Russia and the US Trade Nuclear Exercises and Nuclear Weapon Upgrades

Whilst the world’s attention has been focused on North Korea and Iran, the big boys relatively quietly continue to sharpen their nuclear swords.

Russia had tested an RS-24 Yars ICBM with what Moscow billed as an “experimental warhead,” and in this case that billing was quite accurate. Podvig discusses how the test demonstrated the use of separate post boost vehicles for all, three, nuclear warheads. Usually MIRVs are deployed on the one post boost vehicle or “bus.” See image below (W87 warhead/Mk21 RVs for MX ICBM). The idea behind separate post boost vehicles is to complicate the task of ballistic missile defence as each individual “mini bus” would have a marginal manoeuvrability capability. As Podvig points out, the new experimental configuration demonstrates the action-reaction dynamic provoked by missile defences.

Russia also, it seems, announced that it would test launch twice by the end of this year the RS-28 Sarmat (liquid fuelled) ICBM. The Sarmat is touted as the replacement to the SS-18 (“Satan”) ICBM heavy ICBM, hence the moniker “Satan II,” but it looks more like a replacement for the SS-19 ICBM.

On October 26 Russia conducted annual exercises of its strategic nuclear capabilities, which consisted of the launching of a Topol (SS-25) ICBM, Tu-160, Tu-95MS and T-22M3 bombers of the strategic aviation from two separate air bases launched Air Launched Cruise Missiles at multiple targets, and three SLBMs from two boomers one in the Sea of Okhotsk (two R-29R SLBMs) and the other in the Barents Sea (R-29RM Sineva). It is reported that this exercise was of the command and control procedures governing employment of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

The latter is timely, for the National Nuclear Security Administration had announced on October 14 that it had completed, on time and on budget, one crucial component of the W76-1/Mk4A life extension programme namely the upgrading of the Arming Fuzing Subsystem. This is the controversial “super fuse”, I have written of this previously, that appears to significantly enhance the first strike counterforce capabilities of United States Strategic Command.

On October 17 NNSA announced that Pantex had produced the First Production Unit of the W80-1 Alteration (ALT) 369. The W80-1 nuclear warhead is the explosive end of the Air Launched Cruise Missile. In October 2015 Sandia had announced the successful production of a new detonator for the W80-1 ALT 369 neutron generator. For the Fiscal 2017 Biennial Plan Summary of the stockpile stewardship programme see here.

Also on October 17 NATO engaged in its own annual nuclear strike exercise. And, to top all this off, as it were, US Strategic Command on October 30 announced Exercise Global Thunder, its own annual command and control exercise

“These exercises achieve the vision of a unified team, integrating all the capabilities of U.S. Strategic Command across the globe wherever and whenever needed,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of USSTRATCOM. “We need to integrate our strategic capabilities in order to deliver multi-domain effects against any adversary, anywhere in the world, at any time.”

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So, while we focus on North Korea and Iran don’t forget the main game, that is the established nuclear weapon states, especially Russia and the US, because there’s always something cooking there. One reason for this is that exercises, upgrades and so on flow on from the perceived requirements of nuclear deterrence.

As North Korea transitions to an established nuclear weapon state it too will engage in exercises, upgrades and the like just like the US and Russia do because such comes with nuclear deterrence. For external powers that refuse to accept North Korea’s nuclear status, that would be a frequent bug bear that could easily get out of control depending upon the responses to them and how provocatively North Korea conducts them.