“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion […] but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 February. A new strategic arms race is underway. If it goes unchecked it could well mark the end of all arms control and disarmament frameworks and lead to the re-emergence of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) as the defining feature of security. Could the arrival of a new combination of technologies in the battlespace help prevent that?
The just published US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and I suspect the forthcoming US National Military Strategy (NMS), will reveal the extent of this arms race and its implications. Most striking is the nuclear arms race, but unlike in the past ‘nukes’ are not the only show bombing town. China has just mounted the first ship-borne hyper-sonic gun that can fire a projectile at more than 5000 mph over 100 miles. Growing applications of Artificial Intelligence, machine-learning, quantum computing, big data and Nano-technologies suggest that a whole host of new ways to achieve Clausewitz’s ghastly purpose of war: to engender new and ‘better’ political end-states.
Because of the NPR the focus of this missive is on the new nuclear arms race. This is for no other reason than I have spent the past few days reading and considering the document. As I read what for me is a surprisingly conventional document, given the new technologies and strategies of war the Pentagon is considering a question sprung to mind: is the best way to counter nukes in the twenty-first century more nukes?
Exploiting the Deterrence Gap
Moscow is seeking to modernise the Russian nuclear arsenal whilst maintaining Europe’s ‘snowflake’ politicians in the comforting fantasy that their own retreat from defence seriousness does not carry with it strategic and political consequences. Russia is deliberately seeking to exploit a ‘deterrence gap’ between a global-reach, but over-stretched US military, an under-funded, under-equipped and relatively small European forces, and a strategic nuclear deterrent that could only credibly be used in an absolute nuclear emergency.
In an attempt to close that gap, and to counter Russia’s driving of a nuclear ballistic missile submarine through both the New START and Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the NPR calls for new smaller nuclear warheads and new shorter range missile systems. The military strategy designed by Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov envisions Russian strategic, tactical and short-range nuclear and nuclear-capable systems being used as essentially ‘political’ weapons to ‘escalate to de-escalate’ a crisis, i.e. to use the threat of nuclear weapons to consolidate any gains Russia’s conventional forces may make in a future European war.
To that end, Moscow is intentionally ‘blurring the lines of long-established treaty frameworks by deploying weapon systems that straddle the ICBM category (any missile with a range in excess of 5500 km), intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM: 3000-5000 km range), medium-range ballistic missiles (MBRM: 1000-3000 km range), short-range ballistic missiles missiles (SRM: with a range of up to 1000 km) and theatre ballistic missiles (TBM: 300-3500 km).
There is, I suppose, a certain irony in that under New START, which was agreed in 2010 and ratified in February 2011, this month was meant to see both sides limit the number of deployed nuclear warheads in their respective arsenals to 1500. And, yes, whilst as of today the Russian Federation slightly exceeds that figure at 1565, and the US is somewhat below that target at 1393, the Federation of American Scientists believes both sides fail to live up to the ‘build-down’ spirit of that treaty. For example, Russia has some 4500 ‘strategically operational warheads’, whilst the US possesses some 4000.
The RS-28 Sarmat monster (NATO codename Satan 2) will be able to carry up to 10 heavy thermonuclear warheads or 15 of a ‘lighter’ yield. RS-28 Sarmat is a successor to the Soviet-era heavy SS-18 missiles and is due for deployment in 2020. The RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) has a range of some 10,000 km which can carry 10 x 150 kiloton warheads and is designed for deployment on the new Borei-class heavy ballistic missile submarines.
Moscow is also developing an updated SS-27 Topol missile which has been named the SS-29 (or RS-24 Yars). The SS29 is reported to be able to carry three ‘heavy’ MIRVed warheads, fast, and over a range of up to 11,000 km. The Russians have also deployed the nuclear-capable Iskandr missile with a range of some 400-500 km, and are also believed to be developing a nuclear torpedo, known as the Status-6 system, with a nuclear warhead of 100 megatons (Pentagon codename: Kanyon) with a range of 10,000 km, with a speed of 100 km/hr, and able to dive to 1000 metres.
A Very Political Weapon
Europe? As I said, the Russians fully understand the political utility of nuclear weapons, especially in Europe. Back in 1977, whilst I was at Oxford, the Euromissiles Crisis began. It was a crisis upon which I cut my teeth in my later Master’s thesis. The deployment by the then Soviet Union of the triple-warhead, mobile, SS-20 theatre ballistic missile threatened to destabilise the Euro-strategic balance. Not unlike this month’s NPR the then Carter Administration responded first with the so-called Enhanced Radiation Weapon or Neutron Bomb, which was designed to kill people but ‘limit’ the effects of blast.
Following a furore which began in the then Federal Republic of (West) Germany, the designated nuclear killing zone in the event of a war, the Neutron Bomb was abandoned but the Americans then moved to counter the SS-20 with their own theatre missile systems – the Pershing 2 missile and the famed Cruise missile. Through a combination of ‘fake news’ 1970s-style, and very genuine concerns amongst large segments of the European population, Moscow also helped foment a huge popular revolt against the US deployment of these systems.
