The governments of Russia and the United States are using the Ukraine crisis as a justification for upgrading their formidable nuclear arsenals.
This escalation became evident January 25, as the conservative German Sunday newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) opened its edition with a whole page devoted exclusively to accuse Russia of “threatening gesturing” with its nuclear weapons.
Under the headline “Atom weapons come again into play“, the FAS reported, without giving any source, of a long list of incidents involving Russian military “nuclear capable” – mind the ambiguity, for it is important – vehicles, from armoured tanks to airplanes, all allegedly occurred during the last couple of months.
The paper goes as far as to claim that the next North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) meeting of defence ministers, to take place February 5 in Brussels, Belgium, will be devoted to analyse “the aggressive way Russia is targeting its nuclear capabilities against” NATO members, in Europe and North America, and its unofficial allies, such as the Ukraine.
Apart from the anonymity of its sources, the alarmist nature of the FAS report includes an important misrepresentation: It claims that until the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 the NATO felt under pressure to reduce its own nuclear arsenals.
Quite the opposite is true: Under the leadership of the present U.S. government, and despite president Barack Obama’s celebrated speech in the Czech capital Prague in 2009, during which he stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, the NATO in 2010 launched a substantial modernisation of its nuclear arsenal, of some 180 B-61 nuclear bombs, deployed in Europe. The official cost of this modernisation programme amounts to at least 10 billion U.S. dollars.
This programme is but a tiny part of a whole process of massive renovation of the U.S. nuclear weapons facilities, from the actual bombs to research centres and industries, which is expected to cost more than 355 billion U.S. dollar over a period of ten years. But, as Lawrence Wittner, professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany, and author of the scholarly trilogy entitled “The Struggle Against the Bomb”, says in his most recent blog entry, the cost is scheduled to soar after this renovation, when an array of new nuclear weapons will be produced.
Wittner recalls that the Obama government “has asked the Pentagon to plan for 12 new nuclear missile-firing submarines, up to 100 new nuclear bombers, and 400 new (or refurbished) land-based nuclear missiles. According to outside experts and a bipartisan, independent panel commissioned by Congress and the Defence Department, that will bring the total price tag for the U.S. nuclear weapons build-up to approximately one trillion U.S. dollars.”
Such extraordinary nuclear build-up has disappointed many Obama supporters, as the New York Times (NYT) reported in September 2014. The NYT quotes Sam Nunn, former U.S. senator, whose writings on nuclear disarmament deeply influenced Obama, as saying: “A lot of (Obama’s nuclear weapons policies) is hard to explain. The president’s vision was a significant change in direction (in the nuclear weapons debate). But the process has preserved the status quo.” Actually, Obama’s nuclear expansion policies have worsened that status quo.
This context makes the German newspaper’s assertion the most startling, in addition to the fact that the modernisation of NATO’s nuclear arsenal deployed in Europe was adopted against the express opposition of the foreign ministry in Berlin.
More than a ‘Life Extension Program’
The modernisation of NATO’ nuclear arsenal, approved in 2010, is officially called “a full-scope Life Extension Program (LEP)” of the B-61 bombs. These bombs are deployed in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, all members of the U.S.-led military alliance.
According to the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP), now in its fourth year of development engineering, includes “refurbishment of both nuclear and non-nuclear components to address aging, ensure extended service life, and improve safety, reliability and security of the bomb. With the incorporation of an Air Force tail kit assembly, the B61-12 will replace the existing B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 bombs. Moreover, fielding the B61-12 will enable the retirement of the B83, the last U.S. megaton class weapon, in the mid to late 2020s.”
Independent analysts of the LEP say such modernisation won’t mean only “a life extension programme”, but instead a formidable increase of NATO’s nuclear capabilities.
Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and one of the most distinguished civil experts on nuclear weapons, says that new features of the weapons contradict early pledges by U.S. authorities that the LEP “will not support new military missions (n)or provide for new military capabilities.”
However, new information about the LEP indicates precisely the contrary.
“The addition of a guided tail kit will increase the accuracy of the B61-12 compared with the other weapons and provide new warfighting capabilities,” Kristensen says. “The tail kit is necessary, officials say, for the 50-kilotons B61-12 (with a reused B61-4 warhead) to be able to hold at risk the same targets as the 360-kilotons B61-7 warhead. But in Europe, where the B61-7 has never been deployed, the guided tail kit will be a significant boost of the military capabilities – an improvement that doesn’t fit the promise of reducing the role of nuclear weapons.”
For comparison, the ‘Little boy’ nuclear bomb, with which the U.S. destroyed on August 6, 1945 the Japanese city of Hiroshima, had an explosive yield of between 13 and 18 kilotons. The ‘Fat man’ bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later had a yield of up to 22 kilotons.
During hearings at the U.S. House of Representatives, carried out in October 2013, it became also clear that B61-12 would replace the old B61-11, a single-yield 400-kiloton nuclear earth-penetrating bomb introduced in 1997, and the B83-1, a strategic bomb with variable yields up to 1,200 kilotons.
