Vladimir Putin Photograph:( WION )Oct 15, 2021, 09.13 AM (IST)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has bragged that his country’s new hypersonic nuclear missiles capable of annihilating US cities are “on alert,” raising concerns of a World War 3 outbreak.
The Russian leader revealed his country has developed a weapon that flies more than five times faster than those being developed in the US. While addressing an energy forum, Putin said nowhere is directly under threat.
According to Vladimir Putin, Russia has intercontinental nuclear missiles that are capable of destroying American cities.
President Putin’s boasting that Russia possesses hypersonic weapons that are also intercontinental has heightened worries of a military clash with the US and a future World War III with the West.
Simultaneously, speaking at an energy conference in Moscow, he dismissively denied that they intend to harm anyone and claimed that similar systems are being developed elsewhere.
Weapons with a speed of Mach 3 or more are being developed in the United States. Our systems fly at a speed of over Mach 20. These are not just hypersonic but intercontinental missiles, and these are far more formidable weapons than those you have just mentioned, ” Putin remarked.Such weapon systems are already on combat alert in Russia and similar systems are being developed in other countries, he added.”There is nothing unusual about that. Hi-tech armies of the world will possess such systems soon, ” Putin said
Russia has been working for several years on a long-range anti-ballistic missile system named Aerostat. The fact that it is being developed by the country’s sole manufacturer of solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles suggests that it may very well have a range allowing it to double as a counterspace system. The oddly named ABM system (“aerostat” is a general term for unpowered balloons and airships) has never been mentioned in the Russian press or openly discussed by Russian military analysts, but its existence and basic design features can be determined through open-source intelligence.
There has been much debate over whether Nudol is primarily an anti-missile system with a complementary counterspace role or vice versa.
Aerostat has shown up in a number of openly accessible official documents, the first being the 2013 annual report of the Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defense Corporation, established in 2002 to unify dozens of companies producing missiles, anti-aircraft systems, radars, naval artillery, and other systems. As can be learned from other publicly available documents, Almaz-Antey was assigned prime contractor for the project by the Ministry of Defense on July 12, 2013. A court document published last July literally describes the purpose of the July 2013 contract as “the development of a long-range intercept complex for the anti-missile defense of the Russian Federation in the period 2013-2018” and identifies the missile as 106T6. Aerostat is not the first such long-range ABM system developed under the supervision of Almaz-Antey. Another one, named Nudol, has been undergoing test flights for several years and is likely seen primarily as a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon.
Nudol (also known as 14Ts033) is named after a small place some 100 kilometers northwest of Moscow that was one of the deployment sites for the long-range missiles of Moscow’s former A-35M missile defense system. Its main element is a road-mobile solid-fuel rocket called 14A042, developed by OKB Novator in Yekaterinburg. This company belongs to Almaz-Antey and has produced a wide range of surface-to-air and cruise missiles. US intelligence data indicate that the 14A042 missile has flown at least ten test flights from the Plesetsk launch site in northwestern Russia since 2014, but no targets seem to have been involved in any of those.
There has been much debate over whether Nudol is primarily an anti-missile system with a complementary counterspace role or vice versa. US intelligence considers it a direct-ascent anti-satellite system, as is clear from statements placed on the website of US Space Command following the latest two Nudol tests in April and December 2020. It has also been characterized as an anti-satellite system by at least two Russian officials, namely the deputy head of a Ministry of Defense research institute and Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Another factor pointing in the direction of an ASAT role for the 14A042 missile is that the 14A designators are typically used for space launch vehicles (for instance, 14A14 is the Soyuz-2 rocket.) 14A042 is indeed termed a “rocket for space-related purposes” in two official documents that outline safety precautions that need to be taken when the rockets fly over the Nenets Autonomous District east of Plesetsk. Moreover, one court document mentions communications systems needed to connect Nudol with the headquarters of Russia’s space surveillance network in Noginsk-9 (code-named 3006M.)
An analysis of online procurement documents shows that Almaz-Antey was named prime contractor for the project by the Ministry of Defense on August 10, 2009, and awarded a contract to OKB Novator for the development of the 14A042 rocket on the same day. For some reason, Almaz-Antey received a new contract for the project on April 10, 2015.
While OKB Novator is responsible for integrating the rocket, the individual stages are manufactured by NPO Iskra in Perm. The designators 14D807 and 14D809 seen in some documents are likely the ones used for the first and second stage. Nudol appears to have a kinetic kill vehicle that contains a “multispectral electro-optical homing head” (MOEGSN or 14Sh129) developed by KB Tochmash. The State Institute of Applied Optics (GIPO) supplies what is called a “combined frameless television/infrared channel” for 14Sh129. This part of the payload, apparently named TTPS, is presumably described in several technical articles published by GIPO, where the spectral ranges are given as 0.4–0.7 microns (visible) and 3.0–5.0 microns (mid-infrared.) Both KB Tochmash and GIPO also have a role in the air-launched Burevestnik ASAT system.
Aerostat’s organizational background
Almaz-Antey’s main subcontractor for Aerostat is the MIT Corporation (MIT standing for “Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology”), which specializes in solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. Unlike OKB Novator, it is part of the Roscosmos State Corporation and is a newcomer to the field of anti-ballistic missile defense.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the MIT Corporation fielded the Topol-M, YARS, and Bulava ICBMs (the latter a submarine-launched missile.) In the 1990s, it also converted Soviet-era Topol ICBMs into space launch vehicles called Start and Start-1, which were used to launch a number of small satellites into low Earth orbit between 1993 and 2006. The company is also working on the solid-fuel emergency escape system for Russia’s new piloted spacecraft Oryol.
Other subcontractors that can be identified from online sources are:
– KB Tochmash and GIPO: the two companies play the same role as in Nudol, providing the electro-optical system of the missile’s homing head. Actually, some procurement documents indicate that the system is identical or at least very similar to the MOEGSN/14Sh129 system carried by Nudol’s 14A042 rocket. It also includes a diode-pumped laser rangefinder. KB Tochmash has also built laser rangefinders for some of its surface-to-air missiles and several years ago was planning to deliver a laser rangefinder “for spacecraft dockings” to an unidentified foreign partner, most likely China.
– NPTsAP imeni N.A. Pilyugina (further referred to here as the Pilyugin Center): this company produces guidance and control systems for launch vehicles and most likely performs the same task for Aerostat. It has built a test stand called Aerostat that is almost certainly intended for the project.
– GOKB Prozhektor: a company belonging to the MIT Corporation that builds autonomous power supply systems for the corporation’s ICBMs. Aerostat is listed among other MIT Corporation missiles in two of the company’s annual reports.
– PAO Radiofizika: a company under Almaz-Antey, involved among other things in building ground-based radar systems that provide targeting data for anti-missile systems. Aerostat is mentioned in PAO Radiofizika’s annual reports for 2018 and 2019 and in a book dedicated to the company’s 55th anniversary. The 2020 annual report mentions work related to “Product 103T6”, an index similar to 106T6. It is not clear if this is yet another missile or whether there is a typo in one of the two indexes.
