In terms of the qualitatively new buildup of weapons of mass destruction, each century has its own specific brand name. While the last century was labeled “the nuclear arms age,” the current century could be characterized as “the missile defense age” and “the space-based weapons age.” These three interlinked factors unfortunately define the current and future military-political environment on the globe.
Many experts believed that after the signing of seven major nuclear arms treaties by the two nuclear powers during the first phase of the Cold War, the elimination of their strategic offensive nuclear arms would be continued, and gradually include the other seven member nations of the “Nuclear Club.”
But they were mistaken: the process of reduction of nuclear weapons has stalled with no immediate chance to be resumed either on a bilateral or multilateral basis.
The rather alarming reality is that while during the last century there were more nuclear warheads in the hands of two nuclear giants who wished to reduce the chances of all-out nuclear war, today there is the opposite tendency. While the number of nuclear arms has been reduced by 80% during the past several decades, the chances that nuclear weapons will be used have increased because the threshold for using them has been lowered.
There are several explanations why this has happened.
Nuclear thinking still prevails in many nations. The fact is that 122 countries have supported the Nuclear Weapons Elimination Treaty since last summer. On the other hand, nearly 70 nations preferred to stay out, including all nine de jure and de facto nuclear-weapon states. Seven nuclear nations are not participating in nuclear arms control. Tactical nuclear weapons have never been the subject of official talks. Several nuclear nations have offensive nuclear doctrines. One nation has extended its nuclear deterrence strategy. There is a number of nuclear-free zones, but not in the Middle East.
There is a concept of “escalate to de-escalate,” that is, to de-escalate a regional non-nuclear conflict with the help of nuclear weapons. There are voices arguing not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and to resume nuclear testing in Nevada. A new pattern of military exercises has been introduced – transforming drills – whereby conventional maneuvers are enhanced by nuclear force. It has become a routine practice for high-ranking U.S. civilian officials who would be involved in the national decision-making process to take part in computerized nuclear war-gaming organized by the top military officers responsible for the deployment of nuclear weapons.
President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, cancelled a ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ clause, and ushered in plans to modernize tactical nuclear weapons, and to hammer out a qualitatively new strategic nuclear triad comprised of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, the Minuteman-IV ICBM, and the Columbia SSBN. This new strategic triad will begin to be implemented very soon, in 2026.
From 2017 till 2046, it will require $ 1.2 trillion, or $1.7 trillion adjusted for inflation. Neither of other nuclear-armed states can afford such an expense. It is several times higher than the money spent on nuclear forces by the all the other countries that possess nuclear weapons combined.
The fate of the 1987 INF Treaty is under very serious threat, and not by Russia. Vladimir Putin has repeated publicly over the past year, and as recently as October 2017, that the Kremlin would not be the first country to withdraw from the treaty. On the other hand, Russia is concerned that the Pentagon, while formally committing to compliance with the INF Treaty, has since 2001 violated this agreement 92 times by using mock ballistic missiles of ranges prohibited by the 1987 accord as target vehicles to test the efficiency of the BMD system.
The U.S. Congress in its reconciled version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act expressed clearly that the United States could suspend the INF Treaty in whole or in part. The recent decision by the Congress to develop a new ground-launched medium-range cruise missile will be an additional step in breaching the INF Treaty. This missile would be deployed in Europe by the U.S. Army, or transferred to key NATO allies who are not parties to this accord.
There is another factor that sometimes remains unnoticed. Half of NATO member states are involved in the year-round, 24-hour, 7-days-a-week Baltic Air Policing operations. These began in 2004 in the skies of the three Baltic states, with the participation of dual-capable aircraft (DCAs) from the three Western nuclear powers, which can carry either conventional or nuclear weapons.
The alliance’s DCA will be modernized, with the dual-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter eventually becoming the backbone of NATO’s theater-based nuclear deterrent capability. The countries that base these forces are being encouraged to upgrade their DCA as soon as possible. But Europe does not need foreign nuclear weapons.
There is a proposal to resurrect the nuclear capability of the Tomahawk sea-based cruise missile – known as TLAM-N, or Tomahawk land-attack missile nuclear – which was removed from U.S. Navy warships in the early 1990s and whose nuclear warheads were retired a decade ago. Today its proponents maintain that a revived TLAM-N would bolster the extended nuclear deterrence in the Middle East, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region.
The development of the nuclear-tipped air-launched Long-Range Stand-off Missile has already started. There are voices in favor of exploring ways to reinforce the nuclear deterrent by developing a nuclear version of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), and deploying low-yield nuclear-tipped missiles and nuclear free-fall bombs delivered by the newest B-21 strategic bombers and by the F-35 joint-strike fighter.
Moscow cannot ignore the fact that the United States is on track to complete the life-extension program for the nuclear B61 bombs on schedule in 2024, or even earlier. With its accuracy, reliability, and low-yield option of 0.3 kilotons, the B61-12 and its F-35 delivery platform will provide a substantial capability to complement the U.S. central strategic and tactical nuclear systems in Europe, the Middle East, the Gulf area, and the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States and NATO are building up their general-purpose forces, which include heavy weapons, and conduct large-scale military exercises of an offensive nature in regions bordering the territory of Russia and its allies. Since 2014, NATO has expanded its military activity in the immediate proximity to Russia by five times, and aerial reconnaissance near Russia, by ten times.
Besides worrisome changes in the security environment, there are many elements of continuity in the U.S. nuclear policy that could be incorporated in the updated Nuclear Posture Review to be released later this year or early 2018. It appears that it will not change U.S. general strategic nuclear goals. It may lower the bar for nuclear weapons deployment and open the door to developing “more usable” nuclear warheads.
