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Nuclear Breakthrough Endangers the World

Nuclear Breakthrough Endangers the World

Dispatches From The Edge

April 20, 2017

At a time of growing tensions between nuclear powers—Russia and NATO in Europe, and the U.S., North Korea and China in Asia—Washington has quietly upgraded its nuclear weapons arsenal to create, according to three leading American scientists, “exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”

Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the American Federation of Scientists, Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and physicist and ballistic missile expert Theodore Postol, conclude that “Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program,” the U.S. military has vastly expanded the “killing power” of its warheads such that it can “now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos.”

The upgrade—part of the Obama administration’s $1 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear forces—allows Washington to destroy Russia’s land-based nuclear weapons, while still retaining 80 percent of the U.S.’s warheads in reserve. If Russia chose to retaliate, it would be reduced to ash.

Any discussion of nuclear war encounters several major problems. First, it is difficult to imagine or to grasp what it would mean in real life. We have only had one conflict involving nuclear weapons—the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—and the memory of those events has faded over the years. In any case, the two bombs that flattened the Japanese cities bear little resemblance to the killing power of modern nuclear weapons.

The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a force of 15 kilotons. The Nagasaki bomb was slightly more powerful at about 18 kt. Between them, they killed over 215,000 people. In contrast, the most common nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal today, the W76, has an explosive power of 100 kt. The next most common, the W88, packs a 475-kt punch.

Another problem is that most of the public thinks nuclear war is impossible because both sides would be destroyed. This is the idea behind the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, aptly named “MAD.”

But MAD is not a U.S. military doctrine. A “first strike” attack has always been central to U.S. military planning, until recently, however, there was no guarantee that such an attack would so cripple an opponent that it would be unable—or unwilling, given the consequences of total annihilation— to retaliate.

The strategy behind a first strike—sometimes called a “counter force” attack—is not to destroy an opponent’s population centers, but to eliminate the other sides’ nuclear weapons, or at least most of them. Anti-missile systems would then intercept a weakened retaliatory strike.

The technical breakthrough that suddenly makes this a possibility is something called the “super-fuze”, which allows for a much more precise ignition of a warhead. If the aim is to blow up a city, such precision is superfluous, but taking out a reinforced missile silo requires a warhead to exert a force of at least 10,000 pounds per square inch on the target.

Up until the 2009 modernization program, the only way to do that was to use the much more powerful—but limited in numbers—W88 warhead. Fitted with the super-fuze, however, the smaller W76 can now do the job, freeing the W88 for other targets.

Traditionally, land-based missiles are more accurate than sea-based missiles, but the former are more vulnerable to a first-strike than the latter, because submarines are good at hiding. The new super-fuze does not increase the accuracy of Trident II submarine missiles, but it makes up for that with the precision of where the weapon detonates. “In the case of the 100-kt Trident II warhead,” write the three scientists, “the super-fuze triples the killing power of the nuclear force it is applied to.”

Before the super-fuze was deployed, only 20 percent of U.S. subs had the ability to destroy re-enforced missile silos. Today, all have that capacity.

Trident II missiles typically carry from four to five warheads, but can expand that up to eight. While the missile is capable of hosting as many as 12 warheads, that configuration would violate current nuclear treaties. U.S. submarines currently deploy about 890 warheads, of which 506 are W76s and 384 are W88s.

The land-based ICBMs are Minuteman III, each armed with three warheads—400 in total—ranging from 300 kt to 500 kt apiece. There are also air and sea-launched nuclear tipped missiles and bombs. The Tomahawk cruise missiles that recently struck Syria can be configured to carry a nuclear warhead.

The super-fuze also increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear conflict.

So far, the world has managed to avoid a nuclear war, although during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis it came distressingly close. There have also been several scary incidents when U.S. and Soviet forces went to full alert because of faulty radar images or a test tape that someone thought was real. While the military downplays these events, former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues that it is pure luck that we have avoided a nuclear exchange, and that the possibility of nuclear war is greater today than it was at the height of the Cold War.

In part, this is because of a technology gap between the U.S. and Russia.