– GosNIIAS (State Research Institute of Aviation Systems): this appears to build one or more test stands for Aerostat, including one used to simulate the infrared background against which the missile’s homing head will have to track its targets.
– ÐÐž VIKor: a company that provides technical support and consulting for various military projects. Its website mentions work done in 2019 on research projects called Aerostat-Ts-MIT and Aerostat-S-MIT-Nadyozhnost (the latter word meaning “reliability”).
Aerostat may have been discussed in an article written by Almaz-Antey’s deputy general director Pavel Sozinov in a 2017 issue of the corporation’s quarterly journal. It deals with mathematical modeling techniques to simulate the performance of various “air and space defense systems.” One of those is literally called “an advanced long-range intercept complex,” with Sozinov hinting that it has a range considerably exceeding that of existing systems. The simulations were needed to “justify technical decisions made to develop the system” and “determine its combat efficiency.” It can be learned from the article that its targets will be both “complex ballistic targets” (a term usually used for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) and satellites (included in the models were “calculations of satellite orbits” as well as data provided by the ground-based space surveillance network.) It cannot be ruled out that Sozinov was writing about Nudol, but he portrayed the research as being linked to a future system, whereas Nudol was already making test flights at the time of writing.
The computer models simulated the operation of a “central radar complex” to acquire and track the targets and benefited from experience gathered with a mobile radar system named Demonstrator. This was a truck-mounted phased array radar first demonstrated at various air shows in 2013–2014 and described at the time by PAO Radiofizika’s general director Boris Levitan as a prototype of bigger radar stations needed for space surveillance (although it could also be used for detecting airborne targets.)
What can be concluded from the available information is that Aerostat’s 106T6 rocket is probably a multistage solid-fuel launch vehicle that inherits elements from one or more of the MIT Corporation’s ICBMs.
The “central radar complex” could be the Don-2 battle management radar currently used by Moscow’s A-135 anti-ballistic missile system or another one known as 14Ts031 or Object 0746-M that is situated near Chekhov, some 60 kilometers southwest of Moscow. This is a modified version of the Dunai-3U radar complex originally built for the earlier A-35M missile defense system and consists of a transmitting and a receiving antenna separated by about three kilometers. In documentation it is called “a specialized space surveillance radar for the detection and monitoring of small-size space objects”. PAO Radiofizika has been closely involved in modernizing the radar complex since early last decade under a project called Razvyazka. Although the radar system has usually been linked to Nudol, it could obviously support Aerostat as well. According to a brochure distributed by PAO Radiofizika at the recent MAKS-2021 aerospace show near Moscow, the modernization of the radar complex has been completed and the main purpose of the P-band phased array radar is to catalog space objects and detect satellites in high orbits.
The receiving antenna of the 14Ts031 radar complex is seen on the right side of this image taken from orbit in June 2020. Source: Google Earth.
Grainy ground-based picture of the receiving antenna. (Source)
In the same article, Sozinov also discussed techniques to simulate the flight of a multistage solid-fuel rocket carrying a “multispectral electro-optical homing head” (possibly the MOEGSN/14Sh129 system jointly developed by KB Tochmash and GIPO.) He didn’t specifically link the rocket to the “long-range intercept complex,” but the computer models took into account Earth limb background effects, suggesting the rocket is designed to operate outside the Earth’s atmosphere. It has a third stage whose flight path can be corrected using tracking information on the target and its homing head is described as a “two-dimensional tracking system with independent control for each channel” needed to determine the angular velocity of the line of sight. Sozinov’s description of this system is virtually copied and pasted in a paper presented in 2018 by a researcher of the Pilyugin Center (a subcontractor for Aerostat) who has also co-authored several articles as well as a patent on a method to control the thrust of a solid-fuel upper stage. Presumably, targeting data obtained by the sensors will be used by the rocket’s guidance and control system to regulate the upper stage’s thrust.
The link with Aerostat is further supported by the fact that the specific Russian term used for “upper stage” in one of these Pilyugin Center articles (dovodochnaya stupen’, sounding somewhat similar to “kick stage” in English) is seen virtually only in publications of the MIT Corporation. Also, one of the co-researchers, Gennadiy Rumyantsev, is a veteran of the Pilyugin Center who was involved in developing the guidance and control system for the MIT Corporation’s Start launch vehicles back in the 1990s.
These rockets, derived from the Topol ICBM and launched from transporter erector launchers, came in four-stage and five-stage configurations (called Start-1 and Start respectively), with both carrying an additional low-thrust kick stage to deliver the payloads to their final orbits (so strictly speaking they were five-stage and six-stage rockets.) The kick stage had Ð° thrust control system as well as a gas reaction control system to ensure accurate orbital injection of the satellites. In earlier publications, Rumyantsev has pointed out that such kick stages can be used either as an ICBM post-boost stage to deploy nuclear warheads or as the upper stage of a space launch vehicle. Most likely, exactly the same type of stage could be modified to guide an exoatmospheric kill vehicle to its target.
Schematic representation of the Start launch vehicle’s “kick stage”. A similar stage may serve as the basis for Aerostat’s kinetic kill vehicle. (Source)
The MIT Corporation has recently proposed to revive the Start project using decommissioned Topol ICBMs, at least several dozens of which are left. The renewed interest in Start is also reflected by a handful of patents of the MIT Corporation that have appeared online in recent years. MIT has also studied modified versions of solid-fuel upper stages . Although impossible to prove, it is tempting to believe that these proposals at least partly draw on work done as part of Aerostat since 2013.
The Start-1 rocket. Source: MIT Corporation.
Aside from Sozinov’s 2017 article, Almaz-Antey has published two other articles that may be related to Aerostat. One discusses computer simulations of the launch of a “multistage rocket” which “exits the Earth’s atmosphere” and uses both on-board sensors and ground-based radar systems to detect and track its targets. One of its authors has also written an article on modeling the Earth limb’s infrared background radiation as seen by “space-based electro-optical systems.” Considering Almaz-Antey’s background, the research hardly had anything to do with a civilian space project.
There can be little doubt that Russia considers counterspace weapons an integral part of this system, which is often depicted as being targeted against “air-based and space-based attack systems”. From the Russian perspective, one such potential space-based attack system is the US Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane.
What can be concluded from the available information is that Aerostat’s 106T6 rocket is probably a multistage solid-fuel launch vehicle that inherits elements from one or more of the MIT Corporation’s ICBMs (Topol-M, YARS, Bulava, or possibly a lightweight version of YARS known as Rubezh.) Judging by Sozinov’s article, it may use the first two stages of an existing ICBM topped by an exoatmospheric kill vehicle consisting of a solid-fuel “kick stage” (the “third stage” mentioned by Sozinov) and a homing system that relies on data fed by ground-based radars and an on-board visible/infrared sensor.
