by Waseem Shehzad (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 8, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1444)
In an impassioned plea on September 26, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. He was addressing a special session of the General Assembly in the wake of Russia’s veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The Americans responded by saying the US would take “decisive action”.
“Decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we can hear once again the rattling of nuclear sabres,” Guterres told the special UN session on nuclear disarmament. “Let me be clear – the era of nuclear blackmail must end,” he said. “The idea that any country could fight and win a nuclear war is deranged. Any use of a nuclear weapon would incite a humanitarian armageddon,” he said.
“Without eliminating nuclear weapons, there can be no peace.”
Unfortunately, Guterres’ warning fell on deaf years. Are American and Russian rulers indulging in nuclear brinkmanship or they have lost their minds? Recent developments accompanied by shrill denunciations of each other point to the latter. After all, there can be no winners in a nuclear war.
Even the thought of using “tactical nuclear weapons” is insane. Any resort to such weapons would quickly escalate and blow up the entire world. Most people would die instantly and the survivors would wish they were dead.
Let us recount how the world got to this point. Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech on September 21 made thinly-veiled threats to use nuclear weapons if cornered, and emphasized that he was not bluffing. He accused the west of nuclear blackmail and said the weapons could flow in the other direction as well.
As if on cue, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken immediately responded by saying Washington has told Moscow, including through private channels, of “catastrophic” consequences over any use of nuclear weapons.
This was followed on September 25 by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan telling NBC’s Meet the Press program that the US would respond decisively to any Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. “If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively,” Sullivan threatened.
The escalatory rhetoric from both sides is alarming. Given the number of nuclear weapons in their possession, there is grave risk of miscalculation. And then there is the dangerous notion of not appearing weak before an adversary that could easily lead to catastrophic consequences.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, (FAS) “the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains very high… roughly 12,700, as of early-2022. Approximately 90 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States, who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles.”
While the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has declined over the years, this is misleading. More lethal weapons with much greater destructive capacity have been developed and “9,400 nuclear warheads are ready for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines” according to the FAS.
“Of the 9,440 warheads in the military stockpiles, some 3,730 are deployed with operational forces (on missiles or bomber bases). Of those, approximately 2,000 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice,” says the FAS report of February 23, 2022.
Even this does not accurately capture the gravity of the threat the world faces today. In the past, the two major nuclear powers—the US and Soviet Union—maintained nuclear deterrent in what was termed “mutually assured destruction”, with the appropriate acronym ‘MAD’. The aim was to prevent nuclear war because it would destroy both sides.
Since 2006, the US has abandoned this policy and is now operating on the basis of US “Nuclear Primacy”. What this means is that Russia will be totally destroyed in a first strike and the US will emerge as being sufficiently strong to hold unchallengeable sway over the entire planet.
This was revealed in a study by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published on March 1, 2017, which stated: “The US nuclear forces modernization program has been portrayed to the public as an effort to ensure the reliability and safety of warheads in the US nuclear arsenal, rather than to enhance their military capabilities. In reality, however, that program has implemented revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the US ballistic missile arsenal. This increase in capability is astonishing — boosting the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three — and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”
The report continued:
“Because the innovations in the super-fuze appear, to the non-technical eye, to be minor, policymakers outside of the US government (and probably inside the government as well) have completely missed its revolutionary impact on military capabilities and its important implications for global security.”
Russian leaders have not been oblivious of these heightened nuclear threats to their survival. Moscow has been introducing new weapons systems of its own that are specifically designed to prevent US “Nuclear Primacy.” Of these, the RS-28 Sarmat is Russia’s next-generation, nuclear-capable and multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV)-equipped super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missile. It is expected to become the backbone of the country’s strategic deterrent in the decades to come after deliveries begin later this year.
What is significant about the Sarmat is that its control system is designed to enable the missile to continue on its course even if it is struck by an anti-missile projectile. Vladimir Degtyar, chief designer at the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau, the rocket center which developed the RS-28, revealed in an interview published by Sputnik.
Further, with a speed of 24,000 kms and a range of 18,000 kms (over 11,000 miles), it would cover the entire US landmass and more. With such terrifying speed, the ability to evade, and if hit, to survive enemy anti-missile projectile and self-correct its course, a few Sarmats could destroy the entire western world and beyond.
Should the US launch a first-strike, as per the ‘Nuclear Primacy’ doctrine, would a decapitated Russia be able to retaliate at all? Russian scientists had considered this possibility and came up with the concept of a “dead hand” system which would automatically launch retaliatory strikes, without human command, against the enemy. Russian military forces have 700 nuclear weapon “carriers”—strategic bombers, nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
Some of them can operate autonomously and strike potential enemy targets, even if the whole country’s territory is destroyed after a nuclear strike.
The world is staring into a nuclear abyss yet the decision-makers in Moscow and Washington think nuclear weapons are toys they can launch at will and wipe out their enemy. Seldom has such madness been witnessed in the world by people that consider themselves civilized.