Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Dec. 13 warned that Moscow will deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons if NATO does not accede to demands to stop arming Ukraine and guarantee an end to eastward expansion of the alliance. His remarks came days after US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin held a two-hour video conference aimed at defusing tensions over the Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s border, where the Kremlin is estimated to have amassed some 100,000 troops.
“A lack of progress towards a political-diplomatic solution would mean that our response will be military and military-technical,” Ryabkov told Russia’s RIA news agency. Refering to deployment of the intermediate-range missiles, he added: “That is, it will be a confrontation, this will be the next round.” (VOA, Reuters)
Disarmament progress being reversed
Such nuclear missiles, intended for use in a European conflict, were barred by the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in the first significant de-escalation of the Cold War. But this was formally abrogated by the Tump administration in 2019, with Moscow shortly following. Each side accuses the other of having violated the treaty.
Deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev on Dec. 14 made reference to another defunct arms-control pact, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which was formally abandoned by the Bush admnistration in 2003. In a social-media post, Medvedev charged that the US withdrew from the treaty “to have a free hand to develop an advanced system of national missile defense.”
But Medvedev added, in a barely concealed threat: “This is lame, if not to say erroneous, logic. Russia has always had enough possibilities to protect its national security in case of such steps by Washington. The Americans still have no reliable shield against other countries which possess nuclear weapons, including the ones they sought to make outcasts of through sanctions.” (TASS)
China catching up to US and Russia
Meanwhile, a new Pentagon report, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, notes the rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army nuclear arsenal. It also warns of the potential for “the modernization of the PLA’s capabilities to be networked into a system of systems for ‘intelligentized’ warfare. If realized, the PLA’s 2027 modernization goals could provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”
While China is today believed to have some 350 nuclear warheads (compared to approximately 4,000 each in the US and Russian arsenals), this figure is expected to rapidly rise: “The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD [US Department of Defense] projected in 2020.” (The National Interest)
The report comes amid mounting incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Making the ‘unthinkable’ thinkable
All this comes as the US is steppting up its own “modernization” of its nuclear forces. The US Air Force recently completed flight testing to ensure that the new B61-12 thermonuclear bomb design is compatible with the F-35A Lightning II warplane. The test flights, carried out at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, were aimed at enabling a new design of fighter jet to begin carrying a new design of nuclear weapons. Past versions of the B61 have relied on gravity to hit their targets, but the new design can also use a digital guidance system.
The B61-12 is an updated version of the earlier B61 gravity bomb. It is to offer four “blast options” measuring from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. This last option is more than double the estimated yield of “Fat Man,” the larger of two atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan in 1945. The US plans to produce 480 of the B61-12 by 2025, and phase out those B61s with much higher yields. The US now has some 680 of the B61 in total, including 230 for “non-strategic platforms” such as fighter jets. (Air Force Times)
What makes the B61-12 dangerous is its “usability“—deriving from a combination of its accuracy and (ironically) low yield (by contemporary standards). As stated by an analysis on The National Interest (no peaceniks, to be sure): “In practical terms, all this means that the more accurate the bomb, the lower the yield that is needed to destroy any specific target. A lower-yield and more accurate bomb can therefore be used without having to fear the mass, indiscriminate killing of civilians through explosive force or radioactive fallout.”
In other words, it lowers the threshold for making the “unthinkable” thinkable. And for crossing the terrible line that, despite numerous close calls, the human race has managed to avoid since Aug. 9, 1945: use of nuclear weapons in war.
Photo of F-35A via Air Force Times