Situating Aerostat in the Russian ABM program
So where does Aerostat fit in Russia’s anti-ballistic missile program? In May 2016, MIT Corporation general director Yuri Solomonov acknowledged his company’s leading role in a missile defense project, but did not provide additional details other than calling it analogous to the American Aegis system. Aegis is the Navy component of the US missile defense system and is geared toward defending against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their midcourse phase. It also has a limited counterspace capability, which was demonstrated in 2008 when an Aegis Standard Missile-3 was used to destroy a derelict US reconnaissance satellite to prevent it from re-entering the atmosphere in one piece and possibly causing harm to people on the ground (or that, at least, was the official explanation.) While Aegis is primarily a sea-based system, it also has a land-based component (Aegis Ashore) which began deployment in Eastern Europe in 2016. This has drawn strong criticism from Russia, which considers it a breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, arguing Aegis Ashore can also be used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets on Russian territory.
Ð¢he evidence presented above is not consistent with Aerostat being a theater missile defense system like Aegis. Presumably, Solomonov was referring to Aegis as a well-known example of a US missile defense system rather than meaning to say MIT’s missile defense system is in the same category.
MIT Corporation general director Yuri Solomonov. (Source)
Protection against theater missiles is currently provided by the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems. The only ABM system capable of intercepting ICBMs is A-135, deployed around Moscow to intercept incoming warheads targeting the city and its surrounding areas. This was declared operational in 1995 and is the successor to the original A-35 system deployed in the 1970s in compliance with the 1972 ABM Treaty (which limited both the US and the Soviet Union to having only one ABM site, but was abandoned by the US in 2002.) Currently, A-135’s main elements are the Don-2N battle management phased array radar and several dozen short-range 53T6 (NATO reporting name “Gazelle”) endoatmospheric nuclear-tipped missiles developed by OKB Novator. Also part of A-135 was 51T6 (NATO reporting name “Gorgon”), a long-range nuclear-tipped exoatmospheric missile, which has now been retired.
In 2014, Almaz-Antey’s Pavel Sozinov said that Russia’s missile defense system was being considerably upgraded and would comprise equivalents of America’s THAAD and GMD systems. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is intended to intercept short- and medium-range missiles at the end of the midcourse stage and in the terminal stage of flight. GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense) is designed to counter ICBMs in the midcourse stage. According to Sozinov, the THAAD-type system would target medium-range ballistic missiles and have a limited capability against ICBMs as well. The other system would be “somewhat similar to GMD”, but would be mobile and have a “higher intercept efficiency.”  In 2017, the chief designer of Russia’s missile early warning system, Sergey Boyev, declared that a “multi-layered national missile defense system” would be deployed by 2025, calling it a response to the “direct threat” posed by the US Aegis Ashore missiles deployed in Eastern Europe.
There can be little doubt that Russia considers counterspace weapons an integral part of this system, which is often depicted as being targeted against “air-based and space-based attack systems”. From the Russian perspective, one such potential space-based attack system is the US Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, which, according to Sozinov, could carry up to three warheads into space and then deliver them to their targets after evading early warning systems. Even President Vladimir Putin himself has alluded to the offensive potential of the X-37B, saying that “re-usable shuttle type spacecraft” can give the US an edge in the militarization of space and that the deployment of what he called “combat complexes” in orbit poses a greater threat to world security than that of medium-range missiles in Europe. In 2017, Sozinov acknowledged Almaz-Antey’s involvement in the development of counterspace weapons, more particularly electronic warfare systems to be used against radar reconnaissance, optical reconnaissance, and communications satellites, as well as systems for “the direct functional destruction of elements deployed in orbit,” an apparent reference to kinetic ASAT weapons.
The US Air Force X-37B is seen by Russia as a potential “space-based attack system”. Source: USAF.
What Sozinov called “the Russian THAAD” appears to be the S-500 system (also known as Prometey and Triumfator-M). As explained by Sergey Surovikin, the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the S-500 system is aimed against both “aerodynamic targets” (including drones and hypersonic vehicles) and “ballistic targets.” Its main goal, he said, is to destroy medium-range ballistic missiles, but if needed it can also intercept ICBM-launched warheads in the terminal stage. He added that, in the future, it will also be able to destroy low orbiting satellites and “space-based attack systems.” Little has been revealed about S-500, but available information suggests that it includes the 40N6M missile (with a reported range of 400 kilometers) for use against aircraft and cruise missiles and the more powerful 77N6-N and 77N6-N1 (with an estimated range of 500–600 kilometers) to counter ballistic missiles and satellites. All these missiles are products of MKB Fakel.
If used in an ASAT capacity, Aerostat should have a range considerably higher than that of Nudol and, hence, be capable of taking out satellites in higher orbits.
The “Russian GMD” is most likely the upgraded Moscow ABM system known as A-235. Work on this began back in 1991 under the strange code-name “Samolyot-M” (“samolyot” means “aircraft”), but progress has been very slow. The short-range component of A-235 appears to be an improved variant of OKB Novator’s 53T6 missile called 53T6M, which has been making test flights from the Sary-Shagan test range in Kazakhstan since early last decade. The long-range component, the replacement for the decommissioned 51T6, has long been rumored to be Nudol, with numerous sources (including Wikipedia) going as far as claiming that Nudol actually is another name for the entire A-235 system (which is clearly not the case.) In reality, there is no convincing documentary evidence that Nudol will become part of A-235.
The index used for Aerostat’s missile (106T6 or possibly 103T6, the same nomenclature as 53T6 and 51T6) does point to it being a future element of A-235. It would have several advantages over 51T6. Likely having a longer range, it would be able to intercept ICBMs earlier in the midcourse phase than has been possible so far. Rather than being installed in silos, it should be mobile (the MIT Corporation’s ICBMs can be launched from transporter erector launchers) and its advanced homing system should allow it to kinetically destroy its targets instead of disabling them by detonating a nuclear warhead in their vicinity.
Nudol’s place in all this remains uncertain (its exact range is unknown). Possibly, A-235 will be a three-tier system with short-range missiles (53T6M), medium-range missiles (Nudol/14A042) and long-range missiles (Aerostat/106T6). Original plans formulated for A-235 in the 1990s did in fact call for such a three-tier system. It is also possible that Nudol is a specialized ASAT system with no anti-missile role at all (the 14A042 index of the Nudol missile is not indicative of it being part of A-235).
Possible counterspace role
So is Aerostat designed to attack satellites as well? If Sozinov was writing about Aerostat in his 2017 article, then it would appear it is. The fact that Aerostat and Nudol seem to share the same tracking sensors may also point in that direction. If used in an ASAT capacity, Aerostat should have a range considerably higher than that of Nudol and, hence, be capable of taking out satellites in higher orbits. In the absence of more specific information on the design, it is difficult to estimate exactly how much higher.
As a rule of thumb, the apogee that a ballistic missile can reach when launched vertically is approximately one half of its maximum horizontal range. Therefore, a missile like Topol, which has a horizontal range of around 11,000 kilometers, would be able to reach a maximum altitude of roughly 5,500 kilometers. By replacing the nuclear warheads with a much lighter kinetic kill vehicle and adding one or more stages (as done on the Start rockets), that ceiling can be significantly increased. Recall that China conducted a high-altitude missile test in May 2013 that was officially billed as a scientific sounding rocket mission, but was later assessed by the Pentagon to have been a possible “test of technologies with a counterpace mission in geosynchronous orbit.”
