As if attempting to troll the United States, the DPRK test fired it’s first ICBM on the Fourth of July. The test was a high altitude “lobbed” trajectory affair that hit 2800 km at its apogee and landed 930 km downrange of the test site. If fired for distance at a normal trajectory the missiles range is estimated at between 6700 km and 8000 km; enough to strike Anchorage and Seattle respectively.
Since Donald Trump took office nuclear hawks have been on a quest to redevelop America’s nuclear arsenal and dismantle non-proliferation efforts. Senators like Tom Cotton have called for scrapping roughly 30 years of nuclear treaties dating back to the Reagan administration in response the Russia’s violation, with possibly the most important treaty on the chopping block being the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
With the successful nuclear test on September North Korea has very likely successfully tested a compact nuclear bomb. The test produced a 5.0 magnitude earthquake and equated to about 10-20 kilotons of explosive force; in the same range as the first American nuclear weapons. The warhead in question is very likely a functional version of the prototype they showed off in April of 2016.
As concerns over a Trump presidency grow, more and more people have become concerned about the power of the executive. One of the most talked about concerns has been Trump’s control over America’s vast nuclear arsenal which many fear an unstable Trump could use disproportionately or in a fit of rage.
In response, Representative Ted Lieu has proposed legislation that would require the President and the Secretary of Defense to consult with congressional leaders before launching a nuclear strike. Currently, launching a nuclear attack requires only two people; the President and the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense. While two people are involved the Secretary is an appointee of the president and therefore somewhat beholden to him (or her).
As the General Hayden noted this system is designed for decisiveness, not debate. The reason for this is simple; in many scenarios there is simply no time for such debate. With only 30 minutes between the launch of an ICBM to detonation, this idea is unworkable under most circumstances.
“Launch under attack ” is one such case. In this scenario, enemy forces will have already fired off dozens of missiles armed with hundreds of warheads. Because of detection, confirmation and the process of going though the command, control and communications infrastructure, the president will have a maximum of just two minutes to decide whether to launch the missiles before the enemy warheads hit American missile solos and destroy them.
Lieu’s proposal would involve having to having to consult with at least one more person during the decision making. Having to locate and consult the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader and receive their concent could easily eat up those two minutes, making a timely response impossible.
Even if launch under attack were to be taken out of the equation, there are other problems with this proposal. Having to consult congressional leaders on nuclear use would mean limited flexibility in other situations that could embolden American adversaries like Russia and China.
In a limited use scenario time may also be critical. The addition friction created in the decision making process could seriously damage the credibility of our deterrent. What would happen if the President and Secretary of Defense have a different strategy than the House Majority Leader and that disagreement stalls action? How long would it take to reconcile those opinions?
If Putin, for example, knew that it might take several hours, or even a day to respond to a limited nuclear strike, it would give him more reason to conduct one. This would be especially true in an escalate to deescalate situation where Putin could conduct a limited strike, then, while leaders debate a response, Russia could use the extra time to sue for peace, solidifying gains before a response could be implemented.
As the Daily Beast noted, there are other ways to derail a delusional president than get Congress involved. A nuclear attack certainly meets the definition of an imminent threat that is firmly within the realm of an executive’s power to react to without asking for the consent of congress.
This should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of Lieu’s idea. If American and Russian weapons were not on hair trigger alert and more time was available to plan a response from the moment of re-alert, then a congressional approval process would have more merit. In a “first use” case as well, where time is less restricted and an unstable president is most likely to abuse power, giving congressional leaders a veto might be beneficial to global security.
That said, in most cases centralized decision making is necessary in wartime and especially in a nuclear crisis. Military command is a process that cannot be democratized; and the more critical the situation, the less room there is for debate. In that sense, launch under attack may be considered a logical extreme that demands the utmost speed an decisiveness.
North Korea has successfully launched a BM-25 Musudan/ Hwasong-10 IRBM from a facility in Wonsan. The launch reached a height of 1000 km and landed 400 km downrange of Wonsan in the Sea of Japan. The missile has a theoretical range in the order of thousands of kilometers, long enough to hit Guam. This test however, used a high apogee flight path that allowed the test to avoid Japanese air space as it flew across the Sea of Japan. The high angle launch would theoretically also allow the missile to avoid most ballistic missile defense systems on it’s way to targets in South Korea should the DPRK be so inclined.*
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In my last post, I wrote about how the United States could deal with the threat of conventional Russian cruise missiles arising from the failure of the INF treaty. However, If the treaty fails, there is a strong possibility that Russia could rearm it’s intermediate forces with nuclear warheads. Given Russian doctrine and the nuclear armed enemies it faces, this scenario is especially likely.
