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Nuclear Strategy
Nuke Upgrades Are Bad News for Russia

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.

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  • Tom_Holsinger

    The Russians don’t need any help undermining their nuclear deterrent. It is decaying into uselessness because they are too corrupt and incompetent to replace even Soviet-era strategic hardware.

  • Proverbs1618

    Isn’t that the whole point of nuclear deterrent – to deter? So if Russia knows we can wipe them of the map even if they launch first, isn’t that a good thing? Let them complain all they want, I’m all for being the guy with the biggest, scariest gun.

    • D4x

      Might be more a missile silo competition, like the prize for the tallest building. The tanks armed with micro-nukes for the battlefield never get the attention they deserve.

    • Matt_Thullen

      Under arms control theory it’s destabilizing, as Russia’s main nuclear force could be knocked out without their ability to retaliate. It means that if something happens that makes them think we’ve launched a strike they have almost no time to decide whether it’s a real attempt to knock out their nuclear force, in which case they need to launch their missiles or risk losing them, or it’s something else, in which case they don’t need to launch.

      Think Mexican standoff, except that one side doesn’t have a clear view of the other person’s trigger finger.

      • Andrew Allison

        I think it was called MAD. More to your point, since it’s is highly improbable that the US would ever launch a first strike against Russia, but would destroy all of Russia’s missile silos in response, Russia has every incentive to empty all the silos should it embark on a MAD first strike.

        • gabrielsyme

          Highly improbable, yes, but Russia has long suspected U.S. motives are more malign than we understand them to be. This makes a misjudgement on Russia’s part more likely – radar and early-warning systems have given numerous false positives about missile launches, and we should worry that an error will cause a retaliatory strike.

          It also makes an catastrophic escalation of a nuclear exchange more likely, but you more or less have to get into a conventional war to start that, and with Hillary’s zeal for confronting Russia hither and yon now safely relegated to private life, that is an unlikely proposition.

          • Andrew Allison

            Yup, it’s Russian paranoia that’s the big risk. That and Putin’s need to keep the population distracted with imaginary external threat while he and his pals raped the country.

          • gabrielsyme

            Well, the exploitation of Russia occurred principally during Yeltsin’s time. Putin has expended significant energy bringing the oligarchs to heel.

            I think it’s unhelpful to think of it as Russian paranoia. We prepare and make military investments not for present threats or the dispositions of rivals, but for what might occur. China right now seems unlikely to get into a real conflict with American forces. But if a new leader follows, a more nationalist and aggressive leader, it wouldn’t be difficult to see America forced to deal with some difficult choices in East Asia. America arms not for the disposition of Xi, but of who might come after.

            For Russia, America seems determined to continue to orient its military posture towards you, working to undermine the stable nuclear status quo, expanding NATO to its borders and fomenting internal dissent. Sure, Obama wasn’t going to touch off a war over eastern Ukraine, but what of Hillary Clinton’s recklessness? What if another John McCain becomes president? You don’t have to be paranoid to worry about the internal politics of the USA shifting in a dangerous direction.

  • KremlinKryptonite

    TAI, Navy veteran of nearly 20 years here (and spent several on the USS Pennsylvania out of Bangor).
    The Trident IIs are mostly armed with W76 warheads, and they are undergoing life extension and upgrades, but THIS does not change the strategic situation with Russia, I promise you. This is someone at ScienceMag misunderstanding what’s going on.

    The Trident IIs are already accurate enough to threaten Russia’s strategic forces, and they can be flown on a depressed trajectory = five minutes of warning (or less) depending on where the sub is.
    Compare that to land based missiles which may take as many as 30 minutes from launch to terminal dive of a warhead.

    In other words, the Russians know that the US would have to sacrifice a large chunk of its sea based deterrent to launch a first strike, and that’s simply not going to happen with the majority of US warheads at sea.

    Land-based missiles, contrary to popular belief, are there to be sitting ducks. They are there to menace an enemy, yet are 400 targets which the enemy cannot ignore. An enemy would have to waste their own sea-based deterrent to eliminate American land-based missiles.

