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The escalating danger and unpredictability of nuclear weapons

Nuclear Weapons Are Getting Less Predictable, and More Dangerous  Defense One,  MAY 16, 2019   Facing steerable ICBMs and smaller warheads, the Pentagon seeks better tracking as the White House pursues an unlikely arms-control treaty.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to discuss, among many things, the prospect of a new, comprehensive nuclear-weapons treaty with Russia and China. At the same time, the Pentagon is developing a new generation of nuclear weapons to keep up with cutting-edge missiles and warheads coming out of Moscow. If the administration fails in its ambitious renegotiation, the world is headed toward a new era of heightened nuclear tension not seen in decades.

That’s because these new weapons are eroding the idea of nuclear predictability.

Since the dawn of the nuclear era, the concept of the nuclear triad — bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles — created a shared set of expectations around what the start of a nuclear war would look like. If you were in NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado and you saw ICBMs headed toward the United States, you knew that a nuclear first strike was underway. The Soviets had a similar set of expectations, and this shared understanding created the delicate balance of deterrence — a balance that is becoming unsettled.

Start with Russia’s plans for new, more-maneuverable ICBMs. Such weapons have loosely been dubbed “hypersonic weapons” — something of a misnomer because all intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at hypersonic speeds of five or more times the speed of sound — and they create new problems for America’s defenders. …….

The United States is starting to build a new generation of smaller nukes of its own. The reasoning was laid out in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, and the weapons have been rolling off the assembly line since January……

But Selva also noted that low-yield weapons present the same sort of ambiguity as hypersonic weapons.

“We don’t know what they launched at us until it explodes,” he said.

The U.S. military has responded to Russian weapons development with several other key moves: building a next-generation air-launched cruise missile, hiring Northrop Grumman to build a new penetrating bomber, lowering the nuclear yield on some sub-launched ballistic missiles, and exploring bringing back a sea-launched cruise missile, or SLCM, that could have a nuclear tip……

Lynn Rusten, vice president of the Global Nuclear Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said that the ambiguity problem would apply to the SLCMs effort as well. “We use conventional SLCMs a lot in our normal warfare. If you start having nuclear SLCMs deployed as well, there will be a real discrimination in terms of when one of those things is launched, what is that thing coming at you? Where is it going?”……..

Many arms control experts say the first and most important step that the U.S. could take in navigating this far more unpredictable future is to extend New START. Even Selva, who declined to offer a public recommendation about such an extension, said that the United States benefits in multiple ways from the treaty’s mechanisms for keeping track of the parties’ strategic arsenals. ……

A collapse of New START might also cause China to embrace a more aggressive nuclear stance to hedge against rising unpredictability…….

As uncertainty increases, misperceptions become more dangerous. And there is reason to believe the United States is already looking at the situation through various imperfect lenses. One is the belief that China has any interest in trilateral arms control. Another is “escalate to de-escalate.” Some Russia experts, such as Olga Oliker, the Europe and Central Asia director at the International Crisis Group, call it a fiction dreamed up in the West after a misreading of a Russia’s 2017 Naval Doctrine.

“Moscow continues to believe, and Russian generals in private conversations emphasize, that any conventional conflict with NATO risks rapid escalation without ‘de-escalation’ — into all-destroying nuclear war. It must therefore be avoided at all costs,” she wrote in February.

“If anything, U.S. emphasis on new lower-yield capabilities — effectively an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy of the sort many attribute to Russia — would undermine the deterrent balance, potentially triggering the very sorts of crises low-yield proponents hope to avert.”

Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, says the “escalate to de-escalate” debate obscures a more fundamental truth about Russian strategic doctrine. “Russia has never accepted the proposition that a war with the United States could be conventional only. Hence, Russian nuclear strategy has a firm place for scalable employment of nuclear weapons, for demonstration, escalation management, warfighting, and war termination if need be,” he told Defense One. “The gist of the problem is that the Pentagon believes that nuclear weapons are some kind of gimmick that can be deterred in conventional war, but actually the prospect for conventional-only war with Russia is somewhat limited from the outset.”

Bottom line: the U.S., Russia, and China, may be entering into a high-stakes discussion on nuclear arms with each suffering from severe misconceptions about the others’ intent. The price of failure of the new negotiation effort, if New START is not re-affirmed, would be a new period of heightened nuclear tensions and less predictability.

Rusten believes the arms race has already begun.

“We don’t want to be where that trajectory will take us five years from now,” she said.

May 18, 2019 - Posted by | politics international, Russia, USA, weapons and war

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