By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
In U.S. military lingo, a “broken arrow” refers to a incident involving the loss of a nuclear weapon. Here, we’re bringing you the nuclear weapons news that’s been ‘lost’ in the last week.
More from Pentagon report: China’s air force newly re-assigned a nuclear mission
As Broken Arrow News reported last week, the Pentagon released on August 16 the unclassified version of its annual report on China’s military. The release was reported on by several media outlets, with emphasis being placed on the Pentagon’s assessment that China’s military has been “likely training for [bombing] strikes against U.S. and allied targets.”
Reporting in Military Times highlighted another key assessment from the Pentagon report: China may be on the doorstep of deploying a nuclear triad. According to the report, “the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force has been re-assigned a nuclear mission. The deployment and integration of nuclear-capable bombers would, for the first time, provide China with a nuclear “triad” of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea and air.”
China’s air force includes H-6 bombers, some of which likely have the technical capability to carry a nuclear weapon. However, it is not believed that the H-6 aircraft have an active nuclear mission, as discussed in the Federation of American Scientists’ 2018 Nuclear Notebook on China’s nuclear arsenal. The Department of Defense made a similar assessment last year in their 2017 report on China’s military, which said that the Chinese air force “does not currently have a nuclear mission.”
Abe and Trump spoke on phone last week, will meet at UN General Assembly next month
Last week, President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had their first phone call in two months, in which the two reaffirmed cooperation in pursuing the denuclearization of North Korea and committed to maintaining strong sanctions against the country. The issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens was also brought up, to which President Trump said that Washington would help resolve the issue in line with Japan’s thinking.
According to comments made by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders about the call, Trump and Abe also said they look forward to seeing each other at the UN General Assembly, which will take place next month in New York.
India test fires ballistic missiles from submerged nuclear submarine
India has been developing its first domestically produced nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the INS Arihant, since the 1990s. As of this month, the INS Arihant has conducted its first missile test launches from a submerged position, according to reporting by The Diplomat and local media.
The three tests, conducted on August 11 and 12, involved firing three K-15 short-range ballistic missiles from the submarine while it was submerged about 20 meters underwater offer the Visakhapatnam coast. The third of these tests took place in full operational configuration and was part of the first phase of user trials for the missile. The successful series of missile test launches brings India one step closer to an operational sea-based nuclear capability.
The last missile test fire from the INS Arihant took place in November 2015. In 2017, the ship suffered major damage that took it out of commission for much of the last two years.
India to induct its advanced intercontinental ballistic missile in December
Media reports in India this month suggest that the Indian Ministry of Defense will be officially inducting its most advanced nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Agni-V, in December 2018. The news was covered by The Diplomat.
The Agni-V is a three-stage ICBM intended to provide India with a second-strike capability. It began development in 2008 and has been successfully test launched six times since 2012. The most recent test took place in June. The Agni-V is a solid fueled missile with a range of about 5,500 to 7,500 km (3,400 to 4,700 miles). The successful test launches from a submerged position bring the Agni-V closer to being operationally ready, but according to The Diplomat, “an operational deployment of the Agni-V…will require at least two additional test launches” by India’s Strategic Forces Command.
India’s military research branch is also working on a next-generation ICBM called the Agni-VI, a four-stage ICBM expected to have a range of over 10,000 km (about 6200 miles). The Agni-VI will also have multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capability and maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) capability, developments that analysts including The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady suggest could have a destabilizing effect on the strategic balance in the region.
U.S. intelligence sources: Russia searching for nuclear-powered missile lost at sea
Last week, CNBC reported that Russia is working to recover a nuclear-powered cruise missile that was apparently lost at sea in late 2017. The information comes from multiple anonymous sources with direct knowledge of a U.S. intelligence report on the lost missile and Russia’s efforts to recover it.
The nuclear-powered missile, reportedly called the Burevestnik, was dramatically unveiled by Putin in his March 1 speech showing off a number of new nuclear weapons systems. Moscow claims the nuclear-powered missile has “unlimited range,” but all tests of the device so far have been failures, with the longest flight lasting just over two minutes and traveling just 22 miles.
