Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn't really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

It caused quite a stir today when it was announced that the Russians had accidentally released some details of a proposed submersible weapons system (the Status-6, or Статус-6 in Russian) when television coverage of a conference among defense chiefs broadcast a document being held by one of the participants. This was first brought to my attention by a BBC story, Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV ‘leak’. The BBC story led me to Russia may be planning to develop a nuclear submarine drone aimed at ‘inflicting unacceptable damage’ by Jeremy Bender, which in turn led me to Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb? on the Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, which latter includes inks to a television news segment on Youtube, where you can see (at 1:48) the document in question. A comment on the article includes a link to a Russian language media story, Кремль признал случайным показ секретного оружия по Первому каналу и НТВ, that discusses the leak.

This news story is only in its earliest stages, and there are already many conflicting accounts as to exactly what was leaked and what it means. There is also the possibility that the “leak” was intentional, and meant for public consumption, both domestic and international. There is nothing yet on Janes or Stratfor about this, both of which sources I would consider more reliable on defense than the BBC or any mainstream media outlet. There is a story on DefenseOne, Russia: We Didn’t Mean to Show Everyone Our Massive New Nuclear Torpedo, but this seems to be at least partly derivative of the BBC story.

The BBC story suggested the the new Russian torpedo could carry a “dirty bomb,” or possibly a Colbalt bomb, as well as suggesting that it could carry a 100-megaton warhead. These possible warhead configurations constitute the extreme ends of the spectrum of nuclear devices. A “dirty bomb” that is merely a dirty bomb and not a nuclear warhead is a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. Such a device has long been a concern for anti-terrorism policy, because the worry is that it would be easier for terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials than to a nuclear weapon. Scattering radioactive elements in a large urban area would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has been called a “weapon of mass disruption,” as it would doubtless be attended by panic as as the 24/7 news cycle escalated the situation to apocalyptic proportions.

At the other end of the scale of nuclear devices, either a cobalt bomb or a 100-megaton warhead would be considered doomsday weapons, and there are no nation-states in the world today constructing such devices. The USSR made some 50-100 MT devices, most famously the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated, but no longer produces these weapons and is unlikely to retain any in its stockpile. It was widely thought that these enormous weapons were intended as “counterforce” assets, as, given the technology of the time (i.e., the low level of accuracy of missiles at this time), it would have required a warhead of this size to take out a missile silo on the other side of the planet. The US never made such large weapons, but its technology was superior, so if the US was also building counterforce missiles at this time, they could have gotten by with smaller yields. The US arsenal formerly included significant numbers of the B53, with a yield of about 9 MT, and before that the B41, with a yield of about 25 MT, but the US dismantled the last B53 in 2011 (cf. The End of a Nuclear Era).

Nuclear weapons today are being miniaturized, and their delivery systems are being given precision computerized guidance systems, so the reasons for building massively destructive warheads the only purpose of which is to participate in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) scenario have disappeared (mostly). A cobalt bomb (as distinct from a dirty bomb, with which it is sometimes confused, as both a dirty bomb and a cobalt bomb can be considered radiological weapons) would be a nuclear warhead purposefully configured to maximize radioactive fallout. In the case of the element cobalt, its dispersal by a nuclear weapon would result in the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, a high intensity gamma ray emitter with a half-life of 5.26 years — remaining highly radioactive for a sufficient period of time that it would likely poison any life that survived the initial blast of the warhead. The cobalt bomb was first proposed by physicist Leó Szilárd in the spirit of a warning as to the direction that nuclear technology could take, ultimately converging upon human extinction, which became a Cold War touchstone (cf. Existential Lessons of the Cold War).

The discussion of the new Russian weapon Status-6 (Статус-6) in terms of dirty bombs, cobalt bombs, and 100 MT warheads is an anachronism. If a major power were to build a new nuclear device today, they would want to develop what have been called fourth generation nuclear weapons, which is an umbrella term to cover a number of innovative nuclear technologies not systematically researched due to both the end of the Cold War and the nuclear test ban treaty. (On the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty cf. The Atomic Age Turns 70) Thus this part of the story so far is probably very misleading, but the basic idea of a nuclear device on a drone submersible is what we need to pay attention to here. This is important.

