Arms Control is Back – or is it?

According to US leaks the Biden administration is open for real discussion about arms control, provided that that is indeed the intent of the Putin regime. These could include confidence building measures surrounding military exercises, the number of US and Russian troops stationed in and opposite Poland and the Baltic States, as well as reductions in long-range weapon systems.

Make no mistake, this would without doubt be a most welcome development.

One of the most under-reported aspects of this new Cold War is the almost complete breakdown of what in fact was a rather extensive number of arms control and arms reduction treaties covering both conventional weapons and forces as well as weapons of mass destruction. This year will see the fifty year anniversary of SALT I, and in the time since there has been (or rather, had been) significant advances in the field. A rejuvenated arms control regime would certainly be a fitting way of celebration, because at the end of the day, while no treaty is perfect, the world in general is safer, there’s less room for misunderstandings, and you have a better situational picture and understanding of your opponent and their options if there is a solid framework of treaties in place. Even a simple “let’s get back to the CFE, INF, and Open Skies“-would be most welcome.

Any reduction in troops in Europe is often seen as favouring Russia as troops moved beyond Ural are easier to ferry back to the border than troops pulled back to the states. That is indeed the case, but arms control is one of the fields were allowing the lack of the perfect to stand in the way of the good might prove counterproductive. An imperfect agreement might still be better than none at all. Source: via Wikimedia Commons

The current diplomatic situation as a whole is in many ways not beneficial to the free world, as most of the recent talks between Russia and the US has taken place following threatening Russian behaviour. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that that reward the Kremlin doing bad things to get attention. Everyone knows that the US would like to pivot to China, which obviously also tells Moscow that Washington sees the current superpower hierarchy as going 1) themselves, 2) Beijing, and 3) Moscow (maybe, or then they’re just a regional power with nukes in an important region). That is obviously not how the Kremlin would prefer things, and if the only way to get to the US to treat them as equals is to march a hundred-thousand troops up and down the Ukrainian border, well, so be it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be worth settling in for one of two options: either talks should happen without the need for serious threats to kick them off, or alternatively talks shouldn’t happen at all, regardless of the Russian behaviour. The second option obviously is a somewhat dangerous one, while the first easily could lead to appeasement.

It is important to remember that arms reduction treaties are not a reward for good behaviour and being a decent chap. Instead, the reason for talks is exactly that the other side is made up of jerks that are doing stupid stuff. When the JCPOA-treaty about Iran’s nuclear weapons was in the headlines, a friend of mine who is a staunch supporter of democracy was surprised to learn that I supported the deal with that decidedly undemocratic and untrustworthy country. “Would I have supported a deal with Hitler?” my friend asked. “Yes,” was my answer. “Because one of the few things worse than fighting the Second World War would have been fighting the Second World War against a Nazi-Germany armed with nuclear weapons.”

That analogy is a bad mix of Goodwin’s law and counterfactual history, but it gets the point through.

Having established why I believe that arms control talks in principle would benefit the West by giving us a clearer picture on what the Russians are doing and removing or transferring some of the most aggressive capabilities further from the border to ensure a longer build-up before any Russian attack, I will unfortunately have to crash my own party by stating that I don’t think there is any hope for real and productive talks any time soon. This basically rests on the worldview found in the Kremlin.

In short, the basic premise for any arms control treaties is that they are based on reciprocity, i.e. that the sides agree to take similar steps and allow each other to have the same rights. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Russia sees the security concerns of Estonia as equally valid as their own ones, and I don’t believe Russia sees NATO as a valid partner. It has been rather clear from the outset that eyes are fixed on the price of a bilateral Russia-US agreements. There are a few possible reasons behind this, one of which is that Russia believe it is easier to get concessions from the US compared to the states neighbouring Russia, or that trying to split NATO would make eventual decoupling of the US and its allies easier. However, a possibility that in my view certainly is worth serious thought is that Russia does not understand that NATO is indeed for real an organisation made up off independent states and based on consensus decision making. The US is indeed primus inter pares when it comes to anything happening within it, but this is not the same as the role played by the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact where the leading nation extended Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the form of invading armies into countries that felt they could make decisions independently (something that happened not just once, but twice, and very nearly a third time). If that is the frame of reference you have when thinking about alliances, involving the rest of the countries in any discussions are just a waste of time, and it also very effectively reduces the easternmost countries from independent states with independent security concerns into just buffer states (this certainly might explain why countries are more interested in joining the other country’s alliance instead of the one you are promoting, but reaching that insight require a certain amount of introspection and self-critical reasoning that might be anathema to the whole thing).

