For weeks now I have been getting panicked emails with readers asking me whether the USA had developed a special technology called “super fuses” which would make it possible for the USA to successfully pull-off a (preemptive) disarming first strike against Russia. Super-fuses were also mentioned in combination with an alleged lack by Russia of a functioning space-based infrared early warning system giving the Russians less time to react to a possible US nuclear attack.
While there is a factual basis to all this, the original report already mislead the reader with a shocking title “How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze” and by offering several unsubstantiated conclusions. Furthermore, this original report was further discussed by many observers who simply lack the expertise to understand what the facts mentioned in the report really mean. Then the various sources started quoting each other and eventually this resulted in a completely baseless “super fuse scare”. Let’s try to make some sense of all this.
Understanding nuclear strikes and their targets
To understand what really has taken place I need to first define a couple of crucial terms:
- Hard-target kill capability: this refers to the capability of a missile to destroy a strongly protected target such as a underground missile silo or a deeply buried command post.
- Soft-target kill capability: the capability to destroy lightly or unprotected targets.
- Counterforce strike: this refers to a strike aimed at the enemy’s military capabilities.
- Countervalue strike: this refers to a strike on non-military assets such as cities.
Since strategic nuclear missile silos and command posts are well protected and deeply buried, only hard-target kill (HTK) capable missiles can execute a counterforce strike. Soft-target kill (STK) capable systems are therefore usually seen as being the ultimate retaliatory capability to hit the enemies cities. The crucial notion here is that HTK capability is not a function of explosive power, but of accuracy. Yes, in theory, a hugely powerful weapon can compensate to some degree for a lack of accuracy, but in reality both the USA and the USSR/Russia have long understood that the real key to HTK is accuracy.
During the Cold War, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were more accurate than submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) simply because targeting from the surface and from a fixed position was much easier than targeting from inside a submerged and moving submarine. The American were the first to successfully deploy a HTK capable SLBM with their Trident D-5. The Russians have only acquired this capability very recently (with their R-29RMU Sineva SLBM).
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists just a decade ago only 20% of US SLBMs were HTK capable. Now, with the ‘super-fuse’ 100% of US SLBMs are HTK capable. What these super-fuses do is very accurately measure the optimal altitude at which to detonate thereby partially compensating for a lack of accuracy of a non-HTK capable weapon. To make a long story short, these super-fuses made all US SLBMs HTK capable.
Does that matter?
Yes and no. What that means on paper is that the US has just benefited from a massive increase in the number of US missiles with HTK capability. Thus, the US has now a much larger missile force capable of executing a disarming counterforce strike. In reality, however, things are much more complicated than that.
Understanding counterforce strikes
Executing a disarming counterforce strike against the USSR and, later, Russia has been an old American dream. Remember Reagan’s “Star Wars” program? The idea behind it was simple: to develop the capability to intercept enough incoming Soviet warheads to protect the USA from a retaliatory Soviet counter strike. It would work something like this: destroy, say, 70% of the Soviet ICBM/SLBMs and intercept the remaining 30% before they can reach the USA. This was total nonsense both technologically (the technology did not exist) and strategically (just a few Soviet “leakers” could wipe-out entire US cities, who could take such a risk?). The more recent US deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe has exactly the same purpose – to protect the USA from a retaliatory counterstrike. Without going into complex technical discussions, let’s just say that this point in time, this system would never protect the USA from anything. But in the future, we could imagine such a scenario
1) The USA and Russia agree to further deep cuts in their nuclear strategic forces thereby dramatically reducing the total number of Russian SLBM/ICBMs.
2) The USA deploys all around Russia anti-ballistic systems which can catch and destroy Russian missiles in the early phase of their flight towards the USA.
3) The USA also deploys a number of systems in space or around the USA to intercept any incoming Russian warhead.
4) The USA having a very large HTK-capable force executes a successful counterforce strike destroying 90% (or so) of the Russian capabilities and then the rest are destroyed during their flight.
This is the dream. It will never work. Here is why:
1) The Russians will not agree to deep cuts in their nuclear strategic forces
2) The Russians already have deployed the capability to destroy the forward deployed US anti-ballistic system in Europe.
