Avoiding nuclear Armageddon


© Vladimir Kozin, 2020

Member of the Russian Academy of the Natural Sciences and a Member of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences;

Member, Scientific Council, Russian National Research Institute for Global Security;

 Member, Expert Group, Foreign Relations Committee, Russian Senate

 Lead Adviser, Center for Military and Political Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)


Remarks at the International Video Conference. May, 2020





I. General assessment of the level of nuclear confrontation and the situation in the nuclear arms control sphere

The overall assessment of the developments in these two interwoven domains is rather negative:

  •  the level of nuclear confrontation during last several years has sharply increased;
  •  the process in the nuclear arms control area has actually stalled, being characterized by unilateral withdrawal of the USA from the bilateral INF Treaty with Russia and the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Plan known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal, a clear-cut statement of the USA not to ratify the multilateral Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and Washington’s intention to resume nuclear testing at Nevada desert and to install two types of low-yield nuclear weapons on strategic offensive arms delivery systems.

The present-day nuclear arms control process may be described by the following features:

1) retaining of nuclear strategy of the first-use or the first-strike of nuclear weapons by many nuclear nations;  2) watering down the functional features between offensive and defensive nuclear arms;  3) lowering down the threshold of using of nuclear weapons – both strategic and tactical, including the low-yield nuclear warheads;  4) seeking nuclear arms supremacy over other nuclear nations;  5) substantial increase in nuclear arms spending, including the percentage of spending on nuclear weapons in relation to overall military budgets;  6) wrong interpretation of the “strategic stability” terminology in the nuclear arms sphere;  7) neglecting the principle of equality and equal security in nuclear arms control;  8) lack of joint approach of the P-5 nations or the de jure nuclear powers towards nuclear arms control steps, and all nine nuclear-weapon states – both de jure and de facto – have assumed a negative stance on the existing Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty. As of April 6, 2020, only 81 states have signed the Treaty and 36 have ratified it. But that is not enough, because it will enter into force if totally 50 countries will ratify it.

If such eight features are not reconsidered and still remain in force, the sound, practical, constructive and mutually beneficial nuclear arms control process will be impossible to attain for many years to come.

No doubt that the nuclear arms race that the world community has inherited from the last century, will be complemented by two new arms races, namely in missile defense and in outer space.


II. The situation is complicated by the fact that there are 13 unresolved issues in arms control between the USA and Russia:

1) U.S. negative stance on the New START extension for the next five years; 2) U.S. still has positive view to Tactical Nuclear Weapons’ Employment still stored outside the continental USA for nearly 70 years;  3) U.S. desire to deploy the new INF-related nuclear missiles in Europe and Asia; 4) U.S. intention to use a low-yield nuclear weapons having the yield of less than 5 kiloton;  5) U.S. use of Heavy Strategic Bombers near Russia, the People’s Republic of China, Iran and North Korea in the framework of the frequent air-patrol missions;  6) U.S./NATO Operation “Baltic Air Policing” conducted 24h/365 days over three Baltic nations (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), plus Poland involving Dual Capable Aircraft from all three Western nuclear nations;  7) retaining by the USA the First-Nuclear-Strike or First-Nuclear-Use clause, as well other directives such as “launch-on-warning”, “launch-prior-to-launch”, “escalation to de-escalation” reflected in the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, and plus existing “nuclear sharing agreements” between the USA and many NATO countries;  8) U.S. refusal to proliferate the INCSEA or Incidents-At-Sea-Prevention-Agreements to SSBN/SSN sailing under water near Russian territory – with the aim to avoid collisions between them;  (9)  U.S. lack of desire to show the Russian inspectors some U.S. strategic nuclear arms delivery systems fitted in words for non-nuclear missions; 10) U.S. unlimited missile defense interceptors versus Russian strategic nuclear arms;  11) the USA has BMDS sites in Europe and Asia fitted with MK-41 that can load nuclear-tipped Ground-launched Cruise Missiles and Hypersonic Vehicles; 12) no U.S. desire to accept a proposal on moratorium for the INF-related missile in Europe and Asia-Pacific Region; and finally, 13) U.S. refusal to repeat once more the famous Presidents Reagan-Gorbachev’s saying that: “Nuclear war cannot be fought, because it cannot be won.”


III. New U.S. Nuclear Strategy: short analysis

President Donald Trump’s new national nuclear strategy enacted named as the 2018 NPR or Nuclear Posture Review contained much more reason to use nuclear arms in a first strike. The vagueness of some provisions implying a clear freedom of action in the use of nuclear missile weapons, says about the irresponsible approach of the American Administration to its use – almost at any time, and anywhere in the world.