Such weapons would create a nuclear escalation dynamic where Russian weapons could strike targets in Europe, and leave NATO with only strategic nuclear weapons and slower reacting planes to respond.(think escalate to deescalate.) In this case, a deploying nuclear capable short range missiles to Europe is an option worth considering to create a sense of parity with the Russians.
Nuclearizing the ATACMS
The United States would still not need to violate the INF treaty if the Russians go nuclear. The MGM-140 ATACMS could be easily fitted with a nuclear warhead. In fact, there was originally a planned nuclear version of the MGM-140 which was cancelled after the Cold War ended and there is no evidence that it could not be equipped with such a warhead.
Finding warheads for the missile would be simple. There is a stockpile of hundreds of retired or non deployed W-80 warheads stored near Kirtland AFB. The W84 used on the GLCM is also still available. The W-80s and are extremely light and compact. Designed for use on nuclear cruise missiles the warhead weighs only 290 lb (131 kg), signifantly lighter and smaller than the current 230kg (500 lb)warhead fitted to the missile.
There was also version of the ATACMS fitted with a Mark 4 reentry vehicle loaded with conventional explosives. The same reentry vehicle is currently used for the W-76 nuclear bomb. Weighing just over 360 pounds (162 kg), the warhead would also be lighter than the current conventional versions, enabling it to be fitted to the missile.
The advantages of such a weapon are clear. The MLRS systems could be housed in NATO bases in Eastern Europe and dispersed in the event of a crisis. They are both highly survivable and mobile. Each launcher is also capable of firing up to two missiles in quick succession.
Unlike cruise missiles which are limited in speed and can take hours to reach their targets, the ATACMs missiles take a fraction of the time, allowing them to react quickly to threats. The range of the ATACMS is sufficient to hold vital targets at risk and would certainly increase because of the weight reduction that would come with nuclearization.
A hardened Mobile Launcher for the missile is already in service in the form of the M270 MLRS. The launcher can carry two missiles and is built on a Bradley IVF Chassis. With such a heavy duty chassis it should be no problem to add additional hardening for nuclear use if necessary.
A nuclearized MGM-140 would also be a fairly cheap missile to build and field. All of the components have already been in use for decades. The missiles, launcher, and warheads already exist. The only investment needed would be the cost of integrating the components.
Nuclearizing the ATACMS in the event of INF failure would have a lot of political benefits. Foremost, the U.S would not need to violate the INF to field the nuclear variant of the missile. NATO could still retain the moral high ground.
The missile could also be used as part of a second dual track strategy, like the one implemented to achieve the INF in the first place. The plan would combine a arms build up with diplomatic overtures. While such a policy would be initially destabilizing, it has been successful before and could be severely disruptive to Russia’s escalate to deescalate strategy.
Russia may think twice about employing nuclear escalation if it knows could be hit with a counterforce strike before it’s missiles reach their targets.
While mounting a nuclear warhead onto a interceptor evading missile like the ATACMS may not be the most calming prospect, it is an option. It could be done quickly, without the need for a lengthy acquisition process or designing a new nuclear warhead. It would disrupt Russian strategy, Reassure allies, and pressure Russia to abandon development of intermediate weapons.
Following the end of the Second World War end the United States sent teams from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey to archive and examine the aftermath of the air campaign against Japan. This particular video was taken in Hiroshima in march 1946, only half a year since the United States detonated the 15 kt Mark 1 […]
Relations between Russia and the United States have hit another low due to the deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile interceptor system in Romania. Russia claims that, because the Aegis Ashore uses the same vertical launch systems cells as it’s shipborne counterpart, it’s deployment is a violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
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Recently the nuclear arms race has been heating back up. Russia has just announced that it’s new RS-28 “Sarmat” will be operational by 2018 and eventually replace the R-36M, also know by the NATO code name SS-18 “Satan”, in front line service. The new missile will be liquid fueled and capable of carrying a four to 10 ton payload, allowing it to carry MIRVs and decoys.
Despite reports to the contrary such a missile would not be capable of destroying an area to size of France or Texas. If Russian media reports are correct, It will be roughly 33 percent more powerful than the current SS-18 in terms of nuclear payload.
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