In January 1995, Russian early warning radar on the Kola Peninsula picked up a rocket launch from a Norwegian island that looked as if it was targeting Russia. In fact, the rocket was headed toward the North Pole, but Russian radar tagged it as a Trident II missile coming in from the North Atlantic. The scenario was plausible. While some first strike attacks envision launching a massive number of missiles, others call for detonating a large warhead over a target at about 800 miles altitude. The massive pulse of electro-magnetic radiation that such an explosion generates would blind or cripple radar systems over a broad area. That would be followed with a first strike.

At the time, calmer heads prevailed,, and the Russians called off their alert, but for a few minutes the doomsday clock moved very close to midnight.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the 1995 crisis suggests that Russia does not have “a reliable and working global space-based satellite early warning system.” Instead, Moscow has focused on building ground-based systems that give the Russians less warning time than satellite-based ones do. What that means is that while the U.S. would have about 30 minutes warning time to investigate whether an attack was really taking place, the Russians would have 15 minutes or less.

That, according to the magazine, would likely mean that “Russian leadership would have little choice but to pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to lower levels of command,” hardly a situation that would be in the national security interests of either country.

Or, for that matter, the world.

A recent study found that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan using Hiroshima-sized weapons would generate a nuclear winter that would make it impossible to grow wheat in Russia and Canada and cut the Asian Monsoon’s rainfall by 10 percent. The result would be up to 100 million deaths by starvation. Imagine what the outcome would be if the weapons were the size used by Russia, China or the U.S.

For the Russians, the upgrading of U.S. sea-based missiles with the super-fuze would be an ominous development. By “shifting the capacity to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles,” the three scientists conclude, “the U.S. military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.”

The U.S. Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, carrying as many as 192 warheads. The missiles can be launched in less than a minute.

The Russians and Chinese have missile-firing submarines as well, but not as many and some are close to obsolete. The U.S. has also seeded the world’s oceans and seas with networks of sensors to keep track of those subs. In any case, would the Russians or Chinese retaliate if they knew that the U.S. still retained most of its nuclear strike force? Faced with a choice committing national suicide or holding their fire, they may well choose the former.

The other element in this modernization program that has Russia and China uneasy is the decision by the Obama administration to place anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, and to deploy Aegis ship-based anti missile systems off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From Moscow’s perspective—and Beijing’s as well—those interceptors are there to absorb the few missiles that a first strike might miss.

In reality, anti-missile systems are pretty iffy. Once they migrate off the drawing boards, their lethal efficiency drops rather sharply. Indeed, most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But that is not a chance the Chinese and the Russians can afford to take.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Forum in June 2016, Russian President Valdimir Putin charged that U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and Rumania were not aimed at Iran, but Russia and China. “The Iranian threat does not exist, but missile defense systems continue to be positioned—a missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential.”

The danger here is that arms agreements will begin to unravel if countries decide that they are suddenly vulnerable. For the Russians and the Chinese, the easiest solution to the American breakthrough is to build a lot more missiles and warheads, and treaties be dammed.

The new Russian cruise missile may indeed strain the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty, but it is also a natural response to what are, from Moscow’s view, alarming technological advances by the U.S. Had the Obama administration reversed the 2002 decision by George W. Bush’s administration to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the new cruise might never have been deployed.

There are a number of immediate steps that the U.S. and the Russians could take to de-escalate the current tensions. First, taking nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger status, which would immediately reduce the possibility of accidental nuclear war. That could be followed by a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons.

If this does not happen, it will almost certainly result in an accelerated nuclear arms race. “I don’t know how this is all going to end,” Putin told the St. Petersburg delegates. “What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.”

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Dangerous Seas: China and The U.S.

Dangerous Seas: China & The U.S.

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 16, 2016

 

A combination of recent events underpinned by long-running historical strains reaching back more than 60 years has turned the western Pacific into one of the most hazardous spots on the globe. The tension between China and the U.S. “is one of the most striking and dangerous themes in international politics,” says The Financial Times’ longtime commentator and China hand, Gideon Rachman.

 

In just the past five months, warships from both countries—including Washington’s closest ally in the region, Japan—have done everything but ram one another. And, as Beijing continues to build bases on scattered islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. is deploying long-range nuclear capable strategic bombers in Australia and Guam.

