“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer, reflecting on the power of the nuclear weapons he helped to develop, quoted this line from the the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. He knew the terrifying reality that would come to pass, where humans had the power to annihilate far-away lands at the push of a button. The previous century had yielded some gruesome and inhumane atrocities committed by humans against each other, but there was never the capability to vaporize entire regions. The twin attacks on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the first uses of this nuclear technology, and it was not long before the nuclear arms race began. The USSR developed their first atomic weapon in the 1950’s, followed closely by the U.K., France, South Africa, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. (Israel?) Foreign policy now had to be amended to include the use of nuclear weapons. The U.S. has steadily refused to adopt a ‘No First Use’ policy on nukes. They have opposed every significant resolution to ban nuclear weapons, believing that there are situations where the weapons need to be considered. According to the latest Nuclear Posture Review released by the Pentagon in 2018, the U.S. reserves the right to deploy nuclear weapons in cases of “attacks on U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure.” The proliferation of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads during the next 50 years would happen under the shadow of the Cold War. The risk for miscalculation was high, the consequence was human extinction.
Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan sign the INF into effect in 1988
On June 1st, 1988, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was ratified by the American and Russian governments. This watershed moment saw the most effective and far-reaching restrictions on nuclear warheads and the missiles that carry them. These two powers had stockpiled around 60,000 warheads between them at the time of signing, the result of the most intense weapons build up in history. At one point there had been over 70,000 individual warheads across the planet. Given the scalding tensions of the Cold War, having such a high number of these weapons sitting about seemed like an inevitable formula for the unthinkable. With the many close calls and near-misses the world has seen with nuclear war, there was great anxiety driving the two governments towards making some progress on containing the threat. Neither nation stands to gain from a conflict in which billions die and civilization itself may end as a result. Behind the threats and muscle flexing, Reagan and Gorbachev were looking for ways to back out of the confrontation without giving up too much leverage in negotiation. Peace was to be maintained through the illusion of strength, the kind of strength that could break a nation and leave its lands uninhabitable for centuries.
In February 2019, several years into the revival of the Cold War, the United States announced that they would be withdrawing from the boundaries of the INF treaty. The very next day, the Russian Federation also withdrew and immediately announced the beginning of research and development of new Intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) systems. The consequences of this collapse in arms control will be felt for decades to come, as the only restrictions on nuclear warheads between the two largest arsenals have expired. The United States and Russia now join China in the race for the best missiles money can buy as each national government is steadily increasing their budgets for weapons development and research.
The hypothetical situation in which nuclear attacks are being used is the endgame of any war planning, not just another card to be drawn.
Ballistic missiles today are very advanced and well-developed, but they are no different in how they work than the first cruise missiles fired by the Germans across the English channel 70 years ago. The way that ballistic missiles work is based on calculations and thrust. The missile itself is just a vehicle for carrying the warhead to its destination and relies on having enough fuel to power itself into the upper atmosphere. The guidance system on a missile is GPS-based, or inertial, which means it relies on gyroscopes and motion sensors. It is programmed to follow a ballistic trajectory to position itself in the orbit above the target. At this point, the missile has separated through several stages and it is just the warheads remaining which follow the trajectory down to their target. Once the missile has left the low Earth orbit, only the smallest parts of it remain, making it nigh-impossible to shoot down an ICBM in flight. To intercept a nuclear warhead is to ram another projectile into it while travelling at thousands of miles per hour, which is often compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet. The American Missile Defence Agency is tasked with tracking and intercepting any hostile missiles. So far, it has had very limited success, with the exception of one major public relations victory in the midst of the Korean nuclear talks in Singapore.
Hypersonic missiles capable of avoiding defenses and countermeasures now threaten Pacific U.S. territories and aircraft carriers—twin symbols of American power. Hyper Glide Vehicles (VGHs) offer new maneuvering capabilities that long, heavy, pre-programmed ICBMs do not have. This gives them immense value as they offer the potential to strike targets from far away without being intercepted. In a confrontation where all sides have super fast and long-range weapons, they do not even need the ability to see what they are shooting at. This INF treaty, along with other arms control agreements, has long served as a counterweight to the belligerent threats the nuclear warheads posed by their own existence. Throughout the 30 years that have passed since the ratification of the INF, nearly 2,700 nuclear warheads have been disposed of along with an entire class of missiles, with ranges of 500-5,000 km. European cities no longer lived under the shadow of annihilation. The most difficult concept to grasp regarding nuclear weapons is the sheer magnitude and scope of the deadly radioactive blast. Depending on the kilotons of the warhead, this could be a tactical area several miles long or a swath of land the size of Texas. These weapons are historically rarely used because their function is so specific and their deployment is seen as a last resort. The hypothetical situation in which nuclear attacks are being used is the endgame of any war planning, not just another card to be drawn.
