Winter-safe Deterrence and the Problem of Hardware AND Software

In the article below Sascha Sauerteig provides his own perspectives on the the winter-safe deterrence debate, which is being hosted on The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website, and which is introduced here.

In “Winter-safe Deterrence: The Risk of Nuclear Winter and Its Challenge to Deterrence,” Seth Baum reminds us of the immense threat that nuclear winter poses to human kind. In order to escape the risk of nuclear winter, Baum demands a drastic reduction of current nuclear weapon stocks down to a maximum of 50 nuclear weapons worldwide. In order to satisfy deterrence needs, he advocates “winter-safe” deterrence, i.e. deterrence with an alternative combination of predominantly WMD, such as non-contagious biological weapons or nuclear electromagnetic weapons, that decrease the risk of nuclear winter.

Baum’s well-founded call for drastic nuclear disarmament and his attempt to offer a pragmatic alternative to the status quo deserve appreciation, as his proposal takes global and national interests into consideration. Although I agree with Baum’s observation of the dangers of nuclear winter and his call for disarmament, the idea to replace nuclear deterrence with a combination of alternative WMD builds upon two mistakes. First, it underplays the inherent shortcomings of nuclear deterrence. Second, it undervalues the consequences of undermining existing international norms regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Similar to other conflict-related arguments in International Relations, such as democratic peace theory, nuclear deterrence offers three main dimensions of discussion: state, bilateral, and international. The state-related focus of nuclear deterrence refers to the immediate strategic considerations in a state pursuing nuclear weapons. It is usually argued that states build nuclear weapons to gain prestige, security, or power. The bilateral focus relates to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons in bilateral relations. This branch of nuclear deterrence includes all arguments that claim that the reason the Cold War did not heat up was because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons in the superpower stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. The international focus of nuclear deterrence examines the global dimension of nuclear weapons, including the prominent thought experiment elaborating the question “What would actually happen if more states develop nuclear weapons?” The most prominent contribution in this regard was made by Kenneth Waltz, who suggested that the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons might actually contribute to international stability.

There is no denying that political and military leaders take their interpretation of opponents’ military capacities into consideration before launching a strike. Nor would I doubt that the awareness of the destructive power of nuclear weapons or any other WMD might lead the same leaders to conclude that launching a first strike may be unwise. Yet, all three dimensions of nuclear deterrence offer significant logical shortcomings that culminate in an oversimplified and even utopian understanding of the world. Nuclear deterrence, by and large, rests on the assumption of well-informed, rational, and stable actors with an error-free chain of command presiding over safe, secure, and efficient weapons and delivery systems. Baum summarizes the underlying logic of a deterrent with “If you do X, then I will do Y.” Unfortunately, this causality has been confronted with significant limits in real life, making nuclear deterrence (or any WMD deterrence for that matter) an incredibly risky gamble.

Seth Baum himself points out that “[a] careful reading of history suggests that nuclear deterrence has already failed or almost failed several times.” A good illustration of critical incidents is the 2014 Chatham House Report ”Too Close for Comfort. Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy.” Several of the described incidents may have easily led to nuclear war – not just because of the hardware (i.e. nuclear weapons) but also because of the software (i.e. the underlying logic of nuclear deterrence). The analogy of hardware and software has been used before, but it is used here to underline my point that strategic mistakes and technical errors can escalate risks associated with the underlying logic of deterrence. Therefore, we should not just get rid of the hardware, but also the software. Rather than replacing nuclear deterrence with another form of WMD deterrence, we should not settle for anything less than an abandonment of the logic of WMD deterrence.

The risky gamble of the deterrence argument becomes even more apparent when looking at Baum’s proposal to find alternative weapons (predominantly WMD) to replace the huge stocks of nuclear weapons. Apart from threatening past achievements (such as the BWC) and possibly future agreements (such as a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East), (re)institutionalizing specific types of WMD (such as non-contagious biological weapons) runs the risk of blurring the WMD taboo. In fact, it even threatens the already questionable logic of WMD deterrence. This is because (re)establishing WMD would just add further ambiguity to decision making. Partially legitimizing specific WMD for deterrence runs the risk of adding further unmeasurable variables to the equation, making a peaceful stand-off between different powers much more difficult. This is why I believe that WMD should stay off the table for anyone.

In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist roundtable on this issue, Seth Baum says that he “would prefer that today’s nuclear-armed states simply decide that they no longer need deterrence based on the threat of massive destruction“ and I agree. Yet, I am afraid that if we aim for winter-safe deterrence, the alleged lesser evil compared to nuclear winter, we may actually be worse off than before. For one thing, because we may end up reintroducing WMD and continue to subscribe to past failures of the logic of WMD deterrence; but also because we are threatening the norm of the WMD taboo. Ridding the world from WMD hardware AND software is not an alternative option to protect human kind in the long run – it is the only option.

