Denuclearization (Part 2): Nuclear Defense and What This Means for Us

Dylan Villeneuve
Aug 23, 2020 · 7 min read

In Part 1, we discussed the evolution of nuclear weaponry. We began with the invention of radio and the subsequent rise of global superpowers, then discussed the resulting arms race that produced nuclear technology, and finally concluded with the impact of nuclearization on global affairs and modern warfare, touching on the very real possibility for denuclearization.

Brown Tech Review, Denuclearization (Part 2): Denuclearization and What This Means For Us, Dylan Villeneuve

Thinking through the immediate aftermath of the introduction of a nuclear defense system that grants a country immunity to nuclear attacks, there are three possible outcomes, each with varying effects on American lives. They are, number 1: The United States reaches the defense first, number 2: Another country reaches the defense first, and number 3: Two countries reach it at around the same time. Each scenario paints a wildly different portrait for the future. Let’s dive into the first one.

The U.S. creates the world’s first nuclear missile defense system

There is a fairly high chance that the United States will be the first country to implement a functional nuclear defense system. In fact, given America’s defense budget and its space program’s historical success this may be the most likely outcome. It also helps that the United States is home to a number of companies (SpaceX and Virgin Galactic primarily) invested in commercial space travel that already are developing novel solutions to the deployment of low Earth orbit satellites.

In 2019, SpaceX sought approval from the International Telecommunications Union for 30,000 new satellites they plan to launch into low Earth orbit in the next few years. Their plan to deliver this immense number of satellites is dependent on their Falcon Heavy Rocket which can deliver more than twice the payload of any other rocket to date, and can be rapidly reused. Keep in mind that the next highest payload capacity of a rocket to date is SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket, illustrating their dominance of the private space sector.

Reusability is the first serious innovation in rocket technology in decades, and is fueling the hype and investment around commercial space travel, exploration, and mining opportunities. As you might expect, there are a whole host of problems with almost every aspect of commercial space travel. For one, private investors seek dividends on their investments at much shorter time scales than most space missions require. Commercial claims to space currently operate similarly to maritime claims, and will require significant oversight for fair use, especially if there are only a few countries with functional (and costly) spaceports. Equitable distribution of space among governments and private companies is a nightmare of an ethical dilemma that could be described at great length.

Circumventing these issues, the United States military investments operate on significantly longer timescales and can push for international extra-planetary supremacy through commercial efforts. In fact, the military already does this. Leveraging the private sector could allow the U.S. government to build the first nuclear defense system. Now, let’s examine the fallout in the case that the United States is the first country to complete a missile defense system (most likely through low Earth orbit supremacy).

Let us now recall that equitable trade relations (though debatable if they really occur equitably), are based primarily on the interests of partnering countries. A significant number of countries, especially non-nuclear sovereignties, favor the United States in political and economic deals because it provides them the security of the Nuclear Umbrella. It’s an incredibly complex and subtle negotiation, but the stipulations simplify to nuclear protection fees paid by these countries in the form of U.S.-favored deals. The United States is happy to provide defense assurance, and in turn, non-nuclear sovereignties are happy to accept it and favor the United States’ economic and political interests. Modern relationships are a give and take.

Imagine now that the United States is the only country in the world with military supremacy. There is no longer the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction with which a weaker military could threaten our country. Russia’s 6,800 nuclear warheads could no longer be used to threaten and weaken U.S. negotiations. It would be similar to one nation in the world developing projectile weaponry, while the rest fight with wooden swords. There would be no challenging the military superiority.

Even if our government chose to equitably deal with other countries when we have complete military superiority, it would still be in the best interest of other countries to cozy up to the United States more than any nations they were in conflict with. America would become the single most attractive backer to all other nations, especially those with prior conflicts. The choice of who the U.S. supports already causes controversy, evidenced by the Israel-Palestine conflict, but imagine that the United States was no longer beholden to the interests of any other global superpowers or governing collectives like the United Nations. Judge, Jury, and Executioner.