However, it is highly questionable that Aerostat would be able to reach such altitudes or even those used by America’s GPS/Navstar navigation satellites (around 20,000 kilometers.) Moreover, it would take hours for a direct-ascent ASAT weapon to reach such targets, giving them ample time to perform evasive maneuvers. A more efficient way of disabling satellites in such orbits is by using electronic warfare systems, several of which are known to have been deployed by Russia. Any other US military satellites that could be worthwhile targets for anti-satellite systems orbit the Earth no higher than about 1,000 kilometers, more specifically the KH-11 optical reconnaissance satellites, the X-37B spaceplanes, the Onyx (Lacrosse) and Topaz radar reconnaissance satellites, and the NOSS-3/Intruder ocean reconnaissance satellites. Also added to the list could be a series of European military observation satellites. All of these would likely fall within the range of Aerostat.
Future tests of Aerostat may be complicated by the fact that Russia’s main test range for anti-missile systems (Sary-Shagan) is located in neighboring Kazakhstan.
In short, within several years Russia may possess as many as three anti-missile systems that could double as direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons (S-500, Nudol and Aerostat), whatever the rationale behind that may be. That goal has, in fact, been officially acknowledged for S-500 and Nudol, with the latter possibly even being a dedicated ASAT system. In addition to those, Russia probably already has operational ground-based electronic warfare and laser systems for counterspace purposes and is also working on co-orbital ASAT systems, which already seem to have made test flights under the Burevestnik and Nivelir projects.
Some insight into the original test schedule for Aerostat is provided by the earlier mentioned court document published this July. The July 2013 contract between the Ministry of Defense and Almaz-Antey and later supplements to the contract called for finishing the preliminary design by November 2014 and conducting a “live experiment” in October 2017. So-called “preliminary tests” were to be completed by November 2020 and followed by “state tests,” after which the system was to be declared ready for serial production in November 2021.
“Preliminary tests” and “state tests” are terms inherited from the Soviet days denoting the test phases that a military product has to go through before it is declared operational. “Preliminary tests” are defined as tests needed to determine if experimental versions of a military product meet technical specifications. “State tests” are needed to establish whether the product meets technical requirements “in conditions as close as possible to those experienced in the field” and to decide whether it can be approved for operational use and serial production.
According to the document, the “live experiment” was eventually carried out on December 26, 2017. No further details are given, but on that day Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces launched a Soviet-era Topol ICBM on a test flight from the Kapustin Yar test range near Volgograd (most likely toward the Sary-Shagan range in Kazakhstan.) In a statement released the same day, the Ministry of Defense announced the flight was designed to test new ballistic missile defense countermeasures. The same goal has also been reported for other Topol test flights from Kapustin Yar and was not unique to this mission. In this particular case, the test may have been aimed at testing ways of evading countermeasures taken by the enemy to prevent its missiles from being intercepted by ABM missiles. The fact that the Aerostat-related test was carried out with a Topol missile does not at all imply that Aerostat itself will also be based on Topol. The aging Topol missiles are used to demonstrate technology for newer ICBMs.
The court document does not shed any light on further technical progress made in the Aerostat project after the December 2017 test. The subject of the court case was a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Defense against Almaz-Antey for delays in the “live experiment” and the delivery of design documentation and software for the project (with the MIT Corporation mentioned only as a third party.) The court also granted a request from the Ministry of Defense to terminate the July 2013 contract, but that does not necessarily mean that the project has been canceled. The contract covered work on Aerostat in the 2013–2018 period and its official termination may have been no more than a bureaucratic move. In fact, procurement documents show that the Ministry of Defense signed a new contract with Almaz-Antey for Aerostat on April 26, 2018 and further work seems to have taken place only under that contract. A similar pattern was seen in the Nudol project, where the government contract with Almaz-Antey was renewed after six years.
The work known to have been performed under the new contract does carry the label “NIR”, which is Russian short for the research phase of a project that precedes actual systems development (referred to as “OKR”.) This may indicate that at least some systems have encountered technical problems that have forced designers back to the drawing boards.
Future tests of Aerostat may be complicated by the fact that Russia’s main test range for anti-missile systems (Sary-Shagan) is located in neighboring Kazakhstan. One anonymous “highly-placed source” in the Russian defense industry told a Russian news outlet in June last year that this is causing problems for tests of long-range air and missile defense systems, particularly S-500. To some extent, the source said, this also applied to Nudol, although the main stumbling block for Nudol were “some unresolved technical issues” that were expected to keep it from entering combat duty until 2021 “at the earliest.” Still, if Nudol and Aerostat have a hit-to-kill capability, that likely would have to be demonstrated before they are declared operational. Russia may prefer to do that using ballistic targets rather than orbiting satellites, considering the vast amounts of space debris that would be generated by such tests. Since it uses the same type of tracking sensors, Nudol could also serve as a pathfinder for Aerostat.
What seems to be a new test range for anti-missile systems (Object 2142) is being constructed near the town of Severo-Yeniseiskiy in the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia. It is part of a project called Ukazchik-KV, which in one document was associated with “a test range and internal flight path for tests of anti-missile systems and anti-missile countermeasures” (“internal flight path” probably meaning a flight path that doesn’t cross Russia’s borders.) Planned for installation at the new test range are radars and optical tracking systems similar to those used at Sary-Shagan. One map of the test range shows (simulated) warheads coming in from the northwest, indicating the new “internal flight path” will be from Plesetsk to Severo-Yeniseiskiy and complement or replace the currently used flight path from Kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan. Late last year, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the site near Severo-Yeniseiskiy was needed for tests of the new Sarmat liquid-fuel ICBM, but it clearly will be used for other purposes as well.
Map of the “Object 2142” test range, scattered over a large area near Severo-Yeniseiskiy. The arrow in the upper left corner indicates the direction of travel of incoming warheads. (Source)
Ukazchik-KV was assigned to Almaz-Antey on the very same day as Aerostat (July 12, 2013), as was yet another missile defense project called Selektsiya, which seems to be aimed at creating an integrated command structure for Russia’s air and missile defense systems. It is not entirely clear though if there is any connection between these three projects, which were initiated under three different government contracts. But even if Aerostat does not need the new test range, it seems to have fallen far behind the schedule originally set out for it and may still be a long way from reaching operational status.
CHINA’S dramatic accumulation of economic power over the last 40 years has increasingly focused the attention of western countries upon Asia.
Beijing’s conversion of this prowess into significant military and diplomatic might is now altering the global balance of power. It also suggests that while China is rising to international pre-eminence, countries such as the US and the UK are in relative – if not terminal – decline.
At stake in these dynamics is who determines the nature of the world order in which international politics takes place but also if this transformation can happen peacefully and will be accepted by all involved.
Central to such an outlook from a western perspective are attempts to present China as an imminent threat to the international system. Such narratives claim that Beijing is seeking to use its economic and military might to take over the world in a manner akin to that of the US, who effectively dominated the world since the end of the Second World War until the early 21st century.