Sascha Sauerteig is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. The title of his dissertation is “The Effectiveness of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime – A Historical Institutionalist Analysis.” His most recent publication is a co-authored chapter (together with Prof. David Galbreath) on regime complexity and security governance in the Handbook of Governance and Security (Ed. James Sperling, Edward Elgar, 2014).

Cover image shamelessly stolen from Kai Ilchman @ilchkai

Tinkering around the edges – A reply to the winter-safe deterrence debate

In the article below Dr Kai ilchmann provides his own perspectives on the the winter-safe deterrence debate, which is being hosted on The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website, and which is introduced here.

“It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished”.

So thought Richard Gatling, the inventor of the modern machine gun. In the 1940s the head of the UK’s biological warfare effort Paul Fildes suggested “civilians caught in a bombardment of high explosives would undergo “considerable mental disturbance long before he is buried under a pile of rubble”. This would continue, along with physical distress, upon removal to hospital where: the suffering he has undergone is often terminated by bacterial septicaemia similar to that which has the same effect as BW without the distressing preliminaries.” The history of innovation in warfare is frequently accompanied with moral justifications claiming to make warfare safer and more humane.

Seth Baum’s suggestion to reduce nuclear stockpiles and replace the deterrent with (non-contagious) disease and toxin weapons to avoid nuclear winter takes a similar line by claiming that “it is the morally right thing to do”. To be clear his paper explores ways to avoid the possibility of nuclear winter by looking toward other weapon systems which might offer deterrence without global catastrophe. In an excellent response to the paper Brett Edwards points out that damage to the BWC and CWC were “just collateral damage in his attempt to address the issue of winter-safe deterrence”. Indeed, Baum addresses this directly: the “Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions…”

Baum’s proposal, outlined in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, has caused a stir and drawn a number of well-reasoned responses. For example, here, a round table discussion, or some exquisite outrage here. The responses deal with different aspects of potential damage to the norm against biological weapons contained in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and the editorial decision to publish a piece that advocates biological armament and destroying a 40 year old international ban.

Curiously Baum’s paper deals with chemical and biological weapons as deterrence substitutes – however, only damage to the BWC appears to have caused concern – despite explicit reference to ricin, a category I scheduled chemical under the CWC, and the fact Baum addressed biological and chemical weapons jointly.

Most responses deal with the deterrence potential of biological weapons, dismissing their potential on the past experiences of accidents and small scale attacks, and technical aspects of biological weapons. The effectiveness as a strategic weapon is debateable, but it would be remiss to discount the wide variety of uses available from this diverse weapons category. Biological weapon utilities include immediate effects as seen with toxin weapons, long term and strategic effects as contaminants and carcinogens, resistances to counter-measures such as antibiotics, degradation of resources and materials, and possibilities to attack food supplies by attacking agriculture with immediate and long term effects.

I could now at length explain how chemical and biological weapons are not just ideally suited to kill, maim, disable, and contaminate; and how their very nature of interfering with life processes avails the ability to disrupt and manipulate cognition, development, and inheritance. Biological and chemical weapons threaten uniquely the essence of what it means to be human. They are ideally suited not just for extinguishing life but also to subjugate and repress. Other authors have written at length about the potential of biological and chemical weapons, in a more cogent and persuasive manner than I can offer here. The point of writing here is that the concept of winter-safe deterrence is tinkering around the edges of nuclear disarmament by suggesting replacing it with something that is internationally agreed to be ‘repugnant to the conscience of mankind’. This proposal does not present progress, it is not advancing the disarmament agenda, it just side steps the problem by shifting, substituting, and replacing.

However, Baum’s articles raise an important point of debate: ethical and moral considerations in the legitimacy of these weapons. Edwards rightly encourages further discussion, although these ethical and moral issues cannot be resolved with a “scientifically sound risk-benefit analysis”. Moral judgements have to be made, ethical dilemmas addressed. These choices cannot be circumvented by reliance on simplistic, reductive, and allegedly science-based solutions. These choices need to be acknowledged and resolved in debate and negotiated in international fora, however slow and painful that maybe.

WMD disarmament is not a zero sum game, it is a moral imperative. One weapon system cannot be replaced with another because it is marginally less catastrophic by some metrics. New approaches and solutions need to be found to the nuclear disarmament stalemate and the vast number of nuclear weapons which threaten global catastrophe. Any impetus stimulating and moving this debate is welcome. However, this approach of winter-safe deterrence through substitution with chemical or biological weapons – contagious or not – has no merit. This proposal does not offer a way forward, it is a dead end figuratively as well as literally by suggesting replacing one very bad thing with another ever so slightly less bad thing.

