Nuclear Arms Race: Do You Know The Secret History?

Hydrogen Bomb

Until the 1990s nuclear arms race mainly was ascribed to the two major global powers: the United States and the Soviet Union; while Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan also possessed nuclear weapons, the race to acquire advanced atomic arms was principally between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

“Arms control has a complicated history. In the earliest days of the nuclear age some concerned scientists had argued that unilateral restraint would induce the Soviets to follow suit. There was not the slightest proof that the Soviets operated by such a maxim, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Secretary of Defence, Harold Brown said during the Carter Administration: ‘We have found out that when we build weapons, they build; when we stop, they nonetheless continue to build’ “.

Dr. Henry Kissinger: White House Memoirs 1982

That was then. Since joining the nuclear arms race with unmatched ferocity, China would, if it has not already, jolted the two erstwhile rivals into abandoning their negotiated arms control ceilings. In fact, the rise of China as a contender for superiority in the acquisition of nuclear weapons systems casts doubts on the possibility of achieving a strategic balance in the global setting.

The emphasis has shifted to hypersonic ballistic cruise missiles that are both conventional and nuclear warhead capable. In other words, the invention and development of hypersonic technology have ushered in a three-way nuclear arms race between China, Russia and the United States of America. The craving to acquire nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles has also gravely altered calculations for maintaining a mutually acceptable balance of terror.

For the umpteenth time in 2019, China and Russia respectively boasted of injecting newly acquired hypersonic missiles into their weapons arsenal. Enter the United States. In August 2020, the Daily Mail Online published footage released by the U.S. Army at a defence conference. The footage showed a new hypersonic boost-glide vehicle that the army can launch from land or submarine. It was reportedly deployed on March 9, 2020. The joint Army-Navy standard Hypersonic glide body (C- H.G.B.) is nuclear-capable.

Hypersonic re-entry vehicles travel at very high speeds and manoeuvre unpredictably compared with existing conventional ballistic missiles. They are thus difficult to track by missile defence countermeasures.

In May 2020, President Donald Trump disclosed thus: “We have, I call it the ‘ Super Duper Missile’ and I heard the other night, 17 times faster than what we have right now., when you ‘ve heard Russia has five times and China is working on five or six times, we have seventeen times and its gotten the go ahead”.

In December 2019, Vladimir Putin announced a new turn in Russia’s nuclear arms race. Russia has broken new grounds with the unveiling of a land-based hypersonic variant of Russia’s “unstoppable missile” with speeds of Mach 9(12,000mph).

President Vladimir Putin of Russia

It’s clear now that by this trend, the nuclear arms race has taken a new turn. But Russia’s top Navy commander admitted that the Russian navy would not deploy its hypersonic Zircon cruise missile now as it suffered “childhood disease”. It will take some years before m22 Zircon becomes operational”, he concluded. No one can say for sure what the actual situation is. Nuclear powers tend to hide the truth about their arsenals most of the time.

In January 2020, China released rare footage of its nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, DF -26, as it lifted off a launcher during a military exercise. The mighty weapon reportedly commissioned by the People’s Liberation Army P.L.A. in 2018 can reach the U.S. territory of Guam, two thousand miles away from the China coast within its reach.

The list goes on. At the parade commemorating Russia’s Navy Day in July 2020, Putin said, “Russia needed a strong navy to defend its interests and help maintain a strategic balance and global stability”. He also assured that the navy would receive additional 40 new ships equipped with hypersonic missiles before the year runs out. However, President Putin did not specify when the new hypersonic missiles would deploy but suggested, “the time was near”.

For the U.S., the new global reality in its present context affects the nuclear arms race. In the past, efforts at negotiating arms control were with the Soviet Union only. China’s entry into the race altered the status quo.

China, now a rival economic power, has emerged from obscurity and seeks to assert itself as global military power around the globe at will. Beijing’s recent military parades have displayed its innovativeness in its panoply of new weapons systems never before seen.

In a sense, defence experts argued that initiating production of hypersonic missiles signalled Russia’s one-sided repeal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement reached with the Obama Administration. That remains the truth since these missiles are nuclear-capable. Any argument to the contrary would be misleading as producers can transform missiles into multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

Hypersonic weapons, now in vogue and already changing the landscape of vintage weapons, are a new phenomenon. In whatever way they are touted, they have neither been proven to be invincible nor invulnerable. Defence experts are at work. The effectiveness of retaliatory countermeasure weapons against hypersonic missiles remains to be seen over time.

Defence experts must, of necessity, make research into this a matter of priority in their planning.
Perhaps Strobe Talbot, one time Time Magazine diplomatic correspondent and later American Ambassador to Moscow, anticipated that.

He wrote in December 1982 -of negotiations at the time – that “the U.S. should concentrate in the near term on building up its conventional forces and its more purely retaliatory weapons systems like the cruise missiles which are too slow to threaten a sleek attack”.

President Ronald Reagan seemed to be in tandem with Talbot. In his address to Congress in 1982, he emphasized that alternatives be put in place for what he referred to as “slow fliers” as deterrence.

It is important to note that hypersonic missiles launched from both land and submarine forces become potential nuclear deterrence to all parties. To do otherwise is to willfully invite Armageddon. The excellent aspect of it is that all parties, including Putin, speak in favour of “strategic balance”.

