Nuclear arms race – disarmament is necessary

by Gerd Brenner, Colonel in the General Staff (German Army)

In the future, new geopolitical conditions must be reflected by new treaties about nuclear weapons and their carrier systems, considering new technologies and signed by new actors. Moreover, the number of such weapons throughout the world needs to be drastically decreased. The danger of a “nuclear winter” has been looming for decades and should today, when everybody is talking about “climate crises”, finally be taken seriously. Generally speaking, a comprehensive new analysis of world-wide weapons arsenals is required since it doesn’t make any sense to simply restart negotiations based on the numbers of ten years ago.

In 1987, the sitting US president Ronald Regan and the Soviet head of state and ruling party Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. It is often referred to as the “global double zero” since it prescribed the destruction of existing intermediate range nuclear missiles, i.e., those of a range between 500 and 5,500 km, and the refraining from developing new ones. In the years afterwards the USA destroyed their middle range missiles of the type “Pershing II” and the Soviet Union or Russia, respectively, their “RSD-10” which had become famous in the West under the term “SS-20”. However, neither air-borne nor sea-borne middle range weapons were mentioned in the treaty. After Russia had complained for several years that the USA had broken the INF treaty, the Trump administration revoked it on 1 February 2019. Russia withdrew as well and since 2 August 2019 it has been officially invalid.1
  In 2010 the sitting presidents Dmitri Medvedev of Russia and Barack Obama of the USA signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, often referred to as New-START-Treaty.2 Russia and the US agreed that both sides would reduce the number of warheads from 2,200 to 1,550 each and the number of carrier systems from 1,600 to 800. Ratified in February 2011 it was to be valid until February 2021. The Trump administration did nothing to prolong its duration, possibly because Donald Trump thought he would once more be able to strike a better deal. After Joe Biden had been inaugurated as the new US president in January 2021, he did prolong the duration of the treaty. So far so good, but old hitherto neglected scientific data, new geo-political developments, new actors and new technologies warrant sustained and even enhanced efforts in nuclear disarmament control.

Scientific data, hitherto neglected

The explosive force of any warhead, nuclear or conventional, will basically always distribute in the three dimensions of space and therefore the radius of any degree of destruction caused by an explosion will grow not in proportion to the explosive power itself but only its cubic root. An eightfold increase in explosive power will theoretically cause the same degree of destruction in a radius which is only twice as long. Theoretically, it is therefore by no means impossible to control the extent of destruction any explosion can cause – including nuclear ones. Moreover, the impact of pressure, debris flying around, heat and radioactive radiation will be diminished by the topography and the landscape. But this is true only for the immediate hazards of nuclear explosions. The poisoned dust travelling far and wide after an explosion means that, in combination with radioactivity, the medium-term effects of nuclear explosions are barely restrictable in space and time. This may be the reason why the nuclear powers have shied away from deploying nuclear weapons since 1945. At first, the American military tried to conceal or downplay the radiological consequences of the first atomic bombs in 1945, but by the time when the Cold War had entered into a phase of practically unhinged nuclear experimentation, these consequences had become obvious for anybody to see.3 After several accidents in nuclear power plants in North America, Europe and Asia one can safely assume that everybody is aware of the global hazards of radioactivity today. Unwanted long-term consequences of nuclear warfare are unavoidable. One of these unwanted political consequences would be a nuclear winter.

Nuclear “deadly freeze”

From the middle of the 1970s onwards scientists concluded that nuclear detonations would have consequences far beyond the site of the explosion. The enhanced simulation capacities of computers combined with progresses in climate research made it possible to postulate that a widespread deployment of nuclear warheads would lead to irreversible damages for the natural environment worldwide and threaten the very basis for the survival of humankind.
  The US American scientist John Hampson outlined some of the changes in the photochemical regime of the atmosphere wrought by nuclear explosions. Benign as this may sound, it amounts to a near blackout of all sunlight from the surface of the earth. His recommendations, that these effects should be discussed in future disarmament talks, were ignored.4
  Another group of US scientist reached similar conclusions in 1983: “[…] The yield threshold for major optical and climatic consequences may be very low: only about 100 mega tons detonated over major urban centres can create ... even in summer, subfreezing land temperatures for months.”5
  The catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war were recognised in the Soviet Union, too. Based on computer simulations two Soviet scientist predicted that a nuclear war would cause a “… strong temperature drop over the surface of continents of the Northern hemisphere, the warm-up of large mountains, the crucial change of the hydrological cycle and of the mechanism of the global circulation of the atmosphere.”6
  Today we know that the danger is not only due to the Russian and US-American nuclear arsenals: “The United States and Russia are not the only countries capable of wreaking worldwide climate havoc. All of the nuclear states – except North Korea, with its relatively small arsenal – if involved in a nuclear war, have the destructive power needed to alter the global environment.”7
  There is no practical point in discussing scientific data any further because one thing is already clear: A large scale nuclear conflict at a range of 100 mega tons but possibly even much lower would create a physical experiment with the earth’s atmosphere with unpredictable damage to the earth’s surface, the oceans and at the end life on earth. These consequences could amount to the extinction of a majority of humankind and much of life on earth in general. The strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as it was pursued in the early phases of the Cold War has changed to a Guaranteed Global Destruction which would affect the first-strike-power within days or weeks.8
  But much less dramatic ecological sequelae would probably suffice to throw the economy of entire world regions out of balance. Just imagine what would happen if densely populated regions in the Northern hemisphere would suddenly become uninhabitable, all infrastructure and means of production are lost and people migrate to the South in masses which is poverty-stricken anyway. The number of 100 mega tons may be still overestimated. Since there is no consensus how many nuclear explosions would cause a “nuclear Winter” we cannot say with confidence whether we are still in the era of Guaranteed Global Destruction, which we thought we had overcome already, or not. If so, we would yet again pursue a doctrine of suicide mistaken for self-defence.

