To tolerate the intolerable.
Perhaps by far the most dangerously ill-informed thing the US President-elect has said since the election was this 22 December tweet and associated comment signalling his apparent support for the resumption and acceleration of a nuclear arms race. Understanding why this is the case requires some detail and a little back-story on where exactly the world stands today in relation to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. A threat that, intriguingly, continues to receive little attention in contrast to the magnitude of its potential impact.
Today, the United States and Russia each have around 1700 nuclear warheads deployed across the triad of air, sea, and ground-based delivery systems. Another 4000 or so are in each stockpile, with a few thousand each also in a state of suspended animation ‘awaiting disposal’. The deployed weapons are kept on ‘hair-trigger’ alert, ready to be launched. These are accompanied by an extensive array of sensor and communication systems in outer space, in the air, at sea, and on the ground supporting early-warning, air and missile defence, offensive targeting, and command and control. Various treaties during and since the Cold War have brought numbers down, restricted the types and missions of weapons as well as defensive systems, supported non-proliferation efforts, and placed strict controls on nuclear materials.
Nuclear doctrine, however, remains one of the most peculiar items of human rationalism. The ‘balance of terror’, and therefore ‘stability’ of the nuclear domain is grounded in an imagined equilibrium based on overtly offensive doctrine. Defence has never had much of a chance in a nuclear exchange, something even the most strident proponents of missile defence admit. Ground or sea-based missile defence systems might plausibly be useful for defending against only a handful of incoming missiles and their associated warheads. As such, the overt capacity to defend in a nuclear scenario probably only applies significant political pressure to rogue states, nuclear aspirants, or non-state actors who might somehow procure a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile from a state incompetent or foolish enough not to prevent it.
Deterrence of nuclear war is thus fundamentally still based on the threat of retaliation. Yet, knowing the capacity of one another to retaliate, neither the United States nor Russia adheres to a stated ‘no first use’ policy. The Americans call this ‘calculated ambiguity’. A plethora of well researched histories of the Cold War, many citing the increasing trickle of declassified documents emerging from the era, are in basic agreement that this situation was never in anything resembling a stable balance. It hung by a thread. Both sides were terrified the other could wipe out command and control mechanisms in the early moments of an attack, so they built semi-automatic retaliation systems. If under attack with C2 broken, humans buried deep under metres of granite and steel would launch the kitchen sink. The Soviets called their system ‘Perimeter’. They didn’t tell the Americans they had it. Some calculation. In addition, the ‘First Nuclear Age’ was struck through with a litany of instances in which human and technological mishap, error, and miscalculation came close to severing the thread unintentionally, triggering a global catastrophe. Veterans of the age such as Bill Perry are in agreement: We survived not because of good strategic management. We did not know what we were doing.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the lowering of political tensions between Russia and the US was taken by many, understandably, to mean the threat of nuclear war had dissipated also. Russia’s nuclear posture, particularly in terms of readiness and early warning, fell off a cliff. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this deterioration, about which a supine Russia was in a position to do virtually nothing, presented an opportunity for the American nuclear warfighting community. Reagan’s stand-off with the Soviet Union had ensured that the full spectrum of American capabilities were well attended. The less spoken about of these capabilities was (and is) the counterforce mission: That effort to locate, track, and target an enemy’s nuclear forces and forestall retaliation. In short, to ‘win’ a nuclear war.
If we hear little of the risks of nuclear conflict today, we hear even less of the counterforce mission. But its pursuit is implied by the absence of a ‘no first use’ policy, ambiguity aside. A small number of scholars since the mid-2000s have been re-examining the counterforce question. They highlight a scarcely acknowledged but evidently plausible situation. American counterforce capabilities far exceeded what even high levels of government in the US understood during the last years of the Cold War. The US Navy was confident it could target Soviet missile submarines, and the US Air Force worked hard at developing the capacity to target even mobile ballistic missile launchers. Technological innovation since then has accelerated. The upshot is such that this research calls into question the resilience or even the existence of a true second strike deterrent. In other words, if one state could attack another and be spared a retaliatory strike, they are not deterred. Politically, what effect has this silent shadow had in relations between Russia and the US? China and the US? How has this impacted on policy decisions within the American foreign policy community? Do they understand the implications? These are the questions scholars pose in the ‘future research’ segment of their articles, while others attempt, resolutely, to disabuse others of any notion that counterforce would ever be an option. Who can know which depiction is more accurate?
Putin has warned that Russia would use battlefield nukes to ‘de-escalate’ a conventional conflict with NATO, and has railed against the expansion of US missile defence. Nuclear capable ‘Iskander’ missiles were spotted in Syria recently. China’s strategic community has for a couple of years been devoting more attention to the vulnerability of its own small, ground-based nuclear arsenal, comprised of about 260 warheads and perhaps 50-60 ICBMs. None of which are kept on alert. Is it a second-strike nuclear deterrent in name only? Should China shift its missiles to high alert to assure retaliation? Scholars have spoken of the coming of a ‘Second Nuclear Age’. President Obama has approved the ambitious and expensive overhaul of America’s entire nuclear triad of bombers, missiles, and submarines over the next thirty years. Congress will ultimately hold the purse strings, but the threat environment is somewhat enabling. Advocates of a new stand-off nuclear-tipped cruise missile for the US arsenal cite Putin’s threats, among others, as creating the imperative. The Cold War ended only a quarter century ago. We look set to repeat ourselves. How did we get here?
