The nuclear ban is urgent, many fuses are waiting to be lit

17.12.2017 - Angelo Baracca

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The nuclear ban is urgent, many fuses are waiting to be lit

Without trying to spoil ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize party we should remember the growing threats to the non-proliferation regime and the dangerous accumulation of new risks of a nuclear conflict with unimaginable consequences: because after the approval of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the Nobel Prize, this is the challenge that awaits us. There are, in fact, those who are blowing dangerously on the nuclear fire and it almost seems as if they are looking for shortcuts to set the fatal fire off before the TPNW can even be put into operation and produce its effect. The lit fuses are many.

The first fuse 

The Korean crisis is the most threatening problem at present. Pressenza has followed it constantly for many months[1]. I have already observed that the Korean crisis is the resounding proof that nuclear weapons are useless for the purposes for which they are purportedly “justified”[2], all they are is an unacceptable risk.  A first-strike by Korean nuclear forces is inconceivable because of the inevitable consequences it would have directly on South Korea (where almost 25,000 US soldiers are deployed) and less directly on Japan, without counting China, which could not tolerate a nuclear attack on its borders anyway.  In short, it would be nuclear world war!  The United States, after the unforgivable mistakes made with their powerful nuclear capability, are forced to calculate how they could defend themselves from a possible nuclear attack by Pyongyang (although with the unknowns that still exist on the effectiveness of Korean nuclear weapons).

Yesterday’s news is that Rex Tillerson has declared the US “Ready to talk at any time”, a change of course from the US position that imposes disarmament as a precondition for talks with Pyongyang. Can we breathe a sigh of relief?  We cannot overlook the ever-present risk that the situation may get out of hand irreparably.

The second fuse 

A second fuse concerns the ever more concrete risk of abandoning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed 30 years ago on December 8, 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and the Secretary General of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first treaty to establish a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of the two super-powers[3].  It established the removal of tactical warheads on short and intermediate range ground-based missiles (between 500 and 5,500 km), and also a ban on testing nuclear weapons with these characteristics. The INF Treaty remains a pillar of the non-proliferation regime, if it collapses, the START treaties would also collapse with unimaginable consequences.

For some years now, Washington and Moscow have been exchanging accusations of experimenting with weapons that would violate the INF[4]. The problem presents very complex aspects, not least because the technologies have changed profoundly over the last 30 years and it is a question of assessing whether and how weapons that did not exist at that time fall within the scope of the prohibitions imposed by the INF.  The pressure to develop ever new weapon systems is pressing.

Washington has also been accusing Moscow of developing new 9M729 cruise missiles (SSC-8 in the NATO designation)[5]. The evidence reported by the USA in official documents is rather vague, in an article by the great expert on Russian nuclear weapons, Pavel Podvig[6], a comment states in no uncertain terms: “Pavel, the US Military has already made up its mind to get out of INF treaty, the violation etc is just an alibi. If the US had any concrete and verifiable proof it would have shown it by now in many years of it claiming Russia is violating the INF treaty.”

But Moscow sometimes does just the same with several accusations against Washington. The first is that the (Aegis) missile launcher Mark-41 VLS[7] deployed in Poland and Romania would be able to launch medium range cruise missiles, and its ground-based version can be considered a direct violation of the INF treaty. The second allegation is that as part of their testing of missile defence interceptors, the US has developed a number of missiles used as targets that have similar characteristics to medium range missiles prohibited by the INF treaty. Finally, Moscow claims that some armed drones (which did not exist in 1987) possess characteristics that fall within the definition of ground-launched cruise missiles.

In my opinion, the problems from 7 years ago in the formulation of the New START which prevented us from reaching an agreement on greater reductions in the number of operational warheads (fixed at 1,550 each) have come back to haunt us: Russia has explicitly expressed its reservations about the development of anti-missile defence systems by the United States and NATO, knowing that to compete it would be dragged into an unsustainable arms race, and therefore prudentially demanding that it maintains a larger number of warheads in order to saturate these defences.

As for the INF treaty, in recent days Trump, in his usual style, has courted controversy, approving a new package of sanctions against Russia, for violating the treaty on the elimination of short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. And announcing that “the Department of Defense will begin research on building a new cruise nuclear missile, as provided for in the recently approved defence budget”[8].

The third fuse

A further fuse was lit by Trump with the decision not to re-certify the Iran Deal. A decision that re-ignites a dispute that has lasted for years, and the potential consequences of which are difficult to assess.  Just think of the recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, behind which a pact is emerging that also involves Saudi Arabia in a war against Iran.

