Apr 20th 2018

Could the US win World War III without using nuclear weapons?

by Dan Plesch

Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London

 

As the US, Russia and China test each other’s patience and strategic focus, speculation about the chances of a world war has hit a new high. But many of the people seriously engaged in this weighty discussion often get it wrong.

When it comes to estimating military capability, the Western media is principally concerned with the weapons capabilities of weaker states – and it rarely pays much attention to the colossal capability of the US, which still accounts for most of the world’s defence spending.

Any sensible discussion of what a hypothetical World War III might look like needs to begin with the sheer size and force of America’s military assets. For all that China and Russia are arming up on various measures, US commanders have the power to dominate escalating crises and counter opposing forces before they can be used.

Take missile warfare alone. The US Navy already has 4,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the Navy and Air Force are currently taking delivery of 5,000 JASSM conventional cruise missiles with ranges from 200-600 miles. Barely visible to radar, these are designed to destroy “hardened” targets such as nuclear missile silos. Russia and China, by contrast, have nothing of equivalent quantity or quality with which to threaten the US mainland.

The same holds true when it comes to maritime forces. While much is made of Russia’s two frigates and smaller vessels stationed off the Syrian coast, France alone has 20 warships and an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean – and US standing forces in the area include six destroyers equipped with scores of cruise missiles and anti-missile systems. At the other end of Europe, the Russian military is threatening the small Baltic states, but it is rarely noted that the Russian Baltic fleet is the same size as Denmark’s and half the size of Germany’s.

Meanwhile, China’s aggressively expansionist behaviour in the South China Sea is reported alongside stories of its first aircraft carrier and long-range ballistic missiles. But for all that the Chinese navy is large and growing, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it’s still only numerically equivalent to the combined fleets of Japan and Taiwan, while the US boasts 19 aircraft carriers worldwide if its marine assault ships are included.

But overhanging all this, of course, is the nuclear factor.

Out of the sky

The US, Russia and China are all nuclear-armed; Vladimir Putin recently unveiled a new fleet of nuclear-capable missiles which he described as “invincible in the face of all existing and future systems”, and some have suggested that China may be moving away from its no-first-use policy. This is all undeniably disturbing. While it has long been assumed that the threat of nuclear weapons acts as a deterrent to any war between the major powers, it’s also possible that the world may simply have been riding its luck. But once again, the US’s non-nuclear capabilities are all too often overlooked.

US leaders may in fact believe they can remove Russia’s nuclear deterrent with an overwhelming conventional attack backed up by missile defences. This ability was cultivated under the Prompt Global Strike programme, which was initiated before 9/11 and continued during the Obama years. Organised through the US Air Force’s Global Strike Command, it is to use conventional weapons to attack anywhere on Earth in under 60 minutes.

This is not to say the task would be small. In order to destroy Russia’s nuclear missiles before they can be launched, the US military would need to first blind Russian radar and command and communications to incoming attack, probably using both physical and cyber attacks. It would then have to destroy some 200 fixed and 200 mobile missiles on land, a dozen Russian missile submarines, and Russian bombers. It would then need to shoot down any missiles that could still be fired.

Russia is not well positioned to survive such an attack. Its early warning radars, both satellite and land-based, are decaying and will be hard to replace. At the same time, the US has and is developing a range of technologies to carry out anti-satellite and radar missions, and it has been using them for years. (All the way back in 1985, it shot down a satellite with an F15 jet fighter.) That said, the West is very dependent on satellites too, and Russia and China continue to develop their own anti-satellite systems.

The air war

Russia’s bomber aircraft date back to the Soviet era, so despite the alarm they provoke when they nudge at Western countries’ airspace, they pose no major threat in themselves. Were the Russian and US planes to face each other, the Russians would find themselves under attack from planes they couldn’t see and that are any way out of their range.

US and British submarine crews claim a perfect record in constantly shadowing Soviet submarines as they left their bases throughout the Cold War. Since then, Russian forces have declined and US anti-submarine warfare has been revived, raising the prospect that Russian submarines could be taken out before they could even launch their missiles.