This viewpoint overlooks Beijing’s repeated insistence upon wishing for a peaceful international system in which several countries hold power. It also ignores 2000 years of Chinese history during which China dominated Asia, but not the world, and who reigned based more upon respect than brute force.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wishes to restore this past status, which was debased for over a century prior to 1949, and began with the Opium Wars with the British in 1839-42, and also included long periods of war, invasion and then occupation by Japan.
This period of shame is known within China as the “Century of Humiliation”, and was characterised by chaos, uncertainty and instability. Used as a touchstone for nationalism, it included China losing its regional supremacy to Japan, which remains as a significant point of friction between the two sides. Not only did Japan occupy parts of China, its forces also carried out atrocities against the population – most notoriously the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-8 that resulted in between 40,000 and 300,000 deaths (and which is still denied by Japanese nationalists to this day).
Importantly too, Japan’s occupation also saw the loss of territory in the form of Taiwan (then known as Formosa), as well as related Chinese claims concerning some small islands in the South China Sea. When the 1919 Treaty of Versailles wrongly transferred German-occupied portions of Shandong to Japanese control rather than back to China, it also bred a deep-seated suspicion towards the west.
Any actions by western countries that seek to limit China’s regional power immediately trigger such historical memories not only for CCP leaders but also for a population that is well-educated in their history.
The announcement of the AUKUS pact between the US, the UK and Australia, that heightens the west’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific, typifies such triggering. So too will the upcoming meeting of “the Quad” (between the US, Japan, Australia and India) where its various leaders will proclaim a need to bolster democracy in the region as part of their “rules-based” international order. Such aims have been – and will be – interpreted by Beijing as being essentially anti-China, and due to highly virulent nationalist voices in the country, will force CCP leaders to openly and decisively respond.
The AUKUS pact is also indicative of the lengths to which western powers fear that their status is threatened by China. Apart from burning many diplomatic bridges between the EU and the members of AUKUS, by giving Australia access to sensitive technology in the form of nuclear powered submarines, the deal tacitly encourages nuclear proliferation.
It also acts, from Beijing’s perspective, as a new threatening element in the Indo-Pacific region that actively seeks to limit, if not derail, its development and modernisation goals. These goals are essential to China restoring its past status as Asia’s number one power.
In these ways, it is unsurprising that China will now seek to enhance its own military capabilities, and as such the AUKUS pact reduces – rather than maximises – regional security.
It also augments the perception within some nationalist and military circles in China that such moves by the west will affect China’s ability to reclaim Taiwan, which is central to overturning the injustices of the Century of Humiliation.
Such fears explain in part why China has carried out so many incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone in the last weeks, which are occurring at an unprecedented level. Such incursions are also done to test Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and to put pressure upon its pilots but concurrently increase western and regional perceptions that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent.
Such reactions and counter-reactions, accompanied by increasingly histrionic rhetoric, again only serve to increase tensions on all sides and do little to foster stability.
Chinese suspicions concerning western intentions were recently only increased further when US President Biden announced to the United Nations that “for the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war. We’ve turned the page” despite the fact that the US has active troops in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
In total, across 80 countries, the US also still has 800 active military bases (versus 70 bases across the world held by all other countries). When heightened by negative historical memories, western actions are thus regarded as hypocritical and duplicitous. This is especially so in light of the huge failed invasions regarding Afghanistan and Iraq that bought insecurity to Central Asia and the Middle East.
In turn, western strategic thinkers appear to have neglected to consider the impact of AUKUS upon North Korea, which continues to enhance its nuclear weapons capability and does so – partly – out of fear of a western intervention.
Given the militarising effect that AUKUS will have on the region, Pyongyang will continue to develop such a capacity and we can expect to see more weapons and missiles tests, which again will act as a catalyst for further destabilising forces in the Indo-Pacific, which are on China’s southern border.
SEEN in the context of a wider narrative that attempts to situate China-Western relations within that of a “new Cold War”, the potential for further competition and friction is palpable.
Not only is such a narrative misplaced – in that the globalised, highly inter-connected world is no longer split into two separate trade and diplomatic blocs – it also casts China as the new enemy of the west despite very deep-seated ties between the two sides.
These primarily include – in 2020 – China being the top trading partner of the US (with $560.10 billion in trade), Japan ($141.6 billion), Australia ($90.6 billion) and India ($77.70 billion). It was also the third highest trade partner of the UK (at $18.6 billion), after the US and the EU.
Such ties beggar the question; if China is such a major threat to global stability, why do these countries have such deep-seated economic relations with it?
China is also a vital partner concerning the climate emergency and managing the global financial system, and is essential to the world finding solutions to such major issues. Pressuring China through AUKUS would appear to be counter-intuitive in solving such questions and may cause China to embolden the economic and diplomatic ties that it is building across Asia and the world.
In particular, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is investing between
$1 and $8 trillion in railway, road, and sea route infrastructure, as well as construction, real estate, and power grids. This investment is attracting other countries to Beijing, and by extension greatly reduces relative western influence in global politics. Building such “win-win” ties that are not based upon military force and coercion also helps China to present itself as a more peaceful and more stable alternative to the west.
Notwithstanding the human rights concerns apparent in Xinjiang or the increased control and surveillance of the Chinese population through the Social Credit System, the AUKUS pact and the western insecurities will thus undoubtedly fuel destabilise the Indo-Pacific region.
If a conflict is forced over China’s territorial claims relating to Taiwan or islands in the South China Sea, the consequences will be devastating.
These relate to the human cost of any conflict – in which Chinese, and arguably western, leaders will not wish to be seen to back down – but also concerning the resultant damage to the global economy, which with China at its epicentre will precipitate a decades-long worldwide depression.
The ramifications of such a conflict will be felt everywhere, including in Scotland, and must make us ask why the UK Government is seemingly on a pathway that facilitates such an eventuality.
Coming at a time when much of the British economy is visibly convulsing from the country’s withdrawal from the EU, as well as the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must also question the value of such badly thought through consequences of the AUKUS pact.
AS a country that is firmly in decline on the world stage, the instinct to punch above its weight and to side with the US no matter the consequences remains (and has little heed for the lessons from the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq).
This hubris only underlines the perilous nature of contemporary UK foreign policy, and the unintended consequences that trying to grasp on to the country’s past status will bring.
Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer in Asian Security at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews
VLADIMIR Putin’s top weapons designers are developing a 4,000mph hypersonic nuclear missile that is capable of reducing a city anywhere on Earth to ashes within minutes.
The nukes will be fired from fifth-generation fighter Su-57 and travel five times faster than sound — making it almost impossible to shoot down.
Russian news agency Interfax reports the missile will be used against sea targets and ports and undergo tests by the end of this year.
Citing sources in the Russian Defence Ministry, Izvestia newspaper reports the hypersonic weapon is being designed for the Su-57 stealth fighter by the Tactical Missile Corporation under a codename “Larchinka-MD”.
It writes: “It will fly at speeds five or more times faster than sound and will become virtually invulnerable to modern air and missile defence systems.”
