|Whatever his other limitations, Valdimir Putin has shown he is a master in exploiting Russian nationalism and American and European sensitivities. His latest gambit—publicizing three new nuclear systems—two of which are in development and may have key components that are either untested or do not yet exist—give him political credibility in Russia in an election year, and emphasize the one key area where Russia remains a leading global super power: its possession of nuclear weapons.
The status of these new systems is problematic. One, the new Russian ICBM is very real. It is far from clear, however, how far Russia has really gotten in producing the components—much less an operational system for the other two: a nuclear powered cruise missile and a “nuclear torpedo”/high speed underwater drone.
In any case, what really counts is that in spite of Putin’s spin and rhetoric there does not seem to be any reason to assume that any of these systems will significantly alter the nuclear balance or U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warfighting capability. Moreover, Putin may imply that they are necessary to defeat U.S. and potential NATO missile defenses, but today’s strategic and theater defense systems are developmental, and currently planned and funded programs are so limited in numbers that they never had the slightest capability to limit a Russian attack.
Even assuming a bolt from the blue nuclear exchange took place in which Russia did not modernize or activate additional nuclear forces, the number of existing strategic systems now active under the START limits vastly exceeded the most optimistic assessment of what current and planned missile defenses can do.
Real Russian Warfighting Tools or Political “Toys”?
Anything that has a nuclear warhead has to be taken seriously, but Putin’s announcements seem far more focused on publicity than military capability. One of the three systems Putin announced was almost inevitable. A new Russian ICBM is virtually mandated by the age of Russia’s existing ICBM systems and need to modernize them—just as the U.S. faces the need to modernize its side of the triad of sea-based, land-based, and airborne systems. Russia’s new ICBM almost certainly will have improved penetration aids. The cost is negligible relative to most investment in military modernization.
A nuclear armed cruise missile with almost indefinite endurance and low-altitude flight capability will give Russia the capability to bypass U.S. and NATO’s limited and developmental ballistic missile defenses. U.S. and NATO’s limited low-altitude air defenses now have virtually negligible capability to intercept such systems. At the same time, any long-endurance low flier with a highly radioactive nuclear engine is an inherently high risk and extremely demanding design, and such a system is both far more costly to introduce than a more modern ICBM and is a countermeasure to a non-existent missile defense threat. Calling any nuclear weapon an intimidating toy is a step too far, but saying it is relevant to the nuclear balance and more than a showpiece effort to highlight Russia’s nuclear capabilities is equally unrealistic.
The deployment of a long-range underwater nuclear “torpedo”—which is variously being called a high-speed underwater drone or autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV)—and said to have a 100 megaton warhead could marginally increase the threat to coastal cities, sea/airbases, and carrier task forces. The problem with such a system, however, is that a100 megaton attack on any U.S. base or city would trigger an all out nuclear exchange—effectively killing Russia. A 100 megaton (or other multi-megaton/high yield nuclear attack) on a carrier task force would escalate theater nuclear war to levels that would both inflict major damage on Russia and create a massive risk of escalating to an all out nuclear exchange.
No Return to the Cold War
It is equally important to stress that nothing about Putin’s statements as yet hint at anything like return to the worst nuclear moments of the Cold War. The graph below shows just how much things have changed since the U.S. nuclear weapons inventory peaked in 1967, and the FSU inventory peaked in 1986. At that point, the U.S. and Russia had a total of nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the nuclear inventories on both sides remain far higher than either side’s current or programmed missile defenses can begin to deal with if a major nuclear exchange occurs. Russia, in particular, does not face any problem in saturating the current and programmed mix of developmental U.S. strategic missile defenses and the theater and tactical missile defenses.
Cold War vs. Current Nuclear Inventories
Source: Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 26 May 2016, available at: http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/.
The Continuing Balance of Terror and Mutual Assured Destruction
The State Department assessment of the current U.S.-Russian or START balance as of February 2018 is shown below. Currently planned U.S. missile defenses could not begin to limit Russian capability to destroy every major city in the U.S. and critical aspects of the U.S. industrial base —anymore than Russia’s limited missile defenses could limit a major U.S. attack. There is nothing delicate about this particular balance of Terror, and none of Putin’s proposed future changes in Russian capabilities would make any fundamental change in the outcome of a major nuclear conflict or alter the fundamental level of mutual assured destruction on either side.
