Nuclear war, nuclear winter, and human extinction

Steven Starr

While it is impossible to precisely predict all the human impacts that would result from a nuclear winter, it is relatively simple to predict those which would be most profound. That is, a nuclear winter would cause most humans and large animals to die from nuclear famine in a mass extinction event similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Following the detonation (in conflict) of U.S. and/or Russian launch-ready strategic nuclear weapons, nuclear firestorms would burn simultaneously over a total land surface area of many thousands or tens of thousands of square miles. These mass fires, many of which would rage over large cities and industrial areas, would release many tens of millions of tons of black carbon soot and smoke (up to 180 million tons, according to peer-reviewed studies), which would rise rapidly above cloud level and into the stratosphere.

The scientists who completed the most recent peer-reviewed studies on nuclear winter discovered that the sunlight would heat the smoke, producing a self-lofting effect that would not only aid the rise of the smoke into the stratosphere (above cloud level, where it could not be rained out), but act to keep the smoke in the stratosphere for 10 years or more. The longevity of the smoke layer would act to greatly increase the severity of its effects upon the biosphere.

Once in the stratosphere, the smoke (predicted to be produced by a range of strategic nuclear wars) would rapidly engulf the Earth and form a dense stratospheric smoke layer. The smoke from a war fought with strategic nuclear weapons would quickly prevent up to 70% of sunlight from reaching the surface of the Northern Hemisphere and 35% of sunlight from reaching the surface of the Southern Hemisphere. Such an enormous loss of warming sunlight would produce Ice Age weather conditions on Earth in a matter of weeks. For a period of 1-3 years following the war, temperatures would fall below freezing every day in the central agricultural zones of North America and Eurasia.

Nuclear winter would cause average global surface tempera-tures to become colder than they were at the height of the last Ice Age. Such extreme cold would eliminate growing seasons for many years, probably for a decade or longer. Can you imagine a winter that lasts for ten years?

The results of such a scenario are obvious. Temperatures would be much too cold to grow food, and they would remain this way long enough to cause most humans and animals to starve to death.

Global nuclear famine would ensue in a setting in which the infrastructure of the combatant nations has been totally destroyed, resulting in massive amounts of chemical and radioactive toxins being released into the biosphere. We don’t need a sophisticated study to tell us that no food and Ice Age temperatures for a decade would kill most people and animals on the planet. Would the few remaining survivors be able to survive in a radioactive, toxic environment?

It is, of course, debatable whether or not nuclear winter could cause human extinction. There is essentially no way to truly “know” without fighting a strategic nuclear war. Yet while it is crucial that we all understand the mortal peril that we face, it is not necessary to engage in an unwinnable academic debate as to whether any humans will survive.

What is of the utmost importance is that this entire subject — the catastrophic environmental consequences of nuclear war — has been effectively dropped from the global discussion of nuclear weaponry. The focus is instead upon “nuclear terrorism”, a subject that fits official narratives and centers upon the danger of one nuclear weapon being detonated. Yet the scientifically predicted consequences of nuclear war are never publically acknowledged or discussed.

Why has the existential threat of nuclear war been effectively omitted from public debate? Perhaps the leaders of the nuclear weapon states do not want the public to understand that their nuclear arsenals represent a self-destruct mechanism for the human race. Such an understanding could lead to a demand that nuclear weapons be banned and abolished.

Consequently, the nuclear weapon states continue to maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals, as their leaders remain silent about the ultimate threat that nuclear war poses to the human species.

Steven Starr is a senior scientist at the Physicians for Social Responsibility. He has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Strategic Arms Reduction (STAR) website of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. His article was published by the Federation of American Scientists, Oct. 14, 2015, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2020.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Nuclear weapons are missing from American schools’ curricula.

Sara Z. Kutchesfahani

While many high schools and universities are still deciding whether classes this semester will happen online, in-person, or in some hybrid combination, one thing is certain: Nuclear weapons are not a standard part of their class curricula.

A perpetual question of self-reflection in the nuclear professional community is why so few people are aware of the dangers associated with nuclear weapons, especially in the United States, a country that boasts 43 percent of the total global nuclear weapon stockpile. But the answer is fairly simple. Nuclear weapons issues are not a standard part of secondary school education, nor are they widely covered in undergraduate and graduate programs.

A 2018 survey of 1,100 high school students in Washington state found that less than 1 percent even knew which countries possessed nuclear weapons. The finding was all the more startling because the students live in a nuclear-armed country themselves, and in an area with a nuclear legacy dating back to the Manhattan Project. While the situation is not as bad at the university level, the number of undergraduate courses that cover nuclear weapons issues is still low.

