Nuclear arms race 2.0: more dangerous than the original?

I’m sure a lot of you are saying “Not This Again!” … or the likely corollary, “Not Him Again!” when you hear I’ve done another podcast with Nate Hagens at The Great Simplification (link to program). That’s certainly my reaction – as noted I really don’t like doing podcasts. However, I think that despite all the coverage of Ukraine, Gaza, the potential conflict with China over Taiwan, Climate, or even the latest Taylor Swift news, this may well be seen in hindsight as the most important issue of our time. So here are some notes and more extensive comments to supplement the program. Yes, it will be long … 😛 all of this is horribly complex, and crosses many disparate fields of international law, military science, as well as the obscure and complex area of nuclear weapons design and development.

Several major events happened in the last few weeks that may have gotten lost in all of the coverage of the events in the Middle East. Yet in many respects they may be of more importance for the longer term future of humanity.

1) October 18th, the US conducted a nuclear weapons test at the Nevada test range. The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) asserts the experiment used chemical high explosives and radiotracers in an underground tunnel on Oct. 18 to “validate new predictive explosive models” to improve the U.S. ability to detect low-yield nuclear explosions around the world. However, such tests raised concerns that it was “dual use” and was a even sub-critical test of some kind that could aid nuclear weapons development. Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said on Oct. 20 that there should be an international assessment to determine whether the NNSA’s announced experiment was compliant with the CTBT. “We do not know what exactly the Americans have blown up underground.” For what it’s worth I take NNSA’s assertions at face value, and perhaps the Russian concerns are posturing, but given the existing mutual suspicions it’s not a good situation if they aren’t confident they know what we’re up to.

2) Russia has deratified the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This was not a rash reaction to the test, but something that has been building since the mid 2000’s. Russia ratified the treaty in 1996 but the US Senate never ratified the treaty – the US has “voluntary abided by” the treaty. The last straw from the Russian perspective was the US test the 18th of October, which they argue is setting the state for a resumption of testing, something desperately wanted by some in the US. The Duma passed the revocation over a month ago, Putin held off signing, and Russia demanded the US cancel or at least further explain the test. When it didn’t, Russia went ahead with the final revocation of their ratification, placing them on an equal status with the US. The literal impact of the withdrawal can (and has) been exaggerated – Russia has stated that it will continue to abide by the terms of the treaty on the same basis that the US does, but it is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

3) The US has announced the 27th of October that it is developing a new variant in the B61 aircraft delivered nuclear bomb series, the B61-13. In one sense this is not a big deal, it is mostly replacing older, existing systems. But viewed in context it is a serious escalation, reversing the trend towards smaller yield weapons. Especially worrisome is the rationale being given for the development: “The B61-13 will provide the President with additional options against certain harder and large-area military targets, even while the Department works to retire legacy systems such as the B83-1 and the B61-7.” The phrase “Large Area Military Targets” is often a euphemism in nuclear-targeting speak for industrial sites and ports, among other things. In other words, cities.

These three events and others like the Rapid Dragon test in August, and the long expected news on November 6th and 7th that both NATO and Russia are stepping back from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), a treaty to limit threatening conventional military build-ups on the borders between Russia and NATO, are all indications that we are entering an dangerous spiral that is making the world a much more dangerous place. The lull in the US-Soviet Nuclear Arms Race, that peaked with something like 64,000 nuclear weapons in 1985 and has dropped to under 14,000 today, seems to be reversed. The loss of CFE means there is incentive to build up conventional forces as well as theater tactical nuclear systems to counter them.

But it’s worse than that: the new generation of bombs and, just as critically, the systems (aircraft, missiles, and submarines) used to deploy them, is making these weapons more lethal and politically “usable”. In other words, reducing the nuclear threshold. So for many reasons, Arms Race 2.0 may be more dangerous than the original. That realization by Nate was the reason for his insistence at doing an urgent update, because none of the other issues he considers vital to humanity’s future – energy, environment, resource depletion, economics – matter at all if global war breaks out. Especially if it goes nuclear.

My biggest concern is the ongoing collapse of the system of treaties and international law that has helped guide international relations for the last 100 years or so. This is a broader problem than just nuclear arms control, but that area is the most apparent and dangerous. The nuclear related treaties were put in place over time from the early 1960’s through the early 1990’s and reduced the numbers of warheads, but more importantly in some respects reduced their potential for use. Another concern are changes in nuclear weapons technology and doctrine that are related to the loss of treaty restrictions and are interacting in frightening ways. Lets look at each in turn.