For Kristensen, “The(se) military capabilities of the B61-12 will be able to cover the entire range of military targeting missions for gravity bombs, ranging from the lowest yield of the B61-4 (0.3 kilotons) to the 1,200-kiloton B83-1 as well as the nuclear earth-penetration mission of the B61-11.”
Such increasing in destructive capabilities would make the new arsenal an “all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids, spanning the full spectrum of gravity bomb missions anywhere,” Kristensen points out.
The FAS report is the last in a series of articles and studies, published by U.S. and European media and think-thank institutes, all based on NATO leaks, or on rumours. One widespread rumour, for instance, claims that Russia has deployed Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea Moscow annexed in 2014.
The source of the rumour is a video available on the Internet, which allegedly shows Russian ballistic missile launchers rolling through downtown Sevastopol. But nuclear weapons experts, such as Kristensen, consider that the video in question shows no Iskander missiles, but instead Bastion-P (K300P or SSC-5) costal defence cruise missiles.
Breedlove – Dr. Strangelove
Other reports in Western media are not so clear-cut misrepresentations, but at least ambiguous enough as to cause alarm about the Russian nuclear arsenal. In November 2014, NATO’s top commander U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove – all resemblances with the character in Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear war satire “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, are real life ironies – claimed that Russia was reinforcing its bases in Crimea.
Breedlove admitted that the NATO does not possess information whether the Russian military operations included the deployment of nuclear weapons.
Breedlove only said at the occasion that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” were being moved to the Crimean Peninsula.
To quote Hans Kristensen again: “Th(is) uncertainty about what’s being moved to Crimea and what’s stored there illustrates the special problem with non-strategic nuclear forces: because they tend to be dual-capable and serve both nuclear and conventional roles, a conventional deployment can quickly be misinterpreted as a nuclear signal or escalation whether intended or real or not.”
Kristensen adds: “The uncertainty about the Crimea situation is similar (although with important differences) to the uncertainty about NATO’s temporary rotational deployments of nuclear-capable fighter-bombers to the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania. Russian officials are now using these deployments to rebuff NATO’s critique of Russian operations.”
Again, independent experts consider talk of such operations exaggerated, because neither the Soviet Union nor today’s Russia deployed nuclear arsenal in Crimea since 1950s until today.
The rhetoric on nuclear weapons is not confined to NATO or the U.S. government. In November 2014, almost simultaneous to Breedlove’s press conference, the Russian newspaper Pravda published a comment titled “Russia prepares nuclear surprise for NATO” in which it claimed that, as of today, “Russia’s strategic nuclear forces (SNF) are even more advanced in comparison with those of the US, as they ensure parity on warheads with a significantly smaller number of carriers of strategic nuclear weapons.”
Return to Cold War hard times
This gap between Russia and the United States, the formerly official Soviet newspaper goes on as if it were a matter of pride, “may only grow in the future, given the fact that Russian defence officials promised to rearm Russia’s SNF with new generation missiles.”
Russia and the NATO possess some 15,000 nuclear weapons, about 93 percent of the whole world’s total nuclear arsenal. This formidable capacity of global devastation, obsolete and implying high maintenance costs, constitutes, as Obama put it in his Prague speech, the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.
And yet, to no surprise to independent analysts, both sides have grabbed the first opportunity, the Ukraine crisis, to justify their nuclear build-up. For the U.S., the Ukraine crisis was a welcome chance to retighten its relations with the European Union, badly damaged after the revelations that the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been tapping all electronic communications between Gibraltar and Berlin, including the cellular phones of heads of allied governments.
In addition to assuring European NATO members’ mute support for the costly B61-12 LEP, the U.S. also needed a major crisis to force European governments to accept the highly unpopular Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as well as to wipe out all chances for political asylum for Edward Snowden.
For Russia, the crisis brought evidence that it was about time to stop behaving as a supplicant, as Michael Krepon, another U.S expert on nuclear arms control, has said.
Commenting on yet another victim of the new war of nuclear words between Russia and the NATO, the unceremonious end of the so called Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction act, Krepon writes, “A quarter-century after the Cold War ended, bilateral relations have again reverted to hard times. The (Nunn-Lugar) programs are now deemed unnecessary and inappropriate by Russian President Vladimir Putin and by majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Russia is no longer a supplicant, and the U.S. Congress is no longer feeling generous.”
The Nunn-Lugar act aimed at securing and dismantling former Soviet nuclear arsenals deployed in former Soviet territories, in such states as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Or, to quote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, and one of the most distinguished peace researchers in Russia: “The political crisis that erupted in Ukraine in early 2014 has ended the period in Russian-Western relations that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The crisis marks the end of a generally cooperative phase in those relations (…). Instead, the Ukraine crisis has opened a new period of heightened rivalry, even confrontation, between former Cold War adversaries.” They are in fact more than armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.