 

At times the rhetoric from both sides is chilling. When Washington sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the area, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun cautioned the Americans to “be careful.” While one U.S. admiral suggested drawing “the line” at the Spratly Islands close to the Philippines, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times warned that U.S. actions “raised the risk of physical confrontation with China.” The newspaper went on to warn that “if the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea.”

 

Earlier this month China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said Beijing should prepare for a “people’s war at sea.”

 

Add to this the appointment of an extreme right-wing nationalist as Japan’s defense minister and the decision to deploy anti-ballistic missile interceptors in South Korea and the term “volatile region” is a major understatement.

 

Some of these tensions go back to the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco that officially ended WW II in Asia. That document, according to Canadian researcher Kimie Hara, was drawn up to be deliberately ambiguous about the ownership of a scatter of islands and reefs in the East and South China seas. That ambiguity set up tensions in the region that Washington could then exploit to keep potential rivals off balance.

 

The current standoff between China and Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands—the Japanese use the former name, the Chinese the latter—is a direct outcome of the Treaty. While Washington has no official position on which country owns the tiny uninhabited archipelago, it is committed to defend Japan in case of any military conflict with China. On Aug. 2 the Japanese Defense Ministry accused China of engaging in “dangerous acts that could cause unintended consequences.”

 

Tokyo’s new defense minister, Tomomi Inada, is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine that honors Japan’s war criminals, and she is a critic of the post-war Tokyo war crimes trials. She also has called for re-examining the 1937 Nanjing massacre that saw Japanese troops murder as many as 300,000 Chinese. Her appointment by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems almost calculated to anger Beijing.

 

Abe is also pushing hard to overturn a part of the Japanese constitution that bars Tokyo from using its military forces for anything but defending itself. Japan has one of the largest and most sophisticated navies in the world.

 

Over the past several weeks, Chinese Coast Guard vessels and fishing boats have challenged Japan’s territorial claims on the islands, and Chinese and Japanese warplanes have been playing chicken. In one particularly worrisome incident, a Japanese fighter locked its combat radar on a Chinese fighter-bomber.

 

Behind the bellicose behavior on the China and U.S. sides is underlying insecurity, a dangerous condition when two nuclear-armed powers are at loggerheads.

 

From Beijing’s perspective, Washington is trying to “contain” China by ringing it with American allies, much as the U.S. did to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Given recent moves in the region, it is hard to argue with Beijing’s conclusion.

 

After a 20-year absence, the U.S. military is back in the Philippines. Washington is deploying anti-missile systems in South Korea and Japan and deepening its military relations with Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” has shifted the bulk of U.S. armed forces from the Atlantic and the Middle East to Asia. Washington’s Air Sea Battle strategy—just renamed “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”—envisions neutralizing China’s ability to defend its home waters.

 

China is in the process of modernizing much of its military, in large part because Beijing was spooked by two American operations. First, the Chinese were stunned by how quickly the U.S. military annihilated the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War, with virtually no casualties on the American side. Then there was having to back down in 1996, when the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits during a period of sharp tension between Beijing and Taipei.

 

In spite of all its upgrades, however, China’s military is a long ways from being able to challenge the U.S. The Chinese navy has one small aircraft carrier, the U.S. has 10 enormous ones, plus a nuclear arsenal vastly bigger than Beijing’s modest force. China’s last war was its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, and the general U.S. view of the Chinese military is that it is a paper dragon.

 

That thinking is paralleled in Japan, which is worrisome. Japan’s aggressive nationalist government is more likely to initiate something with China than is the U.S. For instance, the crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyus was started by Japan. First, Tokyo violated an agreement with Beijing by arresting some Chinese fishermen and then unilaterally annexed the islands. The Japanese military has always had an over-inflated opinion of itself and traditionally underestimated Chinese capabilities.

 

In short, the U.S. and Japan are not intimidated by China’s New Model Army, nor do they see it as a serious threat. That is dangerous thinking if it leads to the conclusion that China will always back down when a confrontation turns ugly. Belligerence and illusion are perilous companions in the current tense atmosphere.