I am not surprised by this development, because I predicted it. In WMD: The Submersible Vector of January 2011 I suggested the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in drone submersibles, which could then be quietly infiltrated into the harbors of major port cities (or military facilities, although these would be much more difficult to infiltrate stealthily and to keep hidden), there to wait for a signal to detonate. By this method it would be possible to deprive an adversary of major cities, port, and military facilities in one fell swoop. The damage that could be inflicted by such a first strike would be just as devastating as the first strikes contemplated during the Cold War, when first strikes were conceived as a massive strike by ICBMs coming over the pole. Only now, with US air superiority so far in advance of other nation-states, it makes sense to transfer the nuclear strategic strike option to below the world’s oceans. Strategically, this is a brilliant paradigm shift, and one can see a great many possibilities for its execution and the possible counters to such a strategy.

During the Cold War, the US adopted a strategic defense “triad” consisting of nuclear weapons deliverable by ground-based missiles (ICBMs), jet bombers (initially the subsonic B-52, and later supersonic bombers such as the B-1 and B-2), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Later this triad was supplemented by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which represent the beginning of a disruptive change in nuclear strategy, away from massive bombardment to precision strikes.

The Russians depended on ground-based ICBMs, of which they possessed more, but, in the earlier stages of the Cold War Russian ICBMs were rather primitive, subject to failure, and able to carry only a single warhead. As Soviet technology caught up with US technology, and the Russians were able to build reliable missile boats and MIRVs for their ICBMs, the Russians too began to converge upon a triad of strategic defense, adding supersonic bombers (the Tu-22M “Backfire” and then the Tu-160 “Blackjack”) and missile boats to their ground-based missiles. For a brief period of the late Cold War, there was a certain limited nuclear parity that roughly corresponded with détente.

This rough nuclear parity was upset by political events and continuing technological changes, the latter almost always led by the US. An early US lead in computing technology once again led to a generational divide between US and Soviet technology, with the Soviet infrastructure increasingly unable to keep up with technological advances. The introduction of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) threatened to further destabilize nuclear parity, and which in particular was perceived to as a threat to the stability of MAD. Long after the Cold War is over, the US continues to pursue missile defense, which has been a remarkably powerful political tool, but despite several decades of greatly improved technology, cannot deliver on its promises. So SDI upset the applecart of MAD, but still cannot redeem its promissory note. This is an important detail, because the weapons system that the Russians are contemplating with Status-6 (Статус-6) can be built with contemporary technologies. Thus even if the US could extend its air superiority to space, in addition to fielding an effective missile defense system, none of this would be an adequate counter to a Russian submersible strategic weapon, except in a second strike capacity.

As I noted above, there would be many ways in which to build out this submersible drone strategic capability, and many ways to counter it, which suggests the possibility of a new arms race, although this time without Russia being ideologically crippled by communism (which during the Cold War prevented the Soviet Union from achieving parity with western scientific and economic strength). A “slow” strategic capability could be constructed based something like what I described in WMD: The Submersible Vector, involving infiltration and sequestered assets, or a “fast” strategic capability closer to what was revealed in the Russian document that sparked the story about Status-6, in which the submersibles could fan out and position themselves in hours or days. Each of these strategic assets would suggest different counter measures.

What we are now seeing is the familiar Cold War specter of a massive nuclear exchange displaced from our skies into the oceans. If the Russians thought of it, and I thought of it, you can be certain that all the defense think tanks of the world’s major nation-states have thought of it also, and have probably gamed some of the obvious scenarios that could result.

It is time to revive the dying discipline of nuclear strategy, to dust off our old copies of Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War and On Escalation, and to once again think the unthinkable.