    • Unelected Leader

      Now that’s interesting. Reading the actual link I didn’t think it could be quite so simple as “whelp we’ve got an upper hand so boom I just wiped out your nukes. Here’s the dotted line on the surrender papers”

      • KremlinKryptonite

        Indeed. As I said, the ScienceMag author simply doesn’t understand. And of course there’s no such thing as a first strike that does not also target airbases, like those housing the TU-160s in Russia’s case, and air defenses to open a gap so that American bombers can roam the target country more or less freely.

    • f1b0nacc1

      With respect, you have a squid-centered view of the problem (grin)…

      There is no doubt that we have come along way since the 70s and 80s when the only thing that boomers were good for was to finish ending the world after the ICBMs had flown. This new SLEP does materially change the lethality of the W76s, but substantially reducing their CEP, and thus making them viable counterforce weapons in a way that they haven’t been in the past. That is an enormous change, particularly given the asymmetry between Russian and American nuclear forces, especially the Russian inability to field a viable SLBM force. Given the geography of Russia, this problem isn’t likely to change anytime soon (and I don’t take their ‘bastions’ terribly seriously), which means that they are always going to have a different view of this problem than we do.

      • Unelected Leader

        Russia has SLBMs. They simply aren’t as good as Trident IIs. I don’t think you understood what he said lol, perhaps you didn’t read the whole thing? He basically said two things. First, that SLBMs [at least the Trident II system] have already been accurate enough to be used as a first strike weapon for like 25 years. That’s a fact. Second, that there is no hitting an enemy’s silos without also hitting additional targets like their strategic bombers. That’s not necessarily a fact, but it sure makes sense. Why only hit silos? So you can sit around and wait for a supersonic Blackjack to launch some nuclear cruise missiles?

        • f1b0nacc1

          The Russian SLBMs (and more importantly, the subs that carried them) were not only ‘not as good’, as the Trident IIs, but they were so far inferior as to require an entirely different pattern of usage. The noisiness of Russian subs, along with the very poor accuracy of their missiles, means that a counterforce strategy isn’t really an option for them, while the Trident IIs can be used in this way. This is not just a first-strike issue, it is a viable second-strike option as well.

          As for Trident IIs being viable as a first strike weapon for 25 years, this was debatable (at best) outside of the USN. Yes, the W76s had a CEP that would allow a hard target kill (pk >.95 in most cases), but that was heavily dependent upon the survival of the GPS network and the ability of the subs to manuver into position and receive firing orders without interference. These were by no means uncontested, and short of a deliberate sneak attack by the US, not really a viable strategy. In the event that we needed a hard-target capability in a post strike environment, the Trident IIs were far, far less likely to be useful, certainly less so than land-based ICBMs.

          Soviet-era strategic bombers (as with their post-soviet descendents) are certainly worth discussion, but not much. If the Russian land-based ICBM capacity was taken out (and their subs neutralized), about all that the few bombers available could do is to provide a bit of leverage for generous surrender terms, certainly not a strategic deterrent of any significant meaning. The number of Blackjacks was never very large, their availability was even less (they are even today notorious hanger queens), and their ability to penetrate even a permissive air defense environment to launch cruise missiles (also limited in utility) was not particularly encouraging.

          • Unelected Leader

            I think you’re really oversimplifying this, just like the author of the linked article. For you to more or less write off Russian SLBMs and a supersonic bomber like the Blackjack seems to me the height of folly. Russia might have an inferior SLBM, but it also has road mobile ICBMs not simply fixed silos, and the blackjack and SRBMs that can obliterate Europe.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            You’re both wide of the mark at this point. The simple reality is, the object of a first strike is to target the enemy’s strategic forces. That means land based missiles, major airbases with strategic bombers, and air defense groupings, not merely fixed silo missiles.
            Any weapon capable of doing that is a first strike weapon, and the Trident II has been capable of this for many years. Whether it’s going to be a little better at hitting silos now does not fundamentally change anything.
            The author does not understand existing capability well, and clearly does not know much about doctrine either.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Yes and no. The object of a first strike is to achieve a strategic goal (which is often to force a surrender, or to disarm one’s enemy, but not always), not simply to eliminate strategic forces. A Russia whose surviving arsenal consists of a sub or two and several T-160s in questionable condition is not going to be able to do very much other than perhaps activate some sort of “Dead Hand” strategy, certainly nothing more. If one hypothesizes (and lets be honest, that is what we are doing here), some American first strike that took out most of the land-based Russian assets while leaving the American silos unused, the Russians would be in a very, very bad place indeed, being left with essentially two options: End the world or Surrender. Their subs and airfields (and air defenses) could be intact and they would still have no realistic counterforce strategy without those land-based assets. In a reversed situation, the US could lose its land-based assets and still have an excellent counterforce response, an asymmetry that the Russians are all too well aware of.