A 2019 study on undergraduate nonproliferation education found that, among 75 of the top-ranked public, private and military institutions in the country, on average, each institution offered seven such courses over a two-year academic period. In comparison, the same study found that the nation’s three leading public, private and liberal arts institutions each offered between 19 and 30 courses on climate change — the other most pressing threat to humanity’s survival — during just a single academic year

Why does this matter? It matters because the nuclear weapons threat isn’t going away — if anything, it is growing — but the number of people working in the field is shrinking. A 2019 report offered candid, first-hand insights into critical internal challenges facing professionals working in the field. These include serious workplace issues affecting the resilience and mental health of nuclear threat professionals, systemic barriers to innovation and collaboration, and the absence of basic structural supports that other fields take for granted. The study concluded that the very real inner challenges facing the field are not going away, nor are they likely to do so unless organizations and their leaders confront them head-on. Young people are already leaving the field because of these issues, and the signals are strong that the workforce is not able to replace itself.

Sarah Bidgood, the author of the 2019 study on undergraduate nonproliferation education, wrote that by 2023, nearly 40 percent of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s employees will be eligible for retirement. Within the next decade, 80 percent of the State Department leadership could be drawing a pension. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who took the foreign service exam in June 2017 was down 26 percent from the previous year and fell 22 percent from October 2017 to October 2018. If a new generation of experts cannot be recruited to replace those who are stepping down, the branches of government responsible for nonproliferation and disarmament will be unable to do their work.

The field is going to need many more bright minds to solve current and future nuclear challenges. Attracting those bright minds starts with building awareness of the issue. So, if school boards, curriculum writers, and teachers and professors continue to ignore the topic of nuclear weapons and do not include it in class curricula, the public will continue to be unaware of the existential threat these genocidal weapons pose to humanity, and the professional field will have difficulty sustaining itself. But the simple and easy-to-understand fact remains that nuclear war remains a significant global threat.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 3, 2020
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2020

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Rethinking land-based nuclear missiles

The United States developed its core nuclear weapons policies early in the Cold War, some 60 years ago. These policies were shaped by the limitations of weapons technology at the time, yet remain largely the same today despite the fact that these technical limitations have not existed for decades.

In particular, U.S. policy on land-based intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is not only outdated but also creates the risk that the United States could launch these missiles by mistake in response to a false alarm — and start a nuclear war. The reasons that led the United States to accept this risk in the 1960s are no longer valid.

When the United States first developed ballistic missiles, land-based ICBMs were more accurate and carried more powerful warheads than submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and the Pentagon was not confident in its ability to securely communicate with submarines at sea. For these reasons, the United States believed ICBMs were essential.

As Soviet missile technology improved, U.S. ICBMs became increasingly vulnerable to attack. In response, the United States placed these missiles on high alert so they could be launched quickly on warning of an incoming attack. Because it takes only 30 minutes for an ICBM to reach the United States from Russia, this policy required the United States to develop a highly time-compressed process for deciding whether to launch. This created the risk that the United States would launch a nuclear attack by mistake on false warning, which would almost certainly have led to Soviet nuclear retaliation.

For decades now, SLBMs have been at least as accurate as ICBMs and armed with powerful warheads, and the Navy has had a highly reliable and secure communication system for submarines. Moreover, SLBMs have the advantage of being essentially invulnerable to attack when the submarines are hidden at sea. Yet the United States continues to not only keep its ICBMs, but also maintain them on high alert with a “launch-on-warning” option, creating unnecessary risks.

Although many security experts have concluded there is no military reason to continue to deploy ICBMs, the United States appears unlikely to retire its ICBM force anytime soon. Political barriers — having nothing to do with security—stand in the way: senators in the ICBM Coalition greatly value the jobs and economic benefits the Air Force bases that host ICBMs bring to their states; the Air Force is loath to give up a major weapons program; defense contractors are eager to build a new ICBM system; and — perhaps most important — political and military officials are generally reluctant to question the value of the nuclear triad (ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear bombers).

The Air Force is in the early stages of building a new generation of ICBMs — the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) — with the first one slated for deployment around 2030. The current official cost estimate for developing and producing these new missiles is $100 billion.

If the United States continues to field an ICBM force, there is no technical reason for it to build new missiles. Continuing to maintain and upgrade the existing Minuteman III ICBMs would be far less expensive than proceeding with the GBSD program. The Air Force already uses a straightforward process to refurbish and upgrade its ICBMs, and today the Minuteman missiles are “basically new missiles except for the shell,” according to an Air Force analyst. Official studies show that the Air Force can continue to extend the operational life of the Minuteman missiles for many decades.

