Russia's Lethal Nuclear Arsenal Gets an Upgrade: Should NATO Worry?

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Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave brief remarks at the opening ceremony of ARMY-2015, an exposition where Russia’s defense contractors demonstrated new military technology for foreign weapons buyers. The speech was relatively sedate. It omitted much of the aggressive rhetoric that has become commonplace for the Kremlin, amounting to little more than a sales pitch for Russia’s military systems. Highlighting several pieces of Russia’s plan to modernize its military, Putin mentioned that, “This year we will supply more than forty new intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] to our nuclear force.”

This simple statement ignited a minor fervor in NATO countries. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that, “Nobody should hear that kind of announcement… and not be concerned.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified…. It’s also one of the reasons we are now increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces.” Reuters says Russia is “beefing up” its arsenal, CNBC asked whether it meant a new cold war, and many others worried about the prospect of a new arms race.

Reading through these statements, you would think that Russia had announced a new arms buildup that posed a significant threat to the West. In fact, Putin’s announcement was entirely in line with previous expectations and did not add major new capabilities to his nuclear arsenal. Russia continues to comply fully with the New START treaty, which limits strategic launchers like ICBMs. Because their Soviet-era ICBMs are aging out of service, Russian nuclear forces must take delivery of forty new ICBMs each year just to replicate their existing capability. Far from a threat, Russia’s ICBM modernization may actually make their arsenal more vulnerable. In short, the speech was barely an announcement and, because it held a moderate line on nuclear modernization, probably more good news than bad.

Let’s take a closer look. Under New START, Russia must decline to reach an aggregate limit of 700 deployed launchers (meaning ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers) by 2018. Both Russia and the United States are on track to meet these commitments. In fact, according to the latest data, Russia is far below this limit, holding its aggregate number of launchers steady at 515. The forty “new” ICBMs do not increase the number of ICBMs deployed, but simply replace old missiles that have been in service since the 1970s.

It is entirely reasonable for Russia to replace its Soviet-era SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25 missiles with variants of the new SS-27 and the Sarmat heavy ICBM. The replacement process, which Russia hopes to complete by 2022, decreases the number of missiles in total, but packs more warheads onto each missile, a vulnerability that the United States would never accept in its own arsenal because it means that more Russian warheads can be attacked by fewer U.S. warheads.

Russian ICBM modernization is reasonably well understood and proceeding as expected, which is why veteran nuclear watcher Hans Kristensen noted last month that that Russia was expected to deploy forty ICBMs per year on average. If anything, last week’s announcement represented a step back from Putin’s pledge last year to deploy fifty new ICBMs this year, a clear concession to the acute fiscal pressures that are hemming in Russia’s military modernization. Furthermore, the United States should welcome any Russian effort to be transparent about its nuclear arsenal. The information transmitted through New START inspections and in public announcements like these is reassuring to both parties. It should be applauded rather than criticized, especially if they do not announce new capabilities.

Even if Russia were somehow to accelerate its nuclear modernization efforts, the U.S. Department of Defense recognizes that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty.”

To summarize: Russia could deploy many more missiles and still remain behind the United States in numbers of launchers and under the New START caps. Even if it cheated on the New START treaty and deployed still more, the Pentagon does not believe that this would significantly affect the strategic balance.

Last week’s announcement should fall somewhere between mundane and reassuring. Instead, much of the West took the bait. Putin clearly hopes that his irresponsible talk about nuclear weapons will strike NATO like a drum, sending fear and awe resonating through the alliance. He hopes to provoke a reaction that will distract attention from his conventional and hybrid aggression, raise Russia’s stature in Eastern Europe, solidify his rule at home, and allow him to impose even greater military expenditures on his citizenry.

With the United States prepositioning heavy weaponry to its NATO allies in the Baltics and NATO itself planning to more than double the size of its NATO Response Force (NRF), Russian rhetoric will only grow more shrill, reckless, and urgent in the coming year. And with the U.S. presidential election kicking off, Putin is likely to find an audience that is ready and willing to amplify his alarmist rhetoric.

To be sure, Russia has made deeply dangerous moves with its nuclear arsenal. Itsabrogation of the INF treaty and apparent lack of interest in returning to compliance undercuts U.S. confidence that it is possible to reach negotiated solutions with Russia. Furthermore, Kremlin officials have also proven anxious to inject nuclear threats into non-nuclear crises, as when Putin rather strangely claimed to have prepared to raise the alert level for his nuclear forces to cover his aggression in Ukraine.