New technologies, new opportunities

Generally, deployment ranges, precision and explosive power of any type of ammunition, be it nuclear or conventional, need to correspond with each other. For ballistic types of ammunition such as dump fire missiles, artillery grenades or rockets there is a close correlation between firing range and precision. The longer the firing distance, the bigger the expected variance in precision. Some deficiencies in precision are compensated by greater impact by some manufacturers. In this approach the slogan would be – if precision is bad, take a bigger one. This explains why in the Cold War nuclear warheads of the size of the Hiroshima bomb were planned to destroy single objects. Moreover, statistics is utilised to substitute for precision or destruction probabilities: if one bomb won’t do the job, just keep firing. That way the staggering numbers of warheads were piled up in the arsenals of both superpowers.
  Current technologies of directed high precision missiles allows to reach the target with smaller but still effective warheads, to the point that highly efficient conventional warheads can cause more destruction than unprecise nuclear weapons. In addition, with higher precision you need fewer missiles. This way an effective strategic deterrent may be non-nuclear as long as its long-range precision would be able to target nationally or military-strategically important items of the enemy. Missiles with inertia or satellite navigation systems supplied with a thermobaric or aerosol warhead can destroy targets for which one or even several nuclear warheads would be planned years ago.
  This deterrence approach has been discussed in circles of the Russian chiefs of staff for years.9 For the time being the West argues that this doesn’t matter since nobody can tell whether an approaching missile is carrying a conventional or a nuclear warhead, and besides, those new Russian conventional weapon systems can easily be supplied with nuclear explosives. Indeed, a relatively small and light nuclear warhead instead of a bigger and heavier conventional one could increase the firing range of a missile. If supplied with a 100 kg nuclear warhead instead of a conventional one weighing several hundred kilogrammes, an operative-tactical rocket would probably outfly the 500 km as agreed upon in the treaty. But this is still theory for the time being. It would be beyond the scales of this article to discuss all controversies between Russia and the US or NATO respectively. But it may be time to think about disarmament measures for the conventional sector.
  Hypersonic weapons and similar buzzwords are quite en-vogue in military circles these days. Indeed, technicians and “rocket scientists” in Russia and the US are currently working on a new generation of intercontinental rockets. Naturally the details are classified information so that it is difficult to speculate about the concrete consequences. On the other hand, the new generation of Russian ballistic rockets may be capable to avoid approaching counter-missiles due to their on-board navigation devices. This means that defence systems like the Israeli “iron dome” would be rendered ineffective or would require unrealistic efforts.
  The second technology currently under discussion is that of the suborbital stratospheric glide missile, which was conceived in the 1930s by the Austrian engineer Eugen Sänger. Little is known about the Russian “Avangard” missile. What is clear is that after reaching a suitable flight altitude, it virtually “glides” on the Earth’s atmosphere or bounces off the Earth’s atmosphere several times, only to enter it at the right moment and fall on its target. With this technology, high ranges can be achieved, so that it would also be conceivable for such missiles to approach the USA not by the shortest route via the North Pole, but via the South Pole, and thus virtually fly around the chain of US radar stations in the far north. This increases the flight distance to up to 30,000 km and the flight time to up to one hour. But since suborbital stratospheric glide missiles, at their low altitude compared to ballistic missiles, can only be detected late by ground-based radar stations, the time between detection and impact could be reduced to a few minutes; possibly to just five to six minutes. This is the level of medium-range missiles.10
  Due to all these new developments the goal to counter approaching missiles with counter-missiles becomes impossible to achieve, which leaves us with the logic of strategic deterrence again. While the conflicts between Russia and the US regarding counter-missiles will become less important, efforts for nuclear disarmament remain crucial as always.