An important factor limiting the service lifetime of a missile is the aging of its rocket motors. However, the Air Force’s process for estimating the operational lifetimes of ICBM motors appears to be overly conservative based on data recording the actual performance of rocket motors from retired Minuteman II missiles that were then used for other purposes. If the actual operational lifetime of the current Minuteman III motors is significantly longer than the estimated lifetime, the current ICBM force could be retained with less need for refurbishment.

Data from the past 20 years show that the Air Force has flight tested an average of three missiles per year during this time to provide statistical information on reliability. The estimated current stockpile of Minuteman III missiles would allow the Air Force to continue flight testing at that rate for about 30 years — until around 2050.

Because of the large amount of data collected from past flight tests, the Air Force may be able to assess Minuteman III reliability using fewer annual tests going forward. Moreover, a RAND study for the Air Force found that continued advancements in monitoring the aging effects of missile motors and improved modeling and simulation of the aging effects will likely reduce the number of flight tests needed.

If the Air Force continues to conduct three flight tests per year, it would need to reduce the number of fielded ICBMs by three per year starting around 2050 — to 370 by 2060 and 340 by 2070. These reductions could potentially be made in the context of a future U.S.-Russian arms agreement. But if the United States wanted to maintain the current overall level of deployed warheads, it could slowly increase the number of warheads on SLBMs.

Based on these findings, the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends the following actions:

1. The United States should retire the U.S. ICBM force.

2. Until that time, it should immediately:

• Remove ICBMs from high alert, to eliminate the possibility of launching these missiles on false warning and starting a nuclear war by mistake.

• Eliminate launch-on-warning options from U.S. war plans.

• Revise the current process for making launch decisions, which is currently constrained by the short time available to launch ICBMs before incoming missiles could land.

3. Continue to extend the operational life of the Minuteman III missiles and should not build the new GBSD missile.

4. Commission an independent study to:

• Develop better ways to assess the aging effects of Minuteman III missiles, including incorporating sensors and nondestructive testing methods and technologies to allow evaluations of individual motors.

• Validate these new methods of assessing aging, as well as the current one, against actual test and launch data from Minuteman II motors.

• Determine the number of flight tests required to assess the reliability of U.S. ICBMs, taking into account advanced monitoring and nondestructive tests as well as data collected from past tests.Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2020PeaceMeal, July/August 2020

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How nuclear forces worldwide are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

In recent weeks, the coronavirus outbreak has elicited at least a few tone-deaf comments from top U.S. defense officials about the readiness of their nuclear forces. In mid-March, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, reassured his audience that the United States’ nuclear forces had not been adversely affected by the pandemic and that they “remain ready to execute the nation’s strategic deterrence mission.” In effect, Adm. Richard was telling his audience that the United States was still capable of launching a massive nuclear retaliation that would undoubtedly kill millions.

Similarly, at the beginning of April, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Global Strike Command said that, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, “its nukes are still ready to fly.” These officials were apparently oblivious to the notion that, with the pandemic already causing enough fear and dread on its own, now may not be the best time to remind the general public about other ways the world could end.

The rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. nuclear mission and its analogues around the world rely heavily on people, and people are exactly what the virus is after. Just a few days after Adm. Richard gave his briefing, Newsweek reported that “units feeding [U.S. Strategic Command] have a cumulative 106 uniformed personnel not on duty due to coronavirus, either because of confirmed cases or ‘protective self-quarantine.’” On April 9, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at Federation of American Scientists, tweeted that all U.S. nuclear bases except one had confirmed cases of COVID-19.

So, if the world’s nuclear forces have not already felt the strain caused by the pandemic, it is likely only a matter of time until they do. Some countries are taking extra precautions to mitigate potential risks. But every country with nuclear weapons has a different calculus to make, and some aspects of those arsenals may be more vulnerable to the virus than others.

The United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent is based on a single platform, its submarines. In early April, the London Times reported that two of Britain’s four nuclear-armed submarines have been under repairs for the last year. With only two operational submarines left, the British Royal Navy has almost no margin for error in dealing with the coronavirus. Sebastian Brixey-Williams, co-director of the London-based British American Security Information Council, cast the problem in stark terms. The Times report, he wrote, “poses profound questions about how prepared the [Royal Navy] is to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Were a Trident submarine to go on patrol only to find that one of its sailors had brought the virus aboard, the captain would have no option but to return to port or else risk the lives of the crew.” This, Brixey-Williams said, could bring about an unprecedented break in the United Kingdom’s round-the-clock deterrence mission, which, at least in theory, needs to be uninterrupted if it is to remain credible.

