A perilous moment: Nuclear messages

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 28 Oct 2022

The USS West Virginia made a rare appearance in the Arabian Sea last week just as NATO began its long-planned annual nuclear exercises in northwestern Europe.

Nuclear messages
A Belgian F-16 jet fighter takes part in the NATO Air Nuclear drill Steadfast Noon at the Kleine-Brogel air base in Belgium on 18 October (photo: AFP)


Surfacing in an undisclosed location in the Arabian Sea last week, the Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS West Virginia welcomed aboard General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and gave him a “hands-on demonstration of the capabilities of the vessel,” the US Navy website reported on 20 October.

But what does this mean for us in this region? And who might such signals be addressed to apart from Russia, Iran which is supplying Russia with drones to use in Ukraine, and Syria which serves as a Russian backyard for storing strategic weapons? What does this signify in the framework of the US restructuring of its military presence around the world?

Nuclear warning signals are flashing red on the world map against the backdrop of the escalating war in Ukraine. But the process began well before this with breakdowns in ballistic missile treaties, US warnings regarding the increase in China’s ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities and Moscow’s Vostok military drills, conducted primarily in eastern Russia. China and India have been included in these strategic manoeuvres since 2018, in part to allay their concerns.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine there have been mounting concerns over the effect of the war on nuclear energy infrastructure. While Russia neutralised Chernobyl in the early stages of the war, missile fire in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has stirred alarm over its safety.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has appealed to both sides to commit to no military action within a radius that could affect the plant’s operations but it appears to go unheard. More recently, Russian warnings that it could resort to nuclear force for self-defence effectively entered nuclear arms into the military equation, raising the spectre of mutual escalation.

Other parts of the world are heating up without mechanisms to contain or cool tensions. The Middle East tends to go through ten-year cycles of conflict. Although it is reshaping itself after emerging from a decade of upheaval, the cyclical pattern may mean that it is headed for another difficult period, all the more so given the region’s direct connections to the Russian-Ukrainian war.

To the far east, the recent annual conference of the Chinese Communist Party reflected mounting tensions over Taiwan while North Korea’s missile tests and the likelihood it could stage a seventh nuclear test, have caused red lights to flash on that part of the world map. India also conducted missile tests which means that Pakistan may follow suit. It is difficult to picture Japan remaining in the spectator’s seat in such a precarious climate.

The world is approaching a brink where conventional war games are giving way to nuclear war games as temperatures continue to rise in every hotspot on the planet. This of course includes the chronically hot Middle East, especially in the case of efforts failing to bring Iran back into nuclear accord at a time when domestic discontent is bubbling over.

General Kurilla’s tour of the USS West Virginia, made in tandem with NATO’s Steadfast Noon nuclear drills, acquires greater significance against this larger backdrop. According to some military strategists it is tactically and politically preferable for that submarine to be outside the main scope of NATO drills in the North Sea and Baltic. One tactical reason has to do with preserving second-strike capacities.

However, the political reasons may be more important at this juncture. The presence of the submarine equipped with the largest nuclear payload in the North Sea and Baltic theatre could be interpreted as a declaration of war and not just a display of military might. At the same time, it is no longer possible for the US or NATO to establish a safe and stable presence in the Black Sea region.

The foregoing begs the question of the relationship between the drills taking place in the operational area of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet, the NATO drills, and another set of exercises within the Fifth Fleet’s operational scope. Otherwise put, the appearance of the USS West Virginia in the Arabian Sea signals that the US is testing its so-called “nuclear triad” of which the US Navy’s long range nuclear submarines constitute one leg.

At an earlier point, the Pentagon redeployed its B-52 nuclear bombers. Some of these have been stationed in the UK while the fleets in the Udeid Airbase in Qatar and the Morón Airbase in southern Spain have been amplified. The US has also conducted a test of its supersonic Minuteman 3 missiles, which are capable of carrying multiple payloads of nuclear warheads. It follows that the USS West Virginia crew’s recent display of that vessel’s capacities for the CENTCOM commander was intended to signal that the triad is fully equipped and prepared for all possibilities.

Russia has countered with preparations of its own, conducting drills for its TU-95 strategic bomber and missile platform, stepping up development for the next generation Tupolev PAK DA long range stealth bomber into service and conducting a series of tests for its Kinzhal, Iskander and Tsirkon hypersonic missiles. Some military experts claim that Russia has put 150 warheads from its nuclear arsenal on the ready, some on its nuclear submarines.

The appearance of the US Navy’s most powerful sub in this part of the world calls attention to the growing geo-strategic importance of the Middle East in the US scheme for the larger global theatre. Certainly the US is keen to deliver a message similar to the stationing of a B-1B bomber on Guam which, Pentagon Spokesman General Pat Ryder said, signified that the US would stand by its allies and partners to deter any potential provocation.

However, given the interconnection between US priorities in this region and US global priorities, regional powers need more than reassurances. They need to be kept abreast of Washington’s intentions as it puts into place security arrangements and then proceeds to impose new formulas related to its perspective on balances of international powers.

Russia, for its part, is working towards much the same ends, albeit from the perspective of its particular geostrategic calculations, in which both Syria and Iran figure prominently. In this context, it is crucial to reassess a number of critical factors, most notably the growing Russian missile arsenal in Syria and the proposed transfer to Syria of strategic missile systems that can theoretically be fitted out with nuclear warheads. This dissemination clearly carries serious risks and challenges and while nothing concrete has occurred yet, strategic planners in this region should not rule out any type of scenario in such increasingly dangerous times.

From this region’s perspective, it is important to bear two main factors in mind with regard the messages Washington is conveying as it develops its defence and deterrence plans.

The first is that the superpowers have ratcheted up their posturing from conventional military to nuclear military muscle flexing.

The second, no less perilous, is that the geopolitical sphere of the warfare and superpower horn-butting has expanded and that the Middle East is not on the periphery of the interplay but right at the centre.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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