Solutions to avoid catastrophic escalations of armed conflict and wide spread human rights abuses need to be found elsewhere. The solution cannot be found in the threat of indiscriminate mass annihilation and euphemistically referring to it as deterrence.
The international system might offer such a way. This system is currently tragically failing in places such as Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria and its neighbours, Central African Republic, and many other places around the world. This failure should not be taken to justify maintaining security assurances through deterrence. Nuclear deterrence has failed to deter such heinous situations – despite insistence that a nuclear capability is a necessary safe guard in an increasingly dangerous world. No, these failings should renew efforts to strengthen the international system, not weaken it!

Dr Kai ilchmann
Associate Professor
Institute of International Relations
Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio)


Cover Image Gatling gun.

Or How I Can’t Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Bugs…

Like many people on social media, I have multiple work-based profiles and lists. It may come as no surprise that my list marked ‘biosecurity’ has tended to hum along quite gently. Even recent debates about problematic cases of dual-use research, serious as they may be, have had their own rhythm and have become somewhat of a set-piece routine. The same can also be said about topics such as BTWC verification, and the structure of the current intersessional process. Issues which, while important, tend to be discussed in pragmatic, sensible and incremental terms. And while those interested may find insights, perspectives and even the occasional joke in the alphabet spaghetti of acronyms (not to mention garden variety nonsense lobbed by passers-by); something rarely found is controversy.

Biological weapons are bad. We need to maintain an international regime to make sure they are not developed or used. This is hard, but the challenge is not insurmountable. These be the canons.

Imagine my surprise then, to come across the following tweet and reply

Later Dr Baum qualified his remarks further:

The tweets refer to an article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a staple magazine for those working in this issue area. This journal was ‘established in 1945 by scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. They knew about the horrible effects of these new weapons and devoted themselves to warning the public about the consequences of using them‘. Today the journal ‘informs the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.

The article discusses the harrowing and unimaginable consequences of nuclear warfare and claims that this outcome must be avoided at all costs. A sentiment which undoubtedly rings true to many. However, where the article goes next has confounded quite a few people working on bioweapon issues. The central argument is that as it currently stands humankind should cut its losses. We should assume that the only way of reducing existing nuclear deterrent capacities, is to replace them with a different flavour of  mass destruction deterrent which would cause less casualties and suffering…destruction lite. Such arguments are rather alien to those working in biological arms control.

While acknowledging the unsavoury nature of the task, Dr Baum goes on to consider a range of possible alternatives to nuclear weapons, which he has already reviewed in a a more detailed assessment forthcoming in Contemporary Security Policy. In particular, there is analysis of the potential of non-infectious biological weapons, which the author finds ‘could work well if deterrence requires threatening large human populations’. Such discussion has been met with criticism, exasperation and even disbelief. A few  have adopted a  more philosophical approach, and commented on the need to discuss the potential allure of the idea of deterrance. However, there was a general consensus among the most vocal critics that such a perspective ignores the relevance and significance of existing treaties and was myopic in how benefits and risks were assessed. There was also some confusion over the decision of The Bulletin  to publish such an article. While the article was certainly thought-provoking it  also provided a case for the development of weapons prohibited under international law.

The Bulletin, also defended it’s decision to publish in a tweet, but was careful to refer to the article as ‘controversial’ in future tweets about the article. Others suggested that Dr Baum should rewrite the article. Since the appearance of the Dr Baum’s article there has also been talk of the need for a rebuttal letter.

In the meantime a blog article appeared on the website run by Piers Millet and Kathryn McLaughlin .This article is provided in full below.


Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Why avoiding a nuclear winter shouldn’t mean a return to biological weapons

In its most recent edition, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has published an article that moots the idea of finding an alternative weapon for deterrence. The author suggests replacing nuclear weapons with non-contagious biological weapons. These biological weapons “could work well if deterrence requires threatening large human populations” or to put it another way, for states, in contravention to international humanitarian law, to deliberately target major civilian centers with horrific indiscriminate weapons, that themselves have been banned under international disarmament law for over 40 years.

In his article “Deterrence of Nuclear Winter,” Seth Baum of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute postulates that the biggest threat from states’ large nuclear arsenals is that of nuclear winter and thus there is a need to examine the potential of viable alternative “nuclear winter-safe” weapons systems to replace nuclear arsenals. This, he argues, would enable states to dramatically slash their nuclear weapons capabilities to all but nothing – a mere 50 worldwide.