The United Kingdom is not the only country whose navy is at risk. The United States, Russia, and France, all of which also rely to some degree on nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at sea, could face the same problem. However, the United States has 14 nuclear-armed submarines and Russia has 10, though some of those are under maintenance at any given time. Still, the relative effect of losing one boat to a coronavirus outbreak would be less acute for those countries.

Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Bulletin that China’s nuclear submarine fleet is also vulnerable to the virus. Compared to land-based missile forces and aircraft units, the submarines have a greater challenge both because of their inability to receive external support during deployment and because of their relative lack of operational experience. However, it is unknown whether Chinese submarines actually carry nuclear weapons on patrols. As a general practice, China keeps its nuclear warheads separate from delivery vehicles during peacetime. As a result, China relies much less on the sea-based leg of its triad compared to the Western nuclear powers.

The pandemic threat to naval forces is not purely theoretical. France’s sole aircraft carrier, which plays a role in its air force’s nuclear strike missions, returned home on April 12 with at least 50 cases onboard the ship. Similarly, Forbes has reported that “the entire crew of a Russian [non-nuclear armed] submarine has reportedly been quarantined after indirect contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.” And at least four different U.S. aircraft carriers have reported COVID-19 cases onboard, including the much-publicized case of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was forced to return to port in Guam and whose captain has been relieved of duty.

For every country, the top of the chain of command is another potential point of failure. For instance, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has the sole authority in his government to authorize a nuclear strike, became the first world leader to test positive for the coronavirus on March 27, was hospitalized on April 5, and had to be moved to intensive care on April 6. It was only with this last development that he decided to put his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, in charge of the government. (Prime Minister Johnson has since been released from the hospital and has returned to work.)

However, every nuclear-armed country has emergency devolution procedures — plans for who holds the nuclear button if the commander-in-chief becomes incapacitated. In many countries, these are kept secret, but in the United States it is the vice president who takes over for the president, while in Russia it is the prime minister or, in certain emergency situations, the defense minister.

Beyond the routine precautions, governments also are taking more specific steps to head off risks to their nuclear forces.

In the United States, the Defense Department is scaling down and canceling some military exercises and deployments to focus on essential operations. For instance, a recent B-2 bomber mission to Europe was noticeably shorter than in prior years, according to Kristensen. He was careful to point out, however, that it was not clear whether the mission was officially shortened because of COVID-19.

For nuclear-armed submarines, some countries are putting their sailors into a 14-day pre-departure isolation. That way, any personnel who had contracted the virus would show symptoms and could be pulled from the crew before the boat began its patrol at sea.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 14, 2020
PeaceMeal, May/June 2020

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Russia says new U.S. weapon threatens nuclear war

Russia has criticized the Trump administration’s pursuit and deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads, arguing it may raise the prospects of a nuclear conflict. At the same time, however, the United States estimates its top foe has up to 2,000 such warheads.

Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova on March 6 blasted the $28.9 billion budget proposed for the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization program, along with the additional $15.6 billion earmarked for the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration’s efforts to revamp the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal. Among the weapons being developed and deployed is the W76-2, a nuclear warhead with lower yields that Zakharova and others contend could make them a more readily- available option in the event of a conflict.

“We note that Washington is not just modernizing its nuclear forces, but is striving to give them new capabilities, which significantly expands the likelihood of their use,” Zakharova told a press conference. “Of particular concern in this regard are U.S. actions to increase the range of low-power assets in its nuclear arsenal, including the development and deployment of such munitions for strategic carriers. This clearly leads to lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons,” she added.

But the concept of low-yield nuclear weapons dates back to the Cold War, and both countries have developed such capabilities.

A Pentagon spokesperson told Newsweek that “Russia currently has approximately 2,000 non-strategic, low-yield nuclear weapons. This includes nuclear torpedoes, nuclear air and missile defense interceptors, nuclear depth charges, nuclear landmines, and nuclear artillery shells — more than a dozen types. None of these are limited by any current arms control treaties.”

“If Russia believes the W76-2 lowers the threshold for nuclear use, then it must explain why its own non-strategic, low-yield nuclear weapons don’t likewise increase the likelihood of a conflict going nuclear,” the spokesperson said. “It is more likely that Russia recognizes the W76-2 deployment as a demonstration of U.S. resolve, thereby contributing to deterrence of any nuclear attack.”

