By: Katie Earle
Photo by: Reuters
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address to the Federal Assembly, outlining his legislative priorities for the year ahead. Customarily the speech occurs in December, but this year the Kremlin delayed the event until March 1, just two weeks before yesterday’s presidential election. Putin’s promises ranged from halving the number of Russians living in poverty to addressing the country’s demographic crisis. But, he saved the best for last, and unveiled with much fanfare an array of new strategic nuclear weapons. At varying stages of development, these nukes, including a low-flying nuclear-powered cruise missile, an underwater autonomous nuclear torpedo, and a giant Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of approaching the U.S. from over the South Pole, would, he declared, prove “invincible” to US missile defense systems.[i]
Both Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Nominee Mike Pompeo have shrugged off Putin’s saber-rattling, which was likely directed both to an increasingly apathetic domestic audience[ii] and to the U.S. in response to the recent National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review.[iii] They are correct. Despite Putin’s bombastic and defiant rhetoric, the much-touted developments of his strategic nuclear arsenal do not alter the overall strategic nuclear balance much at all.
In other words, even without these new doomsday weapons that would make Dr. Strangelove proud, Russia’s current stockpile of strategic nukes could overwhelm existing US missile defense systems. A brief review of some of these US defenses makes this plain:
- Deployed in Alaska and California, the US Ground-based Midcourse Defense system is designed to intercept ICBMs. However, the U.S. does not maintain enough interceptors to shoot down even a small fraction of Russia’s ICBM inventory. The system’s track record is also imperfect. As evidence, the system successfully intercepted in testing just one incoming ICBM modeled off North Korea’s less-capable missiles that lacks the sophisticated penetration aids standard to Russian systems.[iv] As Russian nuclear experts surely grasp, Russia does not need the new Sarmat to reduce US cities to ashes. A barrage of existing Russian R-36M2 ICBMs could easily obliterate their intended US targets.[v]
- In the Asia-Pacific, the sea- and land- based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems paired with Standard Missiles as well as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems are designed to defend US forces and its regional allies from short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles, from North Korea and China.[vi]
- In Europe, the United States installed land-based Aegis-Ashore sites in Romania in 2016 and will complete another shield in Poland by year’s end.[vii] These systems are focused on countering the ballistic missile threat from Iran.[viii] Yet, even the faster SM-3 Block IIA missile variant to be deployed in Poland may not be capable of intercepting an Iranian ICBM, let alone a barrage of current Russian ICBMs.[ix] Moreover, near-peer adversaries such as Russia can locate and destroy these fixed missile defense systems.[x]
Bottom line: the current US missile defense system could not protect the country’s homeland and its allies from a Russian ICBM attack. Such an attack would likely entail a barrage of many hundreds of ballistic missile warheads with complex countermeasures and decoys. The U.S. can only defend against minor ballistic missile attacks on the homeland or limited strikes against US troops and its allies abroad by sub-intercontinental theater-level ballistic missiles. Therefore, current US systems neither threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent nor destabilize the strategic nuclear balance with Russia.
Putting aside potentially destabilizing future advancements in US missile defense systems, the Kremlin’s unfounded hysteria over currently deployed US short- to medium- range systems can be interpreted as an attempt to dissuade the United States from supporting its allies against the nuclear threats emanating from rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea. Since the Cold War, the US capacity to guarantee extended deterrence has been a critical component of its ability to maintain and reassure its alliances. By means ranging from election interference to information warfare, Moscow attempts to foment discord between Washington and its allies. Goading the U.S. into limiting its missile defense umbrella can be seen as yet another means to do just that.
With or without Putin’s new doomsday weapons, the strategic nuclear balance today remains remarkably similar to that of the Cold War. Then and now, nuclear deterrence between Russia and the United States still rests on each party’s ability to convince the other that it can and will strike back with enough force to destroy it in response to a first use of nuclear weapons. As such, the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (better known as MAD) still constrains both from pulling out their respective nuclear black box.
[ii] Evan Gershkovich, “Beyond Moscow, Apathy Rules Ahead of Russia’s Presidential Election,” The Moscow Times, March 13, 2018, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/beyond-moscow-apathy-rules-ahead-of-russias-presidential-election-60793.
[iii] Dan Lamothe, “Mattis, Pompeo dismiss Putin’s touting of Russian nuclear weapons,” The Washington Post, March 11, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2018/03/11/mattis-pompeo-dismiss-putins-touting-of-russian-nuclear-weapons/?utm_term=.cfc27c069c51.
[iv] Mike Stone, “Lack of real-world testing raises doubts on U.S. missile defences,” Reuters, August 9, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-northkorea-missiles-usa-defense/lack-of-real-world-testing-raises-doubts-on-u-s-missile-defences-idUKKBN1AP2QT.
[v] “U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, September 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/usmissiledefense#gbmd.
[vi] Guy Plopsky, “Russia’s Objections to Japan’s Aegis Ashore Decision,” The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/russias-objections-to-japans-aegis-ashore-decision/.
[vii] Robin Emmott, “U.S. activates Romanian missile defense site, angering Russia,” Reuters, May 12, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-shield/u-s-activates-romanian-missile-defense-site-angering-russia-idUSKCN0Y30JX.
[viii] “The European Phased Adaptive Approach at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, July 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Phasedadaptiveapproach.
[ix] Joan Johnson-Freese and Ralph Savelsberg, “Why Russia Keeps Moving The Football On European Missile Defense: Politics,” Breaking Defense, October 17, 2013, https://breakingdefense.com/2013/10/why-russia-keeps-moving-the-football-on-european-missile-defense-politics/.
[x] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Missile Defense Vs. China, Russia: Decentralize, Disperse, & Hide,” Breaking Defense, January 25, 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/01/missile-defense-vs-china-russia-decentralize-disperse-hide/.