U.S. Nuclear Warheads' Scary Modernization

U.S. nuclear weaponry experts have published a report on the ongoing programme to retrofit W76-1/Mk4A warheads of Trident II SLBMs with burst-height compensating super-fuses. The upgrade will significantly improve the missile’s kill ratio as applied to silo-based ICBMs, thus freeing up a considerable portion of the United States’ arsenal for engaging other targets of potential enemies.

Experts believe that, apart from the officials’ seeming indifference to the process, another major threat is linked to the possibility of the further “optimization” of nuclear response procedures in Russia, coupled with the absence of a fully capable space-based component of the Russian missile warning system and the fact that the United States is seeking new technical solutions to build its offensive capability beyond the framework of the existing arms limitation treaties.

What Should Russia Do?

Alexey Arbatov, Head of the Centre for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations under the Russian Academy of Sciences and member of the Russian International Affairs Council
Both Russia and the United States are constantly upgrading their armed forces in general, and their strategic nuclear forces in particular. Over the past decade, Russia has been hard at work updating its strategic triad. Not a day goes by without senior government members and military chiefs making televised statements on achievements in this area, including new missiles, submarines, bombers and cruise missiles.

With the exception of the information and command systems, the United States has not improved or updated its strategic nuclear forces over the past 15 years. That country will not begin renovating its strategic forces until the mid-2020s. What has been done to date boils down to minor improvements in order to increase the effectiveness of U.S. strike weapons. In particular, new fusing systems have been introduced. Without going into too much technical detail, I will note that the new fuses expand the capability of the Trident II warheads, which have up to now been considered insufficiently effective against hard targets (such as missile silos and command points, including highest-tier command centres). With the same guidance accuracy and warhead yield in kilotons (a W76 warhead yields 100 kilotons), the new fuses now allow the Trident II to destroy such hard targets. In order to keep U.S. hard targets in the crosshairs, Russia is currently replacing its Voyevoda heavy missiles with the new Sarmat system.

The U.S. programme means an increase in the effectiveness of its strategic forces and an intensification of its so-called counterforce strikes, that is, strikes on the enemy’s strategic forces, including hard-target strategic forces. To all appearances, Russia is not particularly worried by this. If it were concerned, it would never have decided to replace old heavy missiles with new models in the same silos, which remain just as vulnerable to the newest U.S. weapons. Seeing as Russia is replacing these missiles and increasing the attractiveness of the silos as potential targets by putting heavy missiles tipped with 10 warheads into them, we may assume that Moscow is not especially worried about the new U.S. fusing system on the Trident II SLBMs. There certainly will be new submarines and new missiles, and they will most likely be more effective than the current missiles. But they have yet to materialize.
Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, chief researcher at the Centre for International Security at Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations under the Russian Academy of Sciences and Russian International Affairs Council expert

First. W76 warheads have been in service with Trident II missiles for over 30 years now, so, from the point of view of safety and reliability, it is not surprising that they are being upgraded. The fusing method that is being implemented has been known for around 20 years. In essence, based on the target miss estimate, at the end of the active trajectory leg the missile selects the warhead detonation method: if the missile is undershooting, the warhead is detonated by the contact fuse on impact with the surface; if it is overshooting, the warhead is detonated mid-air at the closest point to the target. The United States is retrofitting virtually all its ICBM and SLBM warheads this way as part of upgrade programmes, and Russia is most likely doing the same.

Second. The W76 has a yield of around 100 kilotons and is, therefore, classed as a light warhead. Such warheads are not intended to be used against hard targets such as missile silos, and will not be used for that purpose, despite the relatively insignificant improvement in their killing accuracy thanks to the upgraded fusing method.

It would be much more efficient to engage hard targets, such as missile silos, with W88 warheads, which yield over 400 kilotons and are also used with Trident II SLBMs. The warheads of Minuteman III ICBMs also fit the bill.

Therefore, the United States will not “free up” a significant portion of its arsenal for use against other targets of the potential enemy.

