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Letter to U.S. news media: U.S.-Russian strategic instability from U.S. Trident warhead upgrades (important analysis by Dr. Ted Postol)

May 3, 2016

Dear colleagues --

Dr. Ted Postol, emeritus professor of Professor of Science, Technology and International Security at MIT, recently gave an important talk on the subject of the increasing risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia associated specifically with U.S. weapon modernization, focusing on the limitations and vulnerabilities of Russian early warning systems and the upgrade of the W76 submarine-launched warhead now underway. U.S. ballistic missile defense in southeast Asia is also touched upon.

The talk ("How the US Nuclear Weapons Modernization Program Is Increasing the Chances of Accidental Nuclear War with Russia") is also available in a shorter version without explanatory analysis and covering fewer subjects, as it was given at Harvard College Peace Action on Feb 25, 2016 (audio file).

We are grateful to Dr. Postol for permission to circulate this material as well as to Steven Starr, Senior Scientist for Physicians for Social Responsibility, for bringing it to our attention and to Harvard College Peace Action for the audio file and for hosting the event in the first place.

Some of the conclusions of Dr. Postol are these:

Circumstances Relevant to Nuclear War Against Russia

  • Early warning system has no space-based component.
  • Russia has substantial nuclear forces and fixed ground-based missile silos that can now be destroyed by the US submarine launched ballistic missiles (and US ICBMs as well).
  • Nuclear arms reductions with the United States will only increase Russia’s vulnerabilities to a US nuclear first-strike.
  • Russians remember that the US has repeatedly not been helpful in providing for Russian early warning.
  • The US supported the Latvian government when it demanded that Russia close down a new early warning radar that was covering major attack orders from United States.
  • The US is now drastically increasing the ability of all its submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads to destroy Russian silo-based forces and command centers. These improvements will free up many US nuclear weapons that would have otherwise been dedicated to that mission.
  • The US relentless and irrational preoccupation with global missile defenses is seen by the Russians as yet another US program aimed at reducing Russia’s ability to retaliate after a US nuclear first-strike.
  • The Russian analysis of US modernization programs and behavior can only lead them to conclude that the United States is trying to create an option to fight and win a nuclear war against Russia.
  • The US nuclear weapons modernization program is unambiguously oriented toward achieving these goals.

Potential Consequences

  • The Russians have no space-based satellite early warning systems to alert them to the launch of US nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from the ocean.
  • The Russians may be in the process of trying to reconstitute a primitive and limited spacebased system that could with some reliability observe the launch of US land-based missiles.
  • However, the most capable ballistic missile systems are now on submarines, which have warheads of much higher killing power and can be launched from unmonitored locations in the ocean.
  • Since the US has been improving its capability to preemptively attack Russia, the only choice the Russians have is to streamline their decision-making capabilities.
  • Because the Russians cannot see over the curved-earth horizon with space-based satellite This means there warning time could be a short as 10 to 15 minutes.
  • The only way to guarantee the ability to launched before Russian forces are destroyed by a preemptive US attack this if some method of pre-delegated launch authority is put in place.
  • The response times of the streamlined launch authority are by necessity very short.
  • The time-pressure to take actions can, in crisis, greatly increase the chances of an accidental launch Russian central strategic nuclear forces.
  • Thus, the US Nuclear Weapons Modernization Program is pushing the Russians to take actions that could, in a crisis, lead to a massive accident that could well destroy most of the countries in the northern hemisphere.

These brief conclusions do not encompass all the topics in the longer talk, which could be the basis for other news stories if developed.

To share them quickly we posted put these talks and other related material dating from 1998 on this web page in a rough-and-ready fashion, omitting other relevant material.

We believe these new circumstances deserve much greater attention and discussion than they have received.

I am in Geneva, attending the important May session of the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on multilateral nuclear disarmament measures, about which much more could and should be said on another occasion. 

Sincerely, Greg Mello

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