A fresh intensification of the fighting in eastern Ukraine brings more geopolitical tension and western charges of Vladimir Putin’s repeated belligerence. At the Nato meeting in Brussels on 5 February 2015, officials are presenting a new analysis of Russia’s nuclear plans; this will express growing concern over Russia’s nuclear strategy amid "indications that Russian military planners may be lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons in any conflict”.
A western diplomat is reported saying: “What worries us most in this strategy is the modernisation of the Russian nuclear forces, the increase in the level of training of those forces and the possible combination between conventional actions and the use of nuclear forces, including possibly in the framework of a hybrid war.”
The Brussels meeting is billed as a routine session of Nato's nuclear-planning group (NPG), concentrating on the safety and effectiveness of the alliance's nuclear deterrent. It comes at a time when Russia is clearly investing in some new nuclear systems, albeit at a rather lower level (thanks to the state's overall financial constraints, evident even before the recent falls in oil-export revenues).
There are reasons to worry about Vladimir Putin’s attitude to the nuclear issue and the existing Soviet modernisation programme. The latter's most notable feature is the new SS-N-32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, planned to be deployed on six Borei-class ballistic-missile submarines. This said, most SS-N-32 and other modernisation efforts are intended to enable a catch-up after two decades of slippage, and to replace almost entirely Soviet-era systems.
More room for debate exists when comparisons are drawn with United States nuclear plans. Many US systems are of a similar vintage to the Russian, yet have already upgraded more extensively; in addition, the US is about to embark on an all-round large-scale process of strategic nuclear modernisation, involving new missiles, bombs and delivery systems (see "Mad men, nuclear pasts, human futures", 27 October 2011).
Aviation Week reports that the defence budget for the financial year 2016 sees a big increase in nuclear-weapons expenditure, much of it involving the first steps in designing new systems. One example is the commitment of almost $1.4 billion to research and development for the replacement of the US navy’s Ohio-class missile submarines; others are that nearly as much will be spent on the US airforce’s new long-range strike-bomber, and more for a replacement of the air-launched cruise missile (the so-called long-range stand-off weapon).
The traditional nuclear "triad" involves long-range bombers, submarine-launched missiles, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). True to form, the FY1026 budget will also have an initial $75.2 million for work on a new ICBM to replace the current Minuteman III. Overall, the congressional budget office (CBO) estimates that the new US nuclear programmes will cost on average of $35 billion every year for the next decade.
A ghost returns
The end of the cold war led to substantial reductions in deployed nuclear arsenals, from a peak of nearly 70,000 down to just over 10,000. That period lasted more than two decades. It may now be ending, amid signs of movement towards a new nuclear arms race. The US and Russia are at the forefront, but Britain, France and China are also modernising their systems, India and Pakistan are expanding theirs, while Israel may deploy the new F-35 joint strike fighter in a nuclear-capable configuration.
Renewed tension between the United States and Russia is the central driver in this process. But it is also a reflection of a wider strategic failure; after all, the post-cold-war years saw even hawks such as Henry Kissinger highlighting the dangers of proliferation and arguing that serious steps must be taken towards the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide (see "The nuclear-weapons prospect", 4 June 2009).
Today's increased defence budgets mean there is little sign of such progress. But one group has cause to cheer: the armaments industry. Indeed the signs are very positive for its endeavours. Throughout the cold war each side had a decent-sized enemy to confront, and both western weapons companies and their design-bureau counterparts in the Soviet Union did well out of it. The 1990s, by contrast, were lean years as the stand-off of mutual enmity disappeared, before the boost of al-Qaida coming on the scene at the turn of the century.
Now the golden years seem about to return, with the United States facing not one but two enemies - Putin’s Russia and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State. After a bleak period, the future again looks good for the world’s arms industries. Unless a strong dose of wisdom is administered in the late 2010s and the 2020s, our old friend the "military-industrial complex" will be home and dry.