Third. There is no need for any measures to be taken in response to the W76 modernization programme. Russia follows its own schedule for replacing obsolete weapons systems within its strategic nuclear forces, and is introducing new strategic systems in line with the New START treaty, which ensures guaranteed nuclear deterrence.

Fourth. The temporary incomplete capability of the Russian space-based missile warning system component would in no way affect the retaliatory strike capability, seeing as the decision to launch such a strike may just as well be based on information from the second, radar-based missile warning tier, which Russia has no problems with.

The information published by U.S. experts that the Americans are carrying out profound modernization of their nuclear munitions in order to improving their effectiveness is nothing new to the Russian military and political leadership. This circumstance has been taken into account in forming and implementing the Russian defensive plan. Russia is taking effective measures to maintain missile and nuclear parity with the United States, both in terms of perfecting its strategic offensive weapons and in terms of developing the capability of its missile defence system, including the missile warning systems. In particular, in 2016 Russia completed the programme to establish complete radar coverage of the country’s borders, with a detection range capability of up to 6,000 kilometres for ballistic targets. Russia has also started deploying a new uniform space-based detection and combat command system, which is expected to be fully deployed by 2020.

With all these factors taken into consideration, it can be argued that Russia has the capability to promptly detect a nuclear missile attack and respond appropriately. As has been repeatedly stated at the highest military and political level, the missiles currently deployed as part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are capable of overcoming the missile defences of any enemy in the foreseeable future. To ensure continued confidence in the reliability of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and its missile defence systems, relevant funds are planned to be allocated for research and development as part of the state arms programme for 2018–2025, which is currently under development. These research and development efforts will allow Russia to have weapons systems on a par with the best foreign equivalents.

The essence of the problem is not the fact that the United States will be able to achieve guaranteed destruction of one of the Russian nuclear triad’s components. The problem lies in the fact that the United States is deliberately unhinging the system of strategic stability: reducing the number of delivery platforms and warheads required to destroy silo-based missiles will allow it to redistribute the existing capability of its strategic nuclear forces in a more optimal way for a surprise disarming strike. This, in combination with the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (even though for the time being that system is not officially or technically aimed against Russia) and in light of the U.S. Prompt Global Strike effort, causes understandable concern in Moscow. Furthermore, this state of affairs may indeed result in the delegation of the authority to decide on using strategic nuclear forces to lower levels of command.

It should be noted that the reputation of Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been seriously damaged. In light of the modernization effort taking place, Washington's calls [for the United States and Russia] to “reduce [their respective nuclear arsenals] to 1,000 [warheads]” sound rather peculiar, even though the authors of the report believe that the decision-makers, including those within the U.S. administration, may have overlooked the revolutionary nature of the super-fuse.

At present, Russia might want to consider resorting to the following measures (it is possible that all these measures are already being taken):

Improving the operational availability of the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces, as well as the conventional naval forces which perform an auxiliary function in the deployment of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

Intensifying the deployment of the space-based component of the missile warning system and beyond-the-horizon radars: every minute available, even in theory, to the country’s military-political leadership will have a stabilizing effect on the system in general.

Analysing the stability of the existing structure of the country’s strategic nuclear forces and assessing the financial and economic aspects of its possible optimization.

Appraising the relative effectiveness of spending the limited funds on the projects currently being implemented to create future strategic nuclear systems, including from the viewpoint of the costs involved in ensuring their staying power. In particular, it may be more effective to deploy significant numbers of rail-mobile missile systems, even with the associated costs of compensating Russian Railways for the losses incurred and the profits denied, than deploying active protection systems for the new RS-28 Sarmat silo-based heavy missiles. Furthermore, it may be concluded that it would be preferable to give up on one of the new land-based systems and rely instead on alternative delivery platforms, such as the Status-6 unmanned underwater craft carrying a megaton-class warhead.

Intensifying negotiations on nuclear doctrines both in the Russia–United States and the multilateral formats.

