How a rising expertise hole between the U.S. and its nuclear-armed rivals may result in the unraveling of arms management agreements – and even nuclear warfare.
By Conn Hallinan:
At a time of rising tensions between nuclear powers — Russia and NATO in Europe, and the U.S., North Korea, and China in Asia — Washington has quietly upgraded its nuclear weapons arsenal to create, in line with three main American scientists, “exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”
Writing within the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists, Matthew McKinzie of the National Resources Defense Council, and physicist and ballistic missile professional Theodore Postol conclude that “Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program,” the U.S. army has vastly expanded the “killing power” of its warheads such that it will probably “now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos.”
The improve — a part of the Obama administration’s $1 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear forces — permits Washington to destroy Russia’s land-based nuclear weapons, whereas nonetheless retaining 80 p.c of U.S. warheads in reserve. If Russia selected to retaliate, it might be decreased to ash.
A Failure of Imagination
Any dialogue of nuclear warfare encounters a number of main issues.
First, it’s troublesome to think about or to know what it might imply in actual life. We’ve solely had one battle involving nuclear weapons — the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — and the reminiscence of these occasions has pale through the years. In any case, the 2 bombs that flattened these Japanese cities bear little resemblance to the killing energy of recent nuclear weapons.
The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a drive of 15 kilotons, or kt. The Nagasaki bomb was barely extra highly effective, at about 18 kt. Between them, they killed over 215,000 folks. In distinction, the commonest nuclear weapon within the U.S. arsenal immediately, the W76, has an explosive energy of 100 kt. The subsequent most typical, the W88, packs a 475-kt punch.
Another drawback is that many of the public thinks nuclear warfare is unattainable as a result of each side can be destroyed. This is the concept behind the coverage of Mutually Assured Destruction, aptly named “MAD.”
But MAD isn’t a U.S. army doctrine. A “first strike” assault has at all times been central to U.S. army planning, till lately. However, there was no assure that such an assault would so cripple an opponent that it might be unable — or unwilling, given the results of whole annihilation — to retaliate.
The technique behind a primary strike — typically referred to as a “counter force” assault — isn’t to destroy an opponent’s inhabitants facilities, however to eradicate the opposite sides’ nuclear weapons, or a minimum of most of them. Anti-missile programs would then intercept a weakened retaliatory strike.
The technical breakthrough that immediately makes this a chance is one thing referred to as the “super-fuze”, which permits for a way more exact ignition of a warhead. If the goal is to explode a metropolis, such precision is superfluous. But taking out a strengthened missile silo requires a warhead to exert a drive of a minimum of 10,000 kilos per sq. inch on the goal.
Up till the 2009 modernization program, the one manner to do this was to make use of the way more highly effective — however restricted in numbers — W88 warhead. Fitted with the super-fuze, nonetheless, the smaller W76 can now do the job, releasing the W88 for different targets.
Traditionally, land-based missiles are extra correct than sea-based missiles, however the former are extra weak to a first-strike than the latter, as a result of submarines are good at hiding. The new super-fuze doesn’t improve the accuracy of Trident II submarine missiles, however it makes up for that with the precision of the place the weapon detonates. “In the case of the 100-kt Trident II warhead,” write the three scientists, “the super-fuze triples the killing power of the nuclear force it is applied to.”
Before the super-fuze was deployed, solely 20 p.c of U.S. subs had the flexibility to destroy re-enforced missile silos. Today, all have that capability.
Trident II missiles sometimes carry from 4 to 5 warheads, however can increase that as much as eight. While the missile is able to internet hosting as many as 12 warheads, that configuration would violate present nuclear treaties. U.S. submarines presently deploy about 890 warheads, of which 506 are W76s and 384 are W88s.
The land-based ICBMs are Minuteman III, every armed with three warheads — 400 in whole — starting from 300 kt to 500 kt apiece. There are additionally air and sea-launched nuclear tipped missiles and bombs. The Tomahawk cruise missiles that lately struck Syria might be configured to hold a nuclear warhead.
The Technology Gap
The super-fuze additionally will increase the opportunity of an unintended nuclear battle.
So far, the world has managed to keep away from a nuclear warfare, though in the course of the 1962 Cuban missile disaster it got here distressingly shut. There have additionally been a number of scary incidents when U.S. and Soviet forces went to full alert due to defective radar photographs or a take a look at tape that somebody thought was actual. While the army downplays these occasions, former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues that it’s pure luck that we’ve prevented a nuclear trade — and that the opportunity of nuclear warfare is larger immediately than it was on the top of the Cold War.
