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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bomb Makers' Trade Union

The recent disclosure of a secret Pentagon report naming Russia as a prime target of possible U.S. nuclear attack -- together with China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya -- caused a lot of noise in the West but not much of a stir in Russia.

Two weeks ago the press, the public and the political elite in Moscow went ballistic over an alleged U.S.-led plot to deprive Russian athletes of gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Then the planned deployment of U.S. military instructors in Georgia caused uproar in Moscow. So why didn't Moscow get enraged when finally it seemed to have serious reason to?

Most likely, Russian intelligence agents got a copy of the Pentagon-produced Nuclear Posture Review much earlier than its publication in the Los Angeles Times so the Kremlin had time to evaluate the document. It's also possible that many in Moscow actually liked what they found in the text.

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That the Pentagon is still targeting Russia more than 10 years after the end of the Cold War is indeed not big news for the Russian military. Russia is the only country in the world that could obliterate the United States at any time in a volley of thousands of warheads. Today, such an attack seems almost impossible, but still it could happen.

In 1994, Moscow and Washington signed an agreement to target their warheads away from each other. But the military in both countries always suggest in private that this "detargeting" is superficial. It's understood that both sides preserve and update lists of primary targets on the other's territory. In fact, target lists are on computer disks in nuclear command centers in Russia and the United States that work 24 hours a day. The targets and launch orders can be instantly wired into on-board computers of land-based ballistic missiles at the push of a button.

The true novelty of the Nuclear Posture Review is that it indicates the United States is preparing to deploy a new generation of small and minute nuclear weapons with low explosive yields -- nuclear bunker-busters and surgical warheads -- that "reduce collateral damage." It's also proposed that old Cold War-era warheads be modified so that their explosive yield can be changed. The idea is that by pressing a button or two, the explosive yield of a warhead could be decreased from, say, 500 kilotons of TNT to 5 or even 0.5 kilotons. Such a warhead could be used to destroy a terrorist target in Central Asia or the Middle East.

Russian military sources suggest that "surgical" low-yield nukes have been researched and developed by U.S. bomb-makers for many years, but now these plans have been given higher priority by the emergence of new threats. Small nukes could be used in local conflicts or antiterrorist operations to destroy enemies hiding in deep caves and bunkers. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been extensively using conventional incendiary bombs to hit underground targets, but nukes are clearly more effective.

The deployment and possible use by the U.S. military of new battlefield nukes may drastically lower the nuclear threshold and trigger numerous local and regional nuclear wars in coming decades. One might think that Russia would strongly oppose such plans, since most of the potential targets are not far from its own borders. But in fact the Russian nuclear bomb makers have been for many years lobbying the Kremlin to deploy their own "surgical" battlefield nukes.

In April 1999, the Security Council approved a concept for developing and using non-strategic low- and flexible-yield battlefield weapons. Nuclear Power Ministry plans speak, using exactly the same language as their U.S. counterparts, of making new low-yield bunker-busters and of surgical strikes by bombs with an explosive yield of "just" tens or hundreds of tons of TNT.

Now the Nuclear Posture Review will give Russian bomb makers additional arguments to press ahead with testing and deployment. If the United States resumes real nuclear tests to make the new weapons, Russia will soon follow. Informed sources say the Novaya Zemlya testing range in the Arctic is ready to resume testing whenever the authorities give the go-ahead.

If the United States actually uses its new surgical nukes in its war on terrorism, Russia may do the same in Chechnya or somewhere nearby. It seems bomb makers on both sides of the Atlantic are members of one trade union and are closely coordinating their moves. It's also clear they do not care much about the potential fallout.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.