3) Russian warheads and missiles are now maneuverable and can even use any trajectory, including over the South Pole, to reach the USA. New Russian missiles have a dramatically shorter and faster first stage burn period making them much harder to intercept.
4) Russia’s reliance on ballistic missiles will be gradually replaced with strategic (long-range) cruise missiles (more about that later)
5) This scenario mistakenly assumes that the USA will know where the Russian SLBM launching submarines will be when they launch and that they will be able to engage them (more about that later)
6) This scenario completely ignores the Russian road-mobile and rail-mobile ICBMs (more about that later)
Before explaining points 4, 5 and 6 above, I need to mention another important fact: one missile can carry either one single warhead or several (up to 12 and more). When a missile carries several independently targetable warheads it is called MIRVed as in “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle”.
MIRVs are important for several reasons. First, one single missile with 10 warheads can, in theory, destroy 10 different targets. Alternatively, one single missile can carry, say 3-4 real warheads and 6-7 decoys. In practical terms what look like one missile on take-off can turn into 5 real warheads, all targeted at different objectives and another 5 fake decoys designed to make interception that more difficult. MIRVs, however, also present a big problem: they are lucrative targets. If with one of “my” nuclear warheards I can destroy 1 of “your” MIRVed missiles, I lose 1 warhead but you lose 10. This is one of the reasons the USA is moving away from land-based MIRVed ICBMs.
The important consideration here is that Russia has a number of possible options to chose from and how many of her missiles will be MIRVed is impossible to predict. Besides, all US and Russian SLBMs will remain MIRVed for the foreseeable future (de-MIRVing SLBMs make no sense, really, since the entire nuclear missile carrying submarine (or SSBN) is a gigantic MIRVed launching pad by definition).
In contrast to MIRVed missile, single warheads missiles are very bad targets to try to destroy using nuclear weapons: even if “my” missile destroys “yours” we both lost 1 missile each. What is the point? Worse, if I have to use 2 of “mine” to make really sure that “yours” is really destroyed, my strike will result in me using 2 warheads in exchange for only 1 of yours. This makes no sense at all.
Finally, in retaliatory countervalue strikes, MIRVed ICBM/SLBMs are a formidable threat: just one single R-30 Bulava (SS-N-30) SLBM or one single R-36 Voevoda (SS-18) ICBM can destroy ten American cities. Is that a risk worth taking? Say the USA failed to destroy one single Borei-class SSBN – in theory that could mean that this one SSBN could destroy up to 200 American cities (20 SLBMs with 10 MIRVs each). How is that for a risk?
Contrasting the US and Russian nuclear triad
Strategic nuclear weapons can be deployed on land, in the oceans or delivered by aircraft. This is called the “nuclear triad”. I won’t discuss the aircraft based part of the US and Russian triads here, as they don’t significantly impact the overall picture and because they are roughly comparable. The sea and land based systems and their underlying strategies could not be any more different. At sea, the USA has had HTK capabilities for many years now and the US decided to hold the most important part of the US nuclear arsenal in SSBNs. In contrast, the Russians chose to develop road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles. The very first one was the RT-2PM Topol (SS-25) deployed in 1985, followed by the T-2PM2 «Topol-M» (SS-27) deployed in 1997 and the revolutionary RT-24 Yars or Topol’-MR (SS-29) deployed in 2010 (the US considered deployed road-mobile strategic missiles, but never succeeded in developing the technology).
The Russians are also deploying rail-mobile missiles called RT-23 Molodets (SS-24) and are about to deploy a newer version called RS-27 Barguzin (SS-31?). This is what they look like:
Russian road mobile and rail mobile ICBMs
SSBNs and road and rail mobile missiles all have two things in common: they are mobile and they rely on concealment for survival as neither of them can hope to survive. The SSBN hides in the depths of the ocean, the road-mobile missile launcher drives around the immense Russian expanses and can hide, literally, in any forest. As for the rail-mobile missile train, it hides by being completely indistinguishable from any other train on the huge Russian railroad network (even from up close it is impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is a regular freight train or a missile launching special train). To destroy these systems, accuracy is absolutely not enough: you need to find them and you need to find them before they fire their missiles. And that is, by all accounts, quite impossible.