A word of caution here as well: if the US authorities doesn’t remember these basic facts as well, there is a very real risk of an agreement indeed leading to some level of decoupling with the easternmost NATO-countries feeling left out. Besides other obvious issues, the benefits the US gets from its network of allies and partners after all is based on the US ability to get independent states to at times compromise their own interests in the understanding that in the long-run having US support is more beneficial. If their allies start believing that they are about to be sold out in a Munich 2.0-style agreement, the US will loose influence and might indeed instead of arms reduction along both sides of the Russian border see an uptick, potentially even a small-scale arms race as countries start to invest more heavily in systems they feel hold deterrent value – such as the long-range missile systems which both the US and Russia apparently agree constitute an issue (at least the enemy once constitute an issue, the own one are obviously just peaceful deterrents).

The F-16 and the free-fall B61 nuclear bomb – not a system even close in capability to a nuclear-tipped Iskander-M (or the RS-26 Rubezh), not even with the upcoming upgrade to F-35A and B61 Mod 12. Source: USAF via Wikimedia Commons

A short tangent: some have compared NATO’s enhanced forward presence to the Cuba Crisis and asked why the US strong response there was warranted if the Russian one here isn’t. There is an obvious issues here, namely that the country which has aggressively placed nuclear-armed long-range systems close to the heartland of other countries is Russia and not NATO – the only nuclear weapons found in Europe outside of Russia is the handful of UK and French SLBMs on their submarines, a limited number of French air-launched cruise missiles stationed in France and aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as a modest number of traditional free-fall bombs found on a handful of air force bases in the old NATO countries. Russia on the other hand has aggressively developed and deployed new weapons and delivery systems, the most notable of which is the Iskander-M deployment to Kaliningrad. Of course, if the European countries doesn’t have valid security concerns and should just be happy that they aren’t occupied and should forget about being able to freely choose their partners and allies, then the argument becomes more understandable, but I rarely see those using the Cuba-card to justify Russian demands also supporting the US blockade on Cuba or the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Where does that leave us? Well, in the best of worlds, mutually constructive talks can be had and a number of steps decided upon between NATO as a whole and Russia. These might include e.g. the withdrawal of Iskander-units from Kaliningrad and the regions close to the Russian western border in exchange for NATO commitments to not station the upcoming post-INF systems within range of Russian territories, or the movement of the 76th Guards from Pskov to a more eastern location in exchange for set limits on US troops in eastern Poland, or simply the lower hanging fruit of pre-announcing exercises and attaching observers to said exercises.

Unfortunately, as mentioned I expect the Kremlin not to appreciate the fact that the EFP and other steps taken by NATO countries in the east is largely based on the very real concerns these countries have, in no small measure based on their experiences from decades of Soviet occupation and dominance. As such, reciprocity will most likely be hard to achieve. In that environment, any arms control treaty is most likely a bad idea, and won’t achieve the desired effect. Instead, there is a very real risk that any agreement would just lead to splits within the alliance.

A very specific word of warning for Finland and Sweden: in the unlikely scenario of a major transatlantic security agreement that would include restrictions to e.g. long-range weapon systems near the Russian border based on the understanding that Poland doesn’t need JASSM because the corresponding capabilities can be supplied by other NATO-members, Finland and Sweden would be left vulnerable being both unable to buy high-end capabilities from NATO-members as well as not having the protection offered by being part of the alliance. The obvious solution is to join the alliance to ensure a seat at the table, and not just the courteous phone calls afterwards informing about what the decision is.

…and while the US just selling out the countries of eastern and central Europe – either under this administration or the next one – might be an unlikely option, it is also an extremely high-impact one, and since the options for the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea then would range from bad to expensive, it is high time to start thinking about what our plan is in that case.

