NUKES: NATO and Russia Caught in New Nuclear Arms Race

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Top image: Russia and USA measure their missiles | Credit: pravda-team.ruBy Julio Godoy*

BERLIN (IDN) - The U.S. government is unofficially accusing Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, by flight testing two-stage ground-based cruise missile RS-26.

Although the U.S. government has not officially commented on the alleged Russian violation of the INF, which prohibits both countries to producing, testing and deploying ballistic and cruise missiles, and land-based missiles of medium (1,000 to 5,500 kilometres) and short (500 to 1,000 kilometres) range, high ranking members of the government in Washington have been leaking information to U.S. media, in a moment of particular tense relations with Moscow.


In 1987, after years of negotiations, both the NATO and the then Soviet Union agreed to destroy and to stop production of all missiles and related weapons, for instance the U.S. Pershing Ib and Pershing II and the BGM-109G Gryphon arsenals. Moscow, on its part, eliminated the whole SS missile series, including the SSC-X-4, in 1987 its most modern, land-based cruise missile with a nuclear warhead.

According to a report by the New York Times, the tested missile RS-26 aims at filling “the gap left in the missile potential of Russia as a result of the limitation of INF.” The newspaper also indicated that mid-January, the acting Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller informed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) of the U.S. data.

U.S. military experts, such as Dan Blumenthal and Mark Stokes of the American Enterprise Institute, say that the main Russian problem with the INF is that China is not bound by it and continues to build up its own Intermediate-Range forces. In a comment for the Washington Post, Blumenthal and Stokes wrote that “Moscow has already threatened to pull out if China does not sign the treaty.”

If the U.S. reports are true, the Russian tests would confirm what numerous peace and anti-nuclear weapons activists have been warning about since several years, that the NATO and Russia are engaged in a new nuclear arms race, despite all the bilateral talk about disarmament.

For the NATO has also been “filling the gaps” of its nuclear capability, in particular with the ongoing plan to “modernise” its arsenal of B61 nuclear weapons, stationed all over Western Europe.

Additionally, practically all nuclear states, including India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan have at one time or other in recent years improved their arsenal on middle range rockets and nuclear weapons.

The formidable B61 arsenal stationed in Europe is a remnant of the Cold War. The actual number of such weapons of mass destruction is a top military secret, but some 20 of these are reported to be deployed in Germany, in the military basis near the village of Buechel, in the southwest of the country. Another undetermined number, up to 200 such weapons, are deployed in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, all members of the NATO.

According to the NATO, or, rather, to the U.S. government, the modernisation of this nuclear arsenal is necessary given the archaic character of the B61 weapons. They are so-called dumb or “gravity” weapons, to be dropped from war planes over target zones, and be guided by a radar that, according to U.S. senate hearings, was constructed in the 1960s and originally designed for “a five-year lifetime”.

Dropping such dumb nuclear weapons from an airplane would mean that, even in case they operate as expected, vast areas would be obliterated from the face of the earth.

Additional dangers

The old B61 nuclear bombs manifest several additional dangers, especially for the own NATO armies and European populations: In 2005, a U.S. Air Force review discovered that procedures used during maintenance of the nuclear weapons in Europe held a risk that a lightning strike could trigger a nuclear detonation.

In 2008, yet another U.S. Air Force review concluded that “most” nuclear weapons locations in Europe did not meet U.S. security guidelines and would “require significant additional resources” to bring these up to standard.

All these risks were confirmed during several hearings at the U.S. congress late last year, and during which military officials explained the range of modernisation the B61 arsenal is expected to go through.

Officially, the U.S. government has dubbed this modernisation of the B61 arsenal “a full-scope Life Extension Program (LEP)”, as Madelyn R. Creedon, assistant secretary of defence for global strategic affairs, told a session of subcommittee of the House of Representatives last October. [Read more: http://www.hsdl.org/?view;did=747337]

During the session, Creedon described the B61 as “the oldest warhead design in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, with several components dating from the 1960s.” She added that its modernisation “will meet military requirements and guarantee an extended service life coupled with more affordable sustainment costs; and it will incorporate the upgrades that (the National Nuclear Security Administration) NNSA deems mandatory to provide a nuclear stockpile that is safe, secure, and effective.”

During the same hearing, General C. R. Kehler, head of the U.S. strategic command, told the representatives what many peace activists have been saying since years, but the NATO always and only until recently denied. “The average B61 is over 25 years old, contains antiquated technology, and requires frequent handling for maintenance,” Kehler said. “Only through extraordinary measures has this aging family of weapons remained safe, secure and effective far beyond its originally planned operational life.”

If the schedule for the modernisation is to be respected, the new B61-12 weapons will be ready by 2020, and the programme would have cost at least eight billion U.S. dollars, according to the NNSA’s current estimate.

However, as the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-partisan research organisation, has pointed out, an independent U.S. Defence Department assessment found that the actual cost could be higher than $10 billion. At this price, the LEP will cost $25 million per bomb. The Centre recalls too, that the Ploughshares Fund complained that at this cost each refurbished B61 will be worth more than its weight in gold.

