A technical fix is transforming the capabilities of America’s aging warheads, allowing missiles to hit their targets with near-surgical precision. As Science reports, however, the innovation is likely to raise tensions with Russia by undermining its nuclear deterrent:
The fix, which has been developed quietly over 2 decades and is now being deployed on U.S. submarine–launched ballistic missiles, makes a small adjustment to the height at which a warhead explodes. The result is a dramatic improvement in the odds that the blast will destroy its target.
One of the advantages of the new technology is that upgraded W76 warheads—the most common type in the nuclear arsenal—can now reliably take out heavily reinforced missile silos. According to the study’s estimates, only 272 of those warheads would be needed to wipe out Russia’s entire slate of silo-based ICBMs. After such a strike, the study’s authors note, the U.S. would still have serious firepower left over for other targets: “In all, the entire Russian silo-based forces could potentially be destroyed while leaving the US with 79 percent of its ballistic missile warheads unused.”
For Russian nuclear planners, that scenario is the stuff of nightmares. Science again:
To Russia, whose defensive radars provide very short warning of a ballistic missile attack, the fix could raise fears that the United States is capable of launching a first strike that would knock out Russia’s silo-based nuclear missiles before they can be launched. That undermines nuclear deterrence and creates “a deeply destabilizing and dangerous strategic nuclear situation,” according to the report in the 1 March issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS).
The Russians have never been the type to rest easy when the nuclear balance shifts, as Moscow’s consistent opposition to U.S. missile defense has proven. The hypothetical threat that superfuze technology poses, however, is much more serious. And President Trump’s pledge to further expand and modernize the nuclear arsenal will only exacerbate the anxiety for Moscow. Putin may protest against America’s nuclear strategy and posture about his own capabilities, but the truth is that Russia simply cannot afford to match a U.S. nuclear buildup. Instead, Putin may try to gain an edge in other ways, as he has already done by illegally deploying missiles in violation of the INF treaty, for example. Improvements to the U.S. arsenal are likely to increase Russia’s provocations while decreasing the odds of Putin getting along swimmingly with Trump.