In half, that is due to a expertise hole between the U.S. and Russia.
In January 1995, Russian early warning radar on the Kola Peninsula picked up a rocket launch from a Norwegian island that appeared as if it was concentrating on Russia. In reality, the rocket was headed towards the North Pole, however Russian radar tagged it as a Trident II missile coming in from the North Atlantic. The state of affairs was believable. While some first strike assaults envision launching a large variety of missiles, others name for detonating a big warhead over a goal at about 800 miles altitude. The large pulse of electro-magnetic radiation that such an explosion generates would blind or cripple radar programs over a broad space. That can be adopted with a primary strike.
At the time, calmer heads prevailed and the Russians referred to as off their alert, however for a couple of minutes the doomsday clock moved very near midnight.
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the 1995 disaster means that Russia doesn’t have “a reliable and working global space-based satellite early warning system.” Instead, Moscow has targeted on constructing ground-based programs that give the Russians much less warning time than satellite-based ones do. What which means is that whereas the U.S. would have about 30 minutes of warning time to analyze whether or not an assault was actually happening, the Russians would have 15 minutes or much less.
That, in line with the journal, would seemingly imply that “Russian leadership would have little choice but to pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to lower levels of command,” hardly a state of affairs that will be within the nationwide safety pursuits of both nation.
Or, for that matter, the world.
A latest examine discovered that a nuclear warfare between India and Pakistan utilizing Hiroshima-sized weapons would generate a nuclear winter that will make it unattainable to develop wheat in Russia and Canada and reduce the Asian Monsoon’s rainfall by 10 p.c. The end result can be as much as 100 million deaths by hunger. Imagine what the end result can be if the weapons have been the dimensions utilized by Russia, China, or the U.S.
For the Russians, the upgrading of U.S. sea-based missiles with the super-fuze can be an ominous improvement. By “shifting the capacity to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles,” the three scientists conclude, “the U.S. military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.”
The U.S. Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, carrying as many as 192 warheads. The missiles might be launched in lower than a minute.
The Russians and Chinese have missile-firing submarines as effectively, however not as many, and a few are near out of date. The U.S. has additionally seeded the world’s oceans and seas with networks of sensors to maintain observe of these subs. In any case, would the Russians or Chinese retaliate in the event that they knew that the U.S. nonetheless retained most of its nuclear strike drive? Faced with a selection committing nationwide suicide or holding their hearth, they could effectively select the previous.
The different aspect on this modernization program that has Russia and China uneasy is the choice by the Obama administration to put anti-missile programs in Europe and Asia, and to deploy Aegis ship-based anti-missile programs off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From Moscow’s perspective — and Beijing’s as effectively — these interceptors are there to soak up the few missiles that a first strike would possibly miss.
In actuality, anti-missile programs are fairly iffy. Once they migrate off the drawing boards, their deadly effectivity drops reasonably sharply. Indeed, most of them can’t hit the broad aspect of a barn. But that’s not an opportunity the Chinese and the Russians can afford to take.
Speaking on the St. Petersburg International Forum in June 2016, Russian President Valdimir Putin charged that U.S. anti-missile programs in Poland and Romania weren’t aimed toward Iran, however at Russia and China. “The Iranian threat does not exist, but missile defense systems continue to be positioned.” He added, “a missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential.”
Unraveling Arms Accords
The hazard right here is that arms agreements will start to unravel if international locations determine that they’re immediately weak. For the Russians and the Chinese, the best resolution to the American breakthrough is to construct much more missiles and warheads, and treaties be dammed.
The new Russian cruise missile might certainly pressure the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, however it’s also a pure response to what are, from Moscow’s view, alarming technological advances by the U.S. Had the Obama administration reversed the 2002 resolution by George W. Bush’s administration to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the brand new cruise would possibly by no means have been deployed.
There are plenty of instant steps that the U.S. and the Russians may take to de-escalate the present tensions. First, taking nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger standing would instantly cut back the opportunity of unintended nuclear warfare. That could possibly be adopted by a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons.
If this doesn’t occur, it is going to nearly definitely end in an accelerated nuclear arms race. “I don’t know how this is all going to end,” Putin instructed the St. Petersburg delegates. “What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.”
Conn Hallinan is a columnist at Foreign Policy In Focus.