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry told a meeting in Vienna this week, “We are about to begin a new round in the nuclear arms race unless some brake is put on it right now.” With rhetoric reaching a fever pitch, it is important to remember that the goal is not to plunge eagerly into a new arms race, but to prevent one.

The episode of the forty ICBMs firmly underscores the need to be clear about Russia’s actions, to demarcate the trivia from the substantive, the rhetoric from the threat. The United States has no interest at all in indulging Putin’s effort to create tension at the nuclear level and every interest in confronting to Russia’s aggression at the conventional level. To date, the White House has been exemplary in drawing this line, responding patiently but firmly to INF noncompliance while refusing to rise to Putin’s nuclear threats. In response to a question about the forty ICBMs, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “We’ve seen these reports. I don’t have a specific reaction to them.”

At the same time, the White House has moved assertively to strengthen NATO’s ability to respond to aggression on its own terms, pledging to contribute high-end assets to the NRF’s spearhead force. This Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) will benefit from U.S. special operations forces, logistical, artillery, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

There are already calls in the United States to fight fire with fire and add to our own nuclear forces. However, there is little reason to believe that building new nuclear capabilities or forward-deploying the ones we already have would restrain Russia. There isevery reason to believe that Putin would take these steps as license to divert attention to the nuclear balance, to abrogate existing arms control treaties, to launch a new arms race, and to use his nuclear arsenal to cover aggression at lower levels—in short, to start a new Cold War.

It is better to fight fire with cold water. The United States should firmly resist Russian aggression by deploying conventional forces in Europe and just as firmly resist the urge to respond to nuclear provocations. It will certainly not help to worry about “new” nuclear threats where there are none. The best way to prevent a new arms race is to refuse to engage in one.

Adam Mount is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where this piece first appeared) where he is writing a profile of nuclear disarmament in the United States. He holds a PhD in Government from Georgetown University.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

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U.S. Air Force Rehearses Bombing Iran's Buried Nuclear Targets

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In the last year, the U.S. Air Force has conducted at least three trial runs of a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a report in Politico Magazine.

“At least three times in the past year, a B-2 stealth bomber has taken off from an Air Force base in Missouri and headed west to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. For these missions, the $2 billion plane was outfitted with one of the world’s largest bombs,” the report by Michael Crowley said, referring to the Pentagon’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bomb.

“Those flights were, in effect, trial runs for the attack on Iran that President Barack Obama, or his successor, may order if diplomacy can’t prevent Iran from trying to build a nuclear weapon.”

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that the Pentagon had done a trial run of the MOP back in January. That report noted that B-2s carrying the bomb had taken off from an Air Force base in Missouri but said the location of the test was unknown.

The White Sands Missile Range is surrounded by mountains, which would help the Air Force simulate bombing Iran’s Fordow enrichment plant near the city of Qom. The Fordow enrichment plant is buried more than 250 feet inside a mountain. It is also likely reinforced with concrete.

The MOP is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in existence. Weighing in at some 30,000 tons, the bomb can reportedly burrow through 200 feet of earth and 60 feet of concrete before detonating.

The aforementioned Wall Street Journal report said that, “to destroy or disable the underground facilities, the Pentagon envisages guiding two or more of the bunker busters to the same impact point, in sequence, extending the weapon’s burrowing power.”

The same report said that the MOP had received upgraded electronic countermeasures to prevent the Iranians from using jammers to disrupt the bomb’s internal guidance systems. The guidance systems themselves, the report added, have been upgraded to give them enough precision that B-2 bombers could drop one of top of the other.

The U.S. Air Force’s bombing runs have taken place as Iran and the P5+1 powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) have made significant progress towards reaching a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. In April, the two sides reached a framework agreement for the deal and negotiators are currently trying to hammer out technical details ahead of a June 30 deadline for reaching a final, comprehensive agreement.

Both sides have indicated that they are willing to negotiate past the deadline if a deal isn’t struck by June 30.

President Obama has repeatedly said “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, indicating that he would order air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran made a dash for the bomb.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: United States Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III


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The Ghost of Thucydides: Is War in Asia Inevitable?