The fourth fuse 

While the Korean crisis is taking hold, public opinion seems to have forgotten that India and Pakistan – countries in a constant state of explosive tension, often degenerating into armed conflict – have developed nuclear arsenals which over 20 years are evaluated to be in the range of 120-130 warheads each[9].  This is more than enough to trigger an exchange of nuclear attacks whose global consequences would put the lives of billions of people at risk[10]!

But that’s not all. A study released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on 24 July and signed by Toby Dalton[11] talks about Pakistan having the “fastest-growing program in South Asia”! There is no official news, but Pakistani sources, obviously rejecting the accusations of accelerating nuclear weapons and target accusations instead against their opponent (“A bit of nuclear judo, if you will”, the author comments), making estimates of an Indian arsenal of between 356 and 493 nuclear warheads, but even up to the absolutely demented number of over 2,000!

In short, a noble race for those who want to incinerate themselves first.

Last but not least

But the continuous improvement of technology, the development of radical innovations and new weapon systems generate new risks, from which nuclear weapons are not exempt: the increasing sophistication of systems does not in any way guarantee greater security, but rather introduces new vulnerabilities.

We know the risks associated with the state of nuclear missiles, which are anachronistic remnants of the Cold War, being launched on warning, and yet the states that own them show no intention of de-alerting them. On the contrary, they are all developing supersonic missiles which, in addition to other hazards[12], will reduce response times in the event of an alarm. The alert levels are growing and the margin of control and reaction is increasingly reducing.

The growing dangers of cyberwar also create unexpected risks for the control and use of nuclear weapons[13]. What will happen if tomorrow an officer in the nuclear attack control centre will no longer be sure if what they’re seeing on the screen is really missiles, or if it’s a computer error?  Or if officers will be unable to communicate with those who control nuclear weapons during an international crisis?  Nightmare Scenarios!  Unfortunately plausible: ” Cyberattacks could compromise nuclear planning or delivery systems, interrupt critical communications, lead to false warnings of attack, or potentially even allow an adversary to take control of a nuclear weapon”[14].

Faced with these threats, the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is all the more important, as is the need to expand the number of signatory countries and to speed up the time required for ratification. The only way to keep the risks of nuclear weapons at bay is by completely eliminating them!

 

[1] Angelo Baracca, “North Korea’s resistible nuclear rise”, Pressenza, 3 May 2017, followed by continuous updates, the most recent of them: “North Korea or USA: Which is the real danger?”, 15 September 2017.

[2] Angelo Baracca, “At the nuclear folly fair: the world less and less safe!Pressenza, 23 October 2017.

[3] Angelo Baracca, “Not to forget: link ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize to the thirty years of the INF treaty, now at risk!”, Pressenza, 15 November 2017.

[4] See detailed overview: Amy F. Woolf (Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy), “Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress”, 6 December 2017, US Potential Unilateral Withdrawal from INF Treaty Puts Europe at Risk, 29 June2017.

[5] 9M729 – SSC-8, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/ssc-8.htm.

[6] Pavel Podvig, “The INF Treaty culprit identified. Now what?”, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, http://russianforces.org/blog/2017/12/the_inf_treaty_culprit_identif.shtml.

[7] Mk-4 vertical launching system, Seaforces online. https://www.lockheedmartin.co.uk/content/dam/lockheed/data/ms2/documents/launchers/MK41_VLS_factsheet.pdf.

[8] Yuri Colombo, “New sanctions for Russia, USA in the Cold War”, Il Manifesto, 10 December 2017.

[9] Angelo Baracca, “Nuclear weapons: the noble race between India and Pakistan…. to those who incinerate themselves first”, Pressenza, 27 July 2017.

[10] IPPNW, “Nuclear famine: two billion people at risk”, 2013.

[11] Toby Dalton, How not to talk about nuclear weapons.

[12] P. Tucker, “The Problem with the Pentagon’s Hypersonic Missile”, Defense One, 14 aprile 2016.

[13] Andew Futter, “Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons. New Questions for Command and Control, Security and Strategy”, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 15 July 2016. “Cyber Threats to Nuclear Weapons: Should We Worry? A Conversation with Dr. Andrew Futter”, NTI, 25 January 2017. John Denley, “No nuclear weapon is safe from cyberattacks”, Wired Security, 28 September 2017.

[14] P. Stoutland, “Growing threat: Cyber and nuclear weapons systems”, 18 October 2017, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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