09 September 2019

After the New START, deliberated steps towards chaos and apocalypse

Mircea Mocanu

Give the expiry date of the New START, things like a future arms race out of treaty’s limit and checks should be considered. Among the possible future actions, we can think of nuclear race’s first actions, as well as other evolutions likely to happen if the New START provisions will end.

Image source: Mediafax

On how to approach the New START treaty’s expiry date

After professor Nicolae Iancu presented, in a previous article, the history and current realities of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, DSM published an analysis wherein was presenting four possible actions, if this treaty will end in February 2021:

- extending the treaty or the action within the New START treaty;

-abandoning the current treaty and start a new one through negotiation;

- the scenario under apocalypse’s spectrum- abandoning New START without another agreement, hence, the escalation of an arms race;

-chaos before the apocalypse: spectacular effects of New START treaty’s demise, other than uncontrolled nuclear race.

If in the above mentioned articles we have addressed two of the possible evolutions, we will be now analyzing the other two. Both evolutions are regarded from an uncontrolled nuclear race perspective, as consequence of New START’s treaty demise, without agreeing on another agreement to continue its role in a format that it matching the technological and geopolitical realities. Concretely, the end of this treaty means that, for the first time in 50 years, there will be no other international law character to limit US and Russia’s nuclear arsenals. Although the New START did not limit/control all nuclear arms categories, it was “providing us some level of assurance that there are at least a portion of their (Russia’s) nuclear forces that are capped”, as the vice-admiral David Kriete, STRATCOM's deputy commander, was saying, on July 31st.  Essentially, the New START allows both states to have maximum 1550 nuclear strategic warheads, installed on maximum 700 heavy bombers assigned to nuclear missions. Strategic nuclear warheads are those operationalized on intercontinental ballistic missiles, installed on land, maritime (submarines-SLBM) or aircraft (strategic bombers-ALBM) launchers.

Given Washington’s perspective on a post-New START world, eight important US Democratic Party members, experienced in the security field, have sent President Donald Trump a letter, on June 2019, wherein they have addressed him seven questions on White House’s policy and solutions in nuclear arms control.  Also to that end, Pentagon’s Center for Naval Analyses has published a study, since March 2019, which estimates risks and available solutions for a post-New START world. We will be analyzing some of these documents’ aspects, as well as other options and consequences.

Russia’s options for a nuclear arms race escalation

The worst possible scenario is, indeed, US and Russia’s escalation of an arms race with (and not limited to) nuclear strategic armament.

Currently, Moscow still has less than 1550 nuclear strategic missiles, hence, it could operationalize some other ICBMs, under treaty’s limits. Washington’s recent critics are not only targeting the limits established by the New START, but also the increased asymmetry that Russia created by developing under-strategic arms, which are not regulated by the treaty (furthermore, US wants a new international agreement, to include China as well).

Broadly, Russia’s course, after the New START will be ended, is quite predictable: continue the nuclear race with all of its resources. However, firstly, all of its efforts will go in the technological fields, which are not, yet, under treaty’s limits. Indeed, Moscow will continue the quick operationalization of new ICBMs, however, it will focus on new arms, as these may not be able to be counteracted with US’s current anti-missile defence systems. Hence, using new arms, which can counter the American anti-missile defence, will prevail on using classic ballistic missiles, which could be taken down. But, some more ICBMs won’t do any harm, right?

However, Kremlin does faces some limits, which are the financial and technological ones, and were proved in the recent history, after Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (the so-called “Star Wars”). Now, in terms of Moscow’s miraculous arms’ creation, there are some limitative estimations: according to CNBC, the American intelligence services are saying that Russia cannot produce more than 60 Avangard missiles (hypersonic glider vehicles). The reason behind all of this is that Russians cannot create/get some of the carbon fiber components, which are indispensable for getting over the issue related to hypersonic speed maneuvering and have no alternative solutions for it. Still, are 60 too little? Which would be the “normal” number?

Another problem Moscow faces comes from the Russian Federation’s Military Doctrine (2014 version). This document mentions that “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against her and (or) her allies, and in a case of an aggression against her with conventional weapons that would put in danger the very existence of the state.” Of course, is not that clear which are Russia’s allies that Moscow cannot use nuclear arms against. Still, it is also important to note that Moscow has the right to use nuclear arms first, in case of a conventional conflict. In fact, all large exercises developed recently by Russia’s armed forces shows that the Russian military planners are using conventional conflicts’ escalation scenarios up to “someone” thinking that the Russian “state’s existence is threatened”. As this limit is, obviously, arbitrary, the nuclear disaster is in one person’s hands only, and that would be President Vladimir Putin himself.