The military and political core of the new U.S. nuclear strategy is the possibility of the initiative use of nuclear weapons in the first strike against almost any state in the world, including those that will use against the United States even general-purpose forces involved in any, even on a small scale and with minimal consequences. The list of grounds for the use of nuclear weapons also includes an attack using conventional weapons against nuclear forces, their control facilities and missile warning systems of the United States and its allies.

The 2018 NPR differs from the 2010 NPR stamped by President Barack Obama: in all it has 14 reasons for using nuclear weapons, while the latter had six reasons.

The 2018 NPR mentioned the following grounds for using nuclear weapons: the emergence and build-up of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats, including the threat of chemical, biological and cyber weapons, as well as the significant use of strategic non-nuclear weapons. It was stated that nuclear weapons could be used in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States, its allies and partners and in case of occurrence of new enemies of the United States, changes in policies and doctrine of these enemies, create new alliances among the opponents and the further spread of nuclear weapons and even the technological surprises in other states. The possibility of using nuclear weapons was not ruled out in the event of damage to American nuclear forces. In the introductory part to the 2018 NPR there was also a wording that allows the American President to use nuclear weapons in the event of a change in the geopolitical situation.

All these postulates indicate the expansion of the range of circumstances and reasons that can cause the order of the U.S. President to use nuclear weapons in the first strike. In this context, it should be recalled that in 2018, for the first time in more than forty years, the American Congress drew attention to the real possibility of the President of the USA to issue his own and final order to use nuclear weapons against any state in the world without authorization from the supreme legislative body and without declaring war on such a state.

President Donald Trump ignored this decision of Congress, which believed that such an order can be brought by the head of state to the country’s nuclear missile forces within 3-5 minutes, which can actually use nuclear weapons in the next 4-12 minutes. During his election campaign ten former nuclear launch officers who once manned missile silos and held the keys to execute a launch order signed a letter saying Donald Trump should not “have his finger on the button” because of his temperament. 

The 2018 NPR clearly stated that Washington will not abandon the postulate of the use of nuclear weapons in the first strike and will not support proposals to lower the level of combat readiness of national nuclear forces, but will keep in force the agreement of the mid-90s reached with Russia according to its initiative on mutual de-targeting of strategic nuclear missiles on each other’s territory.

Donald Trump’s NPR calls for the use of NW in the event of multilateral potential risks and threats –  six grounds clearly stated and eight deliberately vaguely formulated.

Namely, in the first batch of six grounds there are the following reasons for using nuclear weapons: 1) to deter potential adversaries from nuclear and non-nuclear attack of any scale  and under any conditions on p.20; 2) to respond to any non-nuclear strategic attack on p.21; 3) to protect its allies and partners from nuclear and non-nuclear attack on p.21;  4) if attack is launched vs nuclear forces of the U.S. allies on p. 21; 5) to respond to any attack vs the USA, its allied or partner civilian population and infrastructure on p. 21; and 6) to use low-yield nuclear weapons as a credible deterrence against regional aggression on p. 54. They have been clearly formulated.

However, there are too vague reasons, still not explained by Washington what the USA has in mind, namely: 1) if “operational shortfalls” reduce the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear forces on p.38; 2) to deny “unexpected challenges” on p.38; 3) in the event of “a geopolitical challenge” that threatens an element of U.S. nuclear forces on p. 40; 4) to respond against “multiple future risks and uncertainties” on p.48; 5) to respond to  “new forms of aggression” on p. 21; 6) to respond to “emergence of new adversaries”, expansion of adversary nuclear forces, changes in adversary strategy and doctrine on p.38; 7) to use vs NPT member-states, if they violate it (p.21); and 8) to overcome  “technical  challenges”  or  “adversaries’ technological breakthroughs”, and in case of any cyberattacks (p.38).

As has been repeatedly recognized in American military and political documents, in the next ten years, the Pentagon will receive up to US $ 400 billion dollars for strengthening the nuclear missile component, and in the next 30 years – US $ 1.2 trillion at constant prices, or US $ 1.7 trillion adjusted for inflation. No country in the world can spend such enormous amount of money for such weapons of mass destruction.


V. Current Russian nuclear strategy

It is fundamentally important that the Russian nuclear doctrines of 2010 (the previous one) and 2014 (the current one) do not contain provisions on the possibility of using Russian nuclear weapons in regional or local conflicts, which is attributed by some Western researchers. There is no indication of the separate use of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. The present Russian military doctrine of 2014 annulled all the different opinions on this topic expressed before its adoption by various experts who did not declare an official point of view.

In addition, in the Russian military doctrine of 2014 there is no word about any desire of Moscow to implement the strategy of extended nuclear deterrence or forward-based nuclear deterrence, that is, by placing its own nuclear weapons on the territory of foreign states closer to American territory. Crucially, the updated version of Russia’s 2014 military doctrine lacks language about its desire to deploy strike elements of the global missile defense infrastructure in the territories of foreign countries.

