Just when you thought it was safe to leave the bunker … while I have significant experience with pandemics and related topics with respect to data analysis and modeling, it’s not really in my core area of work, and I often have to cross check with subject area experts to confirm technical details. So it’s refreshing to get back to a topic firmly in my comfort zone: Nuclear Armageddon …
Over the last few years the US Defense Department has been pressing on with the deployment of a new class of nuclear weapons, and doing it in a way that by any rational measure doesn’t make much sense. I shouldn’t have to put this disclaimer in, but in the current political environment (and it being an election year) I need to say that is not an attack on the current administration, irresponsible though they may be for actually implementing it; this change in the nuclear posture has been in the works for well over two decades and is advocated by Foreign Policy neoconservatives in both parties including the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, Joe Biden, who along with Clinton and Perry supposedly led the fight against the US agreeing to a No First Use policy during the Obama years despite then President Obama being favorably disposed to the idea.
As usual, to appreciate this issue, you need some background that is hard to come by these days, so please “bear” with me (sorry about the pun) as I go through some theory and history of nuclear weapons strategy.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought with respect to nuclear weapons. The first is that the primary value of nuclear weapons is deterrence. They are so destructive, with so many side effects (fallout, radiation), and their primary deployment mechanisms (ballistic missiles) are so destabilizing in the sense there is very little warning – 15 to 45 minutes – that they should never be used except as a last result against an opponent with a reasonable number to fire in return. That philosophy is called Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. Despite noise from both sides of the Cold War, it formed the basis of strategy between the US and Soviet Union, creating what is technically called a “Nash Equilibrium” in game theory. A key component of MAD is that nuclear weapon use is a threshold that should only be crossed in the event of an existential nuclear threat because once the threshold is crossed, escalation is unbelievably risky and that is unacceptable.
The other school of thought, in which I was originally trained, holds that nuclear weapons are in principle no different from other weapons systems, and are part of a spectrum of weapons systems ranging from small arms through high explosives through high consequence weapons including chemical, biological, and nuclear. In this worldview, you can use a nuclear weapon in some circumstances with a manageable risk of escalation. This school of thought is called Nuclear Utilization Targeting Strategy, or NUTS. While I have never found a situation where the use of a biological weapons was justified or strategically sound (mostly because they are too unstable and can easily “backfire”), there are circumstances where nuclear or chemical weapons are strategically, legally (under international law) and, perhaps, even ethically justified. But that is a different discussion.
In reality US strategy has always been a mix of MAD and NUTS. The US, unlike the other major powers, has set a rather low threshold for first use of nuclear weapons. Recent policy changes have said that the US can use nuclear weapons not only in response to nuclear attack, but also in the event of chemical, biological, or conventional and non-conventional (asymmetric warfare, eg “terrorism”), anywhere in the world and, believe it or not, even in response to cyber attacks! Nuking another country because they hacked the power grid – even causing a catastrophic grid failure – seems a bit extreme to me, but that’s the stated policy of the US government.
Europe/NATO planned a “first use” policy against a Soviet invasion, and continues to hold to the policy that tactical nuclear weapons may be used to thwart an invasion by overwhelming conventional forces (including using tactical nukes on their own soil) despite the fact that Russia no longer seems to have either the capacity or intent to invade western Europe (they have only a fraction of the land forces the old Soviet Union had). This seemed to ignore Soviet strategy and planning, and would have rapidly turned Europe into a radioactive and chemical wasteland, but that was the plan (which seems rather crazy, but that’s what it was).
China has made a clear “no first use” declaration. Chinese weapons mix and deployment strategies seem to indicate that policy is in fact their intentions, and given their huge conventional land forces, probably a safe bet. The Russian position is more nuanced. They have stated they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons offensively, but reserve the right to use them first if faced with an existential threat to the state in the form of an overwhelming conventional attack. Again, this seems to be reflected in their weapons mix and deployments, with a caveat. The problem is that as the US has changed its policies and weapons mix to use smaller, more easily used weapons, and withdrew from both the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty and Intermediate Range Nuclear Force treaties, Russia changed it’s policies and weapons deployments, and has developed new weapons to counter the new US weapons and tactics.
Chicken or egg? It’s an interesting question that politicians and the public they allegedly represent must carefully consider. Both sides allege the other violated those agreements, but during the 1990’s and early 2000’s Russia had virtually no resources to devote to weapons development, its existing infrastructure deteriorated, yet the US continued down the NUTS road. My own view is that Russia has been trying to keep the nuclear threshold fairly high, even as its conventional forces became smaller, but that US strategy has been rather shortsightedly taking actions to lower it, which forces Russia to respond and change their weapons mix. Which US planners and politicians (and the powerful industrial base and their lobbyists who want new weapons funding) then point to and go “AHA- Big Bad Bear is a Threat, We Need More Stuff!” Rinse and repeat.