            Granted, the Trident II has a counterforce capability without these new upgrades, but only assuming a BOOB strike, i.e. one where neither side has worked to take out the others targeting and support systems. Given the Russian doctrine regarding such systems, that is a pretty big omission.

            I don’t disagree with you that the article cited here is pretty much mush, but the broader question is whether or not there is something to the asymmetrical nature of the threat involved. Just as the Soviet deployment of large MIRVd systems in the 70s and 80s created a serious first strike counterforce threat at that time, the American upgrade of its existing sea-based counterforce capability now alters the overall strategic balance. Is this enough to worry about? Probably not….is it too little to consider worth discussing? also…probably not….

          • KremlinKryptonite

            You are underestimating the nearest peer competitors’ strategic forces (and tactical/non-strategic forces) including their ability to devastate allies, and that’s simply not how we do business in the US Navy.
            The object of any first strike will target the enemy’s strategic forces, and it could be coupled with some sort of decapitation strike against their government (not likely).

          • f1b0nacc1

            Last first…one would never strike against governments first, else how would you limit escalation? This sort of loose talk (which originated with charmless twits like Kissinger in the late 50s) is extremely dangerous, as it leads potential opponents to implement Dead Hand systems, which can easily get ‘out of hand’….

            Regarding the strategic forces of our competitors, I do NOT dismiss them or underestimate them, in fact quite the opposite. What I *DO* on the other hand is take those opponents (who understand their limitations at least as well as we do) at their word when it comes to how they would respond to our initiatives. The Russians, for instance, aren’t stupid, and have made it clear that their response to widespread W76 upgrades will be a launch on warning strategy. They are well aware that their subs and bomber aren’t viable deterrents in a high escalation environment, which is why they are feverishly working to upgrade their land-based ICBMs, both mobile and otherwise. Note that they continue to do this despite the cost to their much needed conventional upgrades (not to mention civilian requirements) because they correctly recognize that they are simply unable to strategically compete with the US except on the coarsest level. The Chinese, who are making major use of road-mobile systems (as well as pursuing a viable SSBN, though I don’t think we are going to see that very soon), are responding in the most practical manner possible….putting up enough deliverable warheads to implement a viable countervalue deterrent without concerning themselves too much about a counterforce strategy. Given their very long-term strategic goals, this makes excellent sense.

            Regarding their ability to devastate our allies….well that is indeed exactly the way we do business in the US Navy, and you certainly know this. Our basing strategies leaves several of our allies ‘at hazard’ depending upon our somewhat questionable reliability to deter a first strike by our enemies. This is precisely the reason (for instance) that the French pursued the Force de Frappe, or (in a different direction) that the New Zealanders made a fuss about port visits by nuclear-armed ships in the 80s and 90s. Given current circumstances, I don’t think it is terribly necessary to revisit the Japanese or Korean concerns…

            The object of any first strike will be determined by the circumstances of that strike, nothing more, and nothing less. To suggest otherwise simply ignores centuries of military history. After all, what wise man told us that ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’?

          • KremlinKryptonite

            I certainly do know. Western Europe, SK and Japan are all hosting US forces precisely because they would be held hostage no matter what, the difference is in US response and capability.
            In Europe, US nonstrategic capability is dwindling and has been for years, particularly as the US has created a very large nonstrategic nuclear deficit against the Russian nonstrategic, tactical nuclear forces.

