Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

Back in Fashion: Mini-Nukes from the Seas

A Polaris missile is fired from the submerged HMS Revenge off the coast of Florida in 1986. Image from wikipedia

The Pentagon has completed initial draft plans (June 2018) for several emerging low-yield sea-launched nuclear weapons…–a low-yield sea-launched nuclear cruise missile and long-range sub-launched low-yield warhead still in development… The US Navy Plans to add a nuclear weapon to Virginia-Class Attack Submarines….

There are currently over 1,000 nuclear warheads in the US arsenal that have low-yield options. A yield is considered low if it’s 20 kilotons or less,” an essay from the Federation of American Scientists states….A massively smaller 5-or-6 kt warhead on a Trident would still bring the advantage of long-range attack, yet afford smaller scope, and therefore less destructive, attack possibilities….The 130,000-pound Trident II D5 missile can travel 20,000-feet per second, according to Navy figures. The missiles cost $30 million each…

Also, the now-in-development Air Force Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, an air launched nuclear cruise missile, will bring additional airborne attack options – particularly when it comes to areas well-defended by advanced, high-tech air defense systems, where stealth aircraft might have more difficulty operating.  The LRSO, which could also be launched at farther stand-off ranges, is also designed for extremely high-risk areas armed with advanced air defense systems….

Excerpts from Pentagon completes draft plans for new low-yield sea-launched nuclear weapon, Fox News, June 5, 2018

The Geopolitics of Enriched Uranium: controlling Urenco

Image from URENCO.

The Japanese government has entered into negotiations to acquire U.K.-based Urenco, a major European producer of enriched uranium, in a deal that is expected to be worth several billions of dollars.  The state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation is expected to make an offer together with U.S. nuclear energy company Centrus Energy [formely known as United States Enrichment Corporation].  The not-so-ulterior motive is to block companies from Russia and China — two countries that are increasing their influence in the global nuclear power market — from taking control of the company.

The Japanese government is holding talks with major shareholders of Urenco, sources close to the matter said. Ownership of Urenco is evenly split by three parties — the governments of the U.K. and the Netherlands as well as German electric utilities including RWE.The German side is exploring a sale as the government plans to phase out nuclear power. The U.K. government, working on fiscal consolidation, is also looking for a buyer.  Urenco is engaged in turning natural uranium into enriched uranium, which is critical in generating nuclear power [and nuclear weapons]. The company ranks second in the world after Tenex — a unit of Russian nuclear concern Rosatom — in terms of capacity to produce enriched uranium, holding a global share of around 30%…

According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, China had 35 nuclear reactors in operation as of January 2017, while Russia had 30. Including reactors in the planning stage, however, the numbers grow to 82 in China and 55 in Russia, surpassing Japan’s 53.

Excerpts from Japan in talks over bid for UK uranium powerhouse, NIkkei Asian Review, Jan. 19, 2018

The Process of Legitimation of a Nuclear Power

Soldier wears mask to protect against chemical weapons. Image from wikipedia

India on January 19, 2017 joined the Australia Group which aims to stop the development and acquisition of chemical and biological weapons, a move that may take the country an inch closer to joining the Nuclear Suppliers’ group (NSG).  This is the third multilateral export control group – after the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Arrangement – that India has become a member of.  The Ministry of External Affairs said that the series of multilateral export control groups that India has joined “helps in establishing our credentials” for joining the NSG. India joined the MTCR in June 2016, followed by the Wassenaar Arrangement in December 2017…

India’s application to the NSG has been pending largely due to opposition from China, which wants the group to first draw up guidelines for all the candidates who have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Pakistan has also applied to join the NSG, but has never been granted a waiver from the NSG’s export rules, unlike India, which was given one in 2008.

