August 6, 2015

SSBNs Still Quite Dangerous - Hiroshima's 70th Anniversary Today

Diagram dated around October 2014 courtesy Jane's, International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), FAS and WSJ.

On the occasion of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima 70 years ago today it is relevant to look at SSBNs - the ultimate first-strike and second strike-nuclear deterrence weapons. 

-  SSBNs are the vehicles carrying most of the world's rapidly usable and most protected nuclear warheads. 

-  Since the end of the Cold War (1991) there has been a small reduction in SLBM warheads (or at least megatonnage (explosive energy)) over-all in SSBNs from the US and Russia. 

-  The UK and France have remained the same depending on whether one is counting number of warheads or raw megatonnage. 

-  The new SLBM powers, China and India, have added to the warhead numbers, megatonnage and danger of mistakes.

- added to the known SLBMs is the highly secret issue of nuclear armed submarine cruise missiles that may belong to all of the countries in the diagram and also to Pakistan, Israel and perhaps North Korea.

It is a difficult to argue whether the value of deterrence is worth the risk of even one nuclear detonation mistake or intentional exchange. Yes nuclear deterrence probably prevented World War Three between the US and Russia (and China) in the Cold War? But is the risk of World War still as acute as in the Cold War? And who is going to disarm (stand-down) first anyway?

These are counter-factual questions for which there are no answers.

Only humour is left.

Dr Strangelove (above) may be faintly based on Edward Teller and Wernher von Braun. Possibly fictitious General Buck Turgidson (on right above) is based on General Curtis LeMay (involved in planning and directing the bombing of Japan).



subdriver said...

I agree Pete. It was the SSBNs which ensured that the Cold war remained 'cold' despite numerous provocations and are called the deterrent, not without reason. The alarming thing is the covert nuclear tipped missiles with potentially unstable and aggressive regimes like Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Israel that constitute the real threat to world peace.

While these are not going to go away, perhaps the more stable powers can convince them to make their capability transparent and thereby less dangerous. This could perhaps be done through the UNSC or some such body.

Peter Coates said...

Hi subdriver

Yes while SLBM can be fairly safely assumed to be nuclear it is cruise missiles (SLCMs) that could be conventional or nuclear - thus presenting a destabilising ambiguity.

Even SLCMs of the 6 SSBN owning countries (I'll include India) could also be nuclear.

Unfortunately all nuclear weapon owning countries are unlikely to accept UNSC or IAEA authority over their nuclear arsenals. And noting the "designated nuclear weapon states" have many legal exemptions from inspection of their nuclear facities and weapons.



subdriver said...

I agree Pete. The point I was trying to make was that the acknowledged nuclear weapon powers operating a deterrent would show more restraint in the face of provocation than a trigger-happy unstable regime. Why do not Israel, North Korea etc declare their status, whether they have nukes or not- because therein lies the danger. Pak, while being a nuclear weapon state( with stolen technology and support from the worst proliferators- China and N.Korea)claims to be a democracy but all the power including the nuclear button is in the hands of the military.

I am not talking about IAEA safeguards on nuclear arsenals. I am talking about forcing clandestine programmes out in the open with pressure from the UNSC.

Peter Coates said...

Hi subdriver

The determination of states to build their nuclear aresenals has been greater than UNSC "pressure" (as you say) in every year since 1945. The P5 in the UNSC context have usually disagreed on nuclear restriction issues with the veto power frustrating progress.

Which is why countries rely on non-UNSC structures:

- P5+1 nuclear talks over Iran

- Six Party talks over N Korea, and

- highly effective bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia.

So is India's nuclear arsenal more legitimate than Pakistan's?



subdriver said...


We can just hope that good sense will prevails someday...and hopefully before some catastrophic event takes place.

India's programme is far more legitimate than Pakistan's - India has an impeccable record of non-proliferation which even Australia acknowledges.We had exploded our first device in 1975 and didnt do so again till 1998. After that we placed a moratorium on further testing and No-First Use is the cornerstone of our nuclear doctrine

Pakistan on the other hand had a covert programme aided and abetted by China and N.Korea. Dr AQ Khan, the father of the Paki bomb was indicted for stealing secrets and technologies and under international pressure is under house arrest in Pakistan.

If Pakistan did not have the technology as they always claimed, how were they able to explode a device just a fortnight after India's in 1998 ?

Food for thought ?!


Peter Coates said...

Hi subdriver

Yes in 1974 was a deterrent against Pakistan and also against China.

The unusually large "research reactor" that Canada (with US encouragement) built at Trombay, certainly helped.

I have this theory that India received active or passive help from a variety of countries to create a nuclear capability - to balance against the menace of nuclear armed China. I think the theory makes sense in realpolitical terms - just impossible to prove.

Of course Pakistan was developing a nuclear program before 1974. Pakistan's conventional military inferiority to India provided one motivating factor.