Strategic Weapons

My dissertation, which I am converting into a book manuscript, develops the first empirically-tested theory of how a single state can make use of a variety of technologies for coercion in the information age.

The nuclear literature has recognized the difficulty states face in using their nuclear weapons to coerce adversaries in conflicts that do not threaten their survival. That literature does not fully explore how nuclear-armed states coerce adversaries in limited wars, given that nuclear weapons are not well-suited to the task. I examine this problem with respect to China. My research shows that China has substituted nuclear threats for space, cyber and conventional missile threats to coerce its adversaries, and approach that the existing literature cannot explain.

A Theory of Strategic Substitution

Why does China plan to use cyber and space weapons, and missiles, instead of nuclear weapons to coerce its adversaries in limited wars? How does it implement this approach to maximizing strategic leverage in conflicts that do not threaten its survival? The theory of strategic substitution answers these two questions. It posits that China substitutes nuclear coercion with coercive postures for its space, cyber and conventional missile weapons to maximize its strategic leverage in limited wars, without turning a limited war into a nuclear war. This “strategic substitution” approach allows a state to solve both of the challenges of using nuclear weapons to gain leverage in limited wars: nuclear threats are hard to make credible and elevate the risk of a nuclear war.

I develop the theory of strategic substitution in two steps.

First, I show that space, cyber and conventional missile weapons can be used as sources of strategic leverage and therefore as substitutes for nuclear coercion because they share similar characteristics with nuclear weapons that make them “strategic” weapons. I outline the two different coercive postures that states can adopt for these weapons: brinkmanship and calibrated escalation.

Second, I explain why and how a state like China would substitute these non-nuclear strategic weapons for nuclear coercion. The need for strategic leverage independent variable explains why leaders decide to pursue a coercive space, cyber, or conventional missile capability. Increased threats, combined with a state's concerns that it could not make nuclear threats credible in a limited war and its conventional military inferiority, give states a need for strategic leverage that it can satisfy by pursuing space, cyber and conventional missile weapons. A second independent variable, the expected cost of retaliation, helps leaders to choose whether to adopt a brinkmanship or calibrated escalation posture. 

China's Strategic Force Postures

I test the theory of strategic substitution using in-depth, comparative case studies of seven Chinese decisions about space, cyber and conventional missile weapons posture since 1989. I examined hundreds of Chinese-language written sources, many that have never been exploited before in the English-language literature. I supplemented those sources with dozens of interviews conducted in China between 2015 and 2017, when I spent more than a year researching this project.

I reveal the decisions behind some of the most sensational aspects of China’s military rise: its cyber hacking, aircraft carrier-destroying missiles, huge arsenal of conventional missiles pointed at Taiwan, and ambitious space program. I explain how these separate programs solved a common problem: giving Beijing the leverage it cannot get from its nuclear weapons. I demonstrate how China’s growing vulnerability to cyber attacks in the early 2000s reduced its appetite for risk in using cyber weapons, a little-known fact among U.S. scholars and policy researchers.

other states and weapons

In my book manuscript, I plan to apply the theory of strategic substitution to other nuclear-armed states as well as China. Russia, Israel, the United States, North Korea, France, India, and the United Kingdom have pursued also space, cyber and missile weapons. The theory of strategic substitution may explain why or how those states select force postures for these weapons. I also plan to apply the theory of strategic substitution to other possible sources of strategic leverage, such as influence operations.

Photo (above): posters promoting reforms of the Chinese military at the end of 2015.