Who wants a nuclear apocalypse today?

By Vladimir Dvorkin

Russia’s new weapons: advantage or liability

In the current system of treaty relations between Russia and the United States for strategic offensive arms (SOAs) control, the existing triad of national strategic nuclear forces (SNF), consisting of the Strategic Missile Forces, naval SNF, and aviation SNF, secures an overall balance and guaranteed nuclear deterrence potential in the short and medium term, specifically through the ability to launch an effective retaliatory strike.

If the New START is not extended and no similar treaty is signed, events will follow one of at least two possible scenarios. In the first scenario, in the absence of formal strategic arms limits, the parties do not strive to significantly build up warheads and delivery vehicles and instead focus on upgrading existing SOAs and developing new ones. Space surveillance and reconnaissance assets provide extremely limited information on SOA status, including movements, retirement, and commissioning of new facilities. In the context of the treaty, all of this information was disclosed by the parties through inspections and notifications. Other information on US SOAs can be obtained from open sources, including reports on research and development and tests in progress, funding, and other activity. In Russia, much of this kind of information remains restricted.

Nevertheless, under this scenario there would still be an approximate balance of nuclear deterrence potential.

Under the second scenario, the United States builds up its SOAs, starting with an increase in the number of warheads on the Minuteman III ICBM from one to three and on the Trident II SLBM from four to eight or twelve. Russian capabilities in this regard are limited.

This upsets the overall SOA balance between the parties. However, according to open-source data estimates, Russia’s SNF could deliver some 300 to 400 nuclear warheads to US territory in a retaliatory strike. US missile defense systems or the occasionally discussed threats of a disarming strike with high-precision non-nuclear weapons will have