Because of these factors, there is very little hope that the U.S.-Russian New START treaty (START-3 in Russian political vocabulary) will be extended for five years after it is set to expire in 2021. The Newest START/START-4 will seemingly wait for the same outcome.
Several factors may create formidable obstacles for the extension of New START or the pursuit of Newest START/START-4:
Factor 1. Continuation of unlimited and unrestrained proliferation of U.S. BMD interceptors. This problem could arise especially when the ratio between U.S. BMD interceptors and Russian strategic offensive arms delivery vehicles reaches a proportion of 3:1, and the ratio between the U.S. interceptors and Russian strategic warheads will be 2:1 (the AAD/BMD Patriot missile system are not counted here). If it happens, it will mean the end of strategic stability. The lower the ceiling of Russia’s SOA and the greater the number of the U.S. BMD interceptors that can hit them, the greater will be the American temptation to launch a first nuclear strike.
Factor 2. American tactical nuclear weapons deployment in four European states and the Asian part of Turkey offers no chance to start negotiations involving TNW – be it tactical arms reduction talks or tactical arms limitation talks, or even limited TNW confidence- and transparency-building measures. There is still geographic disparity in the TNW emplacement of the two sides: by the mid-1990s Moscow had pulled back all its TNW inventory to its territory, while the USA had not.
Factor 3. A new factor linked to the permanent basing of U.S. heavy strategic bombers in Europe, Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region. They fly over the Baltic Sea and land in Estonia.
So, after the New START aggregate ceilings will be met next February, Russia will have effectively exhausted its options for continuing negotiations exclusively with the American side to reduce nuclear SOA on a bilateral basis. It is obvious: all nuclear states should be involved in a corresponding process of further negotiations on downsizing their nuclear forces. First of all, this should pertain to Britain and France having reciprocal nuclear commitments. Their combined nuclear assets should be taken into account in order to ensure that they do not outweigh Russia’s nuclear potential.
President Donald Trump has inherited an “unconditional offensive nuclear deterrence” strategy that allows for a massive or a limited first nuclear strike on Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. That is quite possible. Besides that, currently, Moscow and Washington have 16 unresolved arms control issues souring their relations.
In this context, it is expedient to recall that the entire U.S. ICBM arsenal is in full operational readiness (99.7%); nearly 50% of U.S. SSBNs are sailing the world oceans, ready to fire nuclear SLBMs; and around 25% of heavy strategic bombers are on full combat alert. The U.S Air Force is preparing to put these bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since 1991.
The existing U.S. system of launching nuclear arms by a single person has evolved more through tradition and precedent than by laws. The problem is so alarming that a number of U.S. Congressmen wish to limit the authority of any president to make a unilateral decision to use nuclear weapons at his own discretion.
The same practice exists in the DPRK. So, the leaders of these two countries can order a first nuclear strike against each other’s nation.
It was not serendipity that on November 14, 2017 the U.S. Senate held its first hearing in 41 years on the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. The essence of such an authority is that the order could be given initially any time and against any nation. The crux of the matter is that there are no checks on the president’s authority to start any type of nuclear war – limited or large-scale. A single verbal direction to the Pentagon war room will be sufficient for this action.
This issue is so important for the USA that on November 18, 2017 four-star General John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said he would refuse to execute an order from President Trump to launch a nuclear weapon if he believed it to be illegal. In January 2017, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden stated that it was hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the USA “would be necessary or make sense”.
At the same time, speaking in Canberra in July 2017, the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Scott Swift, admitted that he was ready to deliver a first nuclear attack on the People’s Republic of China “next week”, if the President of the United States would give him such an order.
Russia has a different nuclear authorization system. Three persons communicating together, by undisputable consensus, can launch nuclear weapons: the President, the Defense Minister, and the General Chief of Staff.
On January 24, 2017, identical versions of a bill titled the Restricting First-Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 were introduced in both chambers of Congress. The measure would prohibit the president from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike without permission from the Congress. Domestically, it is up to the U.S. lawmakers and military to modify the existing practice and responsibly limit presidential authority to order nuclear arms launch against any nation.
But, internationally, before any constraints are imposed on presidential authority to press the nuclear button it is expedient to enact the no-first use (NFU) pledge among all nuclear armed nations as soon as possible.
There are four major reasons for that. First, during the Cold War the USA had three false alarms, and during one of those it narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe. Second, after 1945 the USA has intended to resort to nuclear weapons eight times, but luckily has not used them. Third, there is a great risk, if an incoming non-nuclear cruise or ballistic missile is interpreted by the opposite number to be a nuclear-tipped vehicle. Fourth, the window of opportunity to employ nuclear weapons in the recent years has been widened.
The existing nuclear missiles de-targeting agreements between Russia and three Western nuclear-weapons states cannot substitute the NFU pledge.
On November 16, 2017 William J. Perry, the former U.S. secretary of defense, and retired General James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed in the Washington Post that “today’s greatest danger is not a Russian “bolt from the blue” massive nuclear attack, but rather a U.S. blunder – that is, the United States might accidentally stumble into nuclear war.” Perhaps for this reason, Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the monthly magazine Arms Control Today, noted in December 2017, that “the fate of millions of people should not depend on the good judgment of one person…”
Last year President Vladimir Putin urged all nuclear weapon states to display responsibility and not to use nuclear weapons that will lead to the end of the civilization. He clearly stated that Russia stands for universal nuclear disarmament. In his words, even nuclear sable rattling is the most dangerous act.
Before the Nuclear Weapons Elimination Treaty is welcomed by the entire world community, the universal NFU notion should be implemented as soon as possible as a step facilitating the creation of a global nuclear zero option.