Back to the Future: US Ups the Ante on Russian Nuclear Weapons Testing at Novaya Zemlya

A lot of the new nuclear weapons systems that have been discussed from the 1990s onward, but never realised, have origins that can be traced back to the US and Soviet weapons labs of the 1980s. The end of the cold war and the arms control agreements that came with it, especially the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, put a hold to those plans. There have been attempts, nonetheless, to escape those constraints, most notably with the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme in the US case, but they did not reach fruition. In many respects the nuclear relationship between Washington and Moscow is taking us back to where we would have been had the cold war not ended in 1990.

So why wouldn’t the nuclear weapons complex and their most assiduous political supporters not dust off those plans and take us back to the future? That’s how I think we should interpret the claim, made by the Defense Intelligence Agency, that Russia has conducted a nuclear weapons test above a zero yield at Novaya Zemlya. The DIA claimed last month that Russia “probably” conducted a zero yield test. Now it has explicitly stated that it has conducted a test with a nuclear yield, which is contrary to the CTBT and a memorandum of understanding between the NPT recognised nuclear weapon states. The accusation is very similar to an episode that occurred in 1997. Then there was agitation from within the nuclear weapons complex, and its supporters, for research and development of low yield earth penetrating nuclear weapons. In the summer of 1997 (Northern Hemisphere, I’m in the South) US intelligence detected heightened activity at Novaya Zemlya, that is nuclear weapons related experiments, and seismic activity at about the same time. Advocates of new nuclear weapons, more so than most, jumped on this and claimed that Russia was violating the zero yield memorandum of understanding on nuclear testing, which led the CIA to commission an independent investigation [PDF]. That investigation found that the seismic activity was epicentred in the Kara Sea 130km southeast of the test area, so therefore the accusations of Russian nuclear testing were false.

The Russians have denied Trump administration claims that it has engaged in a nuclear test resulting in a nuclear explosion (the established nuclear states do subcritical hydrodynamic testing of plutonium primaries), the DIA has not provided any evidence to support its claim nor has it been clear as to why the assessment has changed from “probably” to a direct accusation either. There doesn’t exist any seismic evidence in the public domain pointing to a test, the CTBTO hasn’t called a Russian violation, and imagery doesn’t suggest heightened activity at Novaya Zemlya. We are seeing here, it would appear in the absence of evidence to the contrary, an attempt to undermine the CTBT in a way that opens the door for the nuclear weapons complex and its supporters to realise some of their long held desires. They have attempted to realise those desires with every post cold war administration, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody that they would give it another crack with *this* administration.

I suspect that this might have something to do with the failed Reliable Replacement Warhead programme of the Bush administration. That programme envisaged a significant expansion of the US nuclear weapons complex and the development of new nuclear weapons designs, most especially innovative weapons based on newly designed plutonium pits. Nothing beats designing a Rolls Royce Phantom rather than maintaining a has been Corniche.  The RRW, in part, was integrated to ideas of “tailored deterrence” that dominated Bush era thinking about nuclear strategy. Tailored deterrence is at the core of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

There were two hurdles the RRW couldn’t overcome. The first was opposition in Congress, in part the result of activist grassroots groups especially in the areas located near the major installations of the nuclear weapons complex. This is a story that hasn’t been told, but I remember all that very well. The second, of course, was the CTBT and concerns about the need to engage in renewed nuclear testing led the National Nuclear Security Administration to choose a conservative design for the first RRW, one based on an existing plutonium pit. The idea was to get the first RRW warhead through the door without nuclear testing. Advocates for the RRW made many arguments for the programme one being that new designs were needed, and the infrastructure to support them, because of plutonium pit ageing. Plutonium pit ageing, it was argued, made the legacy stockpile prone to catastrophic failure thus depriving Washington of a nuclear deterrent. This led to the commissioning of a JASONs report (the JASONs are an independent group of scientists) on plutonium pit lifetimes that concluded that plutonium pits can have lifetimes of at least 85 years and up to 100.

As we know the Trump administration has recently moved to disband the JASONs and the reactionary Republican congresswoman, Liz Cheney, has recently, absurdly, stated that plutonium pits will soon be 100 years old. That’s clearly a reference to the JASONs study on plutonium pit ageing. It appears that there’s a push for reviving the ideas that underpinned the RRW concept. Walking away from a commitment not to test nuclear weapons makes the most sense when viewed through the prism of innovative nuclear weapons design. There’s an interesting passage in The Washington Post report linked above

“A senior Trump administration official said that as a result, the CTBT doesn’t expressly stipulate a zero-yield standard because of the lack of clarity, opening the door for Russia and China to conduct tests, while the United States, Britain and France adhere to a stricter interpretation.”

Back in the day of the RRW debate there was some talk about nuclear weaponeering shifting from an empirical art to a theoretical science. The kerfuffle over the CTBT suggests that nuclear weapons research and development remains an empirical art, if it were a theoretical science nuclear testing wouldn’t be needed, but the passage above seems to imply that, should testing resume, we’d be talking little bangs not big bangs. That could be because planners want new low yield nuclear weapons. However, low yield options do already exist in the legacy stockpile. Research and development into new nuclear weapons that meet the strict damage expectancy criteria of strategic planners, one reason for the tight margins of nuclear weapons design, without full yield testing might bring us just that bit closer to a theoretical science. That could be just the point.

Don’t be thinking that there not licking their chops at Sarov (Arzamas-16) either. One thing Soviet scientists in the 1980s wanted to develop were low yield directed energy weapons, something they have argued for into the Russian Federation since 1990. So thus we come back to the future the 1980s would have given us bar for Mikhail Gorbachev.

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