The art of threatening nuclear war involves making the other side believe that you are completely willing to follow through on your threat. If there is a sense of vulnerability or a perceived lack of resolve, the other side could feel empowered to hit first. The biggest nuclear near misses came as a result of confusing information from all sides. In Cuba the U.S. didn’t know if the USSR would declare war as a result of stopping Soviet ships, and in the 1980’s Reagan pushed the Russian’s boundaries by launching nuclear drills in radio silence. Donald Trump’s current actions towards North Korea and Russia have involved making them believe his next moves are unpredictable; similar to the supposed madman theory also followed by Nixon in the 70’s. Trump’s administration inherited the largest modernization of the American nuclear triad at over $1 trillion, begun under Obama. This program will increase the power and efficiency of our national nuclear program, as well as make serious investments in the development of systems to shoot down ballistic missiles. This program came on the heels of the U.S withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002, a recurring theme recently.
The reason that the arms control regime is so effective (there have been zero hostile nuclear explosions in 70+ years) is because of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Through this, the primary attackers will be the last ones to die, as their opponents will surely launch their own attacks before their demise. Technological advancements have always been the surest killer of treaties, as rigid definitions of the time cannot keep up with the ever-changing tide of new weapons which bend conventions and defy limitations. When the INF was first signed, for example, each strategic bomber that a nation possessed was considered to account for one nuclear warhead. The reality is that a single bomber can carry at least a dozen nuclear missiles, each of which can contain multiple warheads capable of hitting targets hundreds of miles apart. The number of warheads reported worldwide is likely nowhere near the actual number, considering that nukes are one of the most highly regarded national secrets of any country.
The most important development in the ongoing arms crisis was when Russia made the decision to place what is called the Iskander ballistic missile system in their enclave of Kaliningrad (annexed from Germany following the second World War). The issue with this is the geostrategic location of the enclave, directly in the center of Europe, with direct access to the Baltic sea for reinforcement from the mainland. The missile system is said to have a range of over 5,000 kilometers. This would give it the ability to rain fire down on any city in Europe in less than ten minutes from launch, which gives local governments no time to react or prepare. This is similar to the situation preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the United States had placed Pershing-II missiles in Turkey which were within a similar range to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The United States launched a diplomatic protest saying that this deployment of the Iskander violated the INF Treaty and that they would withdraw in response. Russia, in turn, accused the U.S of provoking an arms race and announced a build-up in weapons research efforts. Russian officials muddied the waters and put out conflicting information on the true range of the weapon system. They even put a launcher on display for journalists to look at, of course, not doing a trial exercise to show its capability to calm fears. The issue with this dilution of the truth is that when there is a breakdown in trust, there is no solid foundation to a treaty. The INF died simply because the U.S. no longer trusted Russia to not use the Iskander against European capitals. From Russia’s perspective, the Americans are the ones who violated the treaty by moving tomahawk cruise missiles and attack drones to European bases.
A major factor in the current heat-up of the arms race is China, which has been pouring money into missile research over the years. China is not limited by any missile treaty like the INF between the U.S. and Russia and the result is a massive arsenal of weapons of all ranges. China, with this leverage, has been known to flex their weapons and threaten American assets in the Pacific. Guam, for example, is an American territory situated near the Japanese islands and well within the range of Chinese missiles. There are thousands of servicemen and women deployed in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia who find themselves at risk. This is relevant to the arms race because American domination of the Pacific is being directly challenged by North Korea and by proxy China. Overlapping territorial claims to the South China Sea, Korean ICBM tests, and Russian bomber flights have contributed to a dangerous environment. There are now missile alert tests in Hawaii — something that hasn’t happened for decades. In a callback to the Cold War, we now see Russian government propaganda threaten the U.S mainland. The U.S. has the motive to withdraw from the INF in order to catch up on building tactical missiles, including hypersonic ones the Chinese government has been advertising for years. As of now, the American military in the area find their movements restricted by the threat of these weapons that they cannot match. This is certainly a disadvantage in a potential fight and the U.S. government has been looking for an excuse to start producing their own versions of these weapons. Similar claims have been made about Russia’s true motive for abandoning the treaty, as they are another rival of China’s.
The whole world seems to be bracing for an imminent catastrophe. The only question is, are we safer as a result of confronting China and Russia if we have more weapons of mass destruction hovering around our heads?