Is a Nuclear Arms Race Picking Up Steam?
Several events this week highlighted the weakening nuclear balance. Iran announced that it was exceeding its previously agreed upon limit on enriched uranium stockpiles. There was a report that the Trump Administration was considering a deal with North Korea that would allow that nation to retain some nuclear weapons. And, Russian President Putin signed legislation that suspended Russia’s participation in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
The INF had been signed in 1987. It limited intermediate range nuclear weapons that were designed for targeting European targets in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. It was the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of missiles – those with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The US administration pulled out of the treaty in February, accusing the Russians of violating the pact. Specifically, they have identified the development of the 9M729 cruise missile, which has been deployed by the Russians
Of course, the Russians also accused the US of violating the treaty too by deploying anti-missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. The Russians said the interceptor missiles could have an offensive role.
As if to highlight the withdrawal from the INF treaty, Russia publicized the test of a new missile – the A-235 Nudul, an anti-satellite missile. The Russian Defense Ministry said, “The new missile, after several trials, has reliably confirmed its characteristics and successfully fulfilled the tasks by striking an assigned target with precision.”
But the US hasn’t been idle. At the direction of Congress, the Defense Department began research and development on concepts and options for conventional intermediate range missile systems in 2017.
This isn’t the only nuclear treaty that is threatened. The New START Treaty, which was signed in 2010 and is due to expire in 2021, probably will not be renewed. Putin has accused the US of showing no interest in extending the treaty.
“If no one feels like extending the agreement – New Start – well, we won’t do it then,” Putin said. “No one is holding any talks with us. The negotiations process hasn’t been arranged at all.”
The New Start Treaty limits the number of strategic missile launchers, but not the number of inactive, stockpiled nuclear weapons. Nor does it limit tactical systems like fighter bombers like the F-35, the F-16, and the F-15.
The US has also accused Russia of conducting low-yield nuclear tests, which violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Although critics say the abrogation of these treaties risks a new arms race, others say it only recognizes the new reality of a multi-polar nuclear world.
When the Russian/US nuclear treaties were negotiated and signed in the late 20th Century, the US and Russia were the only nations with significant nuclear arsenals. France, China, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan had nuclear weapons, but their arsenals were only a fraction of the superpower’s arsenals. They also lacked the ability to deliver them with Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)
Today, several nations have large nuclear weapons arsenals and the means to deliver them. Consequently, limitations on Russian and American nuclear weapons have no impact on the development of these nation’s nuclear weapons.
This was recognized when President Trump noted that he was willing to renegotiate the INF treaty, if China was a signatory.
But there is the question of new technology and the effectiveness of the nuclear treaties. Many think the old treaties negotiated as much as a half century ago are as obsolete as the Washington Naval Treaty limiting the size and number of battleships after World War One.
The suite of nuclear agreements was negotiated in an era when large yield nuclear weapons were loaded on long range weapons and designed for the destruction of major centers of the opposing nation and its allies. One reason for that was that early generation ICBMs were inaccurate and large yield nuclear weapons were required to ensure the destruction of the target.
However, the race for larger nuclear weapons that envisioned total destruction is over. Nuclear countries are focused on developing smaller yield weapons, that when married with high precision weapons need only destroy a smaller area. Today’s nuclear weapons have yields that are no larger than explosive charges used today in open pit mining operations.
This also means large, slow ICBMs aren’t needed. Smaller, hypersonic missiles can avoid conventional anti-ballistic missile systems, still carry a nuclear payload, and hit a target.
There are also new generation nuclear weapons that offer special effects. Neutron bombs can kill soldiers in tanks without damaging as many structures. In addition, they don’t produce as much radiation as other nuclear weapons. Others nuclear warheads are designed to disable an incoming nuclear missile by irradiating it with neutrons, which disrupts the chain reaction and knocks out the electronics. Other weapons designs can drastically limit the damage caused by the nuclear blast.
Then there are new technologies that were only on the drawing board when the treaties were signed. Lasers can now destroy an incoming ballistic missile. Satellites can monitor the movement of nuclear missiles as they travel across the country.
And, conventional explosives, with modern targeting can carry out surgical strikes around the world.
Then there is the new age of computers, where the computing power of a Minuteman missile of the 1960s is less than that found in a modern watch.
As a result of these technological developments, Russian and American strategists are rethinking nuclear strategy. Rather than depending on large, intercontinental weapons, the focus is on small precise nuclear weapons.
This means that landmark treaties like SALT and START have large technological loopholes in them. They focus on the launch systems and the nuclear warheads, while the key to modern warfare is in the computers, communications, and satellites. That’s why Putin announced the suspension of the INF Treaty the same week as Russia launched a modern anti-satellite missile.
The meaning was clear – an anti-satellite missile can do more damage to a nation’s ability to defend itself than intermediate range nuclear missile.
Putin is right. Today the destruction of an early warning or communications satellite can cripple a nation’s war making ability more than a 20-megaton bomb dropped on a major population center.
And, while the Russian/American treaties restricted large bombers like the B-52, they are inadequate when it comes to controlling nuclear capable stealth fighters or cruise missiles.
In order to be effective and not just publicity stunts, new nuclear agreements must face reality. They must engage more nuclear nations, especially China. And, they must reflect the reality of modern nuclear warfare.
One problem is that a treaty that limits tactical nuclear weapons and precision targeting may encourage nations to develop larger yield nuclear warheads. And, while the thought of a war with tactical nuclear weapons seems unthinkable, they are at least cleaner and less destructive.
Nor is a treaty limiting nuclear materials necessarily effective. While some nuclear materials like plutonium and uranium 235 are limited under several treaties, isotopes like tritium, which are critical for the nuclear detonator and fusion devices like the neutron bomb, are commercially available in watches.
Meantime, nuclear strategists are developing new tactics for World War Three. Today, the nuclear bomb is less likely to be a first strike weapon. Instead strategists see computer attacks on the enemy’s infrastructure – especially communications and the power grid.
These “hack” attacks will be married to anti-satellite missile launches against the enemy military satellite system. This will not only cut off critical command and control communications, it will blind the enemy by eliminating reconnaissance satellites, early warning satellites, and signal interception satellites.
Meanwhile, conventional warhead hypersonic missiles can destroy critical military facilities like air defense, which will allow stealth cruise missiles and aircraft to hit other strategic targets.
All of this can be done without using one nuclear device. And, if a nuclear device is needed, it will be a 4th generation device so small that it won’t break windows a mile away.
This is the new reality. And, both Russia and America know it. While they may complain about the other side violating nuclear treaties, they are both aware that these treaties are much like the ones written before WWII that limited battleships – obsolete.
After half a century of nuclear treaties between Russia and America, it’s time to face the realities of a new nuclear age.