The Russian Navy likes to keep its SSBNs either under the polar ice-cap or in so-called “bastions” such as the Sea of Okhotsk. While these are not really “no-go” zones for US attack submarines (SSN), they are extremely dangerous areas where the Russian Navy has a huge advantage over the US (if only because the US attack submarine cannot count on the support of surface ships or aircraft). The US Navy has some of the best submarines on the planet and superbly trained crews, but I find the notion that US SSNs could find and destroy all Russian SSBNs before the latter can launch unlikely in the extreme.
As for the land-based rail-mobile and road-mobile missiles, they are protected by Russian Air Defenses which are the most advanced on the planet, not the kind of airspace the US would want to send B-53, B-1 or B-2 bombers in. But most importantly, these missiles are completely hidden so even if the USA could somehow destroy them, it would failed to find enough of them to make a first disarming strike a viable option. By the way, the RS-24 has four MIRVs (make that 4 US cities) while the RS-27 will have between 10 and 16 (make that another 10 to 16 US cities vaporized).
Looking at geography and cruise missiles
Finally, let’s take a look at geography and cruise missiles. Two Russian cruise missiles are especially important to us: the Kh-102 and the 3M-14K(?):
||Aircraft, ship, container
What is important with these two cruise missiles is that the KH-102 has a huge range and that the KM-14K can be fired from aircraft, ships and even containers. Take a look at this video which shows the capabilities of this missile:
Now consider where the vast majority of US cities are located – right along the East and West coasts of the USA and the fact that the US has no air defenses of any kind protecting them. A Russian strategic bomber could hit any West Coast city from the middle of the Pacific ocean. As for a Russian submarine, it could hit any US city from the middle of the Atlantic. Finally, the Russians could conceal an unknown number of cruise missile in regular looking shipping container (flying a Russian flag or, for that matter, any other flag) and simply sail to the immediate proximity to the US coast and unleash a barrage of nuclear cruise missiles.
How much reaction time would such a barrage give the US government?
Understanding reaction time
It is true that the Soviet and Russian space-based early warning system is in bad shape. But did you know that China never bothered developing such a space based system in the first place? So what is wrong with the Chinese, are they stupid, technologically backward or do they know something we don’t?
To answer that question we need to look at the options facing a country under nuclear missile attack. The first option is called “launch on warning”: you see the incoming missiles and you press the “red button” (keys in reality) to launch your own missiles. That is sometimes referred to as “use them or lose them”. The next option is “launch on strike”: you launch all you got as soon as a nuclear strike on your territory is confirmed. And, finally, there is the “retaliation after ride-out“: you absorb whatever your enemy shot at you, then take a decision to strike back. What is obvious is that China has adopted, whether by political choice or due to limitation in space capabilities, either a “launch on strike” or a “retaliation after ride-out” option. This is especially interesting since China possesses relatively few nuclear warheads and even fewer real long range ICBMs .
Contrast that with the Russians who have recently confirmed that they have long had a “dead hand system” called “Perimetr” which automatically ascertains that a nuclear attack has taken place and then automatically launches a counterstrike. That would be a “launch on strike” posture, but it is also possible that Russia has a double-posture: she tries to have the capability to launch on warning, but double-secures herself with an automated “dead hand” “launch on strike” capability.
Take a look at this estimate of worldwide stocks of strategic nuclear warheads: While China is credited with only 260 warheads, Russia still has a whopping 7,000 warheads. And a “dead hand” capability. And yet China feels confident enough to announce a “no first use” policy. How can they say that with no space-based nuclear missile launch detection capability?
Many will say that the Chinese wished they had more nukes and a space-based based nuclear missile launch detection capability, but that their current financial and technological means simply do not allow that. Maybe. But my personal guess is that they realize that even their very minimal force represents a good enough deterrent for any potential aggressor. And they might have a point.
