A submarine-launched ballistic missile launched from land? – FAS Roundup

By April 30, 2021

Dear colleagues,

We want to welcome you to a new and improved FAS Roundup. For the past six years, we’ve been bringing you weekly updates on our projects and fellows. These weekly newsletters help us catalog the different ways FAS experts educate the public on pressing issues like nuclear proliferation, government secrecy, and, recently, global pandemics.

But they’ve only skimmed the surface of the many topics we cover. So, we’re trying something new. You’ll still get an overview of what we’ve been up to throughout the week, but we’ll also be diving deeper into the issues we cover, giving you the tools you need to understand the world around you.

“Mask Off”

The US is averaging 2.7 million vaccinations per day, and about 140 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. For the lucky 96.7 million people who are fully vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have updated their outdoor masking guidance. From the New York Times:

Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus no longer need to wear a mask outdoors while walking, running, hiking or biking alone, or when in small gatherings, including with members of their own households. Masks are still necessary in crowded outdoor venues like sports stadiums, the C.D.C. said.

Deep Dive

After issuing navigation warnings to mariners just north of Bermuda, the world’s fourth-largest nuclear power just tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). On Wednesday morning, France successfully launched an M51 SLBM from a land-based facility, sans its TNO thermonuclear warheads. (Check out a video of the launch from DGA here.)

A submarine-launched ballistic missile launched from land? That seemingly strange set-up helped experts potentially identify what kind of missile was being tested, a detail left out of the initial navigation warnings.

“Since the launch appears to be from land, it could potentially be a test flight of the new M51.3 SLBM that is in development,” Hans Kristensen told The Drive. “The missile is an improved version of the current M51.2 deployed on the SSBN fleet and it is potentially possible the upcoming test flight includes an improved payload bus or new reentry bodies.”

Earlier this week, the French military issued warnings for four off-limits zones. Three of the zones show a path reminiscent of the one laid out in a set of navigation warnings last year, the last time an M51 test was conducted. The fourth zone, however, was offset from the ballistic trajectory laid out by the other areas, and initially raised speculation that the French were testing hypersonic weapons. But that speculation was squashed after the French government confirmed that the missile in question was an M51 SLBM.

As was the case during the M51 test last year, a US Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball was tracked flying near Bermuda. RC-135Ss use a suite of sensor systems to gather information about missile tests performed by US allies and partners, as well as by potential adversaries.

French authorities did not say which version of the M51 missile was fired, nor did they offer an explanation for the offset fourth impact area.

The backbone of the French nuclear deterrent is its 48 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, carried by four Triomphant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. From Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda:

Like the other Western nuclear powers, the French Navy maintains a continuous at-sea deterrent posture with at least one boat on patrol, one preparing for patrol, one returning to port, and one in maintenance. […] Each submarine can carry a set of sixteen M51 SLBMs, but since one boat is always undergoing routine maintenance, France has only produced enough missiles for three boats.

The French warhead inventory peaked in the early 90s at around 540 warheads. France has since stopped explosive nuclear testing and eliminated its land-based missiles. For more information on France’s nuclear arsenal, see Kristensen and Korda’s “French nuclear forces, 2019”, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

From FAS Experts

Breaking Down Barriers: How the Department of Energy Can Immediately Advance Racial and Gender Equity for Entrepreneurs. As long as structural barriers stifle entry into the clean energy ecosystem by innovators who are women and Black, Indigenous, and people of color, we will squander essential entrepreneurial talent. The Department of Energy, however, can take immediate action to support clean energy startups and make important progress on racial equity while at it, writes Doug Rand for Third Way.

Biden Could Win Back Progressives By Pausing A Controversial New Nuclear Weapon. The GBSD program, which is projected to cost a whopping $100 billion in acquisition fees alone, would keep ICBMs in the US nuclear arsenal until 2075. According to the National Priorities Project, that same amount of money could purchase more than 2.5 billion coronavirus vaccines, or create more than 10 million public housing units, writes Matt Korda in Forbes.

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