Into this mix drops the latest US policy paper, courtesy of the State Department. It is arguing that the US deployment of the new, “dial a yield” smaller W76-2 warhead on Trident submarines “strengthens deterrence and lowers reduces nuclear risks.” To say this paper makes no sense is an understatement. I suppose you could argue it does strengthen deterrence, but it is expensive, vastly destabilizing, unnecessary, and makes the world a far more dangerous place by lowering the nuclear use threshold on a weapon system that can’t be distinguished from a greater threat.
First of all, it isn’t necessary. Sure, having an SLBM launched weapon means it can be fired from great distances, with very little warning. But other than a counter-force strike, which an enemy must assume is in progress, it has no value if (as is the stated goal) the objective is to hit a single or few high value targets (which is the only target against which it makes sense to use use an expensive, destructive, and politically controversial nuclear weapon fired from an equally expensive missile). But, given the demise of the INF treaty, you could also do that from a cruise missile at less than half the cost, albeit with a risk of it being shot down, and it being a bit slower (which isn’t a bad thing, given a single cruise missile launch, if detected, isn’t going to set off the alarms and potential for “launch under attack” scenario an SLBM launch might, and there are abort modes that are not possible with a ballistic missile). Speeding up the process is destabilizing – you see a missile coming, you don’t know what’s on it.
Worst of all, the US interpretation of Russian capability and intent in the document is just plain self serving and dangerously wrong. Russia has made it very clear, as this statement by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakarova says in this Interfax article (in Russian; here’s the key quotes):
Any attack with the use of an American submarine – launched ballistic missile (SLBM), regardless of the characteristics of its equipment, will be perceived as an attack with the use of nuclear weapons … Those who want to speculate about the flexibility of the American nuclear potential should understand that, according to Russian military doctrine, such actions will be considered grounds for retaliatory use of nuclear weapons by Russia … In our view, there is clearly a purposeful blurring of the lines between non – strategic and strategic nuclear weapons, and this inevitably leads to a decrease in the nuclear threshold.
But are these new weapons really targeted at Russia or China? I suspect not. Russia has systems that can probably shoot down a single or small number of incoming warheads, even theater level systems like the C-400 Триумф. So the scenario presented in the paper as justification for the new W76-2/SLBM system is unrealistic. China probably doesn’t now, but is working on it and has S-400’s from Russia. North Korea and Iran are not even mentioned in the paper, but in most of the policy discussions surrounding this process, they were the ultimate targets being considered, and despite the destabilization of the relationship with Russia and China, the rational behind withdrawing from both the ABM and INF treaties was mostly to counter those two “axis of ebil” states. It is “rumored” that when this was discussed with President Putin by the US President Bush in the 2000’s, the focus was on those two powers (PDRK and Iran). It is possible that a serious confrontation between the US and either of those two would begin with tactical nuclear strikes on key facilities, on the theory that their capacity for a nuclear response would be limited to non-existent, and conventional weapons risk being ineffective. The ultimate “shock and awe.” The thinking is the US could ride out the political firestorm that would ensue, and the risk of further damaging relations with Russia and China by this deployment are worth it.
Why does this matter to you, when you’re trying to decide if you need to wear a mask, get a haircut, or safely restart your business? Well, it just made the world a lot more dangerous place. Over the last three decades, the US has been increasingly viewed by other nations as an immature, untrustworthy, irresponsible bully (to be clear, that’s not my opinion, that’s what I hear from my colleagues in other governments and countries). All of the goodwill from the boom-free conclusion of the Cold War and sympathy for the 9/11 attacks has long since evaporated through heavy handed actions and policies such as the w76-2 deployments on SLBMs. The cost of a single UGM-133 missile and W76-2 warhead is at the very least about $150 million, which may not seem like much, but is the same as one hundred (that’s right, 100) Tomahawk Cruise Missiles (TLAMs), which have far more tactical flexibility, and none of the fallout (literally or politically). If you think we have enough stuff that goes boom already, maybe you would rather buy three thousand high acuity ICU ventilators. Or around 25 years of pay and benefits for 100 public school teachers. Your choice – literally – this fall. Oh, wait, no it isn’t, because unless something happens and Biden drops out, both candidates for President (and certainly their parties) think this thing is a good idea.
So … on second thought, when the acronyms of your topic are MAD and NUTS, maybe the Coronavirus isn’t so bad … now back to your regularly scheduled pandemic.