Let me ask you this: how many US generals and politicians would be willing to sacrifice just one major US city in order to disarm China or Russia? Some probably would. But I sure hope that the majority would realize that the risk will always remain huge.
For one thing, modern nuclear warfare has, so far, only been “practiced” only on paper and with computers (and thank God for that!)? So nobody *really* knows for sure how a nuclear war would play itself out. The only thing which is certain is that just the political and economic consequences of it would be catastrophic and totally unpredictable. Furthermore, it remains very unclear how such a war could be stopped short of totally destroying one side. The so-called “de-escalation” is a fascinating concept, but so far nobody has really figured this out. Finally, I am personally convinced that both the USA and Russia have more than enough survivable nuclear weapons to actually decide to ride out a full-scale enemy attack. That is the one big issue which many well-meaning pacifist never understood: it is a good thing that “the USA and Russia have the means to blow-up the world ten times over” simply because even one side succeeded in destroying, say, 95% of the US or Russian nuclear forces, the remaining 5% would be more than enough to wipe-out the attacking side in a devastating countervalue attack. If Russia and the USA each had, say, only 10 nuclear warheads then the temptation to try to take them out would be much higher.
This is scary and even sick, but having a lot of nuclear weapons is safer from a “first-strike stability” point of view than having few. Yes, we do live in a crazy world.
Consider that in times of crisis both the US and Russia would scramble their strategic bombers and keep them in the air, refueling them when needed, for as long as needed to avoid having them destroyed on the ground. So even if the USA destroyed ALL Russian ICBM/SLBMs, there would be quite a few strategic bombers in holding patterns in staging areas which could be given the order to strike. And here we reach one last crucial concept:
Counterforce strikes require a lot of HTK capable warheads. The estimates by both sides are kept secret, of course, but we are talking over 1000 targets on each side at least listed, if not actually targeted. But a countervalue strike would require much less. The US has only 10 cities with over one million people. Russia has only 12. And, remember, in theory one warhead is enough for one city (that is not true, but for all practical purposes it is). Just look what 9/11 did to the USA and imagine of, say, “only” Manhattan had been truly nuked. You can easily imagine the consequences.
Conclusion 1: super-fuses are not really that super at all
The super-fuses scare is so overblown that it is almost an urban legend. The fact is that even if all the US SLBMs are now HTK capable and even if Russia does not have a functional space-based missile launch detection capability (she is working on a new one, by the way), this in no way affects the fundamental fact that there is nothing, nothing at all, that the USA could come up with to prevent Russia from obliterating the USA in a retaliatory strike. The opposite is also true, the Russians have exactly zero hope of nuking the USA and survive the inevitable US retaliation.
The truth is that as far back as the early 1980s Soviet (Marshal Ogarkov) and US specialists had already come to the conclusion that a nuclear war was unwinnable. In the past 30 years two things have dramatically changed the nature of the game: first, an increasing number of conventional weapons have become comparable in their effects to small nuclear weapons and cruise missiles have become vastly more capable. The trend today is for low-RCS (stealth) long range hypersonic cruise missiles and maneuvering ICBM warheads which will make it even harder to detect and intercept them. Just think about it: if the Russians fired a cruise missile volley from a submarine say, 100km off the US coast, how much reaction time will the US have? Say that these low-RCS missile would begin flying at medium altitude being for all practical purpose invisible to radar, infra-red and even sound, then lower themselves down to 3-5 m over the Atlantic and then accelerate to a Mach 2 or Mach 3 speed. Sure, they will become visible to radars once they crosses the horizon, but the remaining reaction time would be measured in seconds, not minutes. Besides, what kind of weapon system could stop that missile type of anyway? Maybe the kind of defenses around a US aircraft carrier (maybe), but there is simply nothing like that along the US coast.
As for ballistic missile warheads, all the current and foreseeable anti-ballistic systems rely on calculations for a non-maneuvering warhead. Once the warheads begin to make turns and zig-zag, then the computation needed to intercept them become harder by several orders of magnitude. Some Russian missiles, like the R-30 Bulava, can even maneuver during their initial burn stage, making their trajectory even harder to estimate (and the missile itself harder to intercept).
