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Od 25 maja 2018 r. obowiązuje w Polsce Rozporządzenie Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady (UE) 2016/679 z dnia 27 kwietnia 2016 r. w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (ogólne rozporządzenie o ochronie danych, zwane także RODO).

W związku z powyższym przygotowaliśmy dla Państwa informacje dotyczące przetwarzania przez Wojskowy Instytut Wydawniczy Państwa danych osobowych. Prosimy o zapoznanie się z nimi: Polityka przetwarzania danych.

Prosimy o zaakceptowanie warunków przetwarzania danych osobowych przez Wojskowych Instytut Wydawniczy – Akceptuję

One Hundred Seconds to Annihilation

New types of weapons, modified strategies of their use, and even secret build-up of arsenals – despite the fact that the Cold War is over and digital technologies have taken over the world, the importance of nuclear weapons has not diminished. It is also becoming harder to work out nuclear control mechanisms.

“We have prolonged the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] for another five years,” informed at the end of January, 2021 the representatives of the White House and the Kremlin. The ratification of the document was one of the first decisions of the newly appointed US President Joe Biden. Although the information did not make to the TV news headlines, it is certainly significant. “New START is the last standing bilateral agreement on nuclear weapons between the USA and Russia,” emphasizes Tomasz Smura, PhD, a political scientist and Americanist at the Kazimierz Pulaski Foundation.

The agreement itself dates back to the spring of 2010. The then presidents, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, came to Prague to sign a treaty on reducing strategic nuclear arsenals. According to the agreement, the number of warheads for intercontinental missiles owned by the USA and Russia cannot exceed 1,550, whereas the number of deployed missiles and ready-to-use strategic bombers should not exceed 700. In recent years, the signatories have actually reduced the number of resources covered by the Treaty. At the end of December 2020, each country had less than 1,500 warheads.

Prolonging the Treaty did not make the nuclear problem go away, though. The skeptics are convinced New START no longer fits the geopolitical reality. “The risk of using nuclear weapons is the highest since WWII,” said several months ago Renata Dwan, the Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Not much, if anything, has changed since then. Over a month ago, scientists at the University of Chicago decided to move the famous Doomsday Clock. According to them, we now only have 100 seconds (20 seconds less than in January 2020, and over a quarter of an hour less than at the start of the 1990s) to midnight, i.e. a global catastrophe. The clock was moved forward due to climate change, but also due to the nuclear threat.

Attributes of Power

Over 20,000 various warheads owned by Russia, and at least as many in the American arsenal, are enough to turn the world into a nuclear desert several hundred times. There would be no real winners in such a war. Meanwhile, the world has come dangerously close to it several times in history. For example in 1962, when the Soviets deployed missiles in Cuba, and the Americans, demanding their withdrawal, brought matters to a head. Or two decades later, when the Soviet commanders were quite certain for some time that the NATO Exercise Able Archer organized in Europe was an introduction to a nuclear attack on the USSR. The superpowers remained in the balance of fear until the middle of the 1980s, when they finally started making first meaningful attempts to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Ultimately, the USA was the state that emerged successful from the Cold War, obtaining the status of the world leader. The USSR plunged into chaos which ended in the break-up of the Soviet empire. Soon after that, an actual reduction of arsenals began, and the world was able to breathe again. At least for a moment.

“For Russia, nuclear weapons were the last attribute of power. Therefore, even in the 1990s, which was a hard time for Russia, it could not allow itself to neglect that matter. The relatively small amount of money that it could spend on arms was allocated for maintaining a strategic arsenal, i.e. warheads and carriers in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The rest was waiting for better times,” explains Rafał Kopeć, PhD, from the Security Studies Institute of the Commission of National Education Pedagogical University in Kraków, and the coordinator of a cooperation program between the Pedagogical University and the US Strategic Command. The situation began to change only after Vladimir Putin came to power. He slowly began to work towards regaining the status of a world power, which led to overtaking the Crimea, starting a war in eastern Ukraine and challenging NATO.

Third in the Game

Russia began to secretly build up its arsenal of intermediate and medium-range cruise missiles, which can hit targets at distances ranging from 500 km to 5,500 km. By doing this, it violated the provisions of the Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF), signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. The result? In February 2019 Americans officially withdrew from the treaty, and the Kremlin soon followed. If that were not enough, Vladimir Putin has recently revealed that Russia is working on new types of strategic weapons. All that made the question of prolonging the New START treaty very uncertain for a long time.