Earlier this it emerged that Russia said today it has successfully test-fired its new lethal Zircon hypersonic missile from a submarine for the first time.
Video footage shows the 6,670mph rocket being fired from the nuclear-powered sub-Severodvinsk before streaking into the night sky.
The weapon was launched from the surface in the White Sea and successfully hit a target in the Barents Sea, said the defence ministry in Moscow.
Russia claims the “unstoppable” Mach 9 missile is able to evade all Western defences.
“The Russian navy carried out the first tests of the Zircon hypersonic missile from the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine,” an official statement read.
“The missile was test-fired at a conditional sea target in the Barents Sea.
“The test-firing of the Zircon missile from the nuclear submarine was recognised as successful.”
Russia said last week said it had completed flight tests of the new-age missile from a frigate, the Admiral Gorshkov, and a coastal mount.
At the latest official public count, the U.S. military possesses a stockpile of 3,750 nuclear warheads, with approximately 2,000 more that have been retired and are awaiting disposal. Under the Trump administration, however, a small but unusual bump in stockpile size occurred between 2018 and 2019, according to these same figures. The unexplained increase in the total number of warheads in inventory is apparently only the second reported instance of its kind since the end of the Cold War.
The revelations are among newly declassified details of nuclear weapons numbers in a recently published fact sheetfrom the U.S. Department of State with the title Transparency in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile. This is the first time such data has been released since September 2017, after which the Trump administration took the decision to classify the information.
As the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) observed in their blog on the topic, the stockpile increased by 20 warheads between September 2018 and September 2019, when Trump was in office.
While there is no information immediately available to explain that 20-warhead increase, FAS suggests that one possibility is the production of the controversial low-yield W76-2 nuclear warheads for the U.S. Navy’s Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The-then presidential candidate Joe Biden warned before taking office that fielding the W76-2 was a “bad idea” and that the warhead’s existence makes the U.S. government “more inclined to use them” than in the past.
Regardless, the Trump administration pushed forward with the production of the W76-2, pointing to Russian plans for the first use of tactical nuclear weapons as justification.
According to FAS, the first W76-2 was produced in February 2019 and the final example was completed in June 2020. While that might explain some of the background to the spike, it’s not conclusive, especially since the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has gone on the record to say that some W76-1s were converted into W76-2s, which wouldn’t result in any change in the total number of warheads in the stockpile.
Another possibility relates the spike to the Nuclear Posture Review under the Trump administration, which was released in 2018. This reversed the existing plan to completely remove the B83-1 gravity bomb from service. It could be that the bump reflects a change in retirement schedules there somehow, although the timeline doesn’t seem to match up.
Whatever the reason for the spike, the appearance of the newly declassified data is interesting in itself. The State Department fact sheet notes that “Increasing the transparency of states’ nuclear stockpiles is important to nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, including commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and efforts to address all types of nuclear weapons, including deployed and non-deployed, and strategic and non-strategic.”
The latest figures are correct as of September last year, revealing that the U.S. has dismantled 711 nuclear warheads since September 30, 2017, when the figures were last made public. Prior to then, the United States had 4,717 nuclear warheads in its stockpile as of September 2014, and 5,113 warheads in September 2009.
It’s also worth noting the classification for warheads in the stockpile, and those that have been retired. The nuclear stockpile includes both operational “ready-for-use” warheads as well as non-operational ones, kept in a depot, which would require longer to make ready. Meanwhile, retired warheads are removed from their delivery platform and are no longer functional, essentially waiting to be dismantled.
The fact sheet also compares the latest total to the peak of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile — 31,255 warheads in Fiscal Year 1967 — and the total at the end of the Cold War — 22,217 in late 1989.
The figures do not provide subtotals of strategic and tactical weapons, although the fact sheet does confirm that numbers of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons have declined by more than 90 percent since September 1991. In the past, this category included weapons such as nuclear mines, artillery, tactical ballistic missiles, tactical cruise missiles, tactical gravity bombs, and anti-submarine weapons. Today, this class of weapon has been reduced to gravity bombs, although modernization of these weapons continues.
The timing of the latest nuclear warheads fact sheet coincides with a review of nuclear weapons policy and capabilities by the Biden administration. Declassifying the nuclear stockpile information is also likely geared toward next January’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference, in which nuclear powers who have signed the treaty — among the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China — will address the issue of disarmament commitments.
The State Department’s move could therefore be intended to apply pressure on Russia and China in particular, to release more details about their prospective nuclear stockpiles. Both of those countries are in the process of introducing new and diversestrategic weapons capabilities, while China is thought to have embarked on a considerable expansion of its nuclear delivery systems.
In the case of Russia, the Biden administration may hope that the newly released details encourage Moscow to be more transparent about its own nuclear stockpile within the framework of further extending, or replacing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. China, for its part, is not a signatory of New START and while the Biden administration is expected to make a push to include Beijing as well, officials there have been lukewarm in the past about becoming involved in such treaties.
As The War Zone has examined in the past, New START places hard limits on the total number of strategic nuclear weapon delivery systems, as well as the warheads that they carry, that each country can possess. The arrangement is seen as being key to preventing a new nuclear arms race between the two powers and the Biden administration is apparently keen to negotiate new arms control deals with Russia, especially given the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, in 2019.
In terms of nuclear policy, the Biden administration, for its part, seems set on continuing much of the strategic weapons modernization that was already underway during the Trump administration, despite the president-elect making calls for reducing spending on nuclear weapons, even stating that “the United States does not need new nuclear weapons.”
The Air Force, meanwhile, expects to receive around 1,000 examples of the stealthy Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile to replace the existing Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), to be armed with refurbished W80-4 warheads. This is in addition to its revitalized inventory of tactical nuclear weapons, based around the B61-12gravity bomb. While the LRSO program has a projected cost of $16.2 billion, the B61-12 is notoriously worth more than twice its weight in gold, as The War Zone has examined in the past.
That suggests that despite pre-election rhetoric about pursuing a “sustainable nuclear budget,” the nuclear weapons plans of the current administration are more or less business as usual. The hopes of some analysts that the United States might even do away with the ICBM leg of its nuclear triad were swiftly dashed, the Biden administration quickly committing itself to the primacy of the nuclear triad itself — ICBMs, nuclear-capable Air Force bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. All of those areas are undergoing a process of modernization.
On the other hand, the latest nuclear weapons fact sheet does seem to signal a clear move toward increasing transparency in terms of nuclear stockpiles. While this would seem calculated as a way of exerting pressure on Russia and China to increase their own levels of transparency in this regard, it remains to be seen how effective that policy might be.
THE US has blocked radioactive fuel to China over fears Beijing wants to triple its nuke stockpile.
President Joe Biden’s administration ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to block exports to China on “national security” grounds, The Times reported.
The export of radioactive materials to China’s state-owned nuclear company the China General Nuclear Power Group is now banned under the order.
It comes after Chinese state media called for a tripling of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to fend off the “warmongering” US.
The Global Times – the newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, which has a circulation of 1.5million – published a fiery editorial last year in which it accused Washington of trying to stoke conflict with China.