The U.S. and Russia have long accused one another of developing tactical nuclear devices, perhaps less destructive than their larger counterparts, but still extremely more powerful than even the most earth-shattering conventional munitions. The five-to-seven-kiloton W76-2 may produce a third of the explosive power of the primitive atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, but explodes with up to 500 times the strength of the conventional Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), or “Mother of All Bombs”.

In January, Newsweek reported that the W76-2 had been fielded, armed to a Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The following month, the Pentagon announced that the low-yield warhead had been deployed as part of the Trump administration’s efforts “to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners.”

The Pentagon also announced last year that it would be looking into developing a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). Both W76-2 and the SLCM-N “are measured responses to close gaps in regional deterrence that have emerged in recent years,” the Pentagon spokesperson said.

As for the Pentagon itself, the nuclear-related portion of its $705-billion budget for 2021 includes funds devoted to revamping nuclear command, control and communications, the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber, Long-Range Stand-off Missile, and the Ground- Based Strategic Deterrent anti-ballistic missile.

At a Pentagon press briefing in February, defense officials revealed that the U.S. military had conducted a “mini-exercise” simulating a scenario in which “Russia decides to use a low-yield limited nuclear weapon against a site on NATO territory.” The U.S. hit back with a simulated nuclear strike one official character-ized as “limited” in nature.

Russia responded to the revelation with outrage, accusing the U.S. of fear-mongering and normalizing nuclear war with the “sick” exercise. Foreign Minister Zakharova further castigated the U.S. approach to nuclear modernization, telling reporters: “One gets the impression that in Washington they have decided to purposefully consider nuclear conflict as a viable political option and create the corresponding potential for this.”

She accused the U.S. of trying to justify its actions by blaming Russia and China. “We consider such plans destabilizing,” Zakharova argued. “A much more effective way to ensure national security is to continue the policy of arms control and establish peaceful interaction with other states, to which we again call on the United States.”

– edited from Newsweek, March 7, 2020
PeaceMeal, March/April 2020

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Doomsday Clock set at 100 seconds to midnight

2020_Doomsday_Clock.JPG (9810 bytes)The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight — 20 seconds closer than in 2018, indicating that the world is the closest to possible nuclear Apocalypse since the height of the Cold War in 1953.

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, a group of experts who made the adjustment to the clock, stated: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers — nuclear war and climate change — that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

They pointed out that national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. U.S.-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent.

Although public awareness of the climate crisis grew over the course of 2019, governmental action on climate change still falls far short of meeting the challenge at hand. At U.N. climate meetings last year, national delegates made fine speeches but put forward few concrete plans to further limit the carbon dioxide emissions that are disrupting Earth’s climate. This limited political response came during a year when the effects of manmade climate change were manifested by one of the warmest years on record, extensive wildfires, and quicker-than-expected melting of glacial ice.

In addition, continued corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision making depend has heightened the nuclear and climate threats. In the last year, many governments used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations, undermining domestic and international efforts to foster peace and protect the planet.

Civilization-ending nuclear war — whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication — is a genuine possibility. Climate change that could devastate the planet is undeniably happening. And for a variety of reasons that include a corrupted and manipulated media environment, democratic governments and other institutions that should be working to address these threats have failed to rise to the challenge.

The global security situation is unsustainable and extremely dangerous, but that situation can be improved, if leaders seek change and citizens demand it. Citizens around the world can demand — through public protest, at the ballot box, and in many other creative ways — that their leaders take immediate steps to reduce the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change. It is now 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to unite — and act.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 22, 2020
PeaceMeal, January/February 2020

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Tit-for-tat conflicts almost always spiral out of control

J. Peter Scoblic

The greatest problem with nuclear war, some strategists noted during the Cold War, was that we had never fought one. As problems go, this was a good one to have. But it meant that our understanding of how an arms race might precipitate nuclear conflict was entirely theoretical.

By now, the lessons of the superpower arms race are clear. As of the late 1970s, the United States and Soviet Union had each deployed some 25,000 nuclear warheads that could be delivered by air, land or sea, with a variety of yields, ranges and trajectories. Despite having arsenals so large and diverse that neither country would survive a nuclear war, each still felt itself uniquely vulnerable. Because of that perceived vulnerability, the United States embarked on a massive “rearmament.” And as a result, Moscow believed that Washington was planning a first strike — a fear that peaked in November 1983, when it nearly mistook a NATO war game as the prelude to an actual attack.

