A Post-New START Nuclear Strategy for America
Since their first use in the final days of World War II, nuclear weapons have provided the backbone for international security between the great powers. Their use in 1945 ended WWII and provided a deterrent powerful enough to prevent armed conflict between the Soviet Union and America.
Mutually assured destruction became the mainstay policy between the two global powers from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Since then, Washington has pursued the nuclear policy of calculated ambiguity. This means that America does not publicly announce its nuclear policy, creating uncertainty in the minds of potential aggressors while presenting the president with a wide range of retaliatory options should the situation escalate to nuclear war.
This strategy was meant to integrate possible use against terror groups into nuclear weapons policy after the demise of the Soviet Union. However, America still has a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, New START, which will remain in place until 2026.
Regulating Nuclear Arsenals
The US does not have a treaty with China, although the rise of China’s military budget and ambitions increasingly demand that it should. China is thought to have roughly 300 operational nuclear warheads, while Russia and America have around 1,550 active deployed strategic nuclear warheads.
Beijing is currently expanding its nuclear capabilities, and may achieve rough parity with Russia and America by 2026 or soon after.
This, along with the expiration of New START and worsening relations between Moscow and Washington, may leave the world without a nuclear arms treaty between great powers for the first time since 1959.
To continue providing the world and itself with the best strategic policy concerning nuclear weapons, America must regulate nuclear weapons arsenals and policy by itself if no treaty with Russia and China can be agreed upon.
Therefore, with China’s growing nuclear arsenal and New START set to expire in 2026, the US should enact a new, public policy that maintains 2,000 deployed warheads and their delivery systems, increases their yield to two megatons, but decreases their accuracy to a circular error probable radius of five miles.
This would keep war between Russia, China, and America conventional, while still providing a powerful deterrent to these nations and other threats.
Accuracy and Range
Intentionally decreasing the accuracy of nuclear bombs and missiles while increasing their yield will increase global stability. Since these weapons will not be accurate enough to destroy massive military formations, their only use will be against cities.
Conventional weapons are sufficient to destroy conventional armies. Large militaries vanished at the end of the Cold War in favor of smaller, more mobile ones. Nuclear weapons are not needed to destroy small armies; conventional firepower is enough to do so.
Making nuclear weapons capable of only countervalue missions is what is needed. Large, inaccurate warheads will do just that. They will be inaccurate enough to not reliably target military forces, but large enough to destroy cities.
This will be achieved by having thermonuclear warheads with yields of two megatons and a circular error probability of five miles.
A two-megaton thermonuclear warhead can kill or wound approximately 5,500,000 people if detonated in Beijing or 5,200,000 if detonated in Moscow. Other cities targeted, such as Shanghai, Chongqing, St. Petersburg, or Yekaterinburg, would also result in millions of casualties.
It would also cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage in lost infrastructure, workers killed, and stock losses. Buildings would be leveled and geographic areas left uninhabitable due to fallout.
A circular error probable (CEP) radius of five miles would also be enough to destroy cities while not reliably destroying military units in the field. CEP is a measure of precision used by militaries in relation to projectiles. It states that 50 percent of missiles will land within an approximate target location, in this case, five miles.
A two-megaton thermonuclear explosion will cause moderate levels of blast damage out to about five miles in an urban area, thus being able to destroy buildings but not all armored vehicles.
Internal navigation systems, which guide missiles and bombs, must be programmed with an intentional CEP of five miles in mind. A yield of two megatons and a CEP of five miles will make nuclear weapons able to destroy cities, but unable to destroy armored ground formations.
Buildings are easy to destroy due to their size and flat surfaces. They can also burn for weeks after since first responders will likely be unable to move into radioactive areas.
Armored units will fare much better, as the same armor that protects them from kinetic strikes will provide a high degree of protection against blast concussions. Nuclear weapons are best used against cities, thereby reinforcing a low-accuracy, high-yield warhead to increase strategic stability in the future.
Deterring Conventional and Unconventional Aggression
Intentionally making weapons less accurate is a novelty, especially to a nation that has reaped the benefits of global military hegemony for decades. However, the strategic relations that provide global stability between powers are changing. Russia and China are trending in different directions concerning their power.
Russia’s power is declining due to global sanctions and lost military prestige. China is becoming more and more assertive in Asia and the Pacific. Its construction of more ICBM silos could be a sign of parity aspirations.
If America makes its nuclear arsenal larger and with higher yields but decreases accuracy, it may be able to deter conventional and unconventional aggression, while still being able to fight and win conventional and nuclear wars.
Russia and China can be deterred with the loss of populated cities that drives their economies and thus their great power status. Nuclear-armed nations such as North Korea and potentially Iran can be defeated without nuclear weapons. Non-nation state actors, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, do not present any target large enough to be targeted with nuclear weapons.
Calculated ambiguity loses credibility when applied to these hostile groups. This will place the defeat of these groups in the hands of aircraft and special operations. A new and public nuclear arms policy will provide a framework for an era of possibly unregulated nuclear arms.
If a treaty that can strategically secure America while accommodating Russia and China can be signed in 2026, then it should be signed.
Otherwise, America may face a world without nuclear arms control for the first time in decades. America must be prepared to take bold new steps in its policy to prevent this from happening.
Christopher Gettel is an 8-year US Army veteran who served with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne Division. He has been deployed to Iraq twice, including participation in the liberation of Mosul.
Gettel recently finished a graduate certificate in Nuclear Deterrence from Harvard University’s Extension School and is now pursuing a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University with the goal of completing a Ph.D. afterward.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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