Chinese military officials were urged to increase the state’s nuclear stockpile to 1,000 warheads, more than triple its current estimated size of around 300.
The newspaper – which is often seen as the unfiltered mouthpiece of Beijing – called for the increase to “deter potential impulsive military action by US warmongers”.
Meanwhile China is busy building “at least 250 long range missile silos” in three locations — sparking fears a new nuclear arms race is underway.
A third Chinese missile silo field in a remote area in Inner Mongolia has been reportedly been photographed by a European Space Agency satellite as Beijing launches its largest ever nuke expansion.
The Arms Control Association said Beijing’s rapid nuclear buildup could significantly influence President Joe Biden’s administration’s up-and-coming Nuclear Posture Review, where it decides how many nukes it needs.
The campaign organisation has estimated at least 250 nuclear long-range nuclear missile silos at three locations.
US Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Buseyre, deputy commander of the US Strategic Command, warned China is set to overtake Russia as America’s main nuclear threat.
He told an online forum: “There’s going to be a point, a crossover point, where the number of threats posed by China will exceed the number of threats that Russia currently presents.”
China slammed Britain and America for “aggravating an arms race” after the countries announced a historic security pact to build nuclear submarines for Australia.
The Communist regime’s Washington DC embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu accused the nations of adopting a “Cold War mentality” like the terrifying nuke stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
The three countries’ leaders unveiled the alliance dubbed AUKUS in what was seen as a move to counter China’s rising might.
This comes amid raising tensions in disputed territories such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.
But Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the agreement “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”.
He said: “The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology by the United States and Britain to Australia once again proves that they use nuclear exports as a tool of geopolitical games and adopt double standards, which is extremely irresponsible.”
He added that the deal gave regional countries “reason to question Australia’s sincerity in abiding by its nuclear non-proliferation commitments”.
He urged the Western allies to “abandon their outdated Cold War zero-sum thinking” or risk “shooting themselves in the foot”.
The head of Australia’s domestic intelligence agency has made a bold declaration about Palestinian group Hamas.
The head of Australia’s domestic spy agency has thrown his support behind listing the entirety of Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said he did not have an issue with the listing the entire Palestinian group.
“Yes I would support it, but I am not the decision maker,” Mr Burgess told a parliamentary inquiry on Friday.
“There is a difference between Hamas and people who consider themselves Palestinian. If they support Hamas, then they would be supporting a terrorist organisation.”
At present, Australia only recognises the group’s paramilitary wing as a terror group.
But Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of a pro-Israel group known as the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said the idea of “wings” within Hamas was fiction.
Dr Schanzer said the Home Affairs Minister should list the entirety of Hamas under the Criminal Code.
“There is no separating the Izz-Add brigades (the paramilitary) from the broader organisation,” he said on Friday.
“This is a fiction perpetuated by those who wish to engage with elements of the terrorist group.
“The entry of Hamas should be listed as a terrorist group in Australia and around the world.”
Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan and the United States have designated the entirety of Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
In order to be listed as a terrorist organisation, an agency would need to nominate Hamas to the Department of Home Affairs.
There is no nomination for the broader group before the department, but representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Home Affairs confirmed to the committee they could make a nomination themselves.
Mr Burgess said broadening the listing to include the entire organisation would not have an impact on ASIO’s work, nor would it “present broader national security concerns”.
He said Hamas brigades were assessed as a threat to military and civilian targets in Israel.
“As a consequence, they remain a security concern to ASIO, and we support the listing,” Mr Burgess said.
“ASIO has assessed (the brigades) as a highly capable terror organisation that are committed to using terror tactics in targeting Israel.”
Listing all of Hamas as a terrorist organisation would expose its supporters to counter-terrorism laws. The committee has been asked to review whether Al-Shabaab; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; as well as Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades will continue to be listed as terrorist organisations under the Criminal Code.
This will be the ninth time Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades will be relisted.
As top US officials variously meet leading Saudis, Iran’s deputy foreign minister calls for Riyadh to open its atomic sites to full inspection and for Israel to sign NPT.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Reza Najafi Tuesday urged Saudi Arabia to be transparent over its nuclear activities and open up the access of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Najafi rejected remarks by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan earlier Tuesday to the UN General Assembly criticising “Iran’s continued breaches and violations of international agreements and treaties related to the nuclear agreement, and its escalation of its nuclear activities in addition to research and development activities.”
Addressing the UN General Assembly’s high-level meeting held to commemorate and promote International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (September 26), Najafi said Iran rejected the retention, stockpiling, development, use, and proliferation of nuclear arms.
Iran is in a dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over traces of previously undeclared radioactive material that it has failed to fully explain and over monitoring access to the UN nuclear watchdog.
Reza Najafi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for legal affairs. FILE PHOTO
It has also been enriching uranium to 60 percent and stockpiling it in violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.
Najafi condemned the modernization and strengthening of nuclear arsenals by the United States and other nuclear-weapon states in violation of their arms-reduction commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Najafi said Israel continued to “threaten peace and security in the Middle East and beyond through its clandestine nuclear program,” and urged the world to invite Israel to join the NPT and place its nuclear facilities under IAEA monitoring.
Unlike Israel, which is believed to hold around 180 nuclear bombs, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are NPT signatories. Saudi Arabia – which has no nuclear reactor but reportedly past nuclear links with both Iraq and Pakistani scientist AQ Khan – has limited the Safeguards access of the IAEA under a ‘small quantities protocol.’
Saudi Arabia backed former United States president Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from Iran’s 2015 deal with world powers limiting its nuclear program – the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The new administration of President Joe Biden has continued Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions as Iran has continued to expand its atomic program with steps that began in 2019.
Prince Faisal this week met with US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss recent developments in Iran’s nuclear case. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia Tuesday to discuss Yemen and Iran – the White House kept Sullivan’s visit low-profile and no photos were issued.
In his speech to the annual UN General Assembly last week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz expressed hope that continuing talks with Iran, brokered by Baghdad, to restore relations would build confidence. The kingdom cut diplomatic ties in 2016 when protestors attacked its Tehran embassy after Riyadh executed 47 dissidents including leading Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
OPINION: New Zealand might not be part of the recently revealed security agreement between the US, Britain and Australia (AUKUS), but it certainly can’t avoid the diplomatic and strategic fallout.
Under the pact, Australia stands to gain nuclear-powered submarine capability, with the US seeking greater military basing rightsin the region. ASEAN allies have had to be reassured over fears the region is being nuclearised.
Unsurprisingly, China and Russia both reacted negatively to the AUKUS arrangement. France, which lost out on a lucrative submarine contract with Australia, felt betrayed and offended.
Johnson tells Macron to ‘get a grip’ over AUKUS submarine deal
Boris Johnson has dismissed French anger about the Australian submarines deal, insisting Emmanuel Macron should “get a grip”.
But behind the shifting strategic priorities the new agreement represents – specifically, the rise of an “Indo-Pacific” security focus aimed at containing China – lies a nuclear threat that is growing.
Already there have been warnings from China that AUKUS could put Australia in the atomic cross-hairs. Of course, it probably already was, with the Pine Gap intelligence facility a likely target.
