Since the late 1980s, almost 90 percent of the United State’s nuclear weapons have been taken offline; Thousands of warheads and delivery systems have been destroyed in the wake of the end of the Cold War. But, this trend is now under threat. Rising tensions with Russia and nuclear modernization are putting the world back on course for nuclear rearmament.
Over the past three decades, the end of the Cold War, along with numerous arms reduction treaties, have led to a huge drop in the worlds nuclear stockpile. While the U.S had 14,000 deployed nuclear weapons in the 1980s, that number is now limited to 1,550 by treaty. Russia has made parallel reductions to it’s own arsenal.
First, an entire category of nuclear weapons were eliminated by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. In the early 1990s the first START I Treaty limited Russian and American forces to 1,600 launchers with 6000 total warheads. This resulted in the United States dismantling around 10,000 nuclear warheads, with equal reductions made on the Russian side.
In 2010, Russia and the United States signed a follow-on treaty called START II. This agreement mandates further reductions, which limit both nations to 1,550 deployed warheads is set to go into effect by 2018.
Although much progress has been made on nuclear reductions, future agreements are now in doubt.
Tensions with Russia have skyrocketed back to near Cold War levels following it’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. After the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and aggression in the Donbas, Western Europe is on edge. Nations like Poland and the Baltic states fear that Russia may attempt to repeat it’s assault on Ukraine in their countries. The U.S has responded to the threat with operations like the Atlantic Resolve and European Reassurance Initiative to reassure allies and deter aggression.
In Syria as well the Russians and Americans have picked different sides in the Syrian civil war. Russia has sent troops, warplanes and air defense systems into Syria to prevent the overthrow of the Assad regime. This has created massive tension between Russia and American allies, who unanimously oppose the the Assad regime.
In one severe incident a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down by a pair of Turkish F-16 fighters after briefly crossing into Turkish airspace.
Along with the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, past nuclear treaties are also in jeopardy. Mutual accusations of violating of the INF have been leveled by both sides. With such high tensions and previous agreement in danger of breaking down, the political path to a new treaty is difficult to say the least.
New weapon systems are also putting new negotiations farther away. The invention of newer interceptor systems like the S-400 and Pantsir S1 have made newer delivery systems necessary. While many of these defense systems may not necessarily have been made with nuclear, or limited nuclear defense in mind, the commonality in deliver vehicles between conventional and nuclear weapons has put the American deterrents at risk.
In the 1980s an American Air Force general could be reasonably assured that a nuclear cruise missile launched from a B-52 bomber could hold a target at risk. Now, systems like the Pantsir-S1 and S-400 have put America’s ability to strike targets with cruise missiles and bombers in jeopardy. Newer systems like the proposed S-500 may have even more powerful radars that can threaten large strategic bombers and fourth-generation fighters from even greater distances.
This has led to the development of new stealth bombers and strike aircraft like the F-22, F-35 and B-21 to counteract Russian advances in missile systems. The problem with this is that–again– these systems are dual use. An F-22 or F-35 can drop a B-61 nuclear bomb just as it can drop a JDAM.
In the aerospace arena, a conventional arms race has bled into the nuclear arena and is forcing the acquisition of more advanced cruise missiles like the LRSO and bombers like the B-21. On the other end, advanced American stealth designed are pushing Russian acquisition of more capable air-defense systems. All of this is not only increasing tensions, but driving the arms race.
Retirement of older systems
Another problem is that many systems like the B-52, B-1B and Minuteman III are simply aging out. The B-52 for example, was originally designed in an age where jet propulsion was still a novel concept and was only expected to serve for a few decades. It is now expected to serve until at least 2040. By this time, the newest airframe will be nearly 80 years old.
While other bombers where procured over the years, they were never bought in sufficient quantities to totally replace the B-52 or in either the conventional, or nuclear roles. Today, the USAF has 76 B-52s still in inventory, including 58 in active service. The USAF might have been able to replace the old bombers in the early 90’s with the B-2 stealth bomber, but the end of the Cold War meant that funding dried up and the USAF only acquired 21 of the aircraft.
The LGM-30 Minuteman III is also decades old and in need of replacement. It’s original successor, the “Peacekeeper” missile, was only bought in small quantities and deactivated in 2005. While this may have seemed like a good decision at the time, it means the Minuteman IIIs are now aging out and the fleet is in need of recapitalization.
Even though they still potent weapon, the Minuteman III has been out of production since 1978 and their age is beginning to show. The industrial base necessary to make new components and replacement missiles simply does not exist. Many of the LGM-30’s parts and the silos that house them are built on technology from the 1960s, much of which has not be upgraded or replaced. After decades of delay, there is now a push to replace them with a more reliable, accurate and modern systems.
While replacement programs are necessary, the fact that these programs are now occurring at once after years of neglect and poor planning is creation friction, not just between members of congress but with Russia as well. Russia’s own modernizations are causing equal unease in the west.
Obama’s modernize to downsize
Ironically, Obama’s nuclear reduction strategy is another cause of the current tension. “Modernize to downsize” is essentially a philosophy of trading quantity for capability. In order to reduce the nuclear stockpile President Obama has decided on a modernization program to reduce the number of warheads needed in the service. Most recently this has included reworking the B-61 nuclear bomb into the precision guided mod 12 variant.
While this does mean that the the U.S will field less nuclear weapons, it also means the new bombs will need to be more capable than the last to do the same job. The pentagon’s warhead consolidation also requires new weapons to be produced that can function on multiple delivery systems. Even if the actual warheads are the same, the reentry vehicles and casings will not be. It will also require extensive weapons testing to ensure functionality and reliability.
President Obama and the DoD’s plan is admirable, but destabilizing. With a zero sum game like nuclear warfare, the playing field always has to be level. Any advancement in technology has to countered by the opposing side for deterrence to work. Modernize to downsize creates fear on the Russian side that such weapons may put them at a disadvantage in war scenario.
Testing also strains relations. In many circumstances, nuclear testing have been –and is– used as a method of saber rattling. Nations like North Korea and Iran have frequently used nuclear weapons and missile tests in the manner. Even regularly scheduled testing can be perceived as threatening if it comes during a time of conflict.
So, while the end of the Cold War put a halt to the nuclear standoff, the arms race is forever ongoing. The U.S and Russia are now faced with the dilemma of how to replace the older weapons without destabilizing the international situation. The introduction of newer anti-missile and ant-aircraft systems means that duel use delivery systems like fighters, bombers and cruise missiles need to be replaced. In other circumstances weapons are simply becoming too old and more modern alternatives are needed.
The only thing that can slow, or stop these programs is another bilateral agreement that promises further nuclear reductions. Bilateral negotiations have proven the only way to peacefully reduce nuclear stockpiles. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the foreseeable future.