Further speculation is just that, speculation. Whether this leads to a single, global state, or if it leads to the United States dropping more nuclear bombs, is unknown. However, complete military supremacy through nuclear defense would certainly make the United States the most powerful country in the history of history.

Another country gets it first

This, admittedly, isn’t much different from the previously outlined scenario. It would likely involve a form of satellite defense against the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), probably delivered from a private rocketry company that sells their patents and secret rocketry information to a country like Russia, Pakistan, India, China, or North Korea.

Note that for the past century, the United States has enjoyed an extended period of global domination. Significant influence over the United Nations, favorable trade deals with most of the world, the first country to recover from World War 2, and the superpower to survive the Cold War. There is a reason why English is one of the most common second languages worldwide. As a result, the United States is also one of the hardest countries to criticize, and not because there isn’t anything to critique. Offending the United States has catastrophic consequences for a smaller country, and only a select few are powerful enough to do so.

Flip the script. Another country becomes the only superpower immune to nuclear bombardment. China or Russia seem like the most likely candidates, but it hardly matters. Regardless, they would be the only country in the world with the power to threaten the United States and survive. However, the risk of harm could come from all over the globe. We can only imagine the decades of pent-up aggression towards the United States — aggression that manifests itself as terrorism currently — being released because another sovereign nation can protect a country from retribution.

Another nation being immune to nuclear weapons could possibly bring about the end of the United States as a country. Our aggressive and controlling foreign policy paved the way for our long-standing global dominance, but could hamstring our diplomacy if the power balance is ever flipped.

This is, without a doubt, the worst possible outcome for American citizens. It may not just be the worst for Americans either. Despite the United States tendency towards imperialism and its general lack of concern for other sovereignties, it is still a democratic country beholden to its citizens. We still have legitimate elections and two parties of relatively equal strength. If the United States becomes the sole global superpower, there is a chance that the government, acting according to the will of the people wouldn’t be overtly terrible to its neighbors.

If another country that is not as democratic, such as China or North Korea, or a country that’s only democratic in name, were to become the unitary global superpower, they may be more inclined to use their new military supremacy on the rest of the world. Fascist Germany, or Napoleonic France, for example, tried to annex most of Europe when they believed they had complete military superiority.

Again, we can’t predict which country will get this technology first, nor can we predict what they would do with it, but it would be a fair assumption to say that there would be direct, if not debilitating, action against the United States.

Multiple countries get it at the same time

It’s difficult to predict what would actually happen if multiple countries developed nuclear defense at the same time. At first glance, the outcome might appear similar to countries developing nuclear weaponry at the same time — leading to some form of stalemate. Suddenly, intercontinental warfare is no longer the dominant strategy. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that a stalemate could be the exact opposite of what would occur.

There would no longer be any form of consequence for unprovoked attacks between global superpowers. The United Nations, or any other international governing body, would have a weakened ability to enact meaningful accountability measures on any nation that decides to seek offensive action against another country or another country’s interests. There is no more threat of annihilation from conflict, and thus conflict can occur freely.

It isn’t fair to assume that just because conflict can occur that it necessarily will occur. It’s possible that a government with military supremacy over the rest of the world will bring about a global era of peace. However, it is important to be prepared for conflict regardless of whether or not it actually occurs, especially because this conflict would look remarkably different from anything we’ve seen before.

World War 3 would not be fought like the first two, with rampant loss of life in trenches, camps, or due to diseases. It would be fought with entirely new tactics. Economic, agricultural, political, infrastructural, online battlegrounds, however we can imagine it. There are decades of advanced technology and weaponry held by countries around the world that have yet to be utilized because of our nuclear peace. Take that shield away, and the world is up-for-grabs for the powerful and imaginative.

So what now? The future is unknown but what is known is that the threat of nuclear annihilation will one day be gone, and the world will irreversibly change once more. What sources of wisdom will we turn to in times like this? Semper paratus es. Always be ready.

Published exclusively in Brown Tech Review. Image source.

Brown Technology Review

Technology coverage by Brown students, alumni, and faculty

Brown Technology Review

Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

Dylan Villeneuve

Written by

Interest Enthusiast, Brown ‘21

Brown Technology Review

Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

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