The core of the Russia’s nuclear forces consists of land-based missiles, some fixed in silos, others mobile on rail and road. The silo-based missiles can now be targeted by several types of missiles, carried by US planes almost invisible to radar; all are designed to destroy targets protected by deep concrete and steel bunkers. But a problem for US war planners is that it might take hours too long for their missile-carrying planes to reach these targets – hence the need to act in minutes.

One apparently simple solution to attacking targets very quickly is to fit quick nuclear ballistic missiles with non-nuclear warheads. In 2010, Robert Gates, then serving as secretary of defence under Barack Obama, said that the US had this capability. Intercontinental ballistic missiles take just 30 minutes to fly between the continental US’s Midwest and Siberia; if launched from well-positioned submarines, the Navy’s Tridents can be even quicker, with a launch-to-target time of under ten minutes.

From 2001, the US Navy prepared to fit its Trident missiles with either inert solid warheads – accurate to within ten metres – or vast splinter/shrapnel weapons. Critics have argued that this would leave a potential enemy unable to tell whether they were under nuclear or conventional attack, meaning they would have to assume the worst. According to US Congressional researchers, the development work came close to completion, but apparently ceased in 2013.

Nonetheless, the US has continued to develop other technologies across its armed services to attack targets around the world in under an hour – foremost among them hypersonic missiles, which could return to Earth at up to ten times the speed of sound, with China and Russia trying to keep up.

Missile envy

The remainder of Russia’s nuclear force consists of missiles transported by rail. An article on Kremlin-sponsored news outlet Sputnik described how these missile rail cars would be so hard to find that Prompt Global Strike might not be as effective as the US would like – but taken at face value, the article implies that the rest of the Russian nuclear arsenal is in fact relatively vulnerable.

Starting with the “Scud hunt” of the First Gulf War, the US military has spent years improving its proficiency at targeting mobile ground-based missiles. Those skills now use remote sensors to attack small ground targets at short notice in the myriad counter-insurgency operations it’s pursued since 2001.

If the “sword” of Prompt Global Strike doesn’t stop the launch of all Russian missiles, then the US could use the “shield” of its own missile defences. These it deployed after it walked out of a treaty with Russia banning such weapons in 2002.

While some of these post-2002 missile defence systems have been called ineffective, the US Navy has a more effective system called Aegis, which one former head of the Pentagon’s missile defence programs claims can shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. Some 300 Aegis anti-ballistic missiles now equip 40 US warships; in 2008, one destroyed a satellite as it fell out of orbit.

War mentality

In advance of the Iraq war, various governments and onlookers cautioned the US and UK about the potential for unforeseen consequences, but the two governments were driven by a mindset impervious to criticism and misgivings. And despite all the lessons that can be learned from the Iraq disaster, there’s an ample risk today that a similarly gung-ho attitude could take hold.

Foreign casualties generally have little impact on domestic US politics. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died under first sanctions and then war did not negatively impact presidents Clinton or George W. Bush. Neither might the prospect of similar casualties in Iran or North Korea or other states, especially if “humanitarian” precision weapons are used.

But more than that, an opinion poll run by Stanford University’s Scott Sagan found that the US public would not oppose the preemptive use of even nuclear weapons provided that the US itself was not affected. And nuclear Trident offers that temptation.

The control of major conventional weapons as well as WMD needs urgent attention from international civil society, media and political parties. There is still time to galvanise behind the Nobel-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the nuclear ban treaty, and to revive and globalise the decaying arms control agenda of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which played a vital part in bringing the Cold War to a largely peaceful end.

Like the Kaiser in 1914, perhaps Trump or one of his successors will express dismay when faced with the reality a major US offensive unleashes. But unlike the Kaiser, who saw his empire first defeated and then dismembered, perhaps a 21st-century US president might get away with it.