It is hard to imagine wanting to reprise this dangerous period, and yet the United States and Russia seem to be doing just that, embarking on a new arms race complete with (among other things) intermediate-range nuclear weapons of the kind that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev banned because they found them so dangerous. Moves like these increase the risk of confrontation, yet, as former energy secretary Ernest Moniz and former senator Sam Nunn wrote, “Both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”

Which is why it is serendipitous that President Trump has given us a concise refresher on the folly of tit-for-tat conflicts — by waging a trade war with China. Although trade wars may seem very different from arms races, both are lose-lose situations in which each escalatory step hurts you as much (or more) than your opponent. Because trade wars play out faster, and because their consequences are more immediate and transparent, they make the destructiveness of such spiraling fights obvious. In other words, if the Cold War wasn’t enough to convince you that arms races aren’t winnable, the U.S.-China trade war should.

Trade wars and arms races both depend on interdependence to do their damage. Tariffs, for example, can wound only to the extent that your adversary relies on your country as a market for its products. The dependence in an arms race is a little different, but many actions that one country takes to strengthen its security decrease the security of the other. That is not to say every weapon Russia deploys makes us less safe, but some could. And, from both a political and a psychological standpoint, arms buildups by one side seem to demand a response by the other.

The same dynamic has propelled the trade war with China. For example, on April 3, 2018, Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of Chinese goods, and just hours later, Beijing retaliated by placing tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. goods. The fight has escalated since. In just the first week of August, Trump announced that he would impose 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese imports, to which China responded by stopping purchases of U.S. agricultural products; to which the United States responded by labeling China a currency manipulator. Although Trump claimed in 2018 that the trade war would be “easy to win,” the conflict has dragged on at great cost, with American farmers and retailers declaring bankruptcy, the export market for U.S. goods shrinking by tens of billions of dollars, and the chances of a recession shooting up.

Despite Trump’s claims, imposing tariffs has not improved the U.S. position at China’s expense. Rather, it has hurt Americans by passing costs to consumers, robbing producers of suppliers and markets, and introducing unpredictability, which stymies eco-nomic activity. Similarly, in an arms race, one country’s deployment of more or better nuclear weapons may, ironically, reduce its security by threatening its adversary’s perceived ability to retaliate, and, therefore, undermining the stability of mutual assured destruction. In a crisis, an insecure adversary is more likely to lash out, lest its arsenal be destroyed on the ground.

But if trade wars and nuclear arms races are similar in key ways, the foolishness of trade wars is far easier to see. First, while it takes decades to build up and diversify a nuclear arsenal, many of the “weapons” in a trade war can be fielded with the stroke of a pen. In game theory terms, we experience more iterations of play over a shorter period, and therefore can more readily notice patterns and trends.

Second, trade wars are waged in the open. Arms races may involve concealment and bluster: Countries may hide weapons they have or brag about weapons they don’t, resulting in mis-perceptions that cloud understanding and fuel tension. By contrast, there is no hiding the announcement of tariffs or the imposition of sanctions. And even more-subtle barriers to trade, like obscure regulatory requirements, come to light when executives publicly bemoan obstacles that prevent them from maximizing profits.

Finally, trade wars lead to immediate feedback from economic and political actors. When Trump labeled China a currency manipulator on August 5, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index plunged 3 percent. It bounced back — only to drop 2.6 percent once again when Trump threatened a new round of tariffs on August 23. As of this writing, stocks have regained their value, but the volatility has been dizzying.

The wages of an arms race are far more difficult to figure out, though no less real. It is hard to measure how threatened an opponent truly feels, particularly because that opponent may have a vested interest in not appearing anxious or, by contrast, in playing up the anxiety for public consumption. When the Reagan administration prepared to deploy Pershing II missiles in Europe, the Soviets decried American warmongering. Although the Soviets had reason to be concerned — the missiles could have reached Moscow in 10 minutes, giving leaders almost no time to react — hawks in the United States accused them of hyping the threat to stoke the growing anti-nuclear weapon movement.

That movement had taken time to develop. Despite the Cuban missile crisis, despite the deployment of tens of thousands of warheads, despite the introduction of destabilizing weapons like multiple-warhead missiles, it is telling that feedback from the political environment — such as the million-person anti-nuclear weapon protest held in Central Park in 1982 — was slow to emerge and slower to influence policymakers. By contrast, if Trump doesn’t resolve the conflict with China quickly, the economy will suffer, and his chances of reelection will plummet. Trade wars vividly show us how escalation spirals out of control.