“Donald Trump’s cabinet demanded for the provisions of the treaty to include new types of strategic nuclear weapons and for the talks to cover also tactical weapons. Russia did not want to agree to that,” recalls Tomasz Smura. On top of that, the USA also demanded to include China in the Treaty. Although Russia and the USA are still those holding the greatest number of nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War, the rivalry for world leadership is no longer happening between the two of them. China has now become the USA’s main economic and military rival. “If we look at the numbers, we can see that China’s nuclear arsenal is significantly smaller than that of Russia or the USA. For the time being, China most likely has around 300 warheads of different types, while the two mentioned states – a little over and a little less than 6,000, respectively, including stockpiled and reserve warheads. The problem is that China is rapidly developing its arsenal, both in quantity and quality, while remaining beyond any sort of control,” explains Rafał Kopeć.
Russia responded to the American proposal with its own: we include China in the treaty, but we also include Great Britain and France. It was obviously only a diplomatic game, as the Kremlin is not capable of convincing the Chinese to do anything. It can at most make sure not to annoy them too much. Meanwhile, Beijing reacted to the White House’s standpoint with reserve, to say the least. “China would be happy to participate in trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia, but only if the United States were willing to reduce its nuclear arsenal to China’s level,” said Wang Yi, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the summer of 2020. Ultimately, the treaty was prolonged in its present form, although Americans in particular know that such a solution is far from perfect.

Sharing a Bomb

What can the future bring? There are nine states in the world that have nuclear weapons. Next to the aforementioned USA, Russia, China, Great Britain and France, they are India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Pyongyang uses its still modest nuclear arsenal to blackmail Japan, South Korea, but first and foremost – the USA. Successive representatives of the Kim dynasty regard it as the only survival means, while in the case of India, Pakistan and Israel nuclear weapons are what allows them to maintain the status of local powers and thus hinder any possible attempts of hostile neighbors.

Nuclear weapons remain a global policy tool for Americans and their NATO partners, Russians, and the Chinese. Americans already decided to redefine the role such weapons would play in the national security strategy when Donald Trump was still president. A document entitled Nuclear Posture Review, published at the beginning of 2018, shows that the US Army would be ready to use nuclear weapons not only during a nuclear conflict, but also as a response to an attack using conventional forces that would claim a significant number of lives or damage critical infrastructure. Russia chose to follow a similar scenario, which was confirmed by a decree signed by Valdimir Putin in 2020. Experts say that in this way the Kremlin wants to reduce the significant disproportion in the number of tanks, aircraft or soldiers between the Russian army and NATO forces.

“Russia has an advantage as it comes to tactical weapons. According to American analysts, it might even have as many as 2,000 warheads,” emphasizes Rafał Kopeć. On top of that, it has recently deployed 9M729 (NATO SSC-8) cruise missiles in the Kaliningrad Oblast. Russians firmly claim that their range does not exceed 500 km, but according to western sources it might be even five times as much. Americans can counter the missiles in Europe itself with only around 200 B61 nuclear bombs that can be carried by, i.a., the F-16s or the F-35s. The bombs have been included in the Nuclear Sharing program, which assumes they will be provided to NATO allies, such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey, if need be. For some time now, however, voices can be heard among some German politicians that their country should leave this initiative. Several months ago, the then US Ambassador in Warsaw suggested on Twitter that if that happened, the nuclear weapons could be transferred to Poland. The entry created a stir both in Germany and in Russia. The Polish MoND ensured, though, that they were not involved in any talks on the subject. One way or another, the B61s are currently being modernized by the Americans.

Strategic Triad

For the White House, tactical weapons are not the most important issue. “The USA’s top priority now is modernizing their strategic arsenal. Recently, they have decided to allocate 100 billion dollars for each part of the so-called nuclear triad. The triad includes intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from ground-based launchers, as well as submarines and strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons,” enumerates Rafał Kopeć. Soon, first stealth B-21 bombers, equipped with the long-range standoff (LRSO) cruise missiles, are to enter service. Americans are also working on Columbia-class submarines and ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) ballistic missiles launched from underground silos scattered across the American territory. The missiles will supersede the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). “This last project raised a lively discussion in the USA. Many people supported the idea of building up the remaining elements of the triad instead of some number of the missiles,” explains Rafał Kopeć. “In the event of a crisis, strategic bombers can be quickly sent to any place in the world and used as a bargaining chip in a diplomatic game. Submarines, on the other hand, have the biggest survivability due to the secretive character of their operation, and thus are a guarantee of nuclear retaliation. Moreover, reinforcing the navy would be a kind of demonstration targeted at China, which has been intensively building up this branch of its armed forces,” he emphasizes. Furthermore, Americans have recently confirmed that they have added to their arsenal the W76-2 nuclear warheads for submarines, with very low yield of 5-7 kilotons. Experts say it is a completely new quality. Detonating such a warhead can be treated as a final warning: look, we have nuclear weapons, and we will not hesitate to use them.