Excerpts from India Enters Australia Group, Inches Closer to Joining Nuclear Suppliers Group, https://thewire.in/,  Jan. 19, 2018

Here to Stay: the Nuclear Supply Chain

The smallest nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S. Navy's NR-1. image from wikipedia

The report from the Energy Futures Initiative released on August 15, 2017 by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calls for greater federal investment in the US huclear-power industry. The report calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, but the industry has been struggling.  Five nuclear plants, with a combined capacity of 5 gigawatts, have closed early since 2013, and an additional six plants are scheduled to shutter early over the next nine years. Of the two new nuclear plants under construction in the U.S., one was halted by Scana Corp. in July 2017 and backers of the other, Southern Co.’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, are seeking additional aid from the federal government.

Westinghouse Electric Co., the nuclear technology pioneer that is part of Toshiba Corp., went bankrupt in March, after it hit delays with its AP1000 reactors at each of those plants. After it declared bankruptcy, Westinghouse — whose technology is used in more than half the world’s nuclear power plants — said it shifted its focus from building reactors to helping dismantle them.

The U.S. needs companies and engineers that can both build and run nuclear enterprises…. The U.S. Navy’s reactors require supplies and qualified engineers, and American nuclear scientists fill vital national security roles, it said.  Companies, such as BWX Technologies Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia manufacture nuclear components for both the commercial nuclear industry and naval reactors. If the commercial business collapses, that may mean one less company able to process highly enriched uranium, according to the report.

“A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers,” according to the report.

In addition to extending a tax credit for new nuclear power and the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, the report says the federal government could also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “place a greater emphasis on the national security importance of nuclear power and its associated supply chain.”

Excerpts from Moniz: Nuclear Power’s Woes Imperil US National Security, Bloomberg, Aug. 15, 2017

 

The Politics of Nuclear Summitry

ligiht at end of tunnel

The fourth and most likely the final Nuclear Security Summit will be held March 31-April 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. The three previous summits in Washington (2010), Seoul (2012), and The Hague (2014) have been the most visible features of an accelerated international effort to help prevent nuclear terrorism. President Obama, who launched the effort in a speech in Prague in April 2009 and set the aim to ‘secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years’, has expressed his intention to ‘finish strong in 2016’. …

Further ratifications of legally binding instruments such as the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) are necessary to sustain attention on the issue. With regards to the 2005 Amendment, the United States’ ratification in July 2015 brings entry into force one step closer but more states need to ratify it before the amendment can take effect….
The group of 35 countries that signed the Joint Statement on ‘Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation’ at the 2014 Summit can take its contents as a template to implement a more ambitious agenda. The Joint Statement, also known as the Trilateral Initiative, is an initiative through which states agreed to implement the major recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for nuclear and radiological source security. In October 2014, these 35 countries requested that the Joint Statement be circulated by the IAEA Secretariat as an IAEA Information Circular.
…How to include in the nuclear security system all nuclear materials, military as well as civilian. The mechanisms that already exist apply to only 17 percent of weapons-usable nuclear materials, those that are used in civilian applications..…[but do not apply to] the remaining 83 percent, commonly categorised as ‘military materials’. ..

The third potential challenge for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit is Russia’s decision not to attend.,,[ and justification for abstaining from the summit]*,US cooperation with the Russian nuclear regulator continues; the US and Russia will continue to work to repatriate HEU from Kazakhstan and Poland. Also, Russia and the United States will continue to co-chair the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT).

Excerpts from Ana Alecsandru, 2016 Nuclear Security Summit: Can Obama ‘Finish Strong’? , European Leadership Network,  Jan. 7, 2016

*According  to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova Nuclear Security Summits, “have played their role” and that their political agenda has been exhausted.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must be a central force “to coordinate the world’s efforts in global nuclear security,” Zakharova added.  She also said that the nuclear summits try to interfere in the activities of international organizations, including the IAEA, and impose the “opinions of a limited group of states” on international structures, which is “unacceptable.”  (Radio Free Europe, January 21, 2016)

 

The Japan-India Nuclear Deal, 2015

Smiling Buddha (Pokhran-I) was the assigned code name of India's first successful nuclear bomb test on 18 May 1974. image from wikipedia