 

Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Aug 15th 2018
Why do conspiracy theories and general charlatanism so often receive their strongest support from the world’s dictators? Sure, dictators are almost always oddballs themselves, but that cannot be all there is to it. In fact, it is worth asking whether quackery is a necessary feature of authoritarian rule.
Aug 15th 2018
Across the global economy, the potential for automation seems huge. Adidas’ “Speedfactory” in Bavaria will employ 160 workers to produce 500,000 pairs of shoes each year, a productivity rate over five times higher than in typical factories today. The British Retail Consortium estimates that retail jobs could fall from three million to 2.1 million within ten years, with only a small fraction replaced by new jobs in online retailing. Many financial-services companies see the potential to cut information-processing jobs to a small fraction of current levels. And yet, despite all this, measured productivity growth across the developed economies has slowed. One possible explanation.....
Aug 11th 2018
US President Donald Trump’s erratic unilateralism represents nothing less than abdication of global economic and political leadership. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, his rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, his tariff war, and his frequent attacks on allies and embrace of adversaries have rapidly turned the United States into an unreliable partner in upholding the international order. But the administration’s “America First” policies have done more than disqualify the US from global leadership. They have also created space for other countries to re-shape the international system to their liking. The influence of China, in particular, is likely to be enhanced.
Aug 9th 2018
Wall Street is full of turnaround talk following Tesla’s second-quarter earnings results, sending shares in the futuristic electric car pioneer up almost 10%. Investors welcomed news that the company was burning through cash at a lower rate and revenues were considerably higher, yet the results also showed that Tesla’s financial and operational weaknesses have not gone away. From my reading of the figures, this is a company in real trouble.
Aug 1st 2018
By seeking to disrupt virtually all that has defined the West since the end of World War II, Trump has brought the world to a historical turning point. At stake is not the US-EU relationship, which remains strong, but rather the West’s dominant position on the world stage. Trump is accelerating a shift in the global balance of power that will leave both America and Europe weaker in relative terms. As income and wealth shift from the West to the East, China will increasingly be able to challenge the US as the world’s leading geopolitical, economic, and technological power.
Jul 28th 2018
Alarming stories about the diabetes epidemic that threatens millions of lives have become commonplace, and with good reason.......The link between cheap, sugary and fatty food and obesity and type 2 diabetes is indisputable. The healthy/unhealthy food cost ratio has to change because the evidence is that education – while valuable – is not enough by itself. The evidence from many countries shows that in most chronic, lifestyle-related diseases, legislation is faster and often more effective.
Jul 28th 2018

Last week, the Israeli Knesset passed a new basic law which in the main enshrines “Israel [as] the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the State of Is