The Current U.S-Russian Nuclear Balance
Operational Strategic Nuclear Forces Counted in START
Total Nuclear Weapons Inventory
Source: U.S. State Department, New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Armshttps://www.state.gov/t/avc/newstart/278775.htm; and Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 26 May 2016, available at: http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/.
The Non-Existent U.S. Missile Defense “Threat” To Russian Strategic Forces
Given these numbers and the size of Russian forces, there is no meaningful U.S. missile defense threat to Russia’s nuclear attack capabilities. Current and planned U.S. missile defenses only include a small number of Ground-Based Midcourse defense systems. The FY2019 budget overview by the Department of Defense notes that U.S. goals for strategic missile defense are planned to remain very limited and have a negligible capability against a major Russian attack:
The Department will develop an additional missile field in Alaska and increase the number of operational, deployed Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) to 64 missiles as early as FY 2023. The Department is also investing in the infrastructure required to maintain an operational fleet of 64 GBIs into the future. The FY 2019 request would continue development of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) to address the evolving threat and improve kill vehicle reliability, continue development of a 2-/3-stage booster selectable capability to expand battlespace for GBI engagements for homeland defense. The budget also uses available technology to improve existing sensors, battle management, fire control, and kill vehicle capabilities. The budget also supports development and deployment of new sensors to improve Missile Defense System (MDS) discrimination capability and allow for more efficient use of the GBI inventory, to include a Long-Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska, a Homeland Defense Radar in Hawaii, and an additional Medium Range Discrimination Radar in the Pacific. The MDA will also deliver an experimental space-based kill assessment capability for defense of the homeland as part of an integrated post intercept assessment solution.
Today’s operational Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) system interceptors or (GBIs) are deployed in Alaska and California to defend the U.S. homeland against an ICBM limited attack from countries like North Korea and Iran, and which can only defend against intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles. The rest are a limited number of theater and area defense systems that are not designed to intercept ICBM and include the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) being delivered to the U.S. Army, the Aegis BMD near-term Sea-Based Terminal Defense capability using the SM-2 Block IV and follow-on SM-3missiles, and the U.S. Army’s PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) now deployed worldwide.
The U.S. FY2019 budget submission makes it equally clear that programmed U.S. improvements will not threaten or alter Russia’s existing strategic capabilities to launch a major attack:
Nuclear Cover for Other Forms of Weakness
Putin certainly understands all of this, he also faces the challenge of asserting Russia’s status and power, and finding the best ways to exploit Russian nationalism and American and European sensitivities. He cannot do this by claiming Russia is a successful economy or a peer competitor.
Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is a fragile petroeconomy operating at a time of comparatively low petroleum export revenues, and has thus made only slow progress in economic development and modernization. The CIA World Factbook credits Russia with a GDP of $1.469 trillion at the official exchange rate, and $4 trillion measured in the much more uncertain purchasing power parity terms.
In contrast, the CIA World Factbook estimates the U.S. GDP is now $19.36 trillion in both official exchange rate and purchasing power parity terms—over thirteen times larger. China has clearly emerged as the second leading economy—$11.94 trillion in official exchange rate and $23.12 trillion in purchasing power parity terms—eight times larger than Russia in the official exchange rate measure, which is the most realistic indication of real economic power.
Put differently, the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Russia now spends some $61.2 billion a year on military forces. The U.S. spends $601.8 billion—nearly ten times as much. China spends a minimum of $150.5 billion—2.5 times Russia—and China’s personnel costs are far lower. Saudi Arabia spends more than Russia at $76.7 billion, and for all their failures to use their money effectively and fund fully adequate force levels, Britain spends $50.7 billion, France spends $48.6 billion, Germany $41.7 billion, and Italy spends $22.9 billion. These four larger NATO states alone spend a total of $163.9 billion—2.7 times as much as Russia.
Putin can try to compensate in two ways. First, he can focus on the fault lines in the U.S. and NATO positions—playing a spoiler or exploitative role in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas, and leverage limited intervention against U.S. strategic mistakes—as well as exploiting the weaknesses of political and military capabilities in Russia’s near abroad: The Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, etc.
Second, he can seek to keep attention focused on Russia’s nuclear forces—the one area where Russia really does remain a superpower. The danger, of course, is obvious. Living with the most toys is one thing. Dying with them because of miscalculation, unplanned escalation, or accidents is quite another.
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