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Why New Technology Is Making Nuclear Arms Control Harder

The US, China, and Russia are locked in a high-tech race to perfect new nuclear capabilities, rendering some Cold War safeguards obsolete. Defense One, PATRICK TUCKER | MARCH 14, 2022  

The risks associated with nuclear weapons are rising once again, the heads of three U.S. intelligence agencies told lawmakers last week, as Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine intensified.

t wasn’t supposed to be this way.

At the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush boasted that the United States could now reduce its nuclear forces. But today’s arsenals—and global politics—are much different than in 1991. U.S. leaders face threatening dictatorships in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang, all racing to create new nuclear bombs and ways to deliver them. Technology, it turns out, is making arms control harder, and that’s forcing a big rethink about nuclear deterrence.

Thirty years later, the United States is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on 21st-century versions of the nuclear triad’s strategic bombers, nuclear-powered submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM. At the same time, China, Russia, and the United States are also developing new types of hypersonic missiles that, maneuvering at more than five times the speed of sound, make Cold War-era ICBMs look like Chrysler Imperials. But these new missiles don’t doesn’t replace the old ones: they just add to the stuff each nation must buy to keep up.  

Beyond the delivery systems, today’s nuclear command-and-control systems include a vast network of satellites; sensors, including drone-mounted ones; and computer systems constantly being developed, maintained, and upgraded.

Some argue that while U.S. leaders could have used the post-Cold War era’s peace dividend to dismantle global nuclear arsenals, instead the Pentagon’s own ambitions for newer missile-defense technology forced the rising autocratic regimes of other global powers to respond in kind. Heavy U.S. investment in developing new ballistic missile defense, in particular, prompted Russia and China on their current path to develop highly-maneuverable hypersonic weapons.

Several senior U.S. military leaders declined interview requests for this article; Defense Department leaders keep current nuclear concerns close to their vest. But in 2019, the Air Force released a collection of papers in which leaders already were lodging concerns. In it, Maj. Jeff Hill, said that newly developed U.S. defenses against Russian and Chinese missiles “has led each of these two countries to aggressively pursue its own [highly-maneuverable hypersonic missile] programs. Russia specifically highlights ‘American military-technological advances’ including its ballistic missile defense program as an area of concern in relation to deterrence,” citing the work of Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, one of the foremost Western academic experts on Russian nuclear strategy. His work was published as part of a U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies student research project that assessed the influence of hypersonic weapons on deterrence.

All this makes preparing for and deterring nuclear war a great deal more complex than it was during the 1950s and 1960s.

“There’s a number of very fundamental assumptions that we have made over the last 30 years, that really are no longer valid,” said Adm. Charles Richard said at September’s Deterrence Symposium. Richard leads U.S. Strategic Forces, or STRATCOM, which oversees the military’s nuclear arsenal. “After the fall of the Soviet Union and the [U.S.] success in Desert Storm, we achieved a national security environment where, I would argue that, the risk of a strategic deterrent failure, and, in particular, the risk of a nuclear deterrence failure, was low…. We started taking it for granted and forgot all the things that we had to do, from a strategic deterrence standpoint, to get us to that environment to begin with.” 

…………………  China has since vastly expanded its arsenal; in 2020, Pentagon officials estimated it numbered “in the low 200s,” and could double. It has also built out its own nuclear triad, with nuclear-capable stealth bombers; four Type 094 ballistic missile submarines; and on land, truck-mounted missile launchers

 and an estimated 300 completed and planned ICBM silos.

………………And the emergence of a third huge nuclear arsenal complicates deterrence theory, STRATCOM’s Richard said.
“In general, deterrence theory doesn’t really account for a three-party problem. How you do deterrence with three, peer nuclear-capable competitors?” Richard said. “The Cold War was very much a two-party competition.”

Meanwhile, U.S. military planners are changing their definition of “strategic” deterrence, weapons, and attacks. During the Cold War, this almost always referred to nuclear war. But today’s planners use the term to include non-nuclear threats and technologies that could have devastating effects—for example, destroying an adversary’s ability to see an attack coming or respond to it. 

“Strategic effects can be much broader than simply ‘nuclear,’ in terms of what could possibly be done in cyber or possibly be done in space, critical infrastructure, information domain, role of allies and partners. All of that, I think, requires a very critical relook,” Richard said. 

That nuance is often lost in the contemporary conversation about nuclear weapons and deterrence. In 2018, a New York Times article, “Pentagon Suggests Countering Devastating Cyberattacks With Nuclear Arms” sparked frenzied concern that the United States under President Donald Trump was lowering its bar for launching a nuclear strike…………

Future nuclear weapons, including ICBMs, will likely be part of a complex, interconnected digital architecture, and will likely exhibit “some level of connectivity to the rest of the warfighting system,” Werner J.A. Dahm, then-chairman of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, predicted in 2016. His warning came on the eve of a major study by the Air Force to see how trustworthy nuclear weapons would be if they were networked together, a study that was never publicly released. 

Super Maneuverable Missiles 

Perhaps the biggest change to nuclear deterrence is the appearance of new types of hypersonic weapons. Unlike Cold-War era ICBMs, the new class of hypersonics that China and Russia (along with the United States) are pursuing are steerable, allowing an adversary to target a much wider space with one missile, and making such missiles very difficult to defend against…………………..

any country could use a non-nuclear hypersonic missile to strike its adversary’s nuclear command-and-control targets…………….

The development of these new “invincible” weapons—as Russian leader Vladimir Putin has called them—has triggered a concurrent arms race for new concepts to defeat them. One U.S. answer has been the use of new satellite architectures to watch hypersonics as they proceed along their flight path, in addition to new sensors and object-finding software to spot things like mobile missile launchers.



March 15, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, safety, technology

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