By Sara Bundtzen

On February 20, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin warned top U.S. policymakers to “calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems”, advising them to “just do the maths first and take decisions that create additional serious threats to our country afterwards.”

The threats come amid mounting tensions and loss of trust following Russia’s breach of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and ultimately the U.S. decision to withdraw from the agreement altogether.

Provoking NATO allies, Putin boasted about a series of new weapons systems that will include hypersonic glide vehicles as well as nuclear-powered cruise missiles and unmanned underwater vehicles of unlimited range – all of which render missile defense impossible.

Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling constitutes another move towards the erosion of nuclear arms control and an abandonment of the global quest for strategic stability.

Advanced “non-strategic” nuclear capabilities

The U.S. previously responded to Russia’s nuclear doctrine in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), published in February last year. The official document proposed new, “non-strategic” nuclear capabilities “to enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the U.S. and its allies.” The U.S., the NPR stresses, must do more to deter Russia than maintaining conventional superiority and strengthening missile defense in Europe.

To bring about change, the NPR announced a new low-yield nuclear warhead for long-range, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). In January, the National Nuclear Security Agency confirmed that the first production unit of the “W76-2” warhead is now underway and will be ready for delivery to the Navy by September of this year.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) considers a yield to be low if it is 20 kilotons or less. For reference, the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima had a yield of roughly 15 kilotons and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The new warhead is a modified version of the existing high-yield warhead, the 100-kiloton, W76-1 thermonuclear device. Unlike the W76-1, the new warhead does not produce an explosion through nuclear fusion, only fission, reducing its yield to approximately 5-6 kilotons. But again, low-yield is a relative term.

Filling the “gap” in regional deterrence

The NPR emphasizes Russia’s perceived advantage at lower levels of conflict, referring to the imbalance in the numbers and variety of U.S. and Russian “non-strategic” capabilities. Indeed, the U.S. has only one type of weapon in this category: the B61 gravity bomb in several versions with different yield options. About 180 of them are forward deployed in Europe, alongside the dual-capable aircraft (DCA) of European NATO members.

The NPR denounces Russia’s doctrine of “limited nuclear first use” and anticipates that the U.S. might hesitate to respond with high-yield nuclear weapons as they would appear disproportionate and, therefore, too escalatory. In other words, the U.S. perceives itself as self-deterred.

The Federation of American Scientists emphasizes that the U.S. already has flexible nuclear forces, advanced conventional capabilities, and low-yield options in its arsenal. Therefore, the U.S. would not need to “correct the mistaken Russian perception” as Russia has no actual ground to believe in any advantage.

Clearly, there is much disagreement about Russia’s strategy and eagerness to use nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” a conflict early on. To a great extent, its doctrine remains intentionally ambiguous; however, with public statements such as Putin’s recent speech, there remains little doubt that Moscow sees its interests threatened and it is not going to back down on nuclear proliferation in the near future.

Here comes the strategic low-yield warhead

What’s new is that the low-yield warhead will be carried by the strategic Trident II D5 SLBMs. Those missiles have a range of up to 12,000 kilometres and take much less time to deliver than combat aircraft, the current delivery vehicle of American low-yield warheads. Under the strategic arms control agreement New START, the U.S. is limited to maximum 240 Trident missiles for deployment on its 14 “Ohio class” submarines.

The Treaty’s future is now uncertain: President Barack Obama signs the New START Treaty in the Oval Office, Feb. 2, 2011. [White House photo P020211CK-0016/Wikimedia Commons]

Indeed, the enhanced attack options for the new warhead can provide the U.S. nuclear triad with additional diversity in platforms, range, and survivability.

Of course, the terminology “non-strategic” or tactical nuclear capabilities – be it low-yield or not – obscures the reality. “Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game changer”, as then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis admitted during his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in February 2018.

It is widely held that the use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear weapon state would not remain “limited”. Yet, U.S. and Russian proliferation suggests this is where the world is headed.

A return of “limited nuclear war”?

The NPR builds on its deterrence-by-denial approach arguing that more flexible U.S. nuclear options would “raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage.” The production of new low-yield warheads would therefore make Europe (indeed, the world) safer by denying Russia any perceived advantage of actually using nuclear weapons.

Non-proliferation advocates argue the opposite. They warn of the dangers of miscalculation and risk of “stumbl[ing] into a nuclear war.” Low-yield weapons would blur the line between conventional and nuclear warfare leading to a false sense of ease towards the use of them.

Vipin Narang, Associate Professor at MIT, further warns that the new warhead generates a problem to discriminate between types of weapons. “If the U.S. starts deploying some Tridents with a single low-yield warhead and others with eight thermonuclear warheads, all on the same submarine,” he argues, “how will the adversary know what is coming its way?” Russia would have no choice other than to react as if the U.S. had launched an all-out strategic nuclear war.

Others reject this argument. Austin Long of the RAND Corporation stresses that context matters. If Russia launches a limited nuclear attack and subsequently detects a single Trident launch, it would likely interpret this as a proportionately limited response.

Evidently, this scenario assumes that the use of nuclear weapons could be limited. This leads to the much bigger, more essential debate: To what extent are the U.S. and Russia committed to deterrence and preventing war if proliferation focuses on more “usable” nuclear weapons that are supposedly “less devastating”?

With no arms control, Europe should rethink its security

With New START expiring in February 2021, Russia and the U.S. are heading towards unlimited nuclear proliferation that will threaten a fragile balance in strategic nuclear forces.

Russia will likely continue to develop and deploy intermediate-range missiles, including the SSC-8 ground-fired cruise missile, that pose a direct threat to European capitals. NATO allies need to find a common position to face the changing security dynamics. They have had to before, in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union forward deployed the intermediate-range SS-20 missile. At the time, deterrence by means of the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe together with offers of dialogue created negotiation ground.

NATO headquarters as U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo departs the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. [State Department photo/Wikimedia Commons]

Today, the U.S. should reconsider the advantages of nuclear arms control which — besides fostering dialogue and confidence-building — also dictate the pace of military-technological developments and promote a competitive advantage. In reality, both the U.S. and Russia have calculated that no arms control better serves their interests given that other states (China) increasingly proliferate — shifting the balance of power.

Ultimately, European countries — in NATO and EU — must talk about guaranteeing their own security. If Europe wants to be real about “strategic autonomy,” it should rethink old realities. Until now, the disintegration of the West posed fundamental threats in itself. With the more dangerous risk of nuclear escalation, allies should stop fighting over spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and instead focus on formulating clear and credible deterrence against Russian aggression. The challenge will be to do all this in a concerted effort. ♦

Sara Bundtzen is the editor-in-chief of the Paris Globalist. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in International Security at Sciences Po.

Featured Image: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan and Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette brief the press on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, Feb. 2, 2018. [DoD photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm, Wikimedia Commons]