The reason Vladimir Putin, in July 2020, pulled all strings to plant himself as President for the next sixteen years is to make himself a force to reckon with in international politics. And the only way for him to sustain his ego-based plan is to embark on a sustainable nuclear arms race for as long as possible. Pushing Russia from the position of a superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union has always irked Putin. Seeking relevance, therefore, prompted Putin to invade Crimea with impunity.

How long the Russian economy will possess the elasticity to cope with the new nuclear arms race remains to be seen. China, on the other hand, continues to enjoy bourgeoning economic growth for now. It must also dawn on them that the nuclear arms race is a significant drain on any economy. For the U. S. the new reality is that it now has two contending forces to deal with as rivals. If Washington must negotiate parity, it would no longer be with one power.W II Era Arms Race

WW II Era Arms Race

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested the Atomic Bomb code-named Joe and terminated America’s nuclear monopoly in 1945. The Soviet bomb, therefore, heralded the cold war nuclear arms race. The disclosure of the test by the Soviets sent jitters across America and Europe. Events have set the stage for a prolonged arms race which has continued unabated to date.

President Truman of the U.S. prevailed on the National Security Council (N.S.C.) to undertake an intensive evaluation of America’s Cold War strategy. The report released by the N.S.C. in 1950 called for a massive increase in military spending and dramatic acceleration to develop the next stage of nuclear weapons.

The US President: Harry Truman.

On September 24, 1951, the Soviets tested another bomb code named Joe II. The United States responded with its first Hydrogen Bomb test in the Pacific Ocean on November 2 1952. The U.S. again detonated a giant Hydrogen Bomb named Taso Brago on March 4, 1954. It had a capacity of 14.8 megatons or 14.8 million tons of T.N.T.

With the heightened pace of tests and proven ability by both powers, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed Nuclear Test Ban’s first treaty in 1958. By the terms of this treaty, both forces suspended nuclear arms testing.

A follow – up Trilateral Test Ban Treaty was signed by Britain, the U S. and the Soviet Union in 1963 after Britain tested the Hydrogen bomb. The cold war nuclear arms race continued till the cold war came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nuclear arms race has continued unabated to date.

Nuclear Arms Race Definition

The nuclear arms race was an unprecedented race for possession of weapons of mass destruction. It became very pronounced after the U.S. President authorized the decisive use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. It brought the war to an abrupt end with Japan’s unconditional surrender. After the Soviet Union tested its own device in 1949 and terminated the U.S. nuclear monopoly, the Cold War arms race became established and lasted till 1991.

Nuclear Arms Race Timeline

The nuclear arms race timeline deals with the significant events of the arms race. As I indicated in another write-up, it has become difficult to separate the arms race from the space race. It is therefore pertinent to treat the two together.

Critical Events of the Atomic Arms Race

In 1945 the United States of America conducted the first nuclear test. As WW II raged in the Pacific Ocean with heavy daily casualties, the U.S. Air Force dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima. The following week the U.S. military dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Japan was compelled to surrender unconditionally.

The first nuclear test from the USSR was conducted in 1949. The success of that test terminated the U.S. nuclear monopoly.

The United Kingdom entered the arms race with its first test in West Australia. That test conducted in 1950 placed the U.K. as the third nuclear power.

In 1960 France tested its first nuclear device in the Sahara Desert, bringing Paris to join the nuclear club. But before this time, the race between the U.S.A. had been escalated with both countries testing Hydrogen bombs.
Both countries developed an intense craving for manufacturing bigger and more powerful bombs. In 1964 China detonated its first nuclear device. Other nations that have since tested nuclear devices are India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

One point which became apparent was that both superpowers seemed unwilling to use these bombs. The devastation caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not lost on the leaders of both countries. When U.S. Army General Douglas McArthur threatened to use the bomb on China over the Korean War, President Truman promptly sacked him. He was immediately recalled to the U.S. from the war theatre.

As the Cold War heated up, the U.S. adopted the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The underlying theory was that the mass accumulation of nuclear weapons was in itself a deterrent. It upheld that in the event of a nuclear war, humanity would face total annihilation. Still, the building of the big bombs escalated to guarantee massive retaliation if attacked. It also led to the proliferation of expansive bomb shelters or elaborate facilities in cities across America and the USSR.

In 1957 the USSR introduced another dimension into the cold war: the space race. The USSR took a step ahead of the U.S. with its first satellite, the Sputnik I, rocket into space. Since it was clear that such a rocket could carry an atomic warhead into space, the U.S. felt gravely threatened by the new development. In other words, the USSR produced the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Later in the same year, Sputnik II was launched. It carried a passenger, a small dog named Laika, into space.

In 1958 the U.S. also tested its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. In the same year, the U.S. put a new submarine into use. The Polaris submarine could launch nuclear bombs while lurking in the waters close to the USSR.

The Soviets detonated a nuclear bomb code-named Tsar Bomba in 1961. The explosion is believed to be the largest ever made by a human-made object.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 kept the world at the brink of nuclear war for thirteen days. It also led to establishing a nuclear hotline between Washington DC and Moscow to prevent the nuclear accident. In 1968 the Soviet Union developed the A.B.M. The Anti Ballistic Missile was designed to shoot down incoming enemy nuclear missiles.

The USSR anti ballistic missiles system

The U.S. developed MIRV technology in 1968. The technology enables one missile to carry several nuclear warheads, each programmed to explode at different targets upon detonation.

The US manufactured Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV)


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