US’s options after the New START treaty will expire

American analysts are considering two possible options for Washington. Firstly, the normal reaction would be hastening the nuclear race by operationalizing new ICBMs, to keep up with Russia’s most likely option and even overcome the level the Russians are reaching. They are also considering adding new nuclear missile on Ohio submarines. This would be the most common option, joining the race. There are still some financial obstacles on the modernization and increase of the nuclear strategic missiles production. To that end, general-lieutenant (in reserve) Frank Klotz, former nuclear security under-secretary in the US Energy Department and former US Air Forces Global Strike Command commander, has already expressed his perspective, on July 11.

The concern over a lack of perspective on winning the arms race emerged since the beginning of the nuclear era: during the Harry Truman presidency, the president of the US Atomic Energy Committee, David Lilienthal, stated: “More and better bombs. Where will this lead … is difficult to see. We keep saying “we have no other course”; what we should say is “we are not bright enough to see any other course”. Unfortunately, humans are doing everything to make “other courses” less.

Secondly, given that the current nuclear arms race level somehow ensures mutual destruction, following deterrence’s equilibrium logic, Washington can choose not to join this nuclear race. Precisely, US could keep its strategic nuclear arsenal and the planned modernizations under New START treaty’s limits, given that the current arms are ensuring the necessary deterrence, even if Moscow will massively stop the number of strategic nuclear missiles. This way, if Russia would start and attack over US, the Russian missiles would hit the already known location of American strategic weapons. Hence, Washington could counteract with around 450 nuclear warheads, placed on Ohio submarines, which are patrolling in oceans’ depths, whose location cannot be easily found. This option is, however, questioning “why would US give up the New START treaty, if it would then choose to fully respect it, even unilaterally?”

Military planners are educated to think things better, but the cynicism of vague estimations distances the decision-makers from the human perception about on the effects of an apparently minor event, but that could lead to catastrophic consequences, through the "butterfly effect". In the Romanian urban folklore, it is the case of the joke about the two patrolling police men, who find three artisanal bombs, and the conscientious one says "Let's take them to the police section", and the prudent one warns "Wait, what if one of them blows up?” and the other one answers: "It’s ok, will only say we found two!"

Now, getting to serious issues, not escalating the nuclear race (at least, from a quantitative perspective), leads to intensifying the defensive measures. This direction action was already initiated, through the anti-ballistic missile systems, and Romania already has installed such a system, in Deveselu. Therefore, Kremlin insists on including the defensive systems in any discussion on offensive arms. Also, this is the reason why Moscow tries to develop target transport systems to strike the anti-ballistic defence.

New START treaty’s checks regime

If the New START treaty will end, the concern that the enemy will operate more warheads is increased by the uncertainty on any development related to it, because, once the limitation of nuclear warheads number will end, New START’s verification system established also ceases.

The verification regime established by New START is remarkably detailed and rigorous and includes data exchanges, previous notifications of activities and on-site inspections. Twice a year, the United States and Russia briefly inform each other on operational strategic warheads’ total number, how many are installed on ground launchers (ICBM) and submarines (SLBM), as well as the number of warheads installed on target transport vehicles / vectors, in each ICBM or SLBM base. Also, the signatory sides must inform each other, 48 hours in advance, about any new ballistic missiles that are to leave the production plant, and then communicate where the respective warhead will go and, additionally, if and when it is installed on its launcher (operationalization). This type of information is also communicated if a missile is being downgraded, and the other signatory side can technically verify the firing of that missile. Thus, the United States and Russia can carry out up to 18 inspections per year of nuclear facilities owned by the other party. As a result, by the middle of this year, the Russians conducted ten inspections, eight Americans and 18,352 notifications were exchanged between Washington and Moscow.

The value of the New START verification regime was emphasized by Vice Admiral Kriete as follows: “a very robust verification system. From a military perspective, those verification procedures the U.S. can deploy all the time ensures the U.S. STRATCOM excellent information about Russia's capabilities, figures and other information associated with their nuclear weapons. We want that information to continue. If, for one reason or another, we lose this information in the future, we will have to find other ways to fill in the gaps in the information now provided by these checks."