The aim then was also to decouple the defence of Europe from the US strategic deterrent (which is precisely why Britain and France had their own ‘independent’ nuclear systems). That aim was frustrated (temporarily) in 1989 with the end of the Cold War, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and the economic crisis that engulfed the Russian Federation during the 1990s. However, with the 1999 arrival of President Putin Moscow once again began the long road back to strategic influence. Today, Moscow is still committed to 'decoupling' the defence of Europe from the US. However, today Russia now employs nuclear weapons as part of a new triple hybrid, cyber and hyper war strategy with the particular aim of re-exerting influence over much of Central, Eastern & Northern Europe. Sadly, mass destabilisation, mass disruption and the threat of mass destruction seem, once again, to have returned as the terrifying triplets of European insecurity.
1977 revisited? For all that is the NPR right? Again, is the best way to counter nukes more nukes? After all, Moscow has not US nukes to contend with as both Britain and France are in the process of modernising their own nuclear deterrent systems. My concern is that if Washington moved to re-introduce shorter-range nukes to Europe, beyond the B-61 free-fall bomb, Moscow would have all the political leverage it needs to re-ignite a new wave of protest across much of NATO Europe. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of issue that would trigger meltdown in the unworldly snowflake generation that the education systems of Western Europe seem each year to be spawning by the million. And, for once, I might be in some sympathy with them.
The problem is that in places the NPR comes across as equally unworldly. The idea that the placing of ‘low-yield’ nuclear warheads atop existing, long-range Trident SLBM systems would somehow contribute to deterrence and a more stable 'balance' via some form of ‘sub-strategic role’ for such weapons is quite simply barking MAD. If any of the fourteen American Ohio-class or the four British Vanguard-class ‘boomers’ (ballistic missile submarines or SSBN) were to launch a Trident II D5 missile Moscow would have no alternative but to assume it was facing the full thermonuclear force of W76 or W88 warheads. The response would be a world-ending ‘strategic salvo’. This particular nuclear conundrum begs a further set of questions for the British, who these days seem able to either afford a future strategic deterrent or a powerful conventional future force…but not both!
Deterrence theory dictates that nuclear weapons can be either used for ‘counter-force’ targets (destroying the silos of enemy missiles or large-scale military formations) or for ‘counter-value’ targets, you and me. Unfortunately, the targets of submarine-launched missiles are hard to discern, especially if they are MIRV-ed (can deploy multiple independent re-entry vehicles (warheads) or are MaRV-ed (manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles) designed to evade missile defences, as is increasingly the case. This danger is further multiplied if the missiles are fired on a so-called ‘flat trajectory’.
Closing the Deterrence Gap
We are not back in the 1970s! Surely, and I admit I am venturing into the world of deterrence imagination here, new technologies entering the battlespace could be harnessed to provide new concepts and methods of deterrence. For example, could not resilient Artificial Intelligence be programmed to so damage an adversary irrespective of whether its host survived a nuclear first or second strike thus making such a strike pointless? Emerging ‘conventional’ systems are devastating and, if allied to new robotics, cyber and other technologies, could generate the deterrent effect of MAD-ness, without the MAD-ness.
In other words, rather than go again down the road of good, old-fashioned 'screw the lot of us' MAD-ness. would it not make sense for the US, UK, France, and the wider NATO Alliance to craft a concept of deterrence concept that moves beyond nuclear mutually-assured destruction by combining new thinking with new strategy and new technology? Such an approach would help cast nuclear weapons as essentially self-defeating, self-destroying, anachronistic weapons of war made for another age, that in all or any realistic scenario have no practical or sensible warfighting role, whatever the size of the warhead.
The Adaptation of Deterrence?
NATO is undergoing strategic adaptation, or so the story goes. Surely, the Alliance nuclear concept of deterrence needs also to be adapted beyond hoping a few ageing dual-capable aircraft (DCA) or French ‘sub-strategic’ air-launched nukes might penetrate increasingly sophisticated Russian anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD). NATO should thus adapt its deterrent posture to include new, non-nuclear deterrence across the sweep of twenty-first century conventional, ‘unconventional’ and nuclear forces to establish deterrence as a broad-based defence that combines the ability to project power with the protection of people.
The best way to plug the deterrence gap and the most effective deterrent is a strong conventional deterrent, albeit a strong ‘conventional’ deterrent that also includes in its mix an effective set of visions and strategies for the deterrent application of what at present remain ‘unconventional’ new technologies – Artificial Intelligence, machine-learning, quantum computing, big data, Nano-technology, offensive cyber capabilities, allied to the ‘hardening’ of critical national and social infrastructures.
What is needed, above all, is new thinking and, for me, there is precious little of that in the new US Nuclear Posture Review. Just a thought.