The dangers of vulnerable nuclear forces

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For a while during the Cold War, the nuclear standoff was almost comfortable. When the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was briefed on the destructive power of the hydrogen bomb, he told his son Sergei, he was so upset that he could not sleep for several nights. But then, he said, he realised that these weapons could never be used and he could sleep again.

If Brezhnev were alive today he might not sleep so soundly. They could never be used, he thought, because each power could annihilate the other, which made for a stable stand-off. But new developments are making the standoff less stable, at a time when international crises are looming, in Europe and in the South China Sea.

When a Chinese warship plucked an American undersea drone out of the South China Sea, and the United States demanded its return, this was the first that many people knew about undersea drones. But they one of several changes in the still-dangerous world of nuclear weapons. This particular US drone could well have had a mission tracking Chinese submarines within the disputed territorial waters of the South China Seas.

We are used to airborne drones. Buzzing about in the sky like high altitude mosquitos, they kill terrorists and their unfortunate neighbours and deliver parcels to Amazon customers. In contrast, undersea drones are something new in the public consciousness. Yet they are developing at a rapid rate and could in future impact upon the stealth of nuclear ballistic missile-firing submarines, currently seen as the bedrock of stability, the ultimate deterrent. Sitting deep in the ocean, these submarines cannot easily be found or targeted and can always respond to an attack on the homeland.

The land-based missiles were thought to be near-invulnerable also, eighty feet underground in hardened concrete silos. You would have to drop a nuclear bomb right on top of one to destroy it. Now there is a good chance of doing just that. Missile guidance systems are being given accuracy unimaginable a few years ago. Now a missile can travel six thousand miles and have a fifty percent chance of landing within ten feet of its target.

This has brought back talk of the nuclear strategy of counterforce. U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, proposed such a strategy in 1962. American bombers and missiles would attack enemy forces only, not cities, and hope that an enemy would observe the same restraint. If the US were able to launch a limited nuclear war against military targets, and particularly knock-out nuclear missiles in a pre-emptive strike with limited casualties, this could present a major strategic advantage.

Today’s deployed nuclear bombs are generally less powerful (up to 25 megatons then, generally a lot less than one megaton today) and are more accurate, so it is possible to limit the damage. But let’s keep it in proportion: the nuclear age has changed our standards. A standard nuclear bomb is around 40 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima.

So now much of America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenal is vulnerable, and this could in future include the submarines. Yet it is unlikely that they could all be preemptively destroyed - things go wrong, bombs do not explode - leaving some to strike back.

Lesser nuclear powers are another matter. Britain’s nuclear deterrent consists only of submarines, four, with at least one of them at sea at any time. If that submarine were detected, the entire available British deterrent force could be destroyed with one hit.

North Korea's much smaller nuclear arsenal is another matter. North Korea has not yet miniaturised its bombs sufficiently to put them in a missile warheads, but Western observers assume that they soon will). They also say they are well hidden and we cannot easily locate them. But we might be able to in the future. China has about 400 missiles. A well-targeted counterforce strike based upon effective intelligence would have a good chance of destroying them all, in the ground or under the sea.

This is not to say that a future American president – or even the next one – will have a permanently itchy finger on the nuclear trigger. But in a crisis, he may think he has a tempting option which he did not have a few years ago: a preemptive counterforce strike that could neutralise an opponent before a crisis got out of control.

However, this adds another element of instability. In a confrontation with the United States, the other country, fearing a preemptive counterforce attack, might feel that it must launch its missiles immediately before they are destroyed, “use them or lose them”, as the saying is.

This gives added strength to the argument that nuclear weapons should be taken off alert status. At the moment nuclear missiles can be launched within minutes. This is a relic of the Cold War days. It opens the way for miscalculation – the idea that an enemy could be about to launch an attack and we must strike first – unauthorised launch, or a mistake. There have been several occasions in which radar has indicated erroneously that missiles have already been launched and are on their way.

In a recent study by Global Zero, a disarmament group, retired American and Russian generals jointly warned of the dangers of keeping missiles and bombers on alert. Retired U.S. General James Cartwright has said this the most urgent task of the American military. The late Sidney Drell, eminent strategist and scientist, recently said that launch on warning was the worst policy he had ever witnessed.

But now that nuclear forces are particularly vulnerable, the “balance of terror,” in Winston’s Churchill phrase, is a little less balanced.

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About the author(s)...
  • Norman Moss is author of a number of well-regarded books on nuclear weapons and international affairs, whilst working as a journalist for Reuters, the Daily Mail, the Today programme on Radio 4, and other BBC outlets.
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