Initiating a discussion on the parameters of a retaliatory strike, including in the form of limited retaliation, which would be enough to deter a first strike from the potential enemy.
The report by Hans Kristensen is without a doubt of great interest and concern. It is typical of the U.S. military to serve nuclear arms modernization programmes (whose costs Congress historically finds difficult to digest) with a helping of “life-extension and reliability boosting efforts” sauce. This was how they created the B61-11 nuclear bunker buster (the explanation offered was the need to decommission the older B53 bomb), and it is how they will end up getting the B61-12 guided nuclear bomb in the near future. The primary danger of the aforementioned munitions is that they increase the probability of tactical nuclear weapons being used in a local conflict; the W76 modernization effort, for its part, is certainly aimed at boosting the capability of U.S. strategic nuclear forces in a potential conflict with Russia or China. Indeed, it would be surprising if the United States was not taking measures in this field, too.

On the other hand, there is no reason to succumb to panic. It is true that Kristensen is one of the world’s leading experts on nuclear weapons. His unique expertise has been used in drafting both government reports and journalistic pieces all over the world. Nevertheless, he a consistent advocate for nuclear disarmament, which makes him dramatize things from time to time along the lines of “parity has been undermined and the threat of nuclear war is growing.” He is known to have penned similar pieces about Russia in the past. As for this particular article, even if we are to completely embrace the author’s (sometimes controversial) estimates as to the probability of upgraded U.S. warheads destroying Russian missile silos, this outcome shifts nuclear parity in a fairly insignificant way. Russia will still have a stable submarine-based component and road-mobile missile systems; in fact, Kristensen is obviously deliberate in his overstatement of the U.S. goal to destroy the latter in their deployment areas (it is not clear why these systems would be destroyed, without launching their payloads in response – which only takes minutes – just because the woods in which they are deployed will burn down in forest fires caused by the detonation of a relatively small number of warheads).

Nevertheless, Kristensen is sending an interesting signal. For the past quarter of a century Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have undergone modernizing more or less unilaterally, because the U.S. nuclear triad continued to shrink in size, relying on the existing systems. Now Russia once again needs to get used to the measure–countermeasure kind of sparring. In the run-up to the launch of the massive renovation effort for the U.S. strategic nuclear forces, such a shake-up might even be a good thing. In fact, there are indications that the Russian military had taken this information into account long before the article was published.

The information published by prominent independent U.S. experts on nuclear weapons about the United States retrofitting MC4700 super-fuses to Mk4A combat modules containing upgraded W76-1 nuclear warheads (which are the most widely used variant of nuclear payload for Trident II SLBMs) suggests that the U.S. nuclear planning authorities continue to view the country’s nuclear weapons not only as a deterrent against a military aggression, but also as a possible victory weapon in a nuclear conflict to be won with a first counterforce strike.

The priority measures to be taken in order to increase the survivability of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces in this situation include:
increasing the frequency of sorties performed by Russian strategic missile submarines and ensuring that four such boats are at sea simultaneously at any given time;
putting aircraft carrying nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missiles on a 20-minute alert at airfields farthest from the enemy’s potential SLBM launch areas;
increasing the on-patrol endurance of road-mobile missile systems, ensuring that one quarter of the deployed systems are on combat patrols at any given time.

In addition to the aforementioned priority measures, it may make sense to ask whether the New START-enforced number of U.S. generic targets for a Russian counterforce strike, as well as the permitted nuclear delivery platforms and the strategic nuclear warheads deployed on them, is too low.

In light of the ongoing deployment of the U.S. ABM programme, the U.S. programmes to create conventional strategic weapon systems as part of the Prompt Global Strike effort, and the U.S. programmes to upgrade its strategic nuclear forces and thus increase its counterforce potential, the aforementioned priority measures may not necessarily help maintain the deterrent potential of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces at the required level. In this connection, Russia may inevitably have to ignore the New START’s quantitative limitations, first of all the limitation on the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads, the quantity of which could be increased relatively rapidly and inexpensively on delivery platforms.

If some in the United States continue to count on a possible victory in a nuclear conflict, then the quantitative and qualitative composition of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces should be enough to convince them otherwise, as no matter which first-strike scenario they choose, there will be no winner.

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