New geo-political conditions

The INF treaty deals only with land-based systems of ranges between 500-5,500 km. In the Cold War the Soviet Union had stationed their RSD-10/SS-20 rockets only on their own territory, so that these missiles would have been able to reach the US east coast from Belarus or the Ukraine. The west coast of the US was targeted from Siberia and the Russian Far East.
  Systems stationed in Siberia and the Far East barely reached the west coast of the USA. But the range of the RSD-10 was sufficient for targets all over Europe and the Middle East. This was probably the reason for the concern on the part of the Europeans that the two superpowers might break off a nuclear war after the nuclear devastation of Europe, so as not to devastate each other as well. When one knows about the possibility of a nuclear winter, it becomes clear that such considerations are rather theoretical.11
  Today, possible nuclear missile sites in Russia are several hundred kilometres further east than they were during the Cold War. Like the Soviet doctrine then, the Russian doctrine now demands that after repelling aggression, hostilities should continue until the enemy has lost the ability or motivation to continue the war. If, in order to implement this doctrine, Russia really wants to develop weapons that can destroy the economic and political centres of Western Europe, the known locations of nuclear weapons and the most important ports on the Atlantic, Channel and North Sea coasts from its own territory, then ranges of around 2,000 km would suffice.12 Conversely, Russia’s most important centres, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as the economic centres along the Volga, lie at a distance of no more than 1,500 km from the territory of the European NATO states. At best, new distances would have to be reckoned with in new arms control negotiations.
  With its Atlantic Ocean marginal seas projecting far into the continent, Europe is a continent for which sea-based weapons are of great importance. However, since not all of these waters are suitable for the deployment of ballistic missile submarines in terms of their hydrography, surface units capable of carrying medium-range missiles would also have to be considered in future arms control negotiations. These include the US Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the Arleigh Burke-class frigates, the British City-class frigates, and the Russian Admiral Grigorovich- and Admiral Gorshkov-class multi-purpose combat ships.

Consequences for the nuclear arms control

By extending the period of validity of the New START treaty, the Biden administration has first made it clear that it is interested in continuing the arms control efforts interrupted under Donald Trump. But that is not the end of the story. Negotiations must also be conducted with other actors. New technologies make new treaties on carrier and weapon systems necessary. And finally, in the light of the findings on a nuclear winter, the upper limits on the number of weapons must be drastically lowered. In principle, neither the official nor the unofficial nuclear powers must be granted the right to make the most densely populated areas of the Northern hemisphere uninhabitable with their arsenals. A drastic reduction of the nuclear arsenals of all nuclear powers must become a central demand of nuclear arms control in the future.  •

1 see information and text of treaty at and On the mutual accusations see
2 see The New START Treaty followed START I, which was in force from 1994 to 2009, and START II, which never entered into force.
3 see; the first journalist to report on the consequences of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, despite opposition from the US military, was the American John Hersey; see; cf. also the report by ICRC staff member Benoît Junod at
4 see Hampson J. “Photochemical war on the atmosphere”, in: Nature 250, No. 5463, 1974, p. 189–91, online
5 R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack, C. Sagan. “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions”. In: Science 222, No. 4630 of 23 December 1983, p. 1283–92, online This was confirmed in studies in 1990: “Should substantial urban areas or fuel stocks be exposed to nuclear ignition, severe environmental anomalies – possibly leading to more human casualties globally than the direct effects of nuclear war would be not just a remote possibility, but a likely outcome.” See R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack, C. Sagan. Climate and Smoke: An Appraisal of Nuclear Winter, 1990, online
6 Alexandrov, V. V., G. I. Stenchikov. On the modeling of the climatic consequences of the nuclear war, the Proceeding of Appl. Mathematics, The Computing Centre of the Academy of science of the USSR, Moscow, 1983, online
7 Alan Robock, Owen Brian. “Self-assured destruction: The climate impacts of nuclear war”. In: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 4, 2016, online
8 To mention just one of countless presentations on this topic:
9 The author himself is a graduate of the General Staff Academy of the Russian Army.
10 Technical analysis with Jill Hruby: “Russia’s New Nuclear Weapon Delivery Systems – An Open-Source Technical Review”. In: NTI – The Nuclear Threat Initiative of 1 November 2019, online, and “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress”. In: Congressional Research Service of 10 September 201, online on the political-military effects. See also Pawel Podwig, “Russia shows Avangard system ‘to maintain viability’ of New START”, online On Eugen Sänger and his “Antipodean Bomber” see
11 cf. ATOMWAFFEN: Nuklearer Winter. (Atomic weapons: Nuclear winter) In: Der Spiegel No. 33, 1984, online; in view of the stockpiles of nuclear weapons available in Europe at the time, Der Spiegel concluded: “Even a Euro-strategic exchange of blows would therefore end in a death freeze.”
12 Indeed, at times there was speculation that Russian “Iskanders” could have ranges of over 2,000 km: and And so does the “Kalibr”; see

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​