Paragraph 8 of the 2014 military doctrine uses the term “non-nuclear deterrence system”, which referred to a set of foreign policy, military and military-technical measures aimed at preventing aggression against the Russian Federation by “non-nuclear means”. Paragraph 16 of the 2014 Russian military doctrine recognized that nuclear weapons will remain an important factor in preventing the nuclear military conflicts and military conflicts involving conventional weapons in large-scale war and regional warfare. Of fundamental importance is the provision of paragraph 20 of that Russian doctrine which stated that the prevention of a nuclear military conflict, like any other military conflict, is the basis of the military policy of the Russian Federation.

Paragraph 27, which fixes two possibilities for using nuclear weapons by the Russian Federation: in the case of use against it and (or) its allies of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (i.e., chemical and bacteriological weapons), as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, “when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

Thus, the current nuclear doctrine of the Russian Federation in brief can be qualified as the doctrine of “conditional defensive nuclear deterrence”. In contrast, the current American nuclear strategy can be characterized as the doctrine of “unconditional offensive nuclear deterrence”, since it provides for the initiative of the first preventive and pre-emptive nuclear strikes on almost any state of the globe, at any time and under any pretext.


VI. Potential human and environmental damages of using nuclear weapons

Many widely renown scholars and experts believe that even a limited use of nuclear weapons in a regional conflict will bring huge human losses and devastating material and environmental damages to many nations. Those case studies conducted in the last century and today by Western nuclear scientists arrive to the same sad and negative conclusions: any use of nuclear weapons – however limited – will bring an Armageddon scenario to many people.

Only one nuclear bomb dropped on Amsterdam with the population of around one million will sweep completely away this wonderful European city and its surrounding areas in a moment. One nuclear warhead of 500 kiloton delivered to New York or Moscow will kill nearly 5 million people in each case.

On June 19, 2019 Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) announced a provision he proposed banning the production of low-yield nuclear weapons passed the House the same day as a part of an appropriations package. The provision prohibits the research, development, production and deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In his introduction it was stated that so-called low-yield nuclear weapons have the potential to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons and increase the risk of entering the U.S. into nuclear war.

In 2018 and 2019, he also introduced and reintroduced the Hold the LYNE Act – or Low-Yield Nuclear Explosive Act, which would prohibit the research, development, production and deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

In his words, “Low-yield nuclear bombs would yield horrific results. With the power to kill at least 80,000 people, these bombs could drag the U.S. and our allies into a devastating nuclear conflict. … A low-yield bomb simply puts us at risk for all-out nuclear Armageddon. I’m grateful this provision was included in this year’s Defense appropriations bill, so we can stop low-yield nuclear weapons from creating a high-risk situation”.

In that Act it was mentioned that a new low-yield nuclear weapon to be carried on a ballistic missile submarine “risks lowering the threshold for nuclear use and increasing the chance of miscalculation that could escalate into all-out nuclear exchange” and “when launched, such a low-yield nuclear warhead would be indistinguishable to an adversary from the high-yield W76 and W88 submarine launched warheads.”

The Act also warned that: the ballistic missile submarines of the United States have never carried low-yield nuclear warheads, and setting a historical precedent could undermine the unique and paramount role of ballistic-missile submarines as the assured, survivable second-strike capability of the United States to deter large-scale nuclear war. The Act concluded that the USA should reject policies that increase the likelihood of nuclear war and weaken national security, including investments in low-yield nuclear weapons.

Despite such opposition, a new nuclear warhead designed and produced during the Donald Trump Administration, has been deployed aboard a nuclear submarine of SSBN-class, the Pentagon confirmed at the end of 2019. The deployment of the W 76-2, a low-yield variant of the nuclear warhead traditionally used on the Trident SLBM, was first reported January 29, 2020 by the Federation of American Scientists. The first submarine to move out with the new weapon was the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), deploying from Kings Bay Submarine Base in the state of Georgia at the end of 2019, FAS reported. 

The creation of a low-yield submarine launched warhead was one of two new designs called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The warhead is designed to be smaller than the weapon detonated at Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. The design is a modification of the W76-1 warhead for the Navy’s Trident ballistic missile that allowed the National Nuclear Security Administration to quickly turn around the design and production in roughly a year.

Opponents of the weapon question whether that doctrine is realistic, and also argue that no nuclear system can truly be non-strategic. Specific to the W76-2, members of the nonproliferation community have raised concerns that having a low-yield and high-yield warhead launched on the same SSBN creates a situation where an adversary doesn’t know which system is being used and therefore reacts as if the larger warhead has been launched.

Asked about the reported deployment of a new low-yield nuclear missile on Tennessee SSBN, a Pentagon spokesman stated that it is U.S. policy to neither “confirm nor deny” the presence of nuclear weapons abroad any naval vessel and declined to comment on the specific details of the FAS report what kind of naval platform was involved. However, in his statement, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood confirmed that the Navy has fielded the weapon that has been mentioned. 

