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Rechristening Nuclear Superiority

By: Ammar Hussain

On March 1st, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed testing the “Satan 2,” a new hypersonic nuclear-capable ICBM. President Putin along with Russian state media went on to boast that the Satan 2 would be able to avoid any missile defense system currently employed by the United States and that the payload would be powerful enough to destroy “an area the size of Texas.” In addition to the Satan 2, Russia is also currently developing an intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.

In response to Russia’s nuclear aggression, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has called for a reintroduction of submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles (SLCMs) and new “low-yield” nuclear warheads to put on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Despite being low-yield atomic weapons, they still have the potential to do as much damage as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since America’s nuclear-powered submarines are stealthy, they serve as an effective measure of nuclear deterrence.  

With the increase in nuclear aggression where two nuclear titans are rapidly researching and developing new weapons, it is essential to take a look at the legality of using atomic force and how it will affect our national security setting.

In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) wrote in an advisory opinion titled “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons” that the use or threat of nuclear force was illegal and contrary to the principles and rules of humanitarian law. The court also stressed that civilians must never be the intended targets and states must never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing civilian targets from military targets. However, the court confessed that it could not definitively conclude the legality or illegality of countries using nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances such as in self-defense or when the very survival of the state would be at stake. Additionally, the ICJ never addressed the legality of states producing, developing or stockpiling nuclear weapons. This may be because maintaining nuclear weapons does not by itself equate to the threat of use.

Aside from the threats of other nuclear nations, it is important to distinguish the difference between nuclear policy during the Cold War and post-9/11. America’s nuclear arsenal in the Cold War-era served to deter atomic threats from foreign nations, primarily the Soviet Union. Today, in addition to the threat posed by existing nuclear states, proliferation and development of nuclear technologies by rogue nations and its acquisition by terrorist organizations is an urgent concern. It is no secret that terror groups like al-Qaeda have attempted on numerous occasions to procure highly enriched uranium. Unfortunately, these new threats have not been well articulated, and as a result, Congress has been unwilling to fund new programs that would advance the infrastructure and diversity of our nuclear arsenal.

Despite the lack of funding, some politicians—President Trump, for example—have heard the call about America’s aging nuclear infrastructure. On October 31, 2017, President Trump proposed a 30-year makeover of America’s nuclear infrastructure for a price tag of $1.2 trillion, which is 20 percent greater than previous estimates. The proposal includes rebuilding the country’s nuclear weapons, bombers, submarines, and missiles. Majority of our current nuclear arsenal relies on old Cold War-era technology. President Trump has expressed that he would like to see the country’s nuclear arsenal to be the “top of the pack.” These plans are primarily picked up from the Obama Administration and could become more ambitious if countries such as North Korea and Iran gain additional traction in their nuclear weapons development program.  

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has taken a step back in maintaining and updating its nuclear arsenal. For example, the launch control center at Malmstrom Air Force Base was and still is equipped with the latest technology 1962 had to offer. “Now, a 6-foot-high digital translator must be used to convert tones and whistles into signals a computer can read. The computers use 8-inch floppy disks that became obsolete even before the era of personal computers. Spare parts are so hard to find that on occasion they’ve had to be pulled from military museums.” However, “it’s not just the missile launch centers: Each of the U.S. nuclear delivery systems is approaching obsolescence. The Air Force’s largest fleet of bombers dates back to the Kennedy administration. The Navy’s armada of missile-carrying submarines is nearing the end of its designed life, and the warheads they carry are nearly three decades old, on average.”

As a result of the ICJ not ruling against the producing, developing or stockpiling nuclear weapons, several nations such as North Korea, Pakistan, and India over the past few years have made great strides to improve their nuclear weapons and delivery system. China recently developed delivery systems that would allow its atomic weapons to strike any target on the globe. Russia, as previously stated, has allegedly developed hypersonic ICBMs. Maj. Gen. Sandra Finan, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center commander, stated, “our rival powers are investing billions of dollars to modernize and improve their nuclear systems,” and if the United States wishes “to remain credible,” it must make nuclear readiness a priority. While our delivery systems are still considered to be the best in the world, I believe that the US needs to modernize and update its nuclear weapons arsenal as well as defenses to better address the ever-changing nuclear climate.


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