Why new technology is making nuclear weapons 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.
The risks associated with nuclear weapons are rising once again, the heads of three US intelligence agencies told lawmakers last week, as Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine intensified.

It shouldn’t have been like this.

At the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush claimed that the United States could now reduce its nuclear forces. But today’s arsenals—and global politics—are very different than they were in 1991. US leaders are facing threats of dictatorship in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang, all racing for ways to build and distribute new nuclear bombs. It turns out that technology is making arms control difficult, and it’s forcing a major rethink about nuclear deterrence.
Thirty years later, the United States is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the nuclear triad’s strategic bombers, nuclear-powered submarines, and 21st-century versions of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. At the same time, China, Russia and the United States are also developing new types of hypersonic missiles, which, while manoeuvring at more than five times the speed of sound, resemble the Cold War-era ICBM Chrysler Imperial. But these new missiles don’t replace the old missiles: they only add to the stuff each nation must buy to keep up.

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Beyond delivery systems, today’s nuclear command-and-control systems include a vast network of satellites; sensors, drone-mounted; And computer systems that are constantly being developed, maintained and upgraded.
Some argue that while US leaders could have used the peace dividends of the post-Cold War era to destroy the global nuclear arsenal, the Pentagon’s own ambitions for new missile-defence technology instead led to other global powers. The growing autocratic regime was forced to respond in kind. Heavy US investments in developing new ballistic missile defence, in particular, propelled Russia and China on their current path to develop highly-manoeuvrable hypersonic weapons.

Several senior US military leaders declined interview requests for this article; Defense Department leaders keep current nuclear concerns close to their vests. But in 2019, the Air Force released a collection of papers that leaders were already expressing concerns about. In it, Major Jeff Hill stated that the newly developed U.S. missiles were against Russian and Chinese missiles. The defence has “motivated each of these two countries to aggressively pursue their [highly manoeuvrable hypersonic missile] programs. Russia in particular highlights the ‘US military-technical advances’, including its ballistic missiles.” defence program, which is of concern with regard to deterrence,” citing the work of Kristin Wayne Broussgaard, one of the leading Western academic experts on Russian nuclear strategy. His work in the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies student research project assessed the effect of hypersonic weapons on deterrence.

All this in preparing and preventing nuclear war is much more complicated than in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Over the past 30 years we have made a number of fundamental assumptions that are not really valid,” said Admiral Charles Richard at September’s Deterrence Symposium. Richard heads the American Strategic Forces, or Stratcom, which oversees the military’s nuclear arsenal. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the [US] success in Desert Storm, we achieved a national security environment where, I would argue, the risk of a strategic deterrent failure, and in particular, the risk of nuclear deterrence failure, was low. ….we started taking it lightly and forgot all the things we had to do from a strategic deterrence standpoint so that we could start in that environment.”


One of those assumptions was that China posed an all-too-negligible nuclear threat. In 2006, the People’s Liberation Army had just 18 nuclear-capable missiles that could reach the continental United States; Each had only one warhead.

“If the United States can destroy all of Russia’s long-range nuclear systems in a first strike – as we argue it possibly can today – it suggests that the Chinese strategic nuclear arsenal is far more vulnerable,” Nuclear scholars Keir Lieber and Daryl Press wrote at the time.

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But China has since expanded its arsenal; In 2020, Pentagon officials estimated its number “in the low 200s”, and could double. It has also formed its own nuclear triad with nuclear-capable stealth bombers; four Type 094 ballistic missile submarines; and on the ground, truck-mounted missile launchers and an estimated 300 completed and planned ICBM silos.

Stratcom’s Richard said the details of China’s manufacturing also introduce new challenges. For example, US officials believe that the PLA is building more silos than ICBMs. But if the Pentagon’s planners don’t know which ones are full, they must assume they are all. Thus, China prevents a nuclear attack with fewer armaments. This is a different approach than the warhead-for-warhead approach that the United States and the Soviet Union adopted.

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 the three-party problem. How do you deter with three, equivalent nuclear-capable competitors?” Richard said. “The Cold War was a two-party competition.”

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

“Strategic implications can be much broader than just ‘nuclear,’ what can possibly be done in cyber or possibly space, critical infrastructure, information domains, allies and partners’ roles. All of that, I Seems like a very critical review is needed,” Richard said.

This nuance is often lost in contemporary conversations about nuclear weapons and deterrence. In 2018, a New York Times article, “Pentagon Suggests Combatting Devastating Cyber ​​Attack with Nuclear Weapons” raised frenzied concerns that the United States under President Donald Trump may be lowering its bar for launching nuclear strikes. Had been. The article was quoted from a draft edition of the Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, with sources saying “major cyberattacks against the United States and its interests would be among the types of foreign aggression that could justify a nuclear response.”

