The US preemptive nuclear strike capability has significantly grown. The strategic nuclear forces modernization program has implemented new revolutionary technologies to vastly increase the targeting capability of the US submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) arsenal.
The Bulletin of American Scientists reports that as a result of improvements in the killing power of US SLBMs, they carry more than three times the number of warheads needed to destroy the entire fleet of Russian land-based missiles. Since only part of the W76 force would be needed to eliminate Russia’s silo-based ICBMs, the United States will be left with a substantial number of higher-yield warheads that could be used for other missions.
The increase in the lethality comes from the Mk4A «super-fuze» device that since 2009 has been incorporated into the Navy’s W76-1/Mk4A warhead as part of a decade-long life-extension program.
The super-fuze capability is now operational on all nuclear warheads deployed on the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The new fuze has also been installed on British SLBMs.
It provides for an adjustable height-of-burst as it arrives. The fuze is designed to destroy fixed hard targets by detonating above and around a target in a much more effective way. Warheads that would otherwise overfly a target and land too far away will now, because of the new fuzing system, detonate above the target. Explosions that occur near and above the ground over a target can be lethal to it. This above-target area is known as a «lethal volume»; the detonation of a warhead of appropriate yield in this volume will result in the destruction of the target. The result of this fuzing scheme is a significant increase in the probability that a warhead will explode close enough to destroy the target even though the accuracy of the missile-warhead system has itself not improved. Thus, an enhanced fuze would allow the United States to reduce the number of warheads on its ballistic missile submarines, but increase the targeting effectiveness of the fleet.
It’s worth mentioning that in addition to hundreds of W76-1/Mk4A warheads with a 100kiloton warhead that have a very high probability of destroying fixed silos, Navy submarines also carry the 455kiloton W88 Mk-5 that can destroy extremely hard and deeply buried targets such as military command centers.
According to Hans Kristiansen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, «As a consequence, the US submarine force today is much more capable than it was previously against hardened targets such as Russian ICBM silos. A decade ago, only about 20 percent of US submarine warheads had hard-target kill capability; today they all do».
It should be noted that the US has always enjoyed significant advantage in sea-based nuclear forces. Together, the Ohio-class submarines carry approximately 60 % of US strategic nuclear warheads. The Navy has been constantly upgrading its Trident missiles. Additionally, a new submarine, the SSBN(X), which will replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, is undergoing development and is expected to cost about $140 billion to develop, according to the Defense Department.
Under the circumstances, Russia has the right to invoke Article VIII of the New START treaty, which provides that in those cases in which one of the Parties determines that its actions may lead to an ambiguous situation, that Party is to take measures to ensure the viability and effectiveness of this Treaty and to enhance confidence, openness, and predictability concerning the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms. Such measures may include, among other things, providing information in advance on activities of that Party associated with deployment or increased readiness of strategic offensive arms to preclude the possibility of misinterpretation of its actions by the other Party. This information is to be provided through diplomatic or other channels.
The enhanced capability could be used only against land-based targets, leaving SSBNs immune, at least those who are on patrol. Train-based systems have a good chance to survive and strike back. The super fuze does not eliminate the capability to deliver a retaliatory strike. What really matters is the fact that the US does not view the strategic potential as a deterrent but rather as a means to deliver the first strike reducing the opponent’s capability to respond.
The background also matters. While blaming Russia for starting an arms race, the US beefs up its nuclear potential. The US Air Force is modernizing the Minuteman-III missiles, replacing and upgrading their rocket motors, guidance systems, and other components, so that they can remain in the force through 2030. The service released a new ICBM solicitation last July. It plans to build a new weapons system to replace the long-serving Minuteman under a program called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The US Defense Department plans to buy 642 GBSD missiles for roughly $66.4 million each to support a deployed force of 400 weapons and to budget at least $1.25 billion annually from 2036 to 2040. The goal is to deliver the first batch of new missiles by 2029.
In 2023, the USAF will receive the B61 Mod 12 guided, standoff nuclear gravity bomb to replace all existing gravity bombs in the arsenal. The weapon with earth-penetrating capability and selectable yield from 50 kilotons to 0.3 kilotons, is will be carried by both strategic and tactical stealth aircraft. The planned deployment foresees that others NATO members would use their aircraft as delivery means in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 that forbids non-nuclear states from receiving nuclear weapons.
In the late 2020s and through the 2030s the Air Force will begin receiving the first of 100 new B-21 strategic stealth bombers.
The Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile program is to develop a weapon that can penetrate and survive integrated air defense systems and prosecute strategic targets. Both conventional and nuclear versions of the weapon are required to reach initial operational capability (IOC) before the retirement of their respective ALCM versions, around 2030. According to the plans, the LRSO will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) program with 1,000 to 1,100 cruise missiles, representing the US Air Force’s standoff nuclear delivery capability.
The US implements an ambitious program of putting weapons in space. It includes the concept of «Rods of God» – secret space weapons deployed on orbital kinetic weapon platform that could achieve a velocity of about 11 km/s (around 36,000 feet per second). The ground-based BMD systems, the X-37B spacecraft and Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) platforms could be repurposed into instruments of war in space.
The US goals have been strictly defined. According to White House spokesman Sean Spicer, that the president «was very clear on is that the United States will not yield its supremacy in this area to anybody. That's what he made very clear in there. And that if other countries have nuclear capabilities, it will always be the United States that has the supremacy and commitment to this».
President Donald Trump is critical toward the New START Treaty, calling it «a one-sided deal. «Just another bad deal that the country made, whether it's START, whether it's the Iran deal … We're going to start making good deals», he stated.
Expanding the US arsenal with new or additional nuclear weapons would cost billions at the time the national debt is nearing $20 trillion, while the New START allows the United States to keep enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet several times over. Without the New START and other arms control agreements, like the INF Treaty, the US America will be compelled to waste enormous military and financial resources on nuclear arms race.
The US is doing its best to gain supremacy in nuclear weapons. This policy may lead to total disintegration of the existing framework of treaties and regimes followed by resumption of arms race with dire consequences for the US itself.
With all the efforts on the way, there is little doubt about the Russia’s ability to survive the first nuclear strike and respond on kind.
Without violating the New START, the upgrade of the W76 warheads undermines future efforts to negotiate a New START treaty.
As history teaches, an arms race will never make anybody victorious. Nobody gains, everybody loses. It took a series of risky crises, like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and several cycles of an extremely costly arms race to realize how dangerous the nuclear threat is. The history of arms control reveals the wisdom of Soviet (Russian) and US leaders finding ways to cap their arsenals even in the heat of the Cold War. Now all the efforts applied in the past may go down the drain as the US is going back to the once tried policy of seeking nuclear dominance. Now it starts again at the time the whole system of arms control is on the brink of collapse. The tide must be turned. Nuclear arms control treaties should have become a top priority of the bilateral relationship.