Key unresolved issues in the WMD sphere

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Local and International Perceptions of Security Threats in the MENA Region

In terms of WMD Russia has advocated and will support strengthening regional security and stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region which is very close to Russia and has deep-seated historic political, commercial, cultural and spiritual ties.

To this end Moscow will seek to ensure full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to settle the issue around the Iranian nuclear program based on the UN Security Council resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015 and relevant IAEA Board of Governors decisions. No doubt, Russia will assist this process in every possible way, because a U-turn approach could produce too many negative risks and challenges.

It would be extremely irrelevant to tear off this deal by the USA, first, because Iran is operating within the limits imposed on its nuclear activities in the 2015 Vienna deal;second, because it is a multilateral arrangement stamped by the UN Security Council;third, because ballistic missiles are not in the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The Russian Federation will support the notion to proclaim the Middle East as a WMD free-zone, which should encompass national nuclear weapons of Israel and the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Asian part of Turkey after the Iranian nuclear deal was reached in 2015. It is high time to intensify debates on the implementation of this proposal shared by the majority of the Middle East nations and by Russia as a nuclear power. There are two non-governmental draft treaties on the Middle East WMD free-zone that could be debated, improved and shaped into an official accord.

There are some additional factors that have direct bearing on the MENA region and the globe at large.

In terms of the qualitatively new buildup of WMD each century has its own specific brand name. While last century was labeled as ‘a nuclear arms age’, the current century can be additionally characterized as ‘missile defense age’ and as ‘space-based weapons’ age’. These three interlinked factors unfortunately shape up the current and future military-political environment on the globe.

The positive feature is that two classic types of WMD – chemical and biological – have been almost entirely eliminated, except CW agents that have been frequently used by pseudo-caliphate ‘Islamic State’ in Syria. It is the setback that after persuading Damascus to get rid of CW agents under international control the world community failed to warn the armed terrorist factions in Syria not to use them, and failed to urge the producers of CW precursors to supply them to the quasi ‘Islamic State’.

Many experts believed that after signing seven major nuclear arms treaties during the first phase of the Cold War between two nuclear powers the elimination of their SOA or strategic offensive nuclear arms will be continued and gradually include other seven nations-members of the ‘Nuclear Club’.

But they have been mistaken: the nuclear WMD reduction process has stalled, with no immediate chances to be resumed either on bilateral or on multilateral basis.

There is a rather alarming reality that while last century there have been more nuclear warheads in the hands of two nuclear giants who wished to reduce the chances to start an all-out nuclear war, today there is a reversed tendency: while the number of nuclear arms have drastically reduced by 80 percent during several decades the chances for employment of nuclear weapons have increased due to lowering the threshold for using them.

There are several explanations of why it has happened.

Nuclear thinking is still prevailing in many nations. The fact: 122 countries in the world have supported the Nuclear Weapons Elimination Treaty opened for signature last summer. But, 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 still out of 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 nuclear deterrence strategy. There a number of nuclear-free zones, but not in the Middle East.

There is a concept of ‘de-escalation of escalation’ that is to de-escalate any regional non-nuclear conflagration with the help of nuclear weapons. There are voices not to ratify the CTBT and to resume nuclear testing in Nevada. A new pattern of military exercises has been introduced – transforming drills – when conventional maneuvers are enhanced by nuclear force. It has become a routine practice when the American high-ranking civilian officials involved in a decision-making process on a nationwide scale are invited to take part in the computerized nuclear war-gaming arranged by the top military men responsible for employment of nuclear weapons.

President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama has cancelled a ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ clause, ushered in plans to modernize tactical nuclear weapons and to hammer out a qualitatively new strategic nuclear triad comprised of strategic bomber B-21 Raider, ICBM Minuteman-IV and SSBN Columbia. The creation of such new strategic triad will start very soon – from 2026.

From 2017 till 2046 it will require US $ 1,2 trillion in constant dollars or 1,7 trillion with the inflation correction. This amount of money is unaffordable for any other nuclear weapons state. It is several times higher than the money spent on nuclear forces by the rest of nuclear arms possessors combined.

The fate of the 1987 INF Treaty is under very serious threat to be scrapped, and not by Russia. It has been repeated publicly by Vladimir Putin during last year and in October 2017 that the Kremlin would not be the first to do this. Russia is concerned that, on the other hand, while formally committing its compliance with the INF Treaty, since 2001 the Pentagon have violated this arrangement 92 times while using mock ballistic missiles of all 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 clear sense that the USA could suspend the operation of 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 extra step in breaching the INF Treaty. It will be deployed in Europe by the U.S. Army or to be transferred to key NATO allies who are not parties to this accord.