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ASEAN’s leaders are worried about what history tells them about the future of Southeast Asia. The fears about the lessons of history are a discordant note as ASEAN steps up to a great moment in its history—the creation of an economic, political-security and social Community in December 2015.

Perhaps this moment of historic creation is partly driven by dark understandings of history. As ASEAN embraces a date with regional destiny, its leaders are invoking some tough history as reference points.

The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, stirs headlines by comparing China with Hitler’s Germany. In this metaphor, the Philippines has the role of Czechoslovakia. Aquino ran this line last year to The New York Times and during his recent visit to Japan.

The point about Aquino’s history isn’t just the Germany–China analogy, but the casting of the US in the Britain/France role—the great powers that stood mute while the small state (the Philippines as Czechoslovakia) got monstered.

Another history that keeps popping up is Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war 2,500 years ago, the conflict between Athens and Sparta. The Thucydides trap that ASEAN sees is different to the Thucydides trap that worries China and the US. Different aspects of history for different folks.

Professor Graham Allison’s version of the trap is the danger posed when a rising power confronts a ruling power.

For Allison, the crucial news is this line: ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.’ Applied today, this becomes China’s rise, US fear and inevitable conflict:

"Never has a nation [China] moved so far, so fast, up the international rankings on all dimensions of power. In a generation, a state whose gross domestic product was smaller than Spain’s has become the second-largest economy in the world. If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred."

The trap has captured the attention of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He told the Berggruen Institute:

"The argument that strong countries are bound to seek hegemony does not apply to China. This is not in the DNA of this country given our long historical and cultural background. Also China fully understands that we need a peaceful and stable internal and external environment to develop ourselves. We all to need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap—destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves."

When ASEAN leaders go to Thucydides, however, they are interested in a different trap – what big powers can do to the small.

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, had his Thucydides moment at the Asia Pacific Roundtable last year, with this bit of dark history:

"Imagine a world where institutions, rules and norms are ignored, forgotten or cast aside; in which countries with large economies and strong armies dominate, forcing the rest to accept the outcome. This would be a world where, in the words of the Greek historian Thucydides, ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’."

Going Peloponnesian a few weeks ago, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, worried about the same history:

"It should not be a world where might is right, where the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. It should be a world where legitimacy and constructive engagement are the international norm, and every country, big and small, can compete peacefully for the chance to prosper."

The strong doing as they will and the weak suffering as they must is what Athens told the small state of Melos in the Melian dialogue, demanding surrender and payment of tribute. Melos refused to yield, claiming the right to remain neutral (or lean towards Sparta) on grounds of justice and honor. After a siege, Athens infamously carried out its threat to kill every Melian male of arms-bearing age and sold the women and children into slavery.

Such history speaks to core aims of ASEAN neutrality and centrality. Neutrality for individual ASEAN states has a distinct Melian flavor—the right to stand aloof or to lean between China and the US, depending on the issue. The ASEAN fear is of not being central to decisions and being forced to pick sides under duress.

The ASEAN version of the Thucydides trap is another version of the conundrum expressed by Wang Gungwu: ASEAN’s problem is to form a realistic assessment of China’s intentions and America’s resolve.

Musing on the prospect of tough choices is such a habit it qualifies as part of the ASEAN way. Coral Bell’s line was that NATO is ever in crisis; in the same manner, ASEAN is ever tormented by existential angst. The history lessons feed the angst.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

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Australia Begins Testing Its Largest Warship Ever

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Australia is set to begin testing its second Canberra-class Amphibious Assault Ship (LHD), which is also known as a helicopter landing ship.

In a statement, BAE, which helped build the ship, said that the NUSHIP Adelaide, the second of two planned Canberra-class LHDs the Royal Australian Navy is building, left port in Williamstown to begin sea trials.

“We will undertake approximately 240 hours of testing over 20 days to ensure all systems perform to their capability. Some of the trials will run concurrently and cover everything from basic systems operations such as alarms, to the ship’s manoeuvrability while at sea,” Bill Saltzer, BAE Systems Director of Maritime, said in the statement.

The ship will first travel to Sydney where it will dry docked in order to clean and paint its hull and flight deck. It will then travel back to Williamstown, arriving sometime in mid-July. Later, in August, the Adelaide will undergo a second set of sea trials, which will focus on its communication and combat systems.

“We are on track to deliver NUSHIP Adelaide at the end of September this year,” Saltzer said.