Jul 24th 2018
This past week by a vote of 62 to 55, Israel's Knesset passed legislation called "Israel as a Nation-State of the Jewish People." Heralding the passage of the bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as "a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel...We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all its citizens." In reaction, Israeli hardliners and their supporters in the US celebrated the legislation as "clarifying", while more liberal voices lamented "the damage the bill does to the 'Zionist vision.'" This is one debate where I cannot take the side of the liberals because in reality, the "Jewish Nation-State" bill is in fact "clarifying" as it merely establishes in "Basic Law" practices and policies that Israel has been implementing since its founding.
Jul 23rd 2018
How does the current global economic outlook compare to that of a year ago? In 2017, the world economy was undergoing a synchronized expansion, with growth accelerating in both advanced economies and emerging markets. Moreover, despite stronger growth, inflation was tame – if not falling – even in economies like the United States, where goods and labor markets were tightening.
Jul 22nd 2018
While the US is busy slipping off of its precipice, many of its best known political figures are beating a rather tired old drum – the new Cold War, Russia, China, North Korea. It is boring, predictable, and dated. In the meantime, Russia and China are proceeding apace to reshape world order – without America.
Jul 21st 2018
Israel has for decades been running the occupied territories of Palestine–Gaza and the West Bank– with Apartheid tactics. As with black South Africans under Apartheid, most Palestinians have been deprived of citizenship in a real, recognized state. Their villages have been isolated by a network of what often amount to Jewish-only highways. They have trouble getting to hospital through checkpoints. Their territory in the West Bank is patrolled by the Israeli army, and the Israeli state is actively depriving them of their property and giving it to white squatters.
Jul 12th 2018
The cabinet members who resigned this week apparently feared that politics is taking May toward a “soft Brexit,” their worst of all possible worlds........“soft Brexit,” maintains the status quo, more or less, letting Europeans freely circulate into British labor markets and allowing European firms to operate easily in the UK. The problem with “soft Brexit” is that it raises questions about why the UK is leaving at all, since it will still have the same obligations to Europe as before, it just won’t have a voice when the remaining 27 members of the European Union meet to make decisions.
Jul 12th 2018
One study on the 2010 World Cup found that there was a 37.5% rise in admission rates across 15 accident and emergency departments on England match days........Examining reports of domestic abuse in Lancashire (a county of approximately 1.5m people in Northern England), across the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup tournaments, we discovered a 26% increase in reports of domestic abuse when England won or drew, and a 38% increase when England lost. Reports were also more frequent on weekends, and reached their peak when England exited the tournament.
Jul 10th 2018
If, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the US government, rather than arguing for Chinese economic opening, had prohibited any US company from investing there, China’s rise would have been significantly delayed, though not permanently prevented. Because that did not happen, China’s rise is now self-sustaining. A huge and increasingly affluent domestic market will make exports less vital to growth.
Jul 10th 2018
Comparing today’s demagogues with Adolf Hitler is almost always unwise. Such alarmism tends to trivialize the actual horrors of the Nazi regime, and distracts attention from our own political problems. But if alarmism is counterproductive, the question remains: At what point are democracies truly in danger? What was unimaginable only a few years ago – a US president insulting democratic allies and praising dictators, or calling the free press “enemies of the people,” or locking up refugees and taking away their children – has become almost normal now. When will it be too late to sound the alarm?
Jul 9th 2018
In view of such actions, expectations for Trump’s behavior at the upcoming summit have gone from prickly to dangerous. The sense of foreboding has been heightened by the announcement that, just four days after the summit ends, Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. The nightmare scenario is easy to imagine: Trump lays bare NATO’s fractures, including by questioning mutual defense, before selling his allies down the river by publicly embracing Putin. But this does not need to be the outcome.
Jul 9th 2018
After 2027 (or maybe even 2025, only 7 years from now), the number of EVs will rapidly accelerate, as virtually all new vehicles bought will be electric (an effect of rapidly falling battery and other component costs and of the fuel for electric cars being essentially free; you can power one off your rooftop solar array).
Jul 3rd 2018
Most pundits interpret Trump’s outbursts as playing to his political base, or preening for the cameras, or blustering for the sake of striking future deals. We take a different view. In line with many of America’s renowned mental-health experts, we believe that Trump suffers from several psychological pathologies that render him a clear and present danger to the world.
Jul 3rd 2018
In the United Kingdom, Brexit looms large, with everyone from government ministers to tabloid newspapers frothing daily about the deal that will be struck with the European Union and the effects that it will have. But the EU faces too many pressing challenges to be obsessing about Britain. The UK’s concern is understandable: evidence is mounting of the likely damage a departure from the single market and customs union will do to the UK economy. According to new research from the Centre for European Reform, the UK economy is already 2.1% smaller than it would have been had voters chosen to remain. The hit to public finances totals £440 million ($579 million) per week.
Jun 26th 2018
Nowadays, Britain’s words and actions on the world stage are so at odds with its values that one must wonder what has happened to the country. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, British foreign policy seems to have all but collapsed – and even to have disowned its past and its governing ideas. Worse, this has coincided with the emergence of US President Donald Trump’s erratic administration, which is pursuing goals that are completely detached from those of Britain – and of Europe generally.