According to critics of the LEP, the modernisation won’t mean only “a life extension programme”, but instead a formidable increase of the weapons’ capabilities.

Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and one of the most distinguished civil experts on nuclear weapons, says that new features of the weapons contradict early pledges by U.S. authorities that the LEP “will not support new military missions (n)or provide for new military capabilities.”

However, new information about the LEP indicates precisely the contrary.

“The addition of a guided tail kit will increase the accuracy of the B61-12 compared with the other weapons and provide new warfighting capabilities,” Kristensen says. “The tail kit is necessary, officials say, for the 50-kilotons B61-12 (with a reused B61-4 warhead) to be able to hold at risk the same targets as the 360-kilotons B61-7 warhead. But in Europe, where the B61-7 has never been deployed, the guided tail kit will be a significant boost of the military capabilities – an improvement that doesn’t fit the promise of reducing the role of nuclear weapons.”

For comparison, the ‘Little boy’ nuclear bomb with which the U.S. destroyed on August 6, 1945 the Japanese city of Hiroshima had an explosive yield of between 13 and 18 kilotons. The ‘Fat man’ bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later had a yield of up to 22 kilotons.

During the October 2013 hearings at the U.S. House of Representatives, it became also clear that B61-12 would replace the old B61-11, a single-yield 400-kiloton nuclear earth-penetrating bomb introduced in 1997, and the B83-1, a strategic bomb with variable yields up to 1,200 kilotons.

For Kristensen, “The(se) military capabilities of the B61-12 will be able to cover the entire range of military targeting missions for gravity bombs, ranging from the lowest yield of the B61-4 (0.3 kilotons) to the 1,200-kiloton B83-1 as well as the nuclear earth-penetration mission of the B61-11.”

Such upgrading of the destruction capabilities would make the new arsenal an “all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids, spanning the full spectrum of gravity bomb missions anywhere.”

Most problematic

This extraordinary improvement of the B61 arsenal’s mass destruction potential is the most problematic, for the European governments concerned, in particular in Germany, have since at least 2009 openly expressed their wishes to dismantle the weapons.

In reaction to the historic speech U.S. president Barack Obama made in the Czech capital Prague in April 2009, where he called the nuclear weapons spread across the world "the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War", the Berlin government of the time argued in favour of the dismantling the archaic B61 stationed on German soil.

In what it was called “an unprecedented statement”, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Social Democratic German foreign minister of the time, called for the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in his country. In April 2009, only days after Obama’s speech in Prague, Steinmeier told the German magazine Der Spiegel that “the (B61 nuclear) weapons are militarily obsolete today” and promised that he would take steps to ensure that the remaining U.S. warheads “are removed from Germany.”

In the two years that followed, the next German conservative government, represented by its new foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, continued to make the case for dismantling the B61 arsenal. Like his predecessor Steinmeier, Westerwelle, serving for the Christian Democratic-Liberal ruling coalition, made the arguments of the anti-nuclear weapons activists his own, and recalled that such arsenal is in many ways obsolete, for it was conceived to be used in conjunction with other armament that itself is out of use, and it aimed at an enemy – the Soviet bloc – that had ceased to exist.

On March 2010, a large majority of the German parliament, the Bundestag, passed a resolution unequivocally demanding the withdrawal of the “U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil.”

But both Steinmeier and Westerwelle failed at convincing the NATO in general, and the U.S. government in particular, to follow. Instead, they had to kowtow before the fait accompli decided in Washington, that the B61 arsenal be modernised to become, to again use Hans Kristensen’s aptly description, an “all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids.”

Steinmeier is again foreign minister, but he long ago ceased to discuss the matter in public. He may have “gotten shell-shocked by the pushback from the old nuclear guard in NATO,” as Kristensen said of Westerwelle on the same question.

At least, Steinmeier less than two years ago signed a declaration by a group of German parliamentarians representing all political parties, in which they insisted that the U.S. nuclear arsenal be removed from Germany. In the declaration, Steinmeier, at the time leader of the social Democratic parliamentarian group, and colleagues accused the then ruling conservative Christian Democratic-Liberal coalition of having failed at reaching the same goal. “Worst still: By now it seems as if the government has said goodbye to this goal.”

The same accusation can be made this time against Steinmeier, again German foreign minister: He has not lived up to his own conviction, that the NATO nuclear weapons must be removed from European soil. The new NATO-Russia crisis caused by the turmoil in Ukraine will certainly help him to argue his change of mind.

*Julio Godoy is an investigative journalist and IDN Associate Global Editor. He has won international recognition for his work, including the Hellman-Hammett human rights award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Investigative Reporting Online by the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists, and the Online Journalism Award for Enterprise Journalism by the Online News Association and the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, as co-author of the investigative reports “Making a Killing: The Business of War” and “The Water Barons: The Privatisation of Water Services”. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 6, 2014]

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