Ripples of 9/11
Two streams that receive little attention are evident. They represent the ever-expanding ripples of 9/11 impacting the nuclear domain. Between 11 September 2001 and March/April 2002, the American intelligence community was reportedly in receipt of multiple independently sourced intelligence that Al Qaeda had somehow procured a nuclear device and brought it to the United States. The government deployed radiation detectors to major infrastructure and transit points across the country. This was an intelligence community going into spasm given what had just occurred. The unthinkable was suddenly much less so. The temperature would eventually modulate over this threat, not because the intelligence was debunked or found wanting. It modulated because nothing exploded. If terrorists had a nuclear bomb, they would have been sure to use it immediately given the perilous nature of their activities.
Knowing of the significant gaps in any defence against a threat such as this, the Bush administration turned its attention to offence. Plans were reportedly brought together to target the nuclear industries of any country likely to be foolish or incompetent enough to be relieved, knowingly or otherwise, of nuclear materials that could be used to make a bomb. Remember the Axis of Evil speeches? This was a message. Think of it as the Godfather principle. If there were to be such an attack in the US, America would not be forestalled by the intricacies of cause and effect. “All options are on the table.” Such extreme doctrine was matched only by such extreme circumstances, a dissonance between America’s great strength and its great vulnerability, that compelled the minds of US security chiefs in early 2002. In examining their options, however, the Pentagon discovered a capability gap that led to the development of new weapons and doctrine with implications that Russia and China have noticed.
If the capacity to strike, at a moment’s notice, any point on the globe with enough destructive force to incapacitate infrastructure such as underground bunkers but minimize casualties might be an urgent imperative, the nuclear arsenal configured to deter the USSR would not suffice. The US’ Cold War strategic weapons were high yield and not particularly accurate. Its tactical arsenal of approximately 400 lower yield B61 gravity bombs, 180 of which reside in Europe, weren’t either. The new imperative that emerged directly out of 9/11 was for a low to medium yield nuclear weapon that could accurately target infrastructure without creating a massive mushroom cloud and the associated collateral destruction. The four existing versions of the B61 gravity bomb would be consolidated into one new type: the B61-12 Guided Stand-off Nuclear Bomb. The new version has an adjustable yield of between 0.3 and 50 kilotons, and is fitted with a tail kit reportedly affording it a circular error probability of only 30 metres. It’s America’s first ever precision-guided nuclear weapon. America’s stealthy 5th generation bombers and fighters, designed to penetrate advanced air defence systems, will likely be capable of carrying the B61-12. Along with a new stealthy stand-off nuclear capable cruise missile, these are the weapons of the Second Nuclear Age. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about mission capabilities.
Resolving the dissonance?
Late last year, DARPA tested a network of hand held radiation sensors in the Washington, D.C. area; a real time, scalable, mobile threat detection system for hunting radioactive materials. Deployed nation-wide, such a system might go some way to securing the nation against nuclear terrorism. Or at least complicate the plans of any potential attacker. A few months earlier, out of the blue, President Obama announced his administration would consider the question of adopting a ‘no first use’ policy. He was advised against it by his most senior advisors. Even strident ‘no first use’ advocates think the time is not right. The United States will continue, like Russia, like China, to work to maximise its security. Reagan and Gorbachev reportedly dreamt of a nuclear free world. In 1986 they came as close as any in the nuclear age to an agreement. At the time, Reagan was too wedded to his SDI project, and Gorbachev unable to accept his assurances of its benign intentions. So they missed their chance. They did succeed, however, in turning the trajectory of political tension and technological competition in the nuclear domain downward. It has ticked back up again. Crises like 9/11 will do that. Can anyone expect the Russians to accept America’s enhanced counterforce capabilities as benign?
Donald Trump has been elected just as the uptick gathers momentum. Its not just that he clearly doesn’t know what he is doing. We don’t know what we are doing. All the above serves to highlight is that the world of nuclear weapons is uniquely irreducible to rationality in the first place. The only trajectory anyone should be interested in is a downward one. Maybe Trump didn’t mean what he said. Maybe he did but doesn’t mean that today. Maybe he secretly coverts a nuclear partnership with the Russians, to bully nuclear aspirants into abandoning their quests. The point is that while some might be willing to tolerate these maybes as the tactics of a ‘deal-maker’ in other areas, they are completely intolerable in the nuclear domain. Some tweets are not just tweets. Some gaffs are not just gaffs. The only trajectory any human being on the planet should accept in nuclear arms is down. We may never get to zero, but that is not the point. If one might speculate that what appears to drive Donald Trump more than anything is, like Lear, the desire for Significance, then his great appetite for the unconventional could present a great opportunity. The conventional is, in nuclear matters, as we have seen, a tragedy. Lear’s desire for Significance caused his mistake for which he could not attain. Only in madness at his end did he see it. Any call for a renewed nuclear arms race would be a mistake from which no-one escapes, not even a fool.