Missiles and Machining

My wife’s grandfather was a mechanical engineer. The handbook he used during the fifties include a sizeable chapter on how to correctly dimension flat belt drives for power transmission, using leather as the material of choice. When I took up the same trade half a century later, the corresponding literature had abandon leather belts, computer-controlled manufacturing methods such as CNC milling receiving much coverage instead. This simple fact is something most people would acknowledge without further questions when confronted with, but it’s impact when discussing the North Korean weapons program is rarely discussed.

Picture of a centralised flat belt drive powering a weavery in the early 1930’s. Via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s take it from the beginning. The speed of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have shocked a number of commentators. How could a country best known for being dirt poor and ruled by a madman be able to master some of the world’s most powerful weaponry? While understandable, this reaction overlooks three fundamental issues: the strength of the driving forces behind the program, the nature of the regime, and the technical advances which has taken place in the last decades.

It is easy to dismiss the North Korean regime as a modern-day version of Game of Thrones with Chairman Kim in the leading role. However, there is preciously little to indicate that Kim Jong-un would be mad in the sense that he is crazy. Evil, yes. Ruthless, certainly. Ruling a bizarre country, without a doubt. But in the end, his actions are sensible and valid if his main goal is the survival of himself and the regime. The fate of recently deposed dictators does give ample room for concern for those still in power. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević died in his prison cell in The Hague during a trial lasting several years, Saddam Hussein was hanged, Hosni Mubarak was only saved by the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in a particularly gruesome way. The fate of Mubarak also shows that even purportedly friendly autocrats should be careful to trust the US administration when it comes to having their back in the case of an overthrow attempt.

That the US supports democratic movements and that crimes against humanity are punished are certainly positive factors for anyone believing in a society based on human rights combined with law and order. However, if you happen to be a vile despot, this is bad news, and should compel you to find a solution to deter any external attempts at your ouster. For Kim, the natural answer was nuclear weapons, and the surest way of delivering them unintercepted is long-range missiles.

An Atlas ICBM in their later form being used as a orbital launcher. Source: RyanCrierie via Wikimedia Commons

But how could Pyongyang ever afford such a venture? It is true that the state of the North Korean economy is deplorable. At a gross-domestic product of $28.50 billion, it is a mere fraction of that of its southerly neighbour, with Seoul coming in at $1.34 trillion. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, the US economy grew from around $300 to over $500 billions (today-dollars) between 1950 and 1959, the decade when the first US ICBM was developed in the form of the SM-65 Atlas. The comparison however overlook the fact that the underlying societies are fundamentally different. The US was and is a free market economy with only a part of the GDP being available for the state to allocate, and the state having to heavily factor in public opinion when deciding on how to spend its piece of the cake. In contrast, the North Korean regime exercises control over a vastly larger relative share of the economy, and has shown that it’s prepared to starve its own population if it judges the resources to be better allocated elsewhere. If Kim judges that a nuclear deterrence placing the continental US at risk is what guarantees him from suffering Gaddafi’s fate, there is no telling how big a share of the country’s (arguably limited) resources that are routed to the program.

However, what really sets the North Korean program apart from those of the recognised nuclear weapons states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the fact that neither intercontinental missiles nor nuclear weapons are modern inventions any more. It is easy to forget due to their limited service numbers, but the ICBM is actually a sixty year old invention, with the fission bomb being a decade older still. That doesn’t mean that they are easy to design and manufacture, but the work is considerably easier today than in the fifties. To begin with, while the detailed designs of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are highly guarded secrets (which occasionally does leak), many of the basic concepts are known to researchers and academics through open sources. It is also close to certain that North Korea has actively at least tried to gather non-open information through either friendly sources or espionage. As such, even if Pyongyang wouldn’t have gotten complete blueprints or complete pieces of equipment, there would still be a number of healthy pointers to direct where to focus the research for maximum effect.

