The stand-off between Russia and the West has prompted triggered fears of a renewed East-West clash. Amidst this climate of confrontation, nuclear weapons have regained some relevance for strategists on both sides, and political leaders have implied veiled nuclear threats. Against this background, the nuclear arsenals of both the US and Russian are undergoing important and costly modernisation programmes. Washington’s plan, at the moment, has been costed at one trillion dollars to be spent over the next three decades. It has the feel of a new arms race, but what is it exactly about and how does it affect European security?
Both the US and Russia continue the implementation of the 2010 New START, with the aim of cutting the number of deployed warheads to 1,550 on each side by 2018, a limit that will be in place until at least 2021. After that year the treaty could be extended for another five years and a new one might be negotiated. There is no hint that the number of deployed strategic warheads will expand.
If it is an arms race, it is qualitative. Enhancements to nuclear forces are being driven by nuclear doctrines which blur the line between conventional and nuclear war, leading some to consider that the risk of a nuclear exchange is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War –former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry is a prominent voice in this regard.
All nuclear armed states are involved in modernisation plans, and all claim that this is about safety and reliability as systems age. This includes successor programmes to replace ageing ICBMs and SLBMs as well as platforms (for example, the US Ohio-class SSBN replacement programme and Russia’s Borei-class SSBNs programme). But modernisation is not simply about like-for-like replacement. It drives technical cooperation, innovation in doctrine, and the continual search for superiority and break-through.
Mirroring NATO’s strategy during the Cold War, Russia compensates its conventional inferiority relative to the West by increasing its reliance on nuclear weapons. In this framework, Russian strategists conceive the early use of a few low-yield nuclear weapons to end a conventional conflict on terms favourable to the Kremlin. The logic is that NATO allies would be deterred by the prospect of heavy losses to a Russian limited nuclear attack or, if not deterred, would not dare to escalate the conflict after such an attack. It is being reported that, in order to be able to sustain this ‘escalate to de-escalate’ doctrine, Russia is modernising its numerically large and varied non-strategic nuclear arsenal, not accountable under START limits and shrouded in secrecy.
While NATO is still trying to decide how to respond to this, some strategists suggest that to deter Russia from launching a limited nuclear strike the Alliance should be able to respond in kind. The United States is modernising its free-fall B61 bomb, which is forward-deployed in bases in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. The existing models of this bomb are being rolled into one single model, the B61-12, with variable yield allowing for smaller detonations, increased accuracy and earth-penetrating capabilities. Therefore, while not a new warhead as such (the physics package comes from previous bombs), the B61-12 will in effect be a new weapon. It will hold a wider range of targets at risk at lower yields, reducing collateral damage, and will appear more usable to commanders.
The planned replacement for the AGM-86B, the nuclear-capable Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO), is presented by its advocates as the only way for the US to retain a functional bomber-leg of its second-strike capability in the face of increasingly sophisticated Russian air-defence systems. In an all-out nuclear war, the LRSO would be designed to overcome Russian defences and strike targets deeper within the country. However, it might also be used to destroy those air defences in a limited conventional war, though this would amount to a first use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Russia has already deployed nuclear-capable cruise missiles, like the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile and the air-launched Kh-101 (both used with conventional payloads against targets in Syria), so the LRSO might also be justified as a way to prevent a capability-gap vis-à-vis Russia.
Russia and the United States are locked in a very dangerous game, an arms race that messes with the boundary between nuclear and conventional conflict, and thereby makes the former more likely. Caught in the belief that preparing for (nuclear) war is the best form of preventing it, strategists are investing in increasingly accurate delivery systems coupled with variable-yield warheads, believing too that this still allows for escalation control.
An expansion of the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines runs contrary to disarmament obligations. More importantly, this dynamic puts European security at a great risk. Although only changes in the political situation could alter the pattern of mutual distrust and uncertainty that fosters this arms race, we should immediately start working on confidence-building and transparency measures to prevent a crisis from breaking out by accident or miscalculation as military build-ups continue in Eastern and Central Europe. NATO’s summit in Warsaw in July is an exceptional opportunity to do so. Russia and the West should understand the fundamental necessity of a modicum of military dialogue, since a crisis could be lethal.