That is why there was no “winning” the Cold War arms race. Nevertheless, Russia and the United States seem determined to embark on another one.

The tit-for-tat dynamic can already be seen in the dispute over the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Reagan-era agreement that Russia violated in 2017 by deploying a land-based cruise missile. While the Obama administration had applied diplomatic pressure to try to maintain Russian compliance, Trump announced last fall that the United States would withdraw from the pact and develop new weapons in this category. The Russians quickly responded that they would no longer abide by the agreement either, with a Kremlin spokesman adding that Russia would act “to restore balance in this sphere.”

Both sides are also exploring other new weapons and modern-izing old ones. In addition to the $1.2 trillion that President Barack Obama committed to upgrading existing U.S. nuclear forces over 30 years, the Trump administration is also pursuing a new warhead for America’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a return to Cold War-era nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missiles. Russia, meanwhile, is working on several new systems, including an undersea nuclear drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile — one of which apparently exploded during a test in August.

At the same time, the few remaining diplomatic constraints on U.S. and Russian weapons may soon disappear. John Bolton, the now-former national security adviser, has signaled that the administration is unlikely to renew the New START Treaty. That treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021 but which could be extended by five years, caps strategic deployments at 1,550 warheads and gives the United States a detailed picture of Russian nuclear activities through its reporting and inspection regime. President Trump calls it a “bad deal” that is “one-sided.”

The point is not that every weapons system is bad, that every treaty is good, or that the United States should stand idly by while Russia builds up its nuclear arsenal. The point is that, just as trade policy should make us richer, nuclear policy should make us safer — and arms races don’t. They are run on a treadmill. And the only way to win a race on a treadmill is to get off the contraption before you collapse from exhaustion. If the trade war with China can help us see that arms races backfire — without the risk of provoking Armageddon — perhaps it will have been worth the cost.

J. Peter Scoblic, a fellow in the international security program at New America, is the author of “U.S. vs. Them: Conservatism in the Age of Nuclear Terror.” His article is lightly edited from The Washington Post, September 6, 2019, and was published in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Trump nuclear arms control plans draw criticism

Amid growing concern about the future of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control efforts, the Trump administration is still evaluating a potential extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and appears to lack a clear plan to achieve a newly announced goal of negotiating more comprehensive agreements with Russia and China.

Administration officials have repeatedly downplayed the risks of the treaty expiring in February 2021 with nothing to replace it. They also have provided few details on how they would persuade Russia to limit broader categories of weapons and China to participate in arms control talks for the first time.

Following a May 14 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi, Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States and Russia “agreed that…we will gather together teams that will begin to work not only on New START and its potential extension, but on a broader range of arms control issues that each of our two nations have.” It remained unclear when such talks would begin and what the Trump administration would be willing to offer as concessions to Russia and China, and whether New START would be extended in the absence of progress on a more comprehensive deal.

New START, which caps deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads and 700 missiles and bombers each, allows the two sides to extend the pact for up to five years until 2026 without requiring U.S. Senate approval. Trump admin-istration officials, notably National Security Advisor John Bolton, have criticized New START because it limits deployed strategic nuclear weapons only.

Several issues would affect the administration’s treaty extension decision, said Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 15. They include Russia’s development of new types of strategic weapons systems and modernization of its large stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, its “record of being a serial violator and selective implementer of the arms control obligations and commitments that it undertakes,” and “China’s lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program” and unwillingness to discuss nuclear weapons issues with the United States.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the committee, said, “Extending New START would be, in my mind, an easy decision. It’s very difficult to understand why the administration would discard the robust constraints, transparency, and verification measures of New START with nothing to replace them.” However, committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) strongly criticized any treaty extension: “Under present circum-stances with [Russia’s] cheating and other things that they do, I’m opposed to extension.”

Russia has repeatedly expressed interest in an extension, but it has raised concerns about U.S. procedures to remove submarine- launched ballistic missile launchers and some B-52 bombers from treaty accountability. “The extension of the New START is not a simple technicality that could be resolved in a couple of weeks,” Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, said on May 6. “Serious issues must first be settled.”

Russia has expressed a willingness to begin a dialogue with the United States on arms control and strategic stability, but it has its own list of concerns about U.S. policies and weapons systems, including missile defense systems, cyberweapons, weapons development in space, and advanced conventional arms. The Trump administration has shown no indication that it would be willing to limit these weapons in an agreement with Russia or China. Even if it were willing to do so, it is highly unlikely an agreement could be reached before New START expires in less than two years.

