By Dima Adamsky

How is the Russian military likely to evolve in the context of the continuing diffusion of the precision strike, information technology (IT) “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) in various forms, and the likelihood of further nuclear proliferation by 2030? The current Russian approach to dealing with strategic challenges emanating from advanced conventional militaries may inform our thinking about this question. For the last two decades Russian doctrinal publications, official statements, and military theoreticians have mentioned the non-strategic nuclear arsenal as a counter to the conventional military threat from IT RMA-type NATO militaries. In the theater of military operations, the Russian nuclear arsenal’s mission is to deter, and if deterrence were to fail, to terminate large-scale conventional aggression through limited nuclear use. Among other scenarios, this nuclear countermeasure is imagined as a credible option against US Prompt Global Strike. Given the very slow procurement of Russian long-range precision guided munitions, and due to the significant backwardness of Russian command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, a non-nuclear alternative against precision strike is a very distant and improbable prospect for the Russian military.

What if, toward 2030, more states on Russia’s borders become nuclear, and what if the diffusion of precision strike capabilities gathers momentum among Russia’s neighbors? Russia will be forced to deal not only with NATO and the US Prompt Global Strike, but also with the advanced conventional capabilities of the small and big non-NATO neighboring militaries. Russia’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons is unsatisfactory for missions demanding precision, cleanness, and low collateral damage. If, by 2030, Russia is unable to transform its armed forces into a sophisticated reconnaissance-strike complex and to bridge the gap with other IT RMA-type militaries, it is possible that it will opt for a solution in the area of a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Futuristic works by several Russian military theorists and nuclear scientists already call for the development of a new generation of usable nuclear weapons. These fourth generation nuclear weapons (FGNW) can be realistically used on the battlefield due to their tailored effects that ensure low ecological and political consequences. Theoretically, FGNW rely on non-fission means to trigger a low-yield fusion reaction. Hypothetically, they can be developed without a test, thus without violating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Lower yields and lower radiation fallout levels will minimize collateral damage, and will offer potential solutions against big and small powers that are superior in the field of precision strike capabilities. Also, FGNW may provide effective deterrence and military options vis-à-vis unstable and rogue nuclear-armed state and non-state actors.

What if ideas about a new generation of nuclear munitions and accompanying doctrinal concepts materialize into an actual military posture?  What happens if these doctrinal and scientific ideas proliferate to other nuclear powers, or the latter emulate them? This imagined second nuclear RMA might have major implications for international politics. Presumably, the current nuclear taboo norm would erode, significantly transforming the nature of future warfare. A shift in perception would make nuclear weapons usable, legitimate, and a strategically desired battlefield tool, and thus would lower the nuclear threshold level. This, in turn, may stimulate a new era of nuclear competition and arms racing.

It is unclear how expensive and complicated the adoption of this class of munitions would be for current and prospective owners of military and civilian nuclear programs. Although developing FGNW would be a significant scientific-technological challenge demanding political will and financial investment, it may be more feasible than one would expect. In principle, one may realistically imagine technology transfers, doctrinal diffusion, and adoption capacity pertaining to such capabilities among and the old and new members of the nuclear club. Deterrence models and campaign designs based on FGNW may be immediately useful for China and Pakistan, along with other states in East Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, as a countermeasure against adversaries possessing various forms of conventional precision or nuclear capabilities.

Dr. Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky is Assistant Professor, School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, IDC Herzliya.