As of September 2016, the Russian Federation had deployed close to 1800 strategic warheads while the US had deployed just over 1250 warheads. As of January 2017, the US had retired 2800 nuclear warheads that were waiting to be dismantled.
Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the possibility of the two global superpowers, the United States of America and the USSR, fighting a nuclear war remained the biggest threat to international security and stability.
The end of the Cold War and subsequent developments have altered the international security paradigm and led to the emergence of terrorist organizations and their uncivilized methods as the biggest threat to global security. However, the 16,000 nuclear weapons, 94% of which belong to Russia and the United States alone, in the world today continue to pose a potent threat to global peace.
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Nuclear Arsenal — Disturbing New Trends
Disagreements over strategies for reduction of nuclear weapons have strained relations between the two superpowers despite several short-lived treaties and agreements that have failed to achieve lasting reduction in tension between the two nations. In fact, there have been numerous disturbing developments like aggressive modifications by Russia to its military doctrine and an increase in the size of the nuclear arsenal of the two nations.
While the arsenal is significantly smaller than the Cold War era, the fact that the two nuclear superpowers find the need to actually produce more nuclear weapons is a significant worry. This places greater onus on the USA to take sustainable steps to improve bilateral ties between the two nations.
The US Nuclear Policy
The USA has modified its nuclear policy to bring it up to date with the strategic needs and tactical requirements of the post-Cold War era. Preventing nuclear proliferation, stopping terrorist organizations from gaining access to nuclear weapons, and minimizing threat of nuclear terrorism remain one of the fundamental goals of the nation’s nuclear policy.
The policy also seeks to minimize the role and impact of nuclear weapons in keeping the nation safe. This goal will significantly reduce of risk of conventional conflicts escalating into a nuclear war.
The third goal of the policy is to maintain strategic deterrence against on threats and guarantee stability with a smaller and more compact nuclear stockpile. This ensures quantitative reductions are balanced with qualitative improvements for increased security.
The other two goals focus on having a sustainable, effective, and secure arsenal that keeps the USA and all its allies safe at all times. This goal focuses deterrence, which has been an integral part of the strategic policy of the country towards global security.
Russia’s Aggressive Nuclear Doctrine
Contrary to the mature approach adopted by the USA, the Russian Federation has made aggressive modifications to its nuclear doctrine.
A significant change is the Russian approach to a preemptive first strike using nuclear weapons. Even at the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet Union restrained itself from the idea of a first strike.
This emphasized that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was designed to deter enemies through the promise of a devastating retaliation to a nuclear attack on the country. In 2014, Russia updated its military doctrine and instituted a new policy that permitted the launch of its first strike of nuclear weapons against its adversaries. This new doctrine expands the idea of a nuclear first strike even against nations that don’t possess nuclear weapons.
The Russian Arsenal
Along with an updated doctrine, the Russian Federation is upgrading nuclear warheads and land-based delivery platforms covering missiles—ballistic and cruise—mobile platforms, trucks, and trains; nuclear attack submarines and submarines that can launch strategic ballistic missiles against its adversaries.
The Yars-class missile has been designed as the mainstay of Russia’s ground-based nuclear weapon system. With an accuracy of 150 to 300 m over its range of 11,000 km, this 23 m missile can carry more than four warheads with a destructive capacity of 150 to 300 kt. Experts estimate that an attack involving this missile will, six times out of ten, penetrate a robust missile-defense.
Designed to complement Yars, the Bulava-class missile can carry up to 10 warheads of 150 kt each over range of 11,000 km. While it is unlikely that these rockets will carry more than six warheads at a time, it still remains a powerful weapon.
The Kalibr-class weapon is a cruise missile designed to hit sea-based targets up to 350 km and land-based targets up to 2500 km a deviation range of just 3 m. The missile is designed to evade radar by traveling just 50 to 150 m above the ground.
The US Arsenal
The US nuclear arsenal covers all three delivery platforms—land, sea, and air. The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is the mainstay of the land-based arsenal with more than 400 such missiles held in silos all over the USA.
The 12 nuclear submarines capable of firing ballistic missiles from under the water is a potent component of its underwater delivery system. As far as the actual bomb is concerned, the B61-12 bomb is the workhorse of the arsenal.
Each bomb can cause havoc equivalent to 50kt of conventional TNT with the unique feature of electronic adjustment of the bomb’s actual destructive capacity. The latest model of the bomb features steerable fins, which guarantees greater accuracy through a more reliable navigation system.
The Path Ahead
Despite presence of irritants – minor and major – the two countries have made repeated attempts to reduce the destructive capacity and number of weapons in its nuclear arsenal.
In 2011, the two countries activated a Strategic Arms Control Treaty called the New Start that sought a 1/3rd reduction in the nuclear arsenal of the two countries. Covering deployed strategic warheads, launchers, and heavy bombers, the treaty also provided for a verification regime where Russia could scheduled inspections of nuclear sites of the USA and vice versa.
Although the worst days of the Cold War are behind us, there is still a lot to be done as far as reduction of nuclear stockpiles of the nations is concerned. Mature statesmanship, sensible diplomacy, inclusion of mutual verification in treaties, and emphasis on transparency and accountability can minimize the impact of nuclear weapon on international relations between the two nations and world peace in general.