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agreement in principle to supply nuclear power technology to India may run counter to Japan’s stated commitment against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  The deal was reached on Dec. 12, 2015 during a meeting between Abe, who is visiting New Delhi, and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.  If an actual nuclear power agreement is signed, it would mark the first for Japan with a nation that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  The latest move by Japan was met swiftly with criticism in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan and India began negotiating a nuclear power agreement in 2010 when the Democratic Party of Japan was still in power. Japan had wanted a provision in any such deal that would allow it to immediately stop any nuclear power cooperation should India resume testing of nuclear weapons, which has been on hold since 1998.  Although a joint declaration and a memorandum regarding a nuclear power agreement were released on Dec. 12, 2015 no provisions were included regarding a suspension of cooperation should India resume nuclear testing.  In the joint declaration, the two leaders confirmed that a nuclear power agreement would be signed after completion of the technological details through further negotiations between the two nations.

Excerpt from Japan’s nuclear power deal in principle with India a first with an NPT non-signer,  ASAHI SHIMBUN, Dec. 13, 2015

 

United States Military Strategy: 2015 and beyond

X-47B receiving fuel from a 707 tanke while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges, Apr. 2015.  Image from wikipedia.

The United States [is developing]  a “third offset strategy”… It is the third time since the second world war that America has sought technological breakthroughs to offset the advantages of potential foes and reassure its friends. The first offset strategy occurred in the early 1950s, when the Soviet Union was fielding far larger conventional forces in Europe than America and its allies could hope to repel. The answer was to extend America’s lead in nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet numerical advantage—a strategy known as the “New Look”.

A second offset strategy was conceived in the mid-1970s. American military planners, reeling from the psychological defeat of the Vietnam war, recognised that the Soviet Union had managed to build an equally terrifying nuclear arsenal. They had to find another way to restore credible deterrence in Europe. Daringly, America responded by investing in a family of untried technologies aimed at destroying enemy forces well behind the front line. Precision-guided missiles, the networked battlefield, reconnaissance satellites, the Global Positioning System (GPS) and radar-beating “stealth” aircraft were among the fruits of that research…The second offset strategy,  the so-called “revolution in military affairs” was hammered home in 1991 during the first Gulf war. Iraqi military bunkers were reduced to rubble and Soviet-style armoured formations became sitting ducks. Watchful Chinese strategists, who were as shocked as their Soviet counterparts had been, were determined to learn from it.

The large lead that America enjoyed then has dwindled. Although the Pentagon has greatly refined and improved the technologies that were used in the first Gulf war, these technologies have also proliferated and become far cheaper. Colossal computational power, rapid data processing, sophisticated sensors and bandwidth—some of the components of the second offset—are all now widely available.

And America has been distracted. During 13 years of counter-insurgency and stabilisation missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon was more focused on churning out mine-resistant armoured cars and surveillance drones than on the kind of game-changing innovation needed to keep well ahead of military competitors. America’s combat aircraft are 28 years old, on average. Only now is the fleet being recapitalised with the expensive and only semi-stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  China, in particular, has seized the opportunity to catch up. With a defence budget that tends to grow by more than 10% a year, it has invested in an arsenal of precision short- to medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines equipped with wake-homing torpedoes and long-range anti-ship missiles, electronic warfare, anti-satellite weapons, modern fighter jets, integrated air defences and sophisticated command, control and communications systems.

The Chinese call their objective “winning a local war in high-tech conditions”. In effect, China aims to make it too dangerous for American aircraft-carriers to operate within the so-called first island chain (thus pushing them out beyond the combat range of their tactical aircraft) and to threaten American bases in Okinawa and South Korea. American strategists call it “anti-access/area denial”, or A2/AD.  The concern for America’s allies in the region is that, as China’s military clout grows, the risks entailed in defending them from bullying or a sudden aggressive act—a grab of disputed islands to claim mineral rights, say, or a threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty—will become greater than an American president could bear. Some countries might then decide to throw in their lot with the regional hegemon.

