The article, “How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze,” authored by Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore A. Postol, shows how the US military, under the guise of what it calls a “life-extension program” – allegedly intended to increase safety and reliability of nuclear warheads – has vastly increased the ability of warheads to detonate closer to their intended targets.
The heart of the rebuilt W76 and its increased kill capacity is the new MC4700 arming, fuzing and firing system. This new system essentially gives the W76 capabilities it never had before; that is the capability to hit hardened targets – specifically Russian ICBM silos – with three times greater accuracy than before.
|The first MC4700 "super-fuzes" were completed in 2007 at the National Nuclear Security Administration's Kansas City facility that is responsible for manufacturing and procuring nonnuclear components for U.S. nuclear weapons
Steven Starr, a senior scientist at Physicians for Social Responsibility and an expert on the climatic consequences of nuclear war, called the report “the most frightening article I have ever read in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” Starr has good reason for concern, as should we. This article exposes the US government's continuing pursuit of nuclear dominance over Russia.
The following sentence summarizes that concern, which is centered on the Trident nuclear weapon system: “A decade ago, only about 20 percent of US submarine warheads had hard-target kill capability; today they all do.” This statement refers to the fact that the 100 kiloton W76 warhead previously did not have the capability, due to its relative lack of accuracy, of getting close enough to destroy “hard” targets such as Russian ICBM silos. ”
Because of the new super-fuze, essentially 100 percent of the warheads currently deployed on D5 missiles now have this capability to hit hard targets. This capability was previously reserved for the Minuteman III ICBMs and the relatively small number of W88 (455 kiloton) warheads also used on the D5 missile.
The implications of the development of the super-fuze and its use on the W76 are existential! Whatever the intentions of Pentagon planners, this development is most certainly sending a message to Russia that the US is building a significant first strike capability. As the article says, “by shifting the capability to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles [and with the addition of the new super-fuze], the US military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.”
And this would be only the opening salvo of a first strike attack. The remaining 80 percent of US ballistic missile warheads would likely be used to destroy mobile missile launchers, hardened command centers and other military and (potentially) civilian targets.
Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the OHIO Class “Trident” ballistic missile submarines have become the central, and most important, element in the US nuclear triad. Based on the New START treaty signed in 2010, roughly 70-percent of the U.S.’ nuclear warheads will be deployed on Trident submarines. Trident has the ability to move undetected while on its deterrent patrols, and can be stationed in strategic locations in the North Atlantic where its missiles would have a very short flight time to Russian targets.
The D5 missile can carry up to eight warheads. Under New START, the D5s carry an average of only four to five warheads. If New Start were to fail, which is becoming an increasing possibility with the current deterioration in relations between the US and Russia, the US could choose to fully load the D5s. In that case, based on the estimates in the article, two fully loaded Tridents (with 192 warheads each) could easily destroy all of the 136 Russian silo-based ICBMs.
The Russians have most certainly been keeping a close eye on US nuclear weapons developments. They have also been closely watching the US military's fascination with ballistic missile defense, which the Pentagon touts as purely “defensive,” but which Russia rightly perceives as the US seeking nuclear dominance. The article says: “The Russians have most recently reacted to this ongoing program by publicly displaying and implementing a new and novel sea-based nuclear weapons delivery device [an underwater drone] as a hedge against US missile defenses.”
Aside from the other current US nuclear weapons developments, the development of the W76 warhead super-fuze will likely be perceived by Russia as the most threatening. This is in large part due to Russia having no satellite early warning system, and relying instead on ground-based radars. Because they are far less sophisticated than US radar systems, the Russians have “less than half as much early-warning time” (15 minutes or less) in the event of a suspected US nuclear attack.
As the authors state, “The combination of this lack of Russian situational awareness, dangerously short warning times, high-readiness alert postures, and the increasing US strike capacity has created a deeply destabilizing and dangerous strategic nuclear situation. When viewed in the alarming context of deteriorating political relations between Russia and the West, and the threats and counter-threats that are now becoming the norm for both sides in this evolving standoff, it may well be that the danger of an accident leading to nuclear war is as high now as it was in periods of peak crisis during the Cold War.”
Both human and mechanical errors are inevitable in any system, and with nuclear weapons there is no margin for error. Accidents have occurred throughout the nuclear age, and more than one has involved false radar warnings. In 1995 a Russian early warning radar system mistakenly identified a scientific rocket launch from Norway as a submarine-launched (Trident) missile. Only at the last minute did officials realize that they were not under attack.
The end of the Cold War brought with it a historic opportunity for the US to begin serious negotiations with Russia leading to nuclear disarmament. Instead, our nation continued to pursue nuclear dominance, and as a result, over 25 years later we are entering into what is unarguably a new Cold War with Russia.
Trident is now three times more deadly than ever before. The US is rapidly moving toward production of a new ballistic missile submarine fleet that will be even more sophisticated than its predecessor. The twelve submarines of the Columbia Class (that will replace the OHIO Class) are being built to sail well into the end of this century. Along with the new submarines, the Navy is already seeking a new missile to replace the Trident II D5.
How long can we go building newer and more sophisticated (and deadly) nuclear weapon systems before they end up being used either accidentally or intentionally? How long can we play this dangerous game of nuclear brinksmanship before something snaps? How can our nations' leaders, in good conscience, continue to put humanity at risk of nuclear extinction?
The Bulletin article ends by quoting Russian President Putin speaking in 2016 about how he perceives (and how Russia will respond to) the West's offensive military posture. “No matter what we said to our American partners [to curb the production of weaponry], they refused to cooperate with us, they rejected our offers, and continue to do their own thing... I don't know how this is all going to end. What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.”
If the US is serious about reducing the risk of starting a nuclear holocaust, the President will have to begin repairing diplomatic relations with Russia. Meanwhile, a critical first step would be for President Trump to take all nuclear weapons, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles, off hair-trigger alert. This would demonstrate to the Russians that we have no intention of using our nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive, first strike, and would greatly reduce the risk of accidental launch of nuclear weapons and the resulting nuclear war.
The newly emerging nuclear arms race is a dangerous game that nobody can win; ultimately humanity will be the loser. The nuclear powers are addicted to the myth of nuclear deterrence and are driven to continue their insane pursuit of nuclear dominance. It is up to us as citizens to speak out in mass numbers calling on them to turn back from the brink and seek a path toward disarmament.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in the April 2017 Ground Zero Newsletter, which you can access by clicking here.
Read the entire article, “How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze,” at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.