The RD-250 engines of a Soviet R-36 ICBM. The design seems to be related to the engine of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles in the North Korean missile program. Source: US DoD via Wikimedia Commons

This is also where the radical change in manufacturing comes into play. Modern materials and high-performance alloys available on the open market makes the production of highly advanced assemblies possible. To make full use of these materials, advances in manufacturing machinery means that even small machine shops are nowadays able to produce machine parts with tolerances measured to the fourth decimal of a millimeter. Computer-aided design, CAD, simplifies the design process, and makes it possible to model both the manufacturing processes (e.g. modelling if a casting form fills up correctly) and how the final assembly will operate. It is hard to overstate the impact this has had on how complex machines are designed and manufactured. The ability to simulate the behavior of the finished machine in such varied fields as strength, aerodynamics, and heat propagation gives valuable insight into the performance that can be expected (though it should be noted that exactly modelling something as complex as an ICBM in flight is hard, and the quality of the simulations highly dependent on how skillful the engineers are). Again, suitable hardware and software are available on the open market.

No rogue state is an island, and as such it is clear that part of the know-how behind North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has been acquired abroad, either from willing channels (state or individual actors) or through outright espionage. However, writing off the country as stuck in the fifties and hence unable to produce anything more advanced than copies of Soviet tanks is an oversimplification. It does seem like Kim Jong-un feels the nuclear-armed ICBM is of crucial importance to be able to both deter the US from forcing regime change and to give Pyongyang more room to push its own agenda on the international scene. In addition, due to the nature of the North Korean society he is free to allocate significant parts of the country’s limited resources to the military (it might in fact be argued that the allocation of resources to the military is in part to blame for the rest of country being on the verge of starvation). Most importantly, the resources allocated provide significantly larger returns on investment due to the leap in manufacturing technology and being able to base their research on cues coming from earlier successful programs. Considering all of this, the speed of the North Korean ICBM and nuclear programs aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

The Consequences of Crimea for the NPT

One thing that has been mentioned but seldom actually discussed during the Crimean crisis is the fact that 20 years ago, Ukraine hosted the third largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, next only to Russia and the USA. As has been stated a number of times by different media, they transferred their warheads (and some carriers) back to Russia for dismantling, and in exchange received written promises that Russia would “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”[1]

The problem here is that the obvious lesson seems to be that being nice doesn’t work in the real world.

It is difficult to say whether keeping a nuclear stockpile would have worked as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of Crimea, and if Ukraine would have met the economic and technical requirements to maintain such a deterrent. However, what we do know is that the written assurances did not work, so it is no far-fetched guess that in Ukraine today at least some of its leaders asks themselves if it was a mistake.

I don’t believe Ukraine will ditch the NPT to develop a new arsenal due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is how Russia would react to such a decision. However, there are a number of places in the world where this might have implications.

That nuclear weapons are restricted to certain countries is not a law of nature. In fact, quite a number of countries studied whether or not they should acquire their own weapons in the early part of the Cold War, but in the end, the costs and technical difficulties meant that only a handful of countries actually created operational weapons, and in the meantime nuclear weapons had received a fairly bad reputation amongst civilians, something which further restricted their use. However, this is in no way an irreversible process, as e.g. North Korea has shown.

If it is felt that the NPT does not work, countries that feels threatened by their neighbors (especially if the neighbors are armed with WMD’s), might very well start to look into the possibility of acquiring their own. Especially in the Far East, where China has both a sizeable nuclear stockpile and is starting to flex its muscles more aggressively, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan/ROC may feel that the added security of a nuclear shield is worth the worsening diplomatic relation such a move would create. This will not happen in the near future, but I believe it is not impossible in the medium term. Japan is struggling with worsening demographics and an uncertain economy which might hamper its planned expansion of its conventional forces. South Korea has the latest nuclear state as its neighbor and is quarrelling with China about its sea borders. Taiwan is always looking for ways to stop a Chinese assault, and while China rapidly is expanding the PLAN, the US is a far from certain ally. In all cases, having a nuclear deterrent might be just the solution the politicians are looking for.

And Ukraine being invaded by the country it gave its weapons too, might be just the spark needed for a new nuclear arms race to start.

Edit: Over at KKRVA a nice analysis partly about the same subject can be found in Swedish under the title Ukraina – Tre döende patienter.