Although China is moving exceptionally quickly, Russia too is modernising its forces after more than a decade of neglect. Increasingly, it can deploy similar systems. Iran and North Korea are building A2/AD capabilities too, albeit on a smaller scale than China. Even non-state actors such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are acquiring some of the capabilities that until recently were the preserve of military powers.

Hence the need to come up with a third offset strategy.….America needs to develop new military technologies that will impose large costs on its adversaries

The programme needs to overcome at least five critical vulnerabilities.

  • The first is that carriers and other surface vessels can now be tracked and hit by missiles at ranges from the enemy’s shore which could prevent the use of their cruise missiles or their tactical aircraft without in-flight refuelling by lumbering tankers that can be picked off by hostile fighters.
  • The second is that defending close-in regional air bases from a surprise attack in the opening stages of a conflict is increasingly hard.
  • Third, aircraft operating at the limits of their combat range would struggle to identify and target mobile missile launchers.
  • Fourth, modern air defences can shoot down non-stealthy aircraft at long distances.
  • Finally, the satellites America requires for surveillance and intelligence are no longer safe from attack.

It is an alarming list. Yet America has considerable advantages…. Those advantages include unmanned systems, stealthy aircraft, undersea warfare and the complex systems engineering that is required to make everything work together.

Over the next decade or so, America will aim to field unmanned combat aircraft that are stealthy enough to penetrate the best air defences and have the range and endurance to pursue mobile targets. Because they have no human pilots, fewer are needed for training. Since they do not need to rest, they can fly more missions back to back. And small, cheaper American drones might be used to swarm enemy air defences.

Drones are widespread these days, but America has nearly two decades of experience operating them. And the new ones will be nothing like the vulnerable Predators and Reapers that have been used to kill terrorists in Yemen and Waziristan. Evolving from prototypes like the navy’s “flying wing” X-47B and the air force’s RQ-180, they will be designed to survive in the most hostile environments. The more autonomous they are, the less they will have to rely on the control systems that enemies will try to disrupt—though autonomy also raises knotty ethical and legal issues.

Some of the same technologies could be introduced to unmanned underwater vehicles. These could be used to clear mines, hunt enemy submarines in shallow waters, for spying and for resupplying manned submarines, for example, with additional missiles. They can stay dormant for long periods before being activated for reconnaissance or strike missions. Big technical challenges will have to be overcome:.. [T]he vehicles will require high-density energy packs and deep undersea communications.

Contracts will be awarded this summer for a long-range strike bomber, the first new bomber since the exotic and expensive B-2 began service two decades ago. The B-3, of which about 100 are likely to be ordered, will also have a stealthy, flying-wing design…

If surface vessels, particularly aircraft-carriers, are to remain relevant, they will need to be able to defend themselves against sustained attack from precision-guided missiles. The navy’s Aegis anti-ballistic missile-defence system is capable but expensive: each one costs $20m or so. If several of them were fired to destroy an incoming Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, the cost for the defenders might be ten times as much as for the attackers.

If carriers are to stay in the game, the navy will have to reverse that ratio. Hopes are being placed in two technologies: electromagnetic rail guns, which fire projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants at 4,500mph to the edge of space, and so-called directed-energy weapons, most likely powerful lasers. The rail guns are being developed to counter ballistic missile warheads; the lasers could protect against hypersonic cruise missiles. In trials, shots from the lasers cost only a few cents. The navy has told defence contractors that it wants to have operational rail guns within ten years.

Defending against salvoes of incoming missiles will remain tricky and depend on other technological improvements, such as compact long-range radars that can track multiple targets. Finding ways to protect communications networks, including space-based ones, against attack is another priority. Satellites can be blinded by lasers or disabled by exploding missiles. One option would be to use more robust technologies to transmit data—such as chains of high-altitude, long-endurance drones operating in relays….

As Elbridge Colby of the Centre for a New American Security argues: “The more successful the offset strategy is in extending US conventional advantages, the more attractive US adversaries will find strategies of nuclear escalation.” The enemy always gets a vote.

Weapons Technology: Who’s Afraid of America, Economist, June 13, 2015, at 57.