While New Zealand’s nuclear-free statusmakes it a less obvious target, it is an integral part of the Five Eyes intelligence network. Whether that would make the Waihopai spy base an attractive target in a nuclear conflict is known only to the country’s potential enemies.
What we do know, however, is that nuclear catastrophe remains a very real possibility. According to the so-called Doomsday Clock, it is currently 100 seconds to midnight – humanity’s extinction point should some or all of the planet’s 13,100 nuclear warheads be launched.
The US and Russia account for most of these, with 1550 many of these deployed on high alert (meaning they can be fired within 15 minutes of an order) and thousands more stockpiled.
The other members of the “nuclear club” – France, Britain, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and China – are estimated to possess over 1000 more.
Most of these warheads are much larger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. US, Russian and Chinese investment in the development of a new generation of hypersonic missiles has raised fears of a new arms race.
But the nine nuclear-capable countries simply shrugged. The Trump administration even wrote to the signatories to say they had made “a strategic error” that “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament” and urged them to rescind their ratification.
President Donald Trump then began popping rivets out of the international frameworks keeping the threat of nuclear war in check. He quit the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which prohibited short- to medium-range nukes in Europe, and the Open Skies agreement, which allowed flights through national air space to monitor compliance.
He also quit the multi-national agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear programme (despite Iran’s compliance) and failed to denuclearise North Korea, despite much fanfare. The bilateral START agreement limiting US and Russian nukes survived, but China rebuffed Trump’s idea of a trilateral nuclear pact.
Nor is the clock ticking backwards with Joe Biden in the White House. Although he extended START, the Iran deal hasn’t been resurrected and there’s been no breakthrough with a still provocative North Korea.
Both the INF and the Open Skies agreements lie dormant, and the AUKUS pact has probably seen US-Chinese relations hit a new low.
While it makes sense for New Zealand to maintain and promote its nuclear-free policy, it must also be pragmatic about reducing tension and risk, particularly in its own region. Being outside the AUKUS agreement and being on good terms with China is a good start.
Not being a nuclear state might mean New Zealand lacks clout or credibility in such a process. But the other jilted ally outside the AUKUS relationship, France, is both a nuclear power and has strong interests in the region.
Like China, France sits outside the main framework of US-Russia nuclear regulation. Now may well be the time for France to turn its anger over the AUKUS deal into genuine leadership and encourage China into a rules-based system. This is where New Zealand could help.
The Christchurch Call initiative, led by Jacinda Ardern and French president Emmanuel Macron after the 2019 terrorist attack, shows New Zealand and France can cooperate well. Now may be the chance to go one step further, where the country that went nuclear-free works with the country that bombed the Rainbow Warrior, and together start to talk to China.
This would involve discussions about weapons verification and safety measures in the Indo-Pacific region, including what kinds of thresholds might apply and on what terms nuclear parity might be established and reduced.
Such an initiative might be difficult and slow – and for many hard to swallow. But New Zealand has the potential to be an honest broker, and has a voice that just might be heard above the ticking of that clock.
As UN Secretary General António Guterres warned only last week: “We are on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction. Our world has never been more threatened or more divided.”
The Energy Department’s choice for the leading reactor design for reviving nuclear power construction in the United States is so at odds with U.S. nonproliferation policy that it opens America to charges of rank hypocrisy. The Biden administration is proposing to use nuclear fuels that we are telling others—most immediately Iran—not to produce. It will make it difficult to gain the restraints the United States seeks to limit nations’ access to bomb-grade uranium and plutonium.
We are talking here about the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) enthusiastic support ofTerraPower’s proposed Natrium “fast reactor” demonstration plant and similar fast reactor projects, which DOE has showered with grants and supports with department-funded enrichment, test reactor, and spent nuclear fuel recycling programs. TerraPower and DOE expect to build hundreds of fast reactors for domestic use and export.
Unlike conventional nuclear plants that exploit fission reactions triggered by slow neutrons, fast reactors maintain nuclear chain reactions with much more energetic fast neutrons. These reactors are billed as advanced technology, but they are an old idea. The first fast reactor designs date back to post-World War II.
Fast reactors’ main advantage is that they can make lots of plutonium, which can be extracted and used as reactor fuel instead of mining and using more uranium. This sounded good, so good to the Nixon administration that it set a goal to shift electric generation to plutonium-fueled fast reactors by the turn of the century. But the project came a cropper when it ran into safety hurdles that escalated costs. And then the increased awareness of the dangers of putting plutonium—one of the two key nuclear explosives—into the world’s commercial channels finally caused President Gerald Ford to announce the United States would not rely on plutonium fuel until the world could cope with it.
TerraPower is obviously aware of this history and the public relations landmine it creates for its demonstration project. It insists its Natrium reactor will not use plutonium as fuel or require reprocessing to extract it. The company’s website says, “Both the demonstration plant and the first set of commercial plants will run on high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU).” HALEU is uranium enriched to just under the official definition of highly enriched uranium, but well above the level of the uranium fuel used in currently operating nuclear power plants.
In enrichment terms, it is within easy arm’s reach of bomb-grade uranium. It is exactly the stuff we demand that Iran not produce, arguing that they don’t need it for power reactor fuel. It’s also what we’ve been discouraging South Korea from getting into (Seoul says it wants to enrich uranium to boost reactor exports and to power a fleet of nuclear submarines).
Note TerraPower only commits to using HALEU for its first, and likely subsidized, commercial plants. Whether using HALEU is the cheapest way of running Natrium is unclear. Foreign customers—if it ever comes to that—will surely want the “benefits” of the plant’s plutonium production and subsequent operation on plutonium fuel extracted by reprocessing. The Energy Department is already hedging its bets on this option by backing research into “new’ reprocessing technologies at its national laboratories.
All this will be hard to explain to, say, South Korea, which the State Department is trying to keep from launching into reprocessing to prepare for plutonium-fueled fast reactors, which South Korean nuclear enthusiasts are eager to develop. It also will make it difficult to complain about China’s crash fast reactorand reprocessing programs, which our military fears may be used to fuel China’s growing nuclear weapons effort.
Fast reactor boosters are aware of these points and know that they must at least appear to take account of them. An example is Senator Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD)amendment to the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020, which purportedly protects the nuclear explosives (plutonium and uranium 233) these reactors use as fuel or produce, and the reprocessing technologies that extract them. While his amendment may sound tough, it offers little more protection than what is already required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and that protection can be waived if the NRC finds the export is not “inimical” to US interests. The practical effect of the amendment would not be greater protection, but a smoothing of the licensing path for dangerous nuclear exports.
This is worse than hypocrisy. Once nations have easy access to nuclear explosive material, no inspections can prevent them from making bombs. Congress needs to look behind the Energy Department’s beguiling “advanced reactor” label. When it does, it must line out projects that could turn nuclear explosives into a common article of commerce worldwide. The place to start is with “advanced” fast reactors.
Victor Gilinsky serves as program advisor to The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, is a physicist, and was a commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.
Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.