            You’re clearly confusing “first use” with “first strike.” First use is very fluid, whereas first strike is not because it targets and enemy’s strategic assets – homeland.
            Naturally, the core of the conversation surrounds first use, as opposed to first strike, and whether some minimalist first use against conventional forces would necessarily escalate or could possibly deescalate.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The hosting of our forces has more to do with the post WWII strategic balance, and far less with any sort of rational strategic calculus since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. These countries are increasingly reconsidering their options, particularly with the rise of third powers that are not as deterred by the American ‘nuclear umbrella’. Would the US risk, say Seattle to protect Seoul? Or for that matter San Francisco to defend Tokyo? Our capability is quite good, our reliability is an entirely different matter. The Israelis long ago concluded that the US wasn’t a reliable guarantor of its survival, which is why there are Jericho missiles and Dophin IIs with cruise missiles carrying nukes targeted on all sorts of unpleasant places in the Middle East.

            The US ‘non-strategic’ capability was acknowledged to be unworthy of the cost long ago, as neither the US nor the Russians (who explicitly denied that such a capability could ever be ‘nonstrategic’) came to an understanding, and it is well gone. Tactical nuclear forces were an enormous mistake, an invitation for uncontrolled escalation in time of war. Once again, our NATO allies recognized this early on, which is why neither the French nor the UK was willing to place their nuclear forces under NATO, and why they went absolutely insane at the proposed MLF in the middle 1960s.

            And no, I don’t have any confusion at all between first strike and first use. The latter is typically used to describe a non-strategic environment, while the former is typically used to describe a strategic scenario. Even in such a scenario, however, a first strike need not be complete. I recognize that the military does engage in such analysis, but you must also recognize that those delightful oplans often are discarded the moment that real shooting begins.

            The genesis of this conversation though comes from the modifications made to the W76s, and what impact they will have on Russian thinking. I suspect that we agree that this isn’t enormous substantive change in some abstract sense (articles of this sort tend to be rather sensational at best), but my point was that the Russians (who by the very nature of the threat in question and their own history, must make worst case scenarios a part of their planning) will certainly perceive this as a new and serious problem. The asymmetry of our force structures, their overwhelming dependence upon what nukes they do have to buttress their increasing unsustainable non-nuclear forces, and their extremely poor strategic position going forward all lead them to regard such changes (however innocently that they may be intended) as highly dangerous, and at some level provocative. That they may be wrong is beside the point, the Japanese believed that the US would not prosecute a long bloody war against them following Pearl Harbor and the price for their mistake was paid at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Friend, when the XO tells the CO, “Captain, we are receipt of a valid emergency action message directing the launch of target package (insert numerical value here), request permission to authenticate” then he’s telling the captain that we are to launch against country X’s entire strategic force, or more precisely whatever part of that force our sub is responsible for destroying, in concert with others, if it’s a first strike scenario.

            There is no such thing as a first strike that doesn’t target the entire strategic force. That’s not what we drill for, and it doesn’t make any sense. I can say that, and the Russians and the Chinese and everybody else knows it, so no OPSEC problems.

            I have no clue what you’re talking about with nonstrategic weapons. In reality, the Russians have in excess of 4,000 of them, and are relying more heavily on them now than they did in years past to counter technological superiority of the NATO/US.
            The US has only 760 nonstratetgic weapons, and a meager 200 of those in Europe.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Tell you what friend….when you actually can show me a strike that has been launched (other than prepared for in training exercises), then I take it more seriously. You know as well as I do that a ‘target package’ does not necessarily include all forces, or ‘the entire strategic force’, often quite deliberately. There are an almost innumerable set of potential scenarios many of which are ‘limited’, though how likely those are is simply a matter of speculation.

            As for non-strategic weapons, you know better than this, but lets just leave the last word to you.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            There is no such thing as a limited first strike. The goal is to destroy all strategic assets. I’m not asking your opinion on the issue, I’m telling you this because it’s a fact.
            There is, however, such a thing as limited first use – very different – in which one uses a tactical weapon on an otherwise conventional battle field. Of course my old ship with Trident II missiles would have nothing to do with that, as they are a strategic asset and exist only to destroy other strategic assets.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Russian SLBMs operate almost entirely in protected bastions, precisely because they have almost no ability to survive outside of them. The repeated failures of the latest generation of launchers (the Bulava) and the noise issues associated with the Borei class of subs designed to carry it doesn’t lead me to believe that there is a great deal of faith to be placed in their survivability in a large conflict. Apparently the Russians (who have almost 70% of their warheads on land-based ICBMs) tend to agree. Regarding the Blackjack, the T-160s exist (as flyable aircraft) only in very small numbers, and almost entirely for theatre (not strategic) level use.

