Alexei Fenenko, Alexei Fenenko's blog
13 march

Troubled Clause

The article ‘Ensuring Euro-Atlantic Security’ published on RIAC website proposes an interesting agenda of negotiations on European security. This is especially true in the background of the annual Munich security conference (MSC) passing on February 17-18. The proposals of the authors are not in doubt, but one point is of particular importance. I guess it can become the subject of serious and productive discussion.


The authors argue ‘We must reduce the risks associated with keeping nuclear forces on “prompt-launch” status, whereby they are ready for immediate launch and can hit their targets within minutes. The United States and Russia should commit starting discussions on removing a significant percentage of strategic nuclear forces from prompt-launch status at a later date.’ Unfortunately, the implementation of this proposal (with all its theoretical attractiveness) can lead to the absolutely opposite result - increasing the risk of military conflict between Russia and NATO countries.


Source: defence.ru


Firstly, the risk of ‘accidental’ launch of strategic nuclear weapons is incredibly exaggerated. Today launching a strategic nuclear strike requires a complex of sequential actions. It starts with a political decision to launch the strike. In a case of a counter-strike, the time for political decision is limited to 30-40 minutes. The next step is overcoming the system of negative (blocking) and positive (permissive) codes. Only after those actions, the strategic nuclear forces have the technical ability to launch a nuclear strike on the selected enemy.


The system of positive and negative codes guarantees that strategic nuclear weapons won’t be used accidentally. (For tactical nuclear weapons, its analogue is the system of 'electronic locks', designed to block independent decisions about its military application). It is possible to agree with the former Minister of defence of the USSR Marshal D. F. Ustinov, that in the modern world the use of strategic nuclear weapons is not military but political action. Without the will of politicians, strategic nuclear weapons will remain a deterrent. By the way, documented cases of the failure of this system do not exist: there is only a series of questionable and never proven publications on this topic in the mass-media.


Secondly, decreasing the readiness of nuclear arsenals can give the aggressor a dangerous illusion of their easy preventive destruction. Modern Russian and US Nuclear Doctrines are firstly aimed not at countervalue but on counterforce attack (destruction of carriers, incl. silo-deployed) and airfields. The side which launches the disarming strike first, will secure an advantage. Therefore, the ideal means for such a preemptive strike are submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM’s), because it is very difficult to detect by missile defence alarm systems the preparations for such a strike. If the large part of the nuclear forces is not ready for immediate use the rest can be destroyed before the decision of retaliatory strike is made.


In the second half of the 1970s, Nuclear Doctrines broadened the understanding of the concept of nuclear strike. For instance, according to American Doctrine of ‘selected’ nuclear strikes 1974 the ideal scheme was:

  • decapitation attack (strike against authorities);
  • application of counterforce strike against the main part of strategic nuclear arms;
  • plea for the disarmed enemy to surrender;
  • application of third counter value strike (in the case of enemy resistance) on industrial targets, railway infrastructure and power plants.

Immediate readiness to enemies’ nuclear launches prohibits that scheme and secures a retaliatory nuclear strike on the first and second stages of a nuclear conflict. On the contrary aggressor may wish to launch a countervalue /counterforce attack.


Thirdly, the ideas of launching a counterforce strike with non-nuclear weapons (1970s) continue to develop in the modern world . Even Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1980) developed the concept of destruction of enemy’s SNF by a massive non-nuclear charged cruise missiles attack. To implement that task the US commenced the cruise missiles development programme BGM 109-E ‘Tomahawk’ in 1978, both nuclear and non-nuclear. In the 1980s there were adopted different modifications of naval (SLCM BGM-109A/…), ground (GLCM BGM-109G) and air (MRASM AGM-109C/H/I/J/K/L) based ‘Tomahawks’. These tools can be used for non-nuclear strike.


Since then the idea of non-nuclear counterforce strike has been further developed. In May 2003 the USAF command proclaimed the initiative of Global Prompt Strike. It implies an opportunity for the US to strike at any point of the Earth promptly with conventional weapons. The main goal was shortening the time of planning and application of such a strike. Hours or minutes instead of weeks or days like it was before. In that case, the US Armed Forces should have an opportunity of such type of strike at a distance from the US territory even in the regions where they do not have any permanent military presence.


In the framework of that initiative several options of nuclear forces destruction by non-nuclear means were offered: from non-nuclear armed intercontinental strategic missiles and SLBM’s to Advanced Hypersonic Weapon – AHW (long-range glide vehicle capable of flying within the planet’s atmosphere at hypersonic speed). For now the majority of have been cancelled but they can be re-launched in  new forms. We can remember ballistic missile defence project, the system that can intercept the rest of survived in counterforce strike nuclear forces. In addition, what if the aggressor finds the loss of several cities sufficient payment for the victory?


Modern dynamics radically differs of 1986-1988 when M. Gorbachev and R. Raegan proclaimed decreasing the readiness of nuclear arsenals. At that time two parties had 12.000-14.000of strategic nuclear warheads (the amount that cannot be destroyed by counterforce strike). Under the terms of the New START, the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers will be reduced to 1550. In that case, technically the application of counterforce strike becomes more possible. Further decreasing the nuclear arsenals and in conditions of non-nuclear high precision weapons development and ballistic missile defence, such strikes become more likely. Thus, the immediate readiness to enemies’ nuclear launches (high level of survival) can guarantee the security.


Today the immediate readiness of Russia and United States to launch nuclear strike makes those conceptions unrealistic. The possibility of counterforce strike increases many times in case of decreasing the readiness of nuclear arsenals. The nuclear forces requiring long time preparation have a low level of survivability. This cannot increase the security of our country and European security in general.