Officials quickly rushed to reassure the public that the United States was only recognizing that a strategic attack was no longer necessarily nuclear in nature. Technology had created new opportunities.

Robert Soffer, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, told reporters that a strategic attack “could include devastating attacks against the civilian population, against infrastructure. It is our nuclear command-and-control [or] Could be an attack using a non-nuclear-weapon against pre-warning satellites.”

In February 2021, then-Vice Chief of Staff General John Hutton publicly advised the incoming Biden administration to ensure that the next nuclear posture statement incorporates all-new methods that an enemy is capable of launching a “strategic attack”. It is possible.

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 combat system”, Werner J.A. Dahm, then-chairman of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, made the prediction in 2016. His warning came on the eve of a larger study by the Air Force to see how reliable nuclear weapons would be if they were networked together, a study that was never publicly released.

super manoeuvrable missile

Perhaps the biggest change in 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 are following (along with the United States) are manoeuvrable, allowing an adversary to target a much wider space with a single missile. , and makes such missiles very difficult to defend. ,

Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles would be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but the United States is pursuing hypersonics only for precision strikes with conventional, or non-nuclear, warheads.

“We did not want to create confusion. The Chinese revel in that, along with the Russians,” said Mark Lewis, who in 2020 served as acting undersecretary of defence for research and engineering and is now executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

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

American scientists have encountered problems in developing manoeuvrable hypersonics. A conventional ICBM experiences extreme heat for a limited portion of its journey to the target, as it is returning from space to Earth. But a highly manoeuvrable hypersonic weapon experiences very high temperatures for very long periods of time. In the case of boost-glide weapons, which mount like conventional rockets but then manoeuvre to the target, that high heat comes during the descent.

The hypersonic cruise missile, which the Air Force is attempting to build and fire from bombers, travels at high speeds entirely within the atmosphere, which introduces even greater technical challenges. But they are the most dangerous class of hypersonics. “When we do things like war games, for example, hypersonic cruise missiles prove themselves to be very effective,” Lewis said.

He said that for some time the US had taken a leading role in the development of hypersonic cruise missiles, but then abandoned it. “As the Air Force was building out its portfolio, you know, five, six years ago, they didn’t focus on cruise missiles. Instead, they focused on rocket boost flight. That’s been fixed since then. But it also delayed us a bit.”

Air Force Colonel John D. Varyleck leads the 608th Air Operations Center, which serves as the commander of the U.S. Army during the nuclear war. of air assets. Three years ago, Varilek wrote that “the Chinese have seen start-stop measures of U.S. hypersonic programs and duplicate investments in these technologies in unknown years. Exactly when hypersonic programs launched by China.” are unknown, but the first successful tests of Chinese concepts in 2014 have provided a catalyst for more focused US research and development in the hypersonic field.

The United States, China and Russia have mostly turned to simulations to test hypersonic flight. China has invested in the wind tunnels needed to produce the data needed for the simulations, which has allowed them to have some success in hypersonic systems. They also claim to have a secret tunnel that would allow their forces to simulate conditions up to Mach 30 (although US researchers dispute that claim).

“In August 2018, a Chinese hypersonic glide system named Starry Sky 2 took off for 10 minutes at speeds up to Mach 6 with successful rocket glide vehicle separation and follow-on hypersonic glider flight,” Verilek wrote.

But last July, China stunned the world by conducting a worldwide hypersonic glide-vehicle and missile test. The Financial Times wrote that the test “suggested that the Chinese military could hit targets anywhere in the US with nuclear weapons.” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called the event a near-“Sputnik moment” in strategy.

During the Trump administration, the United States attempted to bring China and Russia to the negotiating table to draft a new arms control agreement – ​​to replace the bilateral US-Russia New START Treaty – that included new types of delivery systems. Will be included.

“The basic thing is: We ran out of time,” said a former White House official involved in the process. “The Russians correctly calculated that Biden … would extend New START by five years and sure enough, that’s what he did.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only increased military leaders’ concerns that the United States has the ability to prevent a Russian or Chinese nuclear attack.

Stratcom’s Richard told lawmakers last week, “Today, we are faced with two nuclear-capable counterparts who, in any domain across the globe, at any time, with any device of national power, at any level of violence.” But have the potential to grow unilaterally.” “Every operational plan and every other capability we have in the Department of Defense rests on the assumption that strategic deterrence is holding and in particular is holding nuclear deterrence.”

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