Adelaide will be the second CAnberra-class LHD that the Royal Australian Navy receives after the first, HMAS Canberra, was commissioned in November of last year.

According to Saltzer, the Adelaide will be even more ready than HMAS Canberra was at the time it was commissioned. “The ship is even more ready than HMAS Canberra was for her first sea trials, reinforcing that we have implemented lessons learned from the first of class and we have continued to improve our productivity.”

Displacing 12,000 tons, the Canberra-class amphibious assault ships are the largest warships ever built for the Australian Royal Navy. Calling the ships “one of the most capable and sophisticated air-land-sea amphibious deployment systems in the world,” the Australian Navy notes “hese 27,000 tonne ships will be able to land a force of over 1,000 personnel by helicopter and watercraft, along with all their weapons, ammunition, vehicles and stores.”

The Navy has also explained that the ships’ “maximum speed is in excess of 20 kn with a range of 6,000nm, a sustained maximum speed of 19 kn under full-load conditions and an economic cruising speed of 15 kn with a range of 9,000nm.”

As this suggests, the Canberra-class LHDs will greatly enhance Australia’s ability to project power in the massive waters surrounding the country. Their commissioning comes at a time when tensions are rising in the South China Sea owing to greater Beijing assertiveness.

Australia has vowed to continue patrols in the South China Sea despite Chinese pressure. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month, Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said, “We’ve been doing it for decades, we’re doing it currently…and we’ll continue to do it into the future.”

He added: “We don’t see there’ll be any change to that operation. It’s been a long-term operation and it’s been well known by all the countries in the region.”

The ships can also be used in humanitarian rescue and disaster response missions.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/ Royal Australian Navy

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The Impossible Price of a U.S.-China Grand Bargain: Dumping Taiwan

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The argument that Washington should abandon support for Taiwan to gain favor with Beijing faces strong counter-arguments that have prevailed in policy-making up to now.  George Washington University professor Charles L. Glaser presents a fresh reboot of the idea in the spring 2015 issue of the journal International Security.  Glaser says protecting Asia-Pacific allies is a vital U.S. interest, but protecting Taiwan is not.  Yet Taiwan is the main cause of Chinese opposition to U.S. strategic leadership in the region.  Meanwhile, tensions between China and rival claimants over disputed territory in the East and South China Seas threatens to spark military conflict, and foreign governments wish for more clarity in Beijing’s longer-term strategic intentions – specifically, whether it is a “greedy state” that seeks to replace the United States as regional hegemon.  Glaser proposes solving all of these problems through a Sino-U.S. “grand bargain”: the United States government “ends its commitment to defend Taiwan” in exchange for Beijing’s promise to “peacefully resolve” its maritime territorial disputes and “officially accept the United States’ long-term military security role in East Asia.”

The case for abandoning Taiwan typically meets at least three large barriers: the betrayal of U.S. ideals, harm to America’s reputation as a reliable security partner, and Taiwan’s strategic value.  Glaser’s argumentation does not overcome these barriers.

Glaser says he recognizes that a foreign friendly country’s hard-won civil liberties “are important values” that Washington “should be reluctant to jeopardize,” but in the end they are not “key national interests” for the United States and are therefore expendable.  It is debatable that the preservation of a democratic Taiwan is not a key U.S. interest.  Recent U.S. presidential administrations representing both major political parties have affirmed a U.S. strategic interest in spreading democracy because democratic countries are generally supportive of the U.S.-sponsored international system of liberal norms and institutions.

(Recommended: Say Goodbye to Taiwan)

Glaser focuses on the US interest in avoiding a war with China.  But what about the U.S. interest in preventing a Taiwan-China war?  One of the main reasons for U.S. forward deployment is to help keep the region stable.  The PRC argues that the Taiwan “separatist” challenge would quickly dry up if the U.S. stopped selling weapons to Taiwan, but Taipei has argued the opposite: cross-Strait stability is possible only if Taiwan feels secure, and the Republic of China (ROC) will not negotiate with China under the gun.  Beijing should not assume Taiwan would be quick to surrender even in a disadvantageous situation.