Castle Bravo – contamination from this test was one of the drivers of the LTBT

By the early 1960’s nuclear weapons development had clearly gotten out of hand. Atmospheric testing was causing widespread contamination downwind, and testing in space was causing significant electrical effects with major potential impacts on the use of space for peaceful purposes. The first major arms control treaty was the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 between the US and Soviet Union. This led to additional treaties, in particular the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) of the 1970’s, and Intermediate range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty of 1987, and finally the more recent CTBT, START and SORT agreements that stopped all testing, reduced the numbers of warheads, and how many can be put on any given missile. ABM and INF are especially critical as will be discussed below, but the net result was the create of a framework to both reducing the numbers as well as danger of nuclear capable systems.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the treaty structures came under increasing stress. Third parties not included in the treaties such as China, North Korea, and Iran began to develop capabilities that the parties (the US and Russia, who inherited them from the Soviet Union) felt presented dangers, but could not be addressed due to the mutual treaty obligations. Russia’s approach was to try to involve those third parties or work cooperatively with the US, whereas the preferred US approach was to withdraw from the treaties and proceed unilaterally.

Each accused the other of violating the treaties as a reasons for withdrawal,. In any international agreement there are disputes and “noise” around the edges, but in my opinion there were in reality few serious violations by either side, the problems were with culture, and how those alleged violations and limitations should be addressed in an increasingly complex world. The US (and particularly the Neoconservative movement that took over the Foreign Policy approach of both political parties) felt, after the collapse of the Cold War, that the US had a unique opportunity to take an aggressive lead in reshaping the world, and did not need the encumbrance of treaties that (in their minds) limited US actions at the expense of strategic and tactical flexibility.

Another aspect of the breakdown of global arms treaties, as well as other important agreements, is cultural. This is a gross simplification, but Russia tends towards a legalistic interpretation of treaties. The US often takes a less literal and more “spirit of the agreement” view, states its interpretation of them, and accuses Russia and others of violating a treaty when in fact they simply interpret it differently. This is a huge problem when there is a change of administrations in D.C., as each administration interprets a given treaty differently from its predecessor. This is a frustration not only for Russia, but the rest of the world as well.

A related issue is the US constitution and political system. Under that system, in order to become law there are two steps – the executive branch must sign a treaty, and the Senate must ratify it with a 2/3rds vote. And there is the problem: getting a 2/3rds vote with the current near 50/50 split between the Democratic and Republican Parties is difficult. Even good treaties get caught up in domestic politics. So numerous treaties have been signed by the US, and the US is abiding by them to a greater or lessor extent, but since the Senate has not ratified them they do not carry the force of law or commit future administrations. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT, noted above) is just such a treaty. The US signed it but the Senate has never ratified it. Other important treaties have also gone unsigned for a variety of reasons such as Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. There’s even a Wikipedia page listing some of them.

So Russia (and many other countries, including major US allies) are increasingly frustrated with the US because negotiating agreements is hard enough, but getting a long term legal commitment out of the US through ratification is almost impossible. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said at the UN recently “We have concluded for ourselves: they are absolutely incompetent.” Russians have a compound word for it – Недоговороспособны: Not capable of agreement.

This is not to say that the Russians or anybody else are faultless; indeed, Russians are masters at negotiation and process manipulation. However, for the most part, Russia has kept to its agreements and within the process in a way that, I’m sad to say, the US has not, at least since the early to mid 1990’s. The issue is that holding other countries to agreements that the US itself has not ratified, or simply ignores at its own convenience, is grossly hypocritical.

So what about the second point, that changes to weapons themselves and how we plan on using them has made things more dangerous? Well, this already long post would be book length to fully explore that aspect, but here are a couple of brief (yeah, right) aspects.

It has to be kept in mind how different nuclear weapons are from conventional weapons. Much has been made in the media that Israel has dropped roughly the equivalent amount of explosives to a tactical nuclear bomb (20,000 tons of TNT). But the impacts of a nuclear bomb are literally an order of magnitude larger. Had Israel dropped a single 20kt nuclear weapon on Gaza City (and they apparently have that capacity), there would not be 10,000 dead over 30 days of bombing (as of 6 November), there would be nearly 230,000 dead in a single day, with the fate of most sealed within milliseconds to a few seconds of the detonation.