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Addendum Added Sunday 15 November 2015: In what way is a nuclear-tipped drone submersible different from a conventional nuclear torpedo? Contemporary miniaturization technology makes it possible to have a precision guided submersible that is very small — small enough that such a weapon might conceivably bury itself in the mud on the bottom of a waterway and so be impossible to detect, even to be visually by divers alerted to search for suspicious objects on the bottom (as presumably happens in military harbors). Also, the Status-6 was given a range of some 6,000 nautical miles, which means that these weapons could be released by a mothership almost anywhere in the world’s oceans, and travel from that point to their respective targets. Such weapons could be dropped from the bottom of a ship, and would not necessarily have to be delivered by submarine. Once the drones were on their way, they would be almost impossible to find because of their small size. The key vulnerability would be the need for some telecommunications signaling to the weapon. If the decision had already been made to strike, and those making the decision were sufficiently confident that they would not change their minds, such drones could be launched programmed to detonate and therefore with no need to a telecommunications link. Alternatively, drones could be launched programmed to detonate, but the detonation could be suppressed by remote command, which would be a one-time signal and not an ongoing telecommunications link to the drone. This presents obvious vulnerabilities as well — what if the detonation suppression signal were blocked? — but any weapons systems will have vulnerabilities. It would be a relatively simple matter to have the device configurable as either fail-safe or fail-deadly, with the appropriate choice made at the time of launch.

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Note Added Saturday 14 November 2015: Since writing the above, an article has appeared on Janes, Russian state TV footage reveals ‘oceanic multi-purpose’ torpedo-based nuclear system, by Bruce Jones, London, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, though it doesn’t add much in addition to what is already known.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Recently in Grand Strategy in the Pacific I discussed the change of command at Pacom — US Pacific Command — and some remarks by the incoming admiral, Samuel J. Locklear III, in an article on the DOD website, Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance.

In the article cited above we find this explicit evocation of transnational threats:

Transnational threats pose another concern and area of emphasis for Pacom. Locklear identified cyber threats as the most daunting, noting the importance of secure networks not only for Pacom’s military operations, but also for regional stability and economic viability.

After a quote on the transnational threat posed by hackers, Admiral Locklear is quoted as follows:

“In the terrorist world, as you squeeze on one side of the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. [Terrorists] look for areas of opportunity. And they find areas of opportunity in places that are disenfranchised, that have poor economies and opportunity to change the mindset of the people looking for a better life but don’t know how to get it.”

The DOD article cites three specific transnational threats: cyber threats, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE previously cited in Grand Strategy in the Pacific cited transnational threats as one of five “Focus Areas” along with “Allies and Partners, China, India, North Korea.” Specifically, the strategic guidance document says this regarding transnational threats:

5. Counter Transnational Threats

i. Work with Allies and partners to build capacity and share information to counter violent extremism, transnational crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
ii. Disrupt violent extremist organization networks and defeat the threats they pose.
iii. Partner with other nations to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies.

The January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, does not mention exactly the same mix of threats found in the Pacom strategic guidance or Admiral Locklear’s remarks, but it does prominently refer to “violent extremists” on page one:

“…violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland. The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of
destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats that could directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

The concern regarding “violent extremists” is repeated on the next page:

“Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states. Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”

While the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document makes no explicit mention of “transnational” threats, in the above discussion of violent extremists these extremist movements are mentioned in conjunction with “non-state threats.” This is a theme that continues later in the same document:

“To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the global commons –– those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms or other anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security.” (p. 3)

Compiling the remarks on particular threats from UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, and the quotes from Admiral Locklear, we get this list of presumably transnational threats:

Cyber threats, cyber espionage, hacking

terrorism, violent extremists, non-state threats

transnational crime, including drug trafficking

WMD proliferation, ballistic missiles, “the diffusion of destructive technology”

While I think few people would argue that these listed transnational threats are serious problems facing the world, and indeed most are recent threats that emerged as strategic trends in the late twentieth century and are only now coming into their own as major threats that could disrupt life and commerce in the major nation-states of the world (being threats to “regional stability and economic viability”), even from a purely conventional standpoint there are some problems with this strategic laundry list. I admire the concision and focus of these strategic guidance documents, but I am troubled by the overall strategic incoherence of the goals outlined.