 

 

The scheduled deployment of the U.S. Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems has convinced Beijing that the U.S. is attempting to neutralize China’s nuclear missile force, a not irrational conclusion. While anti-missile systems are billed as “defensive,” they can just as easily be considered part of the U.S.’s basic “counterforce” strategy. The latter calls for a first strike on an opponent’s missiles, backstopped by an anti-ballistic missile system that would destroy any enemy missiles the first strike missed.

 

China is pledged not to use nuclear weapons first, but, given the growing ring of U.S. bases and deployment of anti-missile systems, that may change. China is considering moving to a “launch on warning” strategy, which would greatly increase the possibility of an accidental nuclear war.

 

The AirSea Battle strategy calls for conventional missile strikes aimed at knocking out command centers and radar facilities deep into Chinese territory. But given the U.S.’s “counterforce” strategy, Chinese commanders might assume those conventional missiles are nuclear tipped and aimed at decapitating China’s nuclear deterrent.

 

According to Amitai Etzioni of Washington University, a former senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter, “China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms.”

 

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that if China moves to “launch on warning,” such a change “would dramatically increase the risk of a nuclear exchange by accident—a dangerous shift that the U.S. could help to avert.”

 

President Obama is said to be considering adopting a “no first use” pledge, but he has come up against stiff opposition from his military and the Republicans. “I would be concerned about such a policy,” says U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “Having a certain degree of ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing.”

 

But given the possibility of accidents—or panic by military commanders—“ambiguity” increases the risk that someone could misinterpret an action. Once a nuclear exchange begins it may be impossible to stop, particularly knowing that the U.S. “counterforce” strategy targets an opponent’s missiles. “Use them, or lose them” is an old saying among nuclear warriors.

 

In any case, the standard response to an anti-missile system is to build more launchers and warheads, something the world does not need more of.

 

While China has legitimate security concerns, the way it has pursued them has won it few friends in the region. Beijing has bullied Vietnam in the Paracel islands, pushed the Philippines around in the Spratly islands, and pretty much alienated everyone in the region except its close allies in North Korea, Laos and Cambodia. China’s claims—its so-called “nine dash line”—covers most the South China Sea, an area through which some $5 trillion in trades passes each year. It is also an area rich in minerals and fishing resources.

 

China’s ham-fisted approach has given the U.S. an opportunity to inject itself into the dispute as a “defender” of small countries with their own claims on reefs, islands and shoals. The U.S. has stepped up air and sea patrols in the region, which at times has seen Chinese and American and Japanese warships bow to bow and their warplanes wing tip to wing tip.

 

The recent decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that China has no exclusive claim on the South China Sea has temporarily increased tensions, although it has the potential to resolve some of the ongoing disputes without continuing the current saber rattling.

 

China is a signatory to the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, as are other countries bordering the South China Sea (the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify the Treaty). China has never tried to interfere with the huge volume of commerce that traverses the region, a trade that, in any case, greatly benefits the Chinese. Beijing’s major concern is defense of its long coastline.

 

If the countries in the region would rely on the Law of the Sea to resolve disputes, it would probably work out well for everyone concerned. The Chinese would have to back off from their “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea, but they would likely end up in control of the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

 

But to cool the current tensions Washington would also have to ratchet down its military buildup in Asia. That will be difficult for the Americans to accept. Since the end of WW II, the U.S. has been the big dog on the block in the western Pacific, but that is coming to an end. According to the International Monetary Fund, China surpassed the U.S. economy in 2014 to become the world’s largest. Of the four largest economies on the globe, three are in Asia: China, Japan and India.

 

Simple demographics are shifting the balance of economic and political power from Europe and the U.S. to Asia. By 2015, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will reside in Asia. In contrast, the U.S. makes up 5 percent and the European Union 7 percent. By 2050, the world’s “pin code” will be 1125: one billion people in Europe, one billion in the Americas, two billion in Africa, and five billion in Asia. Even the CIA predicts, “The era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.”

 

The U.S. can resist that inevitability, but only by relying on its overwhelming military power and constructing an alliance system reminiscent of the Cold War. That should give pause to all concerned. The world was fortunate to emerge from that dark period without a nuclear war, but relying on luck is a dangerous strategy.

 

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