In the past few weeks, coronavirus the outbreak has caused at least some tone of deaf comment from US defense officials about the readiness of their nuclear forces. In mid-March, the commander of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, convince his audience that US nuclear forces are not affected by this pandemic and that they “remain prepared to carry out the country’s strategic prevention mission.” As a result, Admiral Richard told his audience that the United States was still capable of launching massive nuclear retaliation that would surely kill millions of people. Likewise, in early April, the commander of the US Air Force’s Global Attack Command be told Popular Mechanics that, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, “the nuclear is still ready to fly.” These officials seem unaware of the notion that, with a pandemic that has caused quite a lot of fear and fear, now may not be the best time to remind the general public about other ways the world can end.
Even so, the rhetoric of the US nuclear mission and its analogs around the world is very dependent on people, and people are exactly what the virus is looking for. Just days after Admiral Richard gave a briefing, Newsweek reported that “dining unit [US Strategic Command] has 106 cumulative uniformed personnel not on duty due to coronavirus, either because of a confirmed case or ‘personal protective quarantine.’ On April 9, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted that all US nuclear bases except one have confirmed the COVID-19 case.
All US nuclear bases (except one) now have #coronavirus case:
Barksdale AFB (bomber)
F.E. Warren AFB (bomber)
Kirtland AFB (storage)
Low AFB (bomber / ICBM)
Offutt AFB (NC3)
Whiteman AFB (bomber)
Kings Bay (SSBNs)
Kitsap-Bangor (SSBNs)https://t.co/6HbMUjGOZA @warkin pic.twitter.com/2YRrPp7Rpy
– Hans Kristensen (@nukestrat) April 9, 2020
So, if the world’s nuclear power has not felt the tension caused by a pandemic, it might only be a matter of time until they feel it. In fact, some countries take extra precautions to reduce potential risks. But each country with nuclear weapons has different calculus to make, and some aspects of these weapons may be more vulnerable to viruses than others.
Weak point. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is based on one platform, the submarine. In early April, London Times reported that two of the four British nuclear-armed submarines have been repaired over the past year.
With only two operational submarines left, the British Royal Navy has almost no margin for errors in dealing with coronavirus. Sebastian Brixey-Williams, co-director of the British American Security Information Council based in London, raised this issue firmly. That Time report, he is write, “Asking in-depth questions about how prepared [Royal Navy] is to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. If the Trident submarine patrols only to learn that one of the sailors is carrying the virus, the captain will have no choice but to return to the port or if it does not endanger the lives of the crew. “This, said Brixey-Williams, could bring an unprecedented breakthrough in the British deterrence mission, which, at least in theory, needs to be disturbed if it is to remain trusted.
Of course, Britain has a backup: NATO. “Because this system is in a broader position to prevent NATO,” Brixey-Williams warned in an e-mail, “this does not mean that the UK must add more redundancy at great expense.”
Britain is not the only country whose navy is in danger. The United States, Russia and France, all of which also depend to some degree on nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at sea, can face the same problem. However The United States has 14 nuclear-armed submarines and Russia has 10, although some of them are under maintenance at certain times. However, the relative effects of losing one ship due to a coronavirus outbreak will be less acute for these countries. And the French fleet, even though it only has four nuclear-capable submarines, has not been plagued by the same maintenance problems as the British fleet.
Tong Zhao, a senior colleague at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Bulletin that China’s nuclear submarine fleet is also vulnerable to viruses. Compared to ground missile forces and aircraft units, submarines have a greater challenge both because of their inability to receive external support during deployment and due to the relative lack of operational experience. However, it is not known whether Chinese submarines actually carry nuclear weapons on patrol and, as a general practice, China keeps its nuclear warheads separate from shipping vehicles during peacetime. As a result, China is more dependent on triad-based legs at sea compared to Western nuclear power.
The threat of a pandemic against naval forces is not purely theoretical. The only French aircraft carrier, which was instrumental in an air force nuclear strike mission, returned home on April 12 with at least 50 cases on the ship. As well as, Forbes had been reported that “the whole Russian crew [non-nuclear armed] the submarine was reportedly quarantined after indirect contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. “And at the very least four various US aircraft carriers have reported COVID-19 cases, including many widely publicized cases USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has been forced back to port in Guam and his captain who has been released from service.
Another potential vulnerability for China comes from the fact that it maintains nuclear warheads in a constant circulation between central storage at a base in the Qingling mountains and other locations. According to 2010 report by Mark Stokes, a former US defense official and expert on Chinese nuclear forces, the regiment responsible for transporting warheads “operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep the warheads circulating” between the central storage complex and six smaller storage facilities at the base different missiles. This could be the most important person to stay healthy if the country faces a second spike in the case.
For each country, the top of the chain of command is another potential point of failure. For example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has sole authority in his government to authorize a nuclear attack, becomes his supporter first world leader to test positive for the corona virus on March 27, was admitted to the hospital on April 5, and must move to intensive care on April 6th. Only with this latest development did he decide to put Dominic Raab, his foreign minister, in charge of the government. Johnson “will most likely surrender the official nuclear launch authority to … Dominic Raab (or, for whatever reason, other representatives),” at that time too, said Brixey-Williams. (Johnson has since been released from the hospital, but has not returned to work.)
Preventive measure. However, that is possible, according to 2019 report by nuclear experts Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais, that the British prime minister will appoint several nuclear representatives in his government after taking office to avoid the need to make such decisions during the crisis.
In fact, every country that has nuclear weapons has an emergency devolution procedure – a plan for who holds the nuclear switch if the commander suddenly becomes paralyzed. In many countries, this is kept secret, but in the United States it is the vice president who takes over the president, whereas in Russia it is the prime minister, or, in certain emergency situations, the minister of defense.
Beyond routine preventive measures, governments also take more specific steps to prevent risks to their nuclear power.
In the United States, the Department of Defense reduced and canceled several military exercises and deployments to focus on important operations, Newsweek reported in March. For example, the recent B-2 bomber mission to Europe felt shorter than in previous years, according to Kristensen. He was careful to show that it was not clear whether the mission was officially shortened because of COVID-19.
For nuclear-armed submarines, some country put their sailors into isolation 14 days before departure. That way, each person infected with the virus will show symptoms and can be withdrawn from the crew before the ship starts a two-month patrol at sea.
Rocket Force China, which controls land ballistic missiles in the country, also takes precautionary measures to maintain the highest level of readiness. “One step, for example, is to train missiles to each master the skills for more than one position, so that all units can still carry out missions with fewer than normal people on duty,” Zhao said.
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