Baum’s “range of candidate weapons [which] could conceivably achieve the same goal [deterrence] without risking global catastrophe,” is based on several ‘attractive’ characteristics that such alternative weapons should possess, namely:

a) no significant proliferation risk;

b) affordable, technologically feasible, and politically acceptable;

c) would not significantly shift geopolitical power or destabilize the international system; and,

d) potential for use as a “retaliatory second-strike weapon, which is crucial for deterrence.”

(I want to set aside here the apparent inconsistency of a weapon that is affordable and feasible yet poses no significant proliferation risk – perhaps this is because everyone already has the capacity so the proliferation is as bad as it could possible get?)

One weapons system that is apparently a ‘stand out’ candidate in fitting the bill is that of ‘non-contagious biological weapons’. This is a false dichotomy. All bioweapons are banned under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) — a ban celebrating the 40th anniversary of its entry into force this month (#isntitironic). Although the article does not mention this key piece of international law, there is no distinction within the convention between contagious and non-contagious biological weapons. In fact, the treaty explicitly includes toxins – the poisonous byproducts of biological processes that are themselves not able to be passed from one victim to another. Additionally, it was largely the ‘non-contagious’ agents that led to the ban. The mainstay of state-run biological weapons programmes in the past, anthrax, is itself largely non-contagious. As states around the world have unequivocally turned their back on these weapons, it is clear that they are not, in fact, ‘politically acceptable’ much less so from a humanitarian, moral or ethical standpoint.

We know from the past what happens when one state invests in a new type of weapon. Others follow suit. The history of past weapons programmes illustrates positive feedback loops of proliferation around biological weapons. (If you are interested, the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation studies has a handy table of known or suspected past programmes.) There is a significant risk of horizontal proliferation. History suggests that if the nuclear weapon states were to develop a biological weapon deterrent, others would too. Avoiding this proliferation was, it has been suggested, one of the major reasons that the US abandoned bioweapons in the first place.

Equally, as ricin letters incidents in the US and the UK’s first conviction under its anti-bioweapons laws illustrate, there is already a significant risk of ‘non-contagious’ bioweapons proliferating vertically into the hands of non-state actors. Imagine how much worse this would be if major world powers showed such unequivocal political support for these weapons.

Bioweapons might well be affordable and feasible (although there are those that argue against this). There are certainly indications that developments in science and technology are lowering some barriers to these weapons and changing the nature of others. It has been suggested that capabilities that used to be the preserve of states are now within the grasp of sub-state actors. Should reopening the door to biological weapons lead to significant vertical proliferation, we would end up with terrorist organizations with a comparable militarily significant weapon to states. THAT’s not going to destabilize the international system, right?

Furthermore, at its heart, this article is arguing that a nuclear winter must be avoided at all costs. That cost might be completely undermining and overturning an established ban treaty. This itself poses two very significant threats to international peace and security. First, would be the loss of the BWC which remains the only complete ban of a weapon (no exceptions, no excuses, no possessors, no loopholes). Second, by encouraging states and non-state actors to look again at a weapon that has already been categorically banned under international law, it is implied that international norms and safeguards are transitory and, ultimately, meaningless as they can be overturned. In both cases, there is a major impact on the international system.

In sum, biological weapons would not make a deterrent sufficiently attractive to tempt states away from nuclear weapons, but to pursue such a capability would undermine the international norm against the use of disease as a weapon and the treaty that upholds the norm. Further, such a move would not be accepted or countenanced by the international security or humanitarian communities at large – to think that they might is out of step with both state and civil society positions. While I fully support thought experiments that challenge entrenched thinking and positions and engender well-reasoned discussion on options no matter how controversial they may be, the idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul is flawed and dangerous.


For me, this debate speaks to the continued need to resist the false allure of biological weapons. For over a decade concerns about sub-state and pariah state terrorism have contributed to further stigmatization of biological weapons;and may have even made certain institutions oversensitive to some types of threat. This then has perhaps contributed to the perception that there is less need for scholars and NGO’s to justify the existence of the norm itself. That is to say, it seems unthinkable that biological weapons could be understood as anything but a bad thing.

However, as we have seen, the very same things which make such weapons abhorrent, may contribute to a weapons potential strategic and military appeal now, and in the future. It is important then that we help with the maintenance and enforcement of the norm against such weapons in any way we can.

We should not bury our heads in the sand and dismiss the potential appeal of biological weapons for others out of hand. But we should highlight the types of thinking, action or inaction which would likely lead to unnecessary and catastrophic consequences.

I am grateful for Dr Baum’s article, which is indeed thought-provoking.  However, I hope that the particular line of argument discussed does not hold broader appeal.

Dr Brett Edwards


Cover Image: From Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)