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The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: from the First to the Second Nuclear Age

Book Reviews | Syed Sadam Hussain | 13-03-2017, 14:25

The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: from the First to the Second Nuclear AgeStimson Centre published a book The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: from the First to the Second Nuclear Age, which is the collection of essays edited by Michael Krepon1, Travis Wheeler2 and Shane Mason3. It attempts to compare the Cold War era’s nuclear strategies with the contemporary strategic trends – presenting various perspectives on Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). 

In the first essay, Krepon and Wheeler claim that the strategic competition between the United States and Soviet Union marked the advent of MIRV in the first nuclear age, during the Cold War era. MIRV is a ballistic missile payload containing several warheads capable of being aimed to hit one or a group of targets. The authors then argue that the developments of MIRV by China will have a domino effect in South Asia; however, Pakistan and India will also develop these capabilities.

Branden Rittenhouse and Austin Long, in the second essay of the book, attempted to explain the internal and external drivers towards U.S. decisions governing its nuclear strategy. As per authors, the military mindset along with the presidential and congressional politics, were the primary internal drivers towards the evolution of American nuclear strategy – including its nuclear force modernization. The external drivers were the strategic incentives produced by the international system. It was assumed that the counter force strategy will help deter the Soviet Union, while tilting the foreign policies of U.S. allies, particularly the NATO members, in its favor.

Alexey Arbatov and Vladmir Dvorkin identify the factors behind the U.S - Soviet nuclear arms race, advent of MIRV and the arms control initiatives. Authors contend that the desire to achieve strategic parity and match the U.S. technological capabilities led the Soviet Union to pursue the MIRV. They believe that MIRV had a negative impact on the strategic stability, particularly on the scale and pace of the arms race, sufficiency of nuclear forces, concepts of weapons employment during a nuclear war, and the desire for mutual compromise by the two superpowers during the arms control negotiations.

Jeffry J. Lewis has assessed the Chinese nuclear capabilities and intentions. He is of the view that the Chinese nuclear strategy of ‘No first Use’ is influenced by Mao’s Communist ideology. The publication of Chinese texts, such as The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, helped analysts understand the Chinese nuclear strategy. The author is of the view that Beijing has invested more in qualitative rather than quantitative strategic developments. However, the Chinese are attempting to match the American technological pace. According to the US intelligence community, China’s development of hypersonic re-entry vehicle will help Beijing counter and penetrate the US ballistic missile defenses.

Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran examined the internal and external factors driving India towards the adoption MIRVs. The authors consider the Indian military and scientific community as the two main internal factors advocating the MIRVs in order to increase credibility of their deterrence while China is the external consideration. Feroz H. Khan and Mansoor Ahmed, in their evaluation of Pakistan’s strategic developments, argued that India’s pursuit of MIRV and Ballistic Missile Defence poses challenges to Pakistani strategic doctrine. The authors have considered the relative advantages and disadvantages of various options such as resource constraints, technological problems and criticism from the international community. 

Michael Krepon, in the concluding chapter, argued that in the initial phase of their respective nuclear developments, China, India and Pakistan, will learn from the mistakes of United States and Soviet Union, but Pakistan could draw different conclusions because it has to deter an economically stronger adversary. This means that Pakistan will continue to rely on its nuclear arsenals as an element of national power. However, Delhi and Beijing have learned the importance of economic prosperity as a relatively more important element of national power rather than relying only on their growing nuclear arsenals.


Analysis and Criticism: 

Michael Krepon believes that unlike the Cold War, currently there are no realistic prospects of stopping the worldwide development of multiple warheads. During the Cold War, despite various Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties being signed between the two superpowers, the advancement in MIRV technology continued. In the contemporary era, not only the various factors driving the MIRV development are stronger but political and treaty constraints restricting their development are also weaker. However, Branden Rittenhouse and Austin Long have not considered the possible role of scientists or the economic interests of the defense industry – lobbying in favour of MIRV development and deployments.

Although Jeffrey J. Lewis has considered leader’s perception and ideological perspectives while discussing Chinese nuclear strategy, additional factors such as geopolitics, military, bureaucracy, scientific community and domestic politics could also influence its nuclear policy. Rajesh Basrur, while discussing Indian motivations towards MIRVs, has identified China as the main urging factor behind New Delhi’s strategic developments and did not adequately discuss how these developments would affect Pakistan and South Asia. 

Michael Krepon’s reference to Rawalpindi in case of Pakistan’s nuclear strategy indicates the author believes it is military driven, which is not the case. The National Command Authority, the apex nuclear policy making institution is civilian led and all decisions governing Pakistan’s nuclear and strategic developments are based on consensus between civil, military and scientific communities.

This book is useful in terms of presenting multiple perspectives on the issue of MIRV developments. However, there is still a need to address which technological, strategic and geopolitical factors are driving the MIRV development. The dilemma is that the United States of America, Russia, France and Britain have operational and proved MIRV technology for decades now while other states are developing these technologies much later. The stabilizing or destabilizing effects of MIRV technology cannot be applied to the states which are responding to the strategic advantages of states which developed MIRV decades earlier.




1. Michael Krepon is the co-founder of Stimson Centre. He has previously worked with Disarmament Agency US State Department, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is author and editor of twenty books.

2. Travis Wheeler is research associate at Stimson Centre. He has previously worked at Centre on National Security at Fordham Law, Monitor 360, and the Newyork city police department.

3. Shane Mason is research associate at Stimson Centre. He has previously worked with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  


About the author:

Syed Sadam Hussain Shah

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