We Don’t Need to Restart the Nuclear Arms Race

About a week ago retired Navy Vice Admiral named Robert Monroe penned possibly the worst opinion piece I have ever read. Entitled “Only Trump can restore America’s ability to win a nuclear war” the article was riddled with factual inaccuracies and terrible policy perceptions.

Here I’m going to take a few quotes from the article and demonstrate exactly why it’s such rubbish.

America has lost the ability to fight a nuclear war.”

This is an absurd statement in and of itself. America currently has roughly 720 strategic nuclear weapons ready to launch immediately, within a minute of receiving an order. This includes hundreds of Minuteman III solid fuel ICBMs and Trident SLBMs equipped with up to eight W76 and W88 warheads in an MIRV configuration.

In addition, the U.S has forward deployed duel capable aircraft in Europe with 180 B61 “tactical” nuclear bombs in Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey. Strategic bombers like the B2 and B-52 can be loaded with multiple nuclear cruise missiles and gravity bombs to conduct intercontinental precision strikes.

These capabilities will soon be augmented by F-35 aircraft carrying newer B-61-12 tactical nuclear weapons, along with shipborne nuclear cruise missiles. These systems will give the U.S an unparalleled capability in both the tactical and strategic modes. Neither Russia or China maintains stealth aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.

our much-reduced nuclear stockpile is unable to deter most of the nuclear threats we face today.”

As it stands today the United States has 6,800 nuclear weapons in the stockpile, second only to Russia’s arsenal of 7,000. During the Cold War, the era that Monroe touts so much, the Soviet Union had 15,000 more nuclear weapons in stockpile than the United States by the time of the Reagan buildup and by the time the USSR collapsed, they still had 10,000 more nuclear weapons than the U.S. In other words, we actually closer to numerical parody with Russia today than in the Cold War era.

We are also ahead in terms of nuclear capability. We maintain more nuclear submarines that conduct more regular patrols than their Russian or Chinese counterparts. Our bombers utilize stealth features and precision weapons systems, while our adversaries are still working with Tu-160 and H-6 bombers.

Monroe’s concept of deterrence is also problematic. The success of deterrence is essentially the absence of nuclear war and is a matter of psychology as much as armament.

Deterrence is not a panacea for political or military challenges. Nuclear weapons will not magically make opportunistic enemies back down or keep them from engaging in bad behavior. Russia didn’t invade Ukraine because they were not afraid of nuclear war. Russia invaded because they calculated (correctly) that NATO would not risk a war over a non-allied country that was not a vital American interest at the time. The relative strengths of the two nation’s giant nuclear arsenals was not a significant factor.

“If you deny testing, you deny science”

I would have hoped that people would have stopped promoting nuclear weapons as the key to human scientific progress by now. This is an old trope that dates back to the mid-forties when nuclear science was still novel.

Today, the U.S has little need to test more nuclear weapons. We have conducted over one thousand nuclear weapons tests ranging from 0.02 kiloton to 15 megatons. We have more weapon effects and design data than any other nation. In addition to this stock of data, the DOE currently utilizes advanced computer simulations and subcritical testing to ensure nuclear weapons are reliable.

Furthermore, The arsenal we have today is based on military and political choices, not technological limitations. We have the knowledge to design and update warheads of every conceivable variety. The weapon in the tweet below is one such device.

 

For 25 years Russia has been following exactly opposite policies. It has concentrated on low-yield weapons research and testing (10-100 tons), as opposed to our aged weapons with hundreds-of-kilotons yield. Russia has focused on greater use of fusion, less of fission, possibly achieving pure fusion. These weapons might well emit only neutrons and gamma rays, and leave little or no contaminating residual radiation.

There is no evidence I know of to suggest that Russia has been secretly designing or testing new low-yield, high-efficiency bombs. His assertions about the capabilities of the Russian arsenal show a clear ignorance of both Russian capabilities and the capabilities of our own weapons.

In particular, Monroe’s assertion that Russia may have produced a pure fusion weapon implies he knows little about how a thermonuclear weapon works. No one has been able to sustain a pure fusion reaction, even in a laboratory, let alone weaponize one for military use.

A pure fusion weapon would have to function on a different principle than a standard two-stage weapon because it cannot (by definition) use a fission primary. There is no straight development path from a neutron bomb to a pure fusion bomb as Monroe implies. In short; it’s bullshit.

Teller-Ulam_device_firing_sequence
The basics of how a thermonuclear weapon works. In all current weapons, an atomic bomb is used to ignite the fusion reaction. A pure fusion device would require a totally different way of achieving this ignition.

“If an armed conflict broke out tomorrow, the advancing Russian armor, mobilized troops, artillery, and tactical aircraft would be preceded by dozens of low-yield nuclear detonations, killing everything but leaving roads and bridges intact. “

No evidence exists that Russia is intending to deploy a neutron bomb for use outside of it’s ABM force. Monroe also misunderstands the concept of the neutron (Enhanced Radiation) bomb. While an ER bomb releases a larger portion of its energy as radiation, it still creates a considerable blast. The American W-79 neutron bomb, for example, could be set at a yield of 100 tons.; enough to level several city blocks through blast and heat alone.

Monroe also seems unaware that America maintains an arsenal of bombs that can be set to explode at low-yield. The W-80 can be set to five kilotons, while some B-61 variants can go as low as 0.3 kilotons.

W80-4
A W-80-1 variant like those mounted on nuclear cruise missiles. Credit FAS

Russia’s and China’s hypersonic nuclear missiles require our testing nuclear warheads for missile defense.

Here again, Monroe treats nuclearization as a Panacea. He ignores the technical progress made in ballistic missile defense and the challenges that hypersonic weapons pose.

The basic problem is that Hypersonic Glide Vehicles do not follow a predictable ballistic trajectory, making it difficult for a computer to plot an intercept point. The yield of the interceptor warhead has little to do with the matter.

Monroe’s prescriptions for America’s nuclear arsenal are based on incorrect data and fundamental misunderstandings of the technologies and strategic considerations involved. Restarting testing, designing new weapons and deploying new capabilities are unnecessary and will destabilize the current balance between Russian and American nuclear forces.

In short; it is an incredibly bad idea.

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