Russia is also working on new types of weapons, i.a. the Poseidon nuclear torpedo. Recent reports suggest it has a range of 10,000 km, speed of 100 knots and a depth maximum of 1,000 meters. Another new weapon is the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. “As it comes to strategic nuclear weapons, Americans are still in the lead. It’s easy to build a warhead itself, but creating effective carriers is a far more complicated process,” says Rafał Kopeć.

China remains a great unknown. “For a long time, China was faithful to the rule of nuclear minimalism. Their missiles were stored underground, and the strategy adopted by the army assumed they may be used even several weeks after a nuclear attack on Chinese territory,” explains the expert. Now, however, the situation is significantly different. “The development of American anti-missile systems might have been the impulse. Officially, they are to protect the USA against attack from Iran or North Korea, but the Chinese decided that it is in fact a demonstration aimed against China. Reinforcing the nuclear arsenal is to be an additional asset in the confrontation with Washington,” emphasizes Kopeć.

Ticking of the Nuclear Clock

Despite the end of the Cold War period, nuclear weapons have clearly remained an important asset. “Nuclear weapons are now in the arsenal of new countries, which firmly refuse any disarmament proposals – for example, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons signed four years ago. None of the nuclear armed states took part in the negotiations,” reminds Tomasz Smura. As if it was not enough, the geopolitical situation in recent years has become very complicated. “And in a situation of growing tensions, there is a bigger likelihood of making wrong and rash decisions,” emphasizes the political scientist. However, he quickly adds: “World powers still have enough warheads to destroy the world. In my opinion, however, a global nuclear conflict is unlikely, for the same reasons as during the Cold War. Also, countries of the world have many new, less destructive means to harm one another, such as cyber attacks.”
Rafał Kopeć is of similar opinion. “Introducing missiles with less powerful nuclear warheads has lowered the threshold of entering a nuclear conflict. We need to realize, though, that even a limited hit carries with it the risk of escalation. Leaders of world powers are aware of that. Despite everything, I think the nuclear taboo is still in force. It is a kind of a self-restraint mechanism, which, for example, stopped Americans from using a nuclear bomb in Korea. They knew that reaching for it would mean public condemnation on a global scale, but also that the situation might easily get out of control,” emphasizes Kopeć. Taking everything into consideration, we must nevertheless keep in mind that the hand of the Doomsday Clock is only 100 seconds away from midnight...

From Little Boy to Tsar Bomb

Although within several decades world powers have managed to build up huge nuclear arsenals, since 1945 a nuclear bomb has never again been used.

The work on a nuclear bomb began in 1938, when German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered the phenomenon of nuclear fission. Almost immediately, many studies were initiated to find how that discovery could be used in creating new generation weapons. Already during the war, Germans built three experimental reactors. However, they did not manage to finalize the project.

Americans were faster. They started work on a bomb at a facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the fall of 1943. They initially assumed the new weapon would be used to destroy Berlin, but the Third Reich was defeated before they could conduct a trial detonation. Ultimately, the work was finished in mid-July of 1945. On August 6, the first bomb, called Little Boy, with power equal to 16 kilotons of TNT, was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. The explosion destroyed or damaged almost all buildings and killed between 70,000–90,000 people. Three days later another bomb, known as Fat Man, exploded over Nagasaki, leaving it in ruins and killing almost 70,000 people. With that, the USA became the first world nuclear power. However, four years later it was joined by the USSR. In the following several dozen years, the two superpowers engaged in an unprecedented arms race. They developed weapons, constantly increasing their power, as well as the number of warheads. In 1961, the Soviets conducted a test detonation of the most powerful bomb in the history of humankind. A thermonuclear Tsar Bomba, yielding around 58 megatons of TNT, was detonated on the island called Novaya Zemlya. Its power equaled 4,000 bombs dropped on Hiroshima.

Destructive Force

When used, a typical atom bomb produces enormous amounts of energy. It is released due to the fission of heavy nuclei of plutonium or uranium into smaller and lighter nuclei. The reaction is initiated when nuclei are bombarded with neutrons. The nuclei divide into smaller fragments, emitting more neutrons, which causes a chain reaction.

A hydrogen bomb works on the basis of a thermonuclear reaction. It consists in the combining of hydrogen isotopes in the nuclear fusion process. During that process, a gigantic amount of energy is released. The temperature necessary to begin the fusion is obtained by detonating a nuclear charge.

Nuclear bombs wreak havoc in several ways. Immediately after the explosion, a powerful shock wave spreads from the epicenter, destroying everything on its way. Another consequence of the explosion is thermal radiation. The temperature in the epicenter reaches 100 million degrees Celsius, which makes the buildings and people simply evaporate. The explosion of such a bomb also results in radioactive fallout. The victims of such an explosion can die of radiation sickness long after the detonation.

Łukasz Zalesiński

autor zdjęć: Krelm / Shutterstock, USAF

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