The threats identified superficially present themselves as appropriate concerns for the world’s powers to seek to counter, but which fail to cohere as a grand strategy. The failure of a grand strategy to be coherent means that efforts can end up being at cross-purposes, dissipating themselves to little effect, meaning in turn that the threats may not be decisively met. Worse yet, if a threat comes under pressure, it will buckle and disappear if it was inconsequential, but if the threat is real and growing, and it meets with just enough pressure to stimulate it, to force its leadership to weld the organization into a disciplined force, a weak and insufficient effort to counter a strategic threat can be worse than no effort at all.

There is no question that transnational crime, especially highly profitable crime such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, often comes together with terrorism, violent extremists, and non-state threats to create a toxic and difficult to eradicate force. Violent extremists have no intrinsic objection to crime, and crime can be employed to pay the bills for ideologically motivated violence. The destabilizing effects of pervasive transnational crime creates further criminal opportunities in an escalating cycle of criminality. It is a legitimate strategic concern that networks of violent criminal elements will traffic in WMD and all manner of destructive technologies, but it must be understood that the primary threat here is trafficking, and not the employment of such technologies.

It is the nature of transnational and non-state threats to be amorphous, flexible, evolving, geographically scattered, unstructured, and non-hierarchical. A transnational or non-state threat holds and defends no territory, has no permanent relations with other political entities, has no formal economy, has no permanent installations, no permanent personnel, and possesses no industrial plant and no infrastructure. It is a pure fantasy to attribute the pursuit of ballistic missile technologies to non-state actors. Ballistic missiles are a large and bulky technology that requires permanent facilities and a substantial industrial plant to produce or operate. It is only slightly less of a fantasy for a non-state entity to acquire WMD. If a non-state entity wanted to acquire WMD, they would seek the smallest, lightest, and most portable instances of WMD, and these would, for obvious technology reasons, be the most advanced versions of the technology, therefore the most difficult to acquire and the most expensive.

Further, the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document speaks of, “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary,” and this of course has great appeal, but is precisely what is most difficult when it comes to transnational and non-state threats. I discussed this previously in The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, where I wrote:

“[A] response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.”

A comprehensive grand strategy is also (ideally) a coherent grand strategy, and there is little either comprehensive or coherent about claiming to target groups with no permanent territory, personnel, assets, infrastructure, or industrial plant. One can expect the ongoing targeted assassinations of key personnel and charismatic leaders, as is currently the case, but the effect of such strikes is limited and local, whereas a truly transnational threat is non-local, non-regional, and non-individual. The criminal and terrorist network will repair itself and go on with its business, since it has little or no structure or hierarchy to destroy.

It is easy to find someone to kill, or a target to bomb, but this approach, if iterated irresponsibly, will do far more harm than good, especially when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Just as Mao said that a guerrilla moves among the people like a fish in sea, so too terrorists and criminals also move among the people like fish in the sea, and when you try to strike back at the moving, amorphous, adapting transnational threat hiding among the people, you hit the people far more often than you hit the threat. And every time you hit the people instead of the terrorist or the criminal, you create new enemies whom the terrorists and criminals will seek to recruit.

On a deeper level, if transnational threats become the all-purpose category of military threat (which seems to be the case here, with ballistic missiles and WMD thrown in the same grab-bag with non-state actors), there is the potential danger of calling any threat a transnational threat, and deriving the converse implication that any transnational movement is a threat. In the long term, such an attitude will serve any nation-state poorly, since one of the major strategic trends of our time is the rise of non-state actors, and not every non-state actor is maleficent. It has been said that, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The danger, then, is seeing every non-state actor as a nail. In a strategic climate of opinion where “transnational” becomes a synonym for “threat,” there is the very real danger of stigmatizing as a threat that which may be the key to future peace and prosperity. And with the growing role of non-state entities in the international system, committing yourself to a course of action of opposing non-state entities means putting yourself in on the losing side of history and taking on a fight you cannot win.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The End of a Nuclear Era

26 October 2011


Yesterday the US dismantled the last B53 nuclear bomb, which was the largest yield nuclear weapon in the US nuclear arsenal, with a yield of about 9 megatons. This was not the highest yield US nuclear weapon ever fielded. This distinction belonged to the B41, with a yield of about 25 megatons. The last B41 was dismantled in July 1976. While the B41 was a very high yield bomb by any measure, it was not the highest yield nuclear device ever built. This distinction belonged to the Soviet-made AN602, commonly known as the Tsar Bomba. The highest yield US bomb ever exploded was the Castle Bravo test, which surprised its builders by an explosion of about 15 megatons, three times the expected yield of 4-6 megatons. The Tsar Bomba was a relatively “clean” bomb, while the B41 was the most efficient production-line nuclear bomb in terms of yield to weight ratio.

