite the tremendous deterrent power of nuclear weapons, why have they not greatly diminished international security competition?  Why, for example, does nuclear stability between India and Pakistan remain highly elusive? A combination of factors such as the challenge of deploying a deterrent arsenal, the technological threats to strategic stability, and the difficulties of conventional deterrence potentially explain the persistence of intense security competition among nuclear powers.

Keir Lieber and Daryl Press unpacked the forces driving security competition in a nuclear world and the challenges of deterrence in the twenty-first century based on their upcoming book. The discussion was moderated by Rudra Chaudhuri.

Discussion Highlights

  • The Theory of Nuclear Revolution: Participants explained that according to the Theory of Nuclear Revolution, the presence of nuclear weapons ensures that no major wars take place as nuclear weapons create the necessary conditions for a stalemate. According to the theory, nuclear armed states no longer feel the need to compete as a stalemate leads to muted relative gains, reduces arms races, cuts the value of strategic territory and contracts the need for alliances. Participants noted that the while the Theory of Nuclear Revolution made sense logically, empirically speaking, it only gets one thing right: there haven’t been any major wars between nuclear armed nations. However, relative gains have continued to persist, driven primarily by economic concerns. Similarly, nations continue to seek allies and build stronger ties with nations with which they share common interests. Moreover, the Cold War was essentially characterized by an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the alliances the two superpowers forged i.e. NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
  • Competition in the Nuclear Age: In order to answer the question of why nuclear armed countries continue to compete, participants argued that while nuclear weapons create a stalemate, they don’t end competition. This is because once a country acquires a small nuclear arsenal it begins to expand its arsenal such that it is able to build a secure retaliatory force – hence it takes time to build a stalemate. Further, even after a nuclear stalemate has been established, countries continue to build their conventional arsenal and deterring conventional attacks under a nuclear stalemate is difficult. Participants also stressed that a nuclear stalemate is reversible because nuclear arsenals that are survivable today might become vulnerable tomorrow due to changes in technology.  Additionally, countries often try to out-build their nuclear arsenal out of a stalemate. According to the participants, while nuclear weapons are the best tools of deterrence, the possibility of acquiring disarming strike capabilities explains the fact that nuclear weapons haven’t transformed international politics in the manner in which it is espoused by the Theory of Nuclear Revolution. 
  • A Leap in Technology: Participants explained that according to the Theory of Nuclear Revolution, an adversary cannot possibly nullify each nuclear warhead in a country’s arsenal in the first wave of nuclear strikes and the country being attacked will have enough firepower to strike back. Thus, the cost of initiating a nuclear strike would be so high (mutually assured destruction) that a rational adversary would never initiate a nuclear strike. Participants argued that technological trends, specifically the enhanced accuracy of weapons, drastic improvements in remote sensing and the advancement of data processing and communication were undermining this assumption by increasing the vulnerability of a country’s nuclear arsenal. Participants elucidated the three strategies of survivability used by countries: hardening, which consists of building underground missile silos, storage sites, nuclear shelters and tunnels; concealment, which emphasizes the mobility of nuclear warheads, the dispersal of nuclear warheads over land and submarines and the use of decoys; and redundancy which entails building large arsenals comprised of diverse nuclear warheads. However, advancements in technology are undermining the above-mentioned strategies. To begin with, the strategy of hardening is being severely undercut by the enhanced accuracy of weapons – more accurate delivery systems have increased the probability of kill and reduced the risk of fratricide and collateral damage. In addition to this, submarines can now be used for both offensive and defensive nuclear strikes and conventional weapons can be used to disarm nuclear warheads. On examining the strategy of concealment, participants found that the leaps in remote sensing technology had almost made this strategy obsolete. Not only is there now an increased diversity of sensory platforms, but resolution, signal processing and communication have all greatly improved. With regard to the strategy of redundancy, participants stated that arms cuts following the end of the Cold War have severely diluted this strategy.
  • The New Era of Counterforce: Participants proposed that the United States should switch from a nuclear doctrine of countervalue (targeting an adversary’s non-military valuable assets such as cities or centers of civilian population) to one of counterforce (targeting an adversary’s military assets, specifically its nuclear warheads). Such a strategy would entail reducing dependability on land based nuclear forces and increasing offensive capabilities – both nuclear and conventional. Participants clarified that this, however, would not be a good strategy for India to follow given that it has far fewer security commitments across the globe compared to the United States. Participants also noted that in this new era of counterforce, technological arms racing seems inevitable, so exercising restraint may constraint options with limited benefits. 

This event summary was prepared by Rahul Bhatia, a research intern at Carnegie India.  


Keir Lieber

Keir Lieber is the director of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) and Security Studies Program (SSP) and an associate professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of War and the Engineers, and his articles on the role of technology and nuclear weapons in international politics have appeared in leading outlets, including International Security, Security Studies, and the Atlantic. He was awarded an inaugural Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2015. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago and B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Daryl Press

Daryl Press is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. He has written extensively on U.S. national security policy, the evolution of technology and warfare, and the future of deterrence. He has published in leading academic journals such as International Security, the American Political Science Review, and Security Studies, as well as popular outlets including Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. His first book, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats, explores the sources of credibility and decision-making during crises. Press received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Rudra Chaudhuri

Rudra Chaudhuri is the director of Carnegie India. His primary research interests include the diplomatic history of South Asia and contemporary security issues.