Abandoning staunch, long-time friend like Taiwan would damage U.S. credibility in the eyes of other regional governments.  Glaser argues that in the case of Japan, this damage would be containable.  Tokyo realizes that compared to Taipei, its relationship with Washington is more strongly institutionalized.  Japan also has nowhere else to go, he says, other than sticking with the United States.  This is probably true, although U.S. abandonment of Taiwan would reinforce Japan’s fear regarding the long-term U.S. reliability to stand up to a strengthening China.  This would embolden Japanese advocates of accommodating China, as well as those who call for a militarily strong Japan unleashed from the alliance.  What about the damage to the reputation of the U.S. among friends in Seoul, Canberra, Manila, and elsewhere?  Glaser mentions only Tokyo, the relatively easy case.

(Recommended: Would America Risk a Nuclear War with China over Taiwan?)

On the subject of Taiwan’s strategic value, Glaser spends most of his effort arguing against his own thesis.  He points out that Taiwan acts as a huge barrier, creating choke points for the deployment of PLA naval forces, while possession of Taiwan would give the PLAN direct access to the deeper waters of the Pacific, would increase the Chinese A2/AD capability, would extend the range of air cover for the Chinese navy, and particularly would make it easy for Chinese submarines to enter the Philippine Sea and threaten US carrier battle groups there.  Having made these points, Glaser unconvincingly concludes that controlling Taiwan would not “significantly increase” Chinese military leverage.

Glaser’s case has other weaknesses.

He assumes that the US abandonment of Taiwan would “dramatically improve” U.S.-China relations, and that “China can be very secure with the United States maintaining its alliances and forward deployment” as long as Taiwan is no longer in play.  This is believable only if we posit that Beijing has no aspirations for regional leadership or revisions of the current order beyond gaining control over Taiwan, both now and in the future.

The “grand bargain” idea probably resonates less with Beijing than Washington.  From Beijing’s point of view, this would be asking it to trade something it believes it already owns for something else it believes it already owns.  If they did agree, how the “bargain” would be operationalized is unclear.  What would it mean for China to “officially accept” U.S. alliances and military bases in the Asia-Pacific?  This would seem to require Beijing to renounce its proudly “principled” opposition to any country having “Cold War era” alliances and foreign bases.  At the same time, it is easy to foresee China continuing its pre-bargain activities (military buildup, maneuvers with Russia, naval patrols in the East and South China Sea, etc.) while claiming these were not attempts to drive U.S. influence out of the region.

Glaser recognizes that Chinese leaders may intend to push out their U.S. rival.  He argues his proposal would answer the question of whether this is Beijing’s plan.  If Beijing accepts the proposal, it would indicate that China has limited aims and can tolerate continued U.S. regional hegemony.  If not, China intends to usurp that role from the United States.  If we now recognize that expelling U.S. strategic leadership may be Beijing’s intention, unilaterally assisting the Chinese by abandoning Taiwan is not the most sensible policy if the US hopes to retain its accustomed role.  The timing of Glaser’s proposal is particularly bad given that Xi Jinping’s government seems to represent a shift toward a more assertive Chinese foreign policy that has grown impatient with waiting for the United States to decline on its own.

Even if the current regime in Beijing does not plan to dismantle U.S. regional leadership, the United States cannot be sure the leaders of a future, stronger China will think the same way.  China could renege on Glaser’s proposed deal more easily than the US could.  China is a local power with relatively short supply lines to the East and South China Seas.  In the case of the South China Sea, China enjoys a huge and growing military force projection disparity in its favor relative to the other claimants.  But to cancel its part of the deal, the United States would have to cross the Pacific Ocean to invade and capture a Taiwan defended by ensconced PLA forces only 100 miles from China’s mainland.

Ultimately, Glaser’s idea founders on the contradiction between assuring China and assuring allies who fear China.  Admitting that regional confidence in U.S. reliability would suffer if Washington stopped supporting Taiwan, Glaser argues that Washington would need to compensate for this reputational setback by increasing U.S. military forces in the region, investing in stronger capabilities, and deepening ties between US and allied military commands.  These compensatory moves, however, would go a long way toward reviving the very fears that the “grand bargain” was intended to alleviate.  It is questionable that China would feel much more secure if the price of gaining control over Taiwan was a permanently stronger US military presence in the region.

Glaser’s view of the protection of a democratic Taiwan as superfluous rather than intrinsic to America’s “longstanding military security role in East Asia” is erroneous.  Therefore a bargaining away of US support for Taiwan – especially for a doubtful payoff – is no way to strengthen America’s regional leadership. 

This piece first appeared in CSIS:PACNET here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

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