So, to make up for the lack of information now provided through the New START’s verification system, U.S. and Russia will have to gather information that the other party will seek to hide. The mentioned CNA report comments on the situation: “In the absence of transparent cooperation practices established by New START, the intelligence community will probably allocate more resources for monitoring Russia's strategic nuclear forces. But it will have less information and a lower [probably] trust in the performed analyzes. The United States will face unplanned costs, required to redirect limited technical systems, such as satellites, as well as analysts experienced in other missions. Also, Russian policymakers will enter an uncertainty sphere and lose the ability to confirm that US does not change New START reductions’ meaning. None of these countries will have the same confidence in its ability to assess other’s warheads number... On long term, both countries will face greater uncertainty about each other's strategic nuclear forces and their operations”.

Can now monitoring satellites be attacked?

Among the intelligence resources used for ballistic and nuclear developments’ supplementary control there are also the espionage satellites (early monitoring and warning), euphemistically called National Technical Means (NTM). As these are created in big technical systems placed in the public space (cosmic space), NTM got the attention of arms control concerns. Hence, the New START treaty has (vague) provisions prohibiting the interference with monitoring satellites of the other signatory side. But the New START and the previous treaties on nuclear arms reduction do not clearly define which are these NTM protected by international agreements, and the US and Russia tacitly included almost all enemy’s side satellites in this category. This honorable perception could be changed, however, if the political and military tensions will increase. On the other hand, treaties are not defining the “interference” term related to possible actions on enemy’s satellites, even outside the kinetical action.

Considering issue’s lawful analysis perspective, the prohibition to interfere in other states’ satellites operations is provided in two more international treaties - the Outer Space Treaty (OST), signed in 1967, as well as the Convention and the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The first one, OST, does not explicitly provide the prohibition, but implicitly, in Article 9, while the ITU convention explicitly mentions the prohibition of "harmful interference" with satellites’ operation, and even establishes a dispute resolution mechanism, but the treaty is dedicated to telecommunication satellites. However, none of them explicitly mentions the NTM satellites, which are for military use, and are dedicated to gathering information on other side’s strategic weapons.

To that end, expert Michael Gleason, from the Aerospace Corporation's Center for Space Policy and Strategy, stated on July 15, 2019, at the George Washington University Space Policies Institute, that the demise of the NTM interference ban could lead to "a changed strategic context for the space community in the field of national security”. The operational situation referred to implies that all satellites that are part of the intelligence (surveillance and warning) and decision chain (command and control) for the launch of strategic nuclear ballistic missiles are likely becoming targets, in a combat situation, for enemy’s disruptive or destructive action. This vulnerability’s effect is increasing the probability of "misunderstanding, misinterpretation or destruction of the operational reasoning", which obviously causes the strategic stability and security’s decrease in outer space, in general.

Given the circumstances, there has already been a recent hostile interference increase in satellites’ operation: this is Russia's action case on some navigation satellites signals from the GPS constellation in Syria, then in Norway and Finland, the last ones during NATO exercises, in November 2018. The GPS signals’ jamming in northern Europe’s case has affected not only the military systems used in military exercises, but also civilian equipment on passenger planes’ board, different vehicles, ships, mobile phones and other devices. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has published, in January 2019, the report "Challenges to Security in Space", related to the aspects above. On the other hand, the U.S. Transports Department is already working, together with the National Security Department and the Defence Department, on solutions to protect GPS system’s civil receptors and provide the necessary redundancy in case of a disconnection. But, until now, no country has interfered with NTM satellites’ functioning, and no country has claimed such a hostile action. So far.

Regarding possible interferences with NTM, a study published in 2017, by the Center for a New American Security, draws attention to the ever-increasing integration of counter-space technologies and cyber-attacks within United States and Russia’s arsenals. These developments lead to risks that have major impact and erode these two countries’ strategic stability. As in all countries the armament systems’ dependence on the information technology (IT) increases, so does the presumption of a lower risk when using nonlethal, non-kinetic methods. That is why are being developed cyber capabilities and action in the electromagnetic field, both offering an uncertainty that hides the hostile action’s author identity. Both fields are also development directions of anti-satellite weapons, as France has recently announced the start of anti-satellite laser-based weapon development. This way, new IT technologies are endangering the nuclear strategic stability.

The major danger is that such interference can immediately happen after New START ceases, which is exactly when both countries need information on their opponent's strategic nuclear weapons. On the other hand, after New START treaty’s demise, any event that can be perceived as interfering with the operation of an NTM satellite can then be interpreted by analysts and policymakers as the start of planning a hidden nuclear development. Among the developments in nuclear security there is, unfortunately, also a surprise nuclear attack. Thus, security situation’s complexity increases a lot with the growing chaos and uncertainty, and military planners will be forced to operate considering the worst case scenario. That would be chaos’s description, just before anyone presses the "red button", which is, before the nuclear confrontation’s apocalypse.