            Now, the rail mobile ICBMs (only a very small number are road-mobile, and there are significant C3I problems with them) are far more impressive, but once again they have their own limitations. Mobile systems are not nearly as ‘hard’ a target, and thus more vulnerable to a first strike. This isn’t a critical issue, but certainly if one is hoping to preserve MAD, it isn’t one that can be ignored.

            Regarding MRBMs and IRBMs (SRBMs don’t have the range to threaten all, or even most, of Europe), not to mention cruise missiles, I really coudln’t care less about Europe, so arguing that I have omitted them from my analysis is a feature, not a bug.

          • Unelected Leader

            You’re basically crossing your fingers, and you are writing off Europe. One Borei or the last Typhoon class sub could do incredible damage. One Tu-160s loadout could ravage Germany or possibly Canada. Just because they don’t have a dozen highly reliable subs patrolling + stealth bombers doesn’t mean they completely lack the capability to second strike.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Crossing my fingers? Of course not….but the Russians wouldn’t waste a Borei’s load on Europe, they have plenty of other weapons to take care of that. The Europeans are one step up from a nullity militarily, and in the event of some sort of nuclear conflict, I wouldn’t suggest that the US waste a single stray neutron on their defense.

            Regarding a second strike, if the Russians were left with a few subs (and it would be VERY few), and a handful of bombers, the odds are quite good that whatever leadership was there would likely choose some sort of accommodation over utter destruction, as long as that accommodation didn’t involve their extermination and slavery. That is hardly ‘crossing my fingers’, as I wouldn’t support such a first strike by us in the first place. There is a huge difference between laying out a scenario that the Russians could legitimately fear occurring (i.e. where their hard-target capable weapons were destroyed, and they were left with a handful of countervalue weapons as their only defense), and suggesting that such a scenario is a good idea, or that anyone other than a lunatic would suggest doing it. You seem to be ignoring the distinction.

          • Unelected Leader

            Yep, you are definitely crossing your fingers. In the US has a 70 year long alliance with Western Europeans and East Asians. If the US doesn’t follow through with its commitments the diplomatic consequences are worse than a nuclear exchange. Same goes for the Russian state, they have to respond. If they don’t respond with the second strike then the state can fall apart because people will rip them out of power for just sitting on their hands…. and there is already a concern of Russian nuclear weapons and material falling into the hands of radicals, terrorists, etc.

  • gabrielsyme

    We need to carefully evaluate nuclear upgrade options, and it’s not clear that the US has done so here. Giving Russian nuclear planners conniptions, while perhaps fun, is not strategically valuable. We need to ask what the problem is that needs to be solved – in this case, improving targeting means that an American first-strike capability is significantly improved, but its retaliatory capacity is not. If the result of this upgrade is that Russia lowers its decision-making time from (say) 12 minutes to 8 minutes in the event of a perceived attack, the odds of misperception rise concurrently. That is not an overall gain, and it does not make Americans or the world safer.

    The interest of the United States is in maintaining strategic balance with the Russians while continuing to negotiate reductions in Russian nuclear stockpiles, while maintaining a nuclear force adequate should a nuclear confrontation with China or the Norks occur.

    • Jon Robbins

      I agree, but some are interested in pursuing the possibility of US strategic nuclear dominance as a way of locking in a perpetually US-dominated unipolar world.

  • longlance

    Hitler thought Russia would collapse if he just kicked down the door. How did that work out?

  • GOD

    LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS…. ISRAEL SHOULD NUKE EVERY MUSLIM COUNTRY IN THE WORLD…. GOD DEMANDS…..

  • Pait

    This is outright idiotic.

    Russia’s triad has enough destructive capacity to destroy the US several times over even after the most successful 1st strike conceivable. Nuclear upgrades are not just bad news for Russia as the article foolishly says; they can only raise tensions as the science article correctly predicts.

    Upgrades may undermine deterrence but they cannot make the US safer. To repeat, this piece is idiotic.

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