Given that, the issue of targeting and weapons selection is both obscure (for security) and complex, and has interactions with treaty obligations as well. For example, a port being used to ship out military supplies would certainly be a legitimate target. If that port is located in a city, and there is a risk of hitting nearby civilian infrastructure, even homes, that fact would not in an of itself make bombing it illegitimate if due care was taken to limit blast effects or collateral damage outside the port area. With modern conventional munitions that’s much easier to do with many targets than it used to be. In World War II, although the Norden Bombsight had a theoretical accuracy of 75 ft (23 meters), the average practical error in a bombing run was more like 1200 ft (370 meters), and a massed formation of bombers often had bombs missing the target by miles. So even the Allies resorted to bombing out entire cities, a clear violation of the Hague Conventions in effect at the time. By comparison modern systems have errors of less than 15 feet (5 meters) even under combat conditions, but the temptation to bomb cities remains strong, if only to inflict pain on the civilian population in order to overthrow an adversary’s government. That is a gross violation of international norms and laws, but it was a key factor in WW II bombings, and even the modern US tactic of economic sanctions to destabilize other countries.

Referring to this John Bolton, the well known neoconservative and US ambassador to the UN under the Bush II administration, said “Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Sadly, he goes on to add “This is intolerable and unacceptable.” In other words, in his worldview, making illegal the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in order to destroy a military target that probably could have been destroyed without that collateral damage is “intolerable.” Many people find that view extreme, yet it is the stated Military and Foreign Policy of the US of both political parties, something I suspect most Americans are unaware of.

The problem is that even today with conventional munitions to truly disable a large facility like a port would take multiple sorties and lots of bombs. If it is defended by layered air defenses, and manned bombers are needed, you’ll lose a lot of aircraft and crews doing it. But a single tactical nuke could do it, although there would certainly be effects outside the port itself, especially radiation, fallout, and likely blast effects. So … is a port in a city a legitimate target for a nuclear weapon? AP1 of the Geneva convention says no (and again note the US did not ratify it in part for this reason), but the US would likely consider it valid, especially with the new B61-13 or W76-2 devices. Now, these would be less destructive than weapons available even a decade ago, but that’s a problem. The bottom line is that these weapons are designed to be more usable (recall the quote from the Pentagon press release above) – making nuclear war more likely.

This “improved” technology interacts with the breakdown in international law and treaties. Treaties like ABM and INF were designed to make the limited use of nuclear weapons more difficult and dangerous. ABM was designed to ensure the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction was in play by preventing one or the other party from gambling their defenses could intercept enough incoming missiles to launch an attack and ride out the counterstrike, as well making the need for more and more missiles and warheads (to ensure at least some got through) also unnecessary, thus limiting the arms race. INF was a vital component of stability as well – less warning (from shorter range, faster traveling missiles) means you have less time to decide what to do, which when dealing with any crisis is a bad thing. The loss of these two pillars of late cold war stability has changed the nature of planning for nuclear war – and spurred another technological race to develop new systems to take advantage of the reduced restrictions.

So, international law and treaties are breaking down, and technology (and the doctrine that governs how and when it is used) is making the use of nuclear weapons more practical. Together this is a very dangerous trend, and the podcast title has a double meaning, given it is the West (led by the US) that is mostly responsible for the deteriorating situation. I often quote Karl Schurz, the Civil War General and later US Senator who said “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” Those who argue Russia did this or China did that miss the point. What Russia or some other country may or may not do is absolutely relevant to our practical policies, but should never be relevant to our ethics or integrity.

Many consider JFK and Reagan to be among our greatest presidents, a view I agree with. Kennedy said in his Inauguration speech, “So let us begin anew … remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Nearly thirty years later in his farewell speech Reagan said “As long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours….” That, patience, remaining firm where we should and compromising when we have to, along with the beacon of that “shining city of the hill” will serve us better than forcing a potentially catastrophic confrontation through the risky use of the ultimate weapon.

In an interesting coincidence, the respected ex-pat Russian researcher Pavel Podvig published a piece today (8 November, link) arguing just the opposite of what I am suggesting here, saying he thought the risk had decreased at least a little recently due to the overwhelmingly negative response to what he and many others perceived as nuclear threats by Russia with respect to Ukraine. (If they were threats, or reminders about the risk of a direct US-Russia confrontation I think is debatable, but that’s a longer discussion). All things being equal I would agree with him that the risk has decreased (and I do agree that, in reference to Ukraine, the risk of a nuclear confrontation over Ukraine itself has decreased significantly in recent weeks). However, with all due respect (and I have a lot), while he mentions Russian nuclear doctrine and posture, he does not discuss US doctrine and posture, which is in comparison seems to be lowering the nuclear use threshold, especially by the forward deployment of more usable nuclear systems and moving to modernize high-yield, “area” weapons instead of retiring them and/or negotiating their multilateral limitation. Indeed, in the diplomatic realm, we are doing the opposite of risk reduction, moving away from a treaty based arms control framework.

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