The truth is that for the foreseeable future ABM systems will be much more expensive and difficult to build then ABM-defeating missiles. Also, keep in mind that an ABM missile itself is also far, far more expensive than a warhead. Frankly, I have always suspected that the American obsession with various types of ABM technologies is more about giving cash to the Military Industrial Complex and, at best, developing new technologies useful elsewhere.
Conclusion 2: the nuclear deterrence system remains stable, very stable
At the end of WWII, the Soviet Union’s allies, moved by the traditional western love for Russia, immediately proceeded to plan for a conventional and a nuclear war against the Soviet Union (see Operation Unthinkable and Operation Dropshot). Neither plan was executed, the western leaders were probably rational enough not to want to trigger a full-scale war against the armed forces which had destroyed roughly 80% of the Nazi war machine. What is certain, however, is that both sides fully understood that the presence of nuclear weapons profoundly changed the nature of warfare and that the world would never be the same again: for the first time in history all of mankind faced a truly existential threat. As a direct result of this awareness, immense sums of money were given to some of the brightest people on the planet to tackle the issue of nuclear warfare and deterrence. This huge effort resulted in an amazingly redundant, multi-dimensional and sophisticated system which cannot be subverted by any one technological breakthrough. There is SO much redundancy and security built into the Russian and American strategic nuclear forces that a disarming first strike is all but impossible, even if we make the most unlikely and far-fetched assumptions giving one side all the advantages and the other all the disadvantages. For most people it is very hard to wrap their heads around such a hyper-survivable system, but both the USA and Russia have run hundreds and even thousands of very advanced simulations of nuclear exchanges, spending countless hours and millions of dollars trying to find a weak spot in the other guy’s system, and each time the result was the same: there is always enough to inflict an absolutely cataclysmic retaliatory counter-strike.
Conclusion 3: the real danger to our common future
The real danger to our planet comes not from a sudden technological breakthrough which would make nuclear war safe, but from the demented filled minds of the US Neocons who believe that they can bring Russia to heel in a game of “nuclear chicken”. These Neocons have apparently convinced themselves that making conventional threats against Russia, such as unilaterally imposing no-fly zones over Syria, does not bring us closer to a nuclear confrontation. It does.
The Neocons love to bash the United Nations in general, and the veto power of the Permanent Five (P5) at the UN Security Council, but they apparently forgot the reason why this veto power was created in the first place: to outlaw any action which could trigger a nuclear war. Of course, this assumes that the P5 all care about international law. Now that the USA has clearly become a rogue state whose contempt for international law is total, there is no legal mechanism left to stop the US from committing actions which endanger the future of mankind. This is what is really scary, not “super-fuses”.
What we are facing today is a nuclear rogue state run by demented individuals who, steeped in a culture of racial superiority, total impunity and imperial hubris, are constantly trying to bring us closer to a nuclear war. These people are not constrained by anything, not morals, not international law, not even common sense or basic logic. In truth, we are dealing with a messianic cult every bit as insane as the one of Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler and like all self-worshiping crazies they profoundly believe in their invulnerability.
It is the immense sin of the so-called “Western world” that it let these demented individuals take control with little or no resistance and that now almost the entire western society lack the courage to even admit that it surrendered itself to what I can only call a satanic cult. Alexander Solzhenitsyn prophetic words spoken in 1978 have now fully materialized:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life (Harvard Speech, 1978)
Five years later, Solzhenitsyn warned us again saying,
To the ill-considered hopes of the last two centuries, which have reduced us to insignificance and brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death, we can propose only a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned. Only in this way can our eyes be opened to the errors of this unfortunate twentieth century and our hands be directed to setting them right. There is nothing else to cling to in the landslide: the combined vision of all the thinkers of the Enlightenment amounts to nothing. Our five continents are caught in a whirlwind. But it is during trials such as these that the highest gifts of the human spirit are manifested. If we perish and lose this world, the fault will be ours alone.
We have been warned, but will we heed that warning?