Such deployment “strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” John Rood directly wrote in the statement.

Taking into account his statement one can arrive at the conclusion that any type of the U.S. low-yield nuclear missiles should be considered as a very destabilizing weapon of mass destruction, because it can be used in many cases, and under many circumstances, and anywhere in the world.

There is a danger that any limited employment of nuclear weapons will be converted into a large-scale nuclear confrontation. In the first several hours of an all-out nuclear war 34 million people will die and 57 million will be injured. There will be a huge radioactive contamination of large populated areas and industrial centers. The situation may worsen if nuclear power plants or huge water dams will be destroyed in an exchange of nuclear arms attacks – be them conducted with strategic or tactical nuclear weapons.


VII. Practical suggestions: seven proposals to contain the nuclear arms race

There are the most immediate steps, and gradual measures to contain the ongoing nuclear arms race.

Amongst them there could be:

1. As the first step to be implemented in 2020: Russia and the USA plus all other nuclear-weapon states have to agree on no first-use or the first-strike of nuclear weapons.

2. The USA should extend the New START for the next five years, and return to the compliance with the INF Treaty (Russian SSC-8 or 9M729 missile is not covered by the former INF Treaty); the USA has to pull back all its TNW from Europe and pledge not to field them and the INF-related nuclear and non-nuclear missiles in Europe and the Asia-Pacific Region.

3. The USA and Russia should set up a proportion between missile defense system (MDS) interceptors & strategic offensive nuclear arms delivery systems, and agree about MDS no-deployment zones. The USA has to dismantle its MDS bases in Romania and Poland, South Korea and Japan.

4. The USA has to ratify the CTBT and pledge not to explode any nuclear devices at Nevada test site. Note: Russia has ratified it in 2000.

5. Russia and the USA have to proliferate the INCSEA accord on the SSBN and SSN while submerged at their respective Navies Training Areas.

6. The USA and NATO as a whole have to cancel «Baltic Air Policing Operation» in the airspace of three Baltic states and Poland where it uses the DCA aircraft.

7. Space-faring nations have to sign the international PAROS or Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space/NFEWS Treaty or Now-First Employment of Weapons in Space Treaty.

If such arrangements will be impossible to implement as a package deal, at least one first step has to be examined with due attention: to reach a commitment of all P-5 on no-first nuclear strike against each other. It will constitute the real action to avoid an all-out nuclear war that has become highly likely in the present-day tense and hostile military and political environment.

All these measures can also be debated at the suggested the P-5 Summit on arms control if it is arranged later this year, presumably in New York city during the next regular UN General Assembly Session. No doubt that such measures will enhance predictability between the P-5 and improve regional and global security, and planetary strategic stability. As for nuclear risks, Moscow is working on a joint statement with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council on the inadmissibility of a nuclear war.

Unfortunately, the United States has failed to respond to Russia’s proposal to repeat once more the well-known Gorbachev-Reagan formula in a bilateral format. In this case Russia will try to make such a reconfirmation in a multilateral format during the upcoming P-5 Summit.

It is very sad that in light of the situation related to the COVID-19 pandemic the 2020 NPT Review Conference has been postponed to a later date, “as soon as the circumstances permit”, but no later than April 2021. Russian stance and priorities in nuclear disarmament have been comprehensively described in the Russian Working Paper submitted to the second Preparatory Committee for the 10th NPT Review Conference. It stipulates a consensus-based incremental approach that implies consistent work on creating the right conditions that help the global community to continue down the path toward nuclear disarmament. Moscow still believes that complete elimination of nuclear weapons is only possible within comprehensive and complete disarmament and under conditions of equal and indivisible security for all, including nuclear states, in accordance with the NPT.

My personal view is that a nuclear-free world can be built by 2045 – by a centenary of the tragic use of nuclear bombs versus Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or earlier than by 2045, if there is a world-wide consensus.

And the final brush: the highly virulent COVID-19 pandemic has brought so far too many innocent victims amongst almost all countries all over the world, and caused tremendous economic and financial losses needed to fight this horrible decease. At the beginning of April 2020 more than 1 million people have been infected by COVID-19, and more 65 thousand died.  Sat the end of May the same year more than 5.5 million people have got this highly virulent disease, and nearly 350 thousand passed away. It is a very sad reality.

But it will be much sadder reality, if any nuclear conflict intentionally or unintentionally will erupt – God forbid! – with much horrible consequences around the globe than the Corona virus per se has done. If you compare such results reached in the first several hours of an all-out nuclear war with figures already mentioned: 34 million people dead and 57 million injured. Or more.

That is why all of us will have to bear it in mind, and to take specific steps to avoid such a gloomy scenario.




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