The B53 had a very long service life — nearly fifty years. With the end of the B53 we see the symbolic end of an era in strategic nuclear weapons. A bomb like the B53 or the B41 (or the Soviet RDS-9) could have, with a single blast, annihilated a contemporary megalopolis. It is interesting to note that the vastly expanded cities of today began to emerge at about the same time as nuclear weapons were invented, so that in this admittedly bizarre sense, the means of civilization to destroy itself perfectly kept pace with the scope and extent of the expanding urbanization of civilization. Of course, a contemporary megalopolis could be destroyed by multiple warheads, and most missiles and many other delivery systems are MIRVed and therefore have many warheads at their disposal, there is a certain elegance to the strategic calculus of one bomb, one city — this the ethos of the sniper — one shot, one kill — put into practice on a macroscopic scale.

It should be obvious that, had the US and the Soviet Union chosen to continue to design and build bigger nuclear weapons, that this capacity was technically within their grasp. Perhaps it would be possible to build a bomb with a yield of 500 megatons, or perhaps even a gigaton bomb. But there was nothing large enough to destroy to make it worth the while to attempt to build such devices. And then the paradigm or war began to shift. Ultimately, even nuclear weapons design began to incorporate features of precisification. Mature experimentation with nuclear weapons design included innovative shaped charges and miniaturization.

The age of the nuclear weapon as a purely strategic device is passing. Technologies of precisification and miniaturization are useful; you can do something with a precise or miniaturized nuclear device. It may sound odd to remark that a weapon is useful, but we must remember that throughout the Cold War nuclear weapons were strictly useless, present only to guarantee mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nuclear weapons had only a strategic use. If the nuclear powers chose not to build bigger bombs, and eventually chose to decommission and dismantle their largest warheads, this tells us that the strategic situation has changed, and that the strategic calculation has changed with the strategic situation.

The limitation of the size of nuclear weapons and the decommissioning of larger weapons did not come about as a result of political pressure. While the B53 was old, there was no political pressure to eliminate it from the arsenal. The same cannot be said, for example, of the neutron bomb, which was not built for political reasons, or the Swedish nuclear weapons program, which was ended for economic reasons. These strategic decisions were strictly voluntary on the part of strategic planners, and as such they represent the purest expression of strategic thought.

More than a year ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65 I wrote about the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear blast. There I observed that, “What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War.” I also noted that there has been no Second Nuclear War. In the same spirit of unfamiliar periodization, we could call this period of time from the first use of nuclear weapons to the dismantling of the largest bomb the First Nuclear Age, which lasted less than seventy years. During the First Nuclear Age, bigger was better. Now bigger is no longer better, and we have entered the brave new world of the Second Nuclear Age, in which the proliferation of nuclear weapons seems likely and the concern of nuclear terrorism is a much greater danger than a massive decapitation strike in the form of ICBMs, bombers, and SLBMs.

As the strategic logic of the Second Nuclear Age continues to unfold, nuclear doctrine will continue to change and adapt itself to changed circumstances. In the long term, these changes will eventually be concretely manifested in the nuclear arsenal. Given the slow pace of transition from doctrinal development to weapons production, the fact that world nuclear arsenals are already changing points to the reality of strategic change and confirms the End of a Nuclear Era.

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Nuclear Narratives

What the Cold War Taught Us

Existential Lessons of the Cold War

Status-6 and Nuclear Strategy Beyond the Triad

How Kim Jong-un Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the H-Bomb

The End of a Nuclear Era

The Atomic Age Turns 70

Circumventing Consent: Nuclear Risk and Self-Deception

Nuclear Ambiguity

The Atomic Age turns 65

The Tradition of Non-Use

WMD: The Submersible Vector

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Grand Strategy Annex

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