Historically speaking, the Soviet Union did not accept US observation satellites’ flyover on its territory until the 1972 negotiations on the SALT I treaty and, simultaneously, the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. Of course, Moscow could return to this stance after New START ends. However, we can hardly assume that Russia would destroy the US NTM satellites just because this defensive line becomes much more important after New START verification regime end. Neither party may see the attack on its own NTM as a casus belli, the clue on strategic nuclear attack imminence, the “red line” that neither Russia nor the United States can cross over regarding incidents. At least this is what the educated decision makers in treaties’ era would think.

Broadly, it is worth noting that Beijing has never considered NTM banning interference’s provisions apply to itself, and a DIA report reveals that "China's Liberation Army documents suggest that reconnaissance, communications, and navigation satellites and early warning can be attacks’ targets, meant to blind and stun the enemy.” And when the vital security interest of a great power is seriously endangered, that state’s supreme authorities are probably willing to risk the subsequent trial for violating a treaty. 

Bittersweet conclusions

In the 50’s, no one thought we will ever need more than 60 nuclear bombs, because there were not that many targets! Also, even in the 50’s, Albert Einstein, was saying that “The idea of achieving security through national armament is, at the present state of military technique [1950-1960], a disastrous illusion. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., originally supposed to be a preventive measure, assumes hysterical character.” However, as the time passes by, humankind got used to nuclear missiles’ number increase with nuclear proliferation and the idea of a mutual annihilation and, as a “secondary effect”, earth’s destruction.

Despite the unfortunate trivialization of the apocalyptic perspective of a world without nuclear guns control treaties, for now, we cannot but be happy that policy makers have avoided a nuclear holocaust, but the nuclear nightmare cannot disappear from people’s concerns. In fact, threatening with using strategic nuclear missiles is most likely to happen than their effective use, and because it brings more benefits within negotiations and supports the hybrid war through the nuclear power substance that allow states to deploy unsanctioned actions in hybrid war’s  panoply. Hence, it seems that we will continue to live under nuclear apocalypse’s spectrum, but the clouds will be closer to land, and the thunders closer to us.

At the same time, the flipside shows that we can hope that progress in the anti-missile field will outweigh the advance in offensive systems’ development that breaks through the anti-missile defense. If Moscow insists on including defensive systems in any new negotiations, this can only eventually lead to defensive systems’ control (!), the defense possibilities’ limitation, so that to be less missile defense. And, we would all be glad to "proliferate" the missile defense, not the offensive weapons. Maybe humanity needs a treaty that forces countries to invest in anti-ballistic defence or an anti-ballistic defence race.

The other analyzed perspective is the interference restriction cessation in satellites’ functioning that are ensuring, now, the completion of data provided by mutual checks, following the regime established by the New START treaty.  Hence, after February 5, 2021, the interdiction to limit or ban enemy’s NTM satellites’ activity will end, for the first time in 50 years.

Obviously, if that happens, the military intelligence services in the United States and Russia will have to bring additional resources for information collection and their analysis, possibly through transferring funds from other fields. Following the prevention principle, this is probably already being considered by intelligence planners, especially given the new weapons Russia (and China) announced. As we have shown in the previous article, time’s pressure has a double effect: as the deadline approaches, February 5, 2021, decision makers’ attention will surely turn to adaptation measures to a world without any nuclear strategic arms control treaty, and less and less to how to extend the New START or negotiate a new one.

On the other hand, increased mutual hostility through treaty’s cessation will also increase the probability of interpreting these treaties’ ambiguity in a biased and difficult to counter-argument. Therefore, beyond the nuclear spectrum, it is more likely and more urgent that global security can be affected by military satellite constellations’ insecurity. If the "anti-war" propaganda strongly blamed the spy satellites idea, it seems, however, that they have made and still make an essential contribution to planet Earth’s security. The problem is that, in terms of anti-satellite weapons, it is easier for hostile states to carry out procedures to obstruct the opposing satellites, which are below the level that can be identified and charged by the targeted party. Thus, it can lead to instability generated by the permanent danger of surveillance and early warning satellites’ operation, why not?, unidentified entities, particular hackers, green men operating keyboards in always moving locations.    

Therefore, even if nuclear apocalypse can be avoided or postposed day by day, it is probably a chaos created by the instability of satellites’ functioning, dedicated to help avoiding a nuclear catastrophe.