The missing missile was test launched in November and landed in the Barents Sea to the north of Norway and Russia. The missile contains the nuclear reactor that powers its flight, but is not armed with a warhead. According to the U.S. intelligence report, the recovery operation will involve three vessels, including one that is equipped to handle radioactive material.
The report does not address potential health or environmental risks associated with possible damage to the nuclear reactor inside the missile. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists spoke with CNBC about the risk of radioactive pollution from the missile, saying, “[i]f this missile was lost at sea and recovered in full, then you might hypothetically be able to do it without pollution, I would have my doubts about that because it’s a very forceful impact when the missile crashes. I would suspect you would have leaks from it.”
Gizmodo reported on the missing missile following CNBC’s article, as did Task and Purpose. Reporting by Task and Purpose suggests that the United States may also be looking for the missile, noting that U.S. Air Force “nuclear-sniffing” WC-135 ‘Constant Phoenix’ aircraft were spotted flying over the Barents Sea and Baltic Sea earlier this year.
Prototype for Russia’s upgraded bomber has arrived
As of last week, the first prototype of Russia’s upgraded intermediate-range bomber aircraft, the Tupolev-22M3M, has officially been rolled out. The Diplomat reported on the upgraded Tupolev-22M3M in early August, just over a week before it was rolled out on August 16. That article was summarized in the Broken Arrow News for the week of August 6.
According to the Tupolev company, the modernized version of the Tupolev-22M3 features extensive improvements, including “new navigation, communication and targeting equipment, new engine and fuel consumption control systems and radio-electronic warfare means.” Although most of these upgrades are in line with analysts’ expectations, the claim of a new engine for the Tupolev-22M3M has drawn some skepticism, since refitting an existing aircraft with new engines is a complex engineering task. The Diplomat’s report in early August suggested that the Tupolev-22M3M was not expected to receive a new engine.
However, regardless of whether or not the modified bomber has a new engine, it will have an upgraded range due to its ability to be refueled in-air. The modifications include installation of an aerial refueling boom, which will allow the plane to fly greater distances without landing. Previous versions of the aircraft included this feature, but it was removed as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations in the early 1990s. One of the largest questions about the upgraded Tu-22M3M will be how it fits under the rules of New START, which limits the strategic launch platforms of the United States and Russia. With the extended range provided by an in-flight refueling capability, it is possible that the Tupolev-22M3M could be classified as a heavy bomber and subject to deployment limits under New START. The matter will likely be raised with Russia by the United States once the Tupolev-22M3Ms are deployed.
Bolton meets with Russian counterpart: despite “considerable progress,” no new conclusions reached on arms control
On Thursday, August 23, National Security Adviser John Bolton met in Geneva with his Russian counterpart, Putin adviser Nikolai Patrushev. The two spoke for five hours and discussed a wide range of topics including nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, as well as issues relating to counter-terrorism, Syria, and Iran.
After the meeting, Bolton told the Associated Press that the Trump administration is “very, very early in the process of considering” what to do regarding New START, the treaty that mutually limits the deployed strategic nuclear weapons of the United States and Russia. The treaty is set to expire in 2021, but can be extended another five years if the two parties agree to do so. At last month’s meeting between Trump and Putin, Putin said that he was ready to implement the five-year extension.
Bolton said the United States has a few options regarding New START, including extending it for five years, renegotiating the agreement, or returning to the Moscow Treaty, the one-page agreement signed in 2002 that directly preceded New START. Notably, the Moscow Treaty, officially known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), lacks the robust verification measures included in New START to mutually assure compliance. Media coverage of Bolton’s post-meeting interview with the does not make clear whether or not he was talking about a new Moscow Treaty that would rely on the verification measures of an extended New START.
Although both Bolton and Patrushev have commented on the content of their talks last week, they failed to produce an official joint statement. Both men attributed the lack of joint statement to the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Bolton insisted that such a statement should include a reference to Russian meddling in 2016, which Moscow continues to deny despite all evidence.