There is another factor which sometimes remains unnoticed. Half of NATO member states are involved in the year-round, 24 hours, 7 days a week the Baltic Air Policing operations that have started in 2004 in the skies of three Baltic states where DCA or dual-capable aircraft from the three Western nuclear powers take part and 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 basing countries are encouraged to upgrade their DCA as soon as possible.

There is an idea 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 have been retired a decade ago. Today its proponents maintain that a revived TLAM-N would bolster extended nuclear deterrence in the Middle East, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

The development of nuclear-tipped air-launched Long-Range Stand-off Missile has already started. There are voices exploring ways of reinforcing the nuclear deterrent in favor of 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 to be delivered by the newest B-21 strategic bombers and by JSFs F-35.

Moscow cannot neglect the fact that the United States is to complete the life extension program for the nuclear B61 bombs by 2024, as scheduled or earlier. With its accuracy, reliability, and low-yield option 0,3 kt 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 in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States and NATO’s buildup of 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 the military activity in the immediate proximity to Russia by five times and aerial reconnaissance near it ten times as much.

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 looks like that it will not change the U.S. general strategic nuclear goals. It can lower the threshold for nuclear use and open the door to developing “more usable” nuclear warheads.

Due to all these factors there is a very little hope that the New START between the USA and Russia (or START-3 in Russian political vocabulary) will be extended for extra five years after it will finally expire in 2021. The Newest START/START-4 will seemingly wait for the same outcome.

There are several factors that can create formidable obstacles en route towards the New START extension or forging the Newest START/START-4:

Factor 1. Continuation of unlimited and unrestrained proliferation of the U.S. BMD interceptors. The problem could arise especially when the ratio between U.S. BMD interceptors and Russian strategic offensive arms’ delivery vehicles will reach a proportion of 3:1, and the ration between the U.S. interceptors and Russian strategicwarheads will be 2:1 (the AAD/BMD Patriot missile system are not counted here). If it happens, there will be 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 chances to start any 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 mid 1990s Moscow has pulled back all its TNW inventory to its territory, while the USA has not.

Factor 3. Actually a new factor linked with permanent fielding of the 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 leading to 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 it does not outweigh Russia’s nuclear potential.

President Donald Trump has inherited ‘unconditional offensive nuclear deterrence’ strategy allowing either to deliver a massive or a limited first nuclear strike on Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. That is quite possible. Currently, Moscow and Washington have 16 unresolved arms control issues souring their relations.

In this context it is expedient to remind that the entire U.S. ICBMs are in full operational readiness (99,7 percent), there are nearly 50 percent of all its SSBNs sailing in the World Oceans ready to fire nuclear SLBMs, and around 25 percent 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 after 1991.

The existing U.S. system of launching nuclear arms by a single person has more evolved through tradition and precedent than by laws. The problem is so alarming that a number of the U.S. Congressmen wish to limit the authority of any President who can make a unilateral decision to use nuclear weapons at his own discretion.

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 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 nuclear authority to start any type of nuclear war – limited or a large-scale war. 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 the U.S. Strategic Command said he would refuse to execute an order from President Donald Trump to launch a nuclear weapon if he believed its use was illegal. In January 2017 Joseph Biden, U.S. Vice President has 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 July 2017 the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Scott Swift admitted that he was ready to deliver a first nuclear blow on the People’s Republic of China “next week”, if the President of the United States gives such an order to him.

Russia has different nuclear authorization system. Three persons communicating together, by undisputable consensus, can launch nuclear weapons: namely 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 Congressprohibiting the President from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike without a permission given by Congress. Nationally, it is up to the U.S. lawmakers and military to modify the existing practice and responsibly restrict Presidential authority to order nuclear arms launch against any nation.

But, internationally, before any constraints are imposed on presidential authority to press a nuclear button it expedient to enact the no-first use (NFU) pledge between 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 on 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 it has not used them. Third, there is a great risk, if the incoming non-nuclear cruise or ballistic missile is interpreted by the opposite number as a nuclear-tipped vehicle.Fourth, the window of opportunity to employ nuclear weapons in the recent years has been widely opened.

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 U.S. ex-Defense Secretary, and retired General James E. Cartwright, former Vice Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have observed in the Washington Post that today’s danger is not a Russia’s ‘bolt from the blue’ massive nuclear attack, but rather the U.S. blunder – that is the USA might accidentally stumble into nuclear war. Probably, for this reason Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the monthly magazine Arms Control Today, noted in December 2017:“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 sabre 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.

Written by Vladimir P. Kozin

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