President Trump told reporters on May 3 that he had already spoken to China about a trilateral nuclear arms control deal and that “they very much would like to be a part of that deal.” Contrarily, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on May 6 that China “will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement.”

China is estimated to possess about 300 nuclear warheads. In contrast, the United States and Russia possess around 6,500 war-heads each. China has never been a party to any agreement that limits the number or types of its nuclear weaponry.

In a May 6 interview in Finland, Secretary Pompeo acknow-ledged that a trilateral deal involving China and that covers all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons might be “too ambitious.” He noted that there are “just a couple years left before New START expires” and that it may be necessary to address the expiration of the treaty on a bilateral basis.

Menendez welcomed the administration’s interest in expanding the scope of arms control but warned that “the limitations and verification measures of New START must remain in place while any such negotiation occurs.”

Democrats and one notable Republican have proposed several pieces of legislation in support of extending New START. On May 9, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee’s top Republican, introduced a bill expressing the sense of Congress that New START should be extended by five years unless Russia is determined to be in material breach of the agreement or the treaty is replaced by a pact that contains equal or greater verifiable constraints on Russian nuclear forces.

The legislation also would require several briefings and reports, including an intelligence assessment of how the expiration of New START would affect the size and posture of Russian nuclear forces and the additional intelligence capabilities the United States would need to compensate for the loss of the treaty’s extensive transparency and on-site monitoring provisions.

Opponents of New START have also introduced legislation on the treaty. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill on May 13 that would prohibit the use of funding to implement an extension of New START or any successor agreement unless it includes China and covers Russia’s entire inventory of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) introduced companion legislation in the House.

At the international Primakov Readings summit in Moscow on June 11, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made the latest call urging President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to adopt a joint declaration reassuring the international community that nuclear warfare was unacceptable. If nuclear weapons were ever used, Lavrov warned, everyone would lose. He said the United States and Soviet Union had previously come to such a conclusion and he could “not understand why this position cannot be reaffirmed under the current conditions.”

Russia and China have both accused President Trump of threatening to spark an “arms race” through his Missile Defense Review released in January. The report called for a global missile defense system that included space-based interceptors, signaling Trump’s unwillingness to support a different measure promoted by Russia and China — an agreement to not weaponize outer space.

– edited from Arms Control Assoc. and Newsweek, June 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Nuclear weapons experts alarmed by new Pentagon ‘war-fighting’ doctrine

The Pentagon believes using nuclear weapons could “create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” according to a new nuclear doctrine adopted in June by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The document, titled “Nuclear Operations,” is the first such doctrine paper in 14 years. Arms control experts say it marks a shift in U.S. military thinking toward the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war, which they believe is a highly dangerous mindset.

At the beginning of a chapter on nuclear planning and targeting, the document quotes a Cold War theorist, Herman Kahn, as saying, “My guess is that nuclear weapons will be used sometime in the next hundred years, but that their use is much more likely to be small and limited than widespread and unconstrained.”

Kahn was a controversial figure. He argued that a nuclear war could be “winnable” and is reported to have provided part of the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.

The Nuclear Operations document was taken down from the Pentagon website after a week and is now only available through a restricted access electronic library. A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the document was removed from the publicly accessible Defense Department website “because it was deter-mined that this publication ... should be for official use only.”

Steven Aftergood, who directs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said the new document “is very much conceived as a war-fighting doctrine — not simply a deterrence doctrine, and that’s unsettling.” He pointed out that, as an operational document by the Joint Chiefs rather than a policy documents, its role is to plan for worst-case scenarios. But. Aftergood added, “That kind of thinking itself can be hazardous. It can make that sort of eventuality more likely instead of deterring it.”

Alexandra Bell, a former state department arms control official said, “This seems to be another instance of this administration being both tone-deaf and disorganized.” Bell, now senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, added, “Posting a document about nuclear operations and then promptly deleting it shows a lack of messaging discipline and a lack of strategy. Further, at a time of rising nuclear tensions, casually postulating about the potential upsides of a nuclear attack is obtuse in the extreme.”

The doctrine has been published in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from two nuclear agreements: the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action with Iran and the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia. The administration is also skeptical about a third treaty — the New Start Treaty that limits U.S. and Russian forces strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which is due to expire in 2021.

The last nuclear operations doctrine, published during the George W. Bush administration in 2005, also caused alarm. It envisaged pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal against all weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear.

The Obama administration did not publish a nuclear operations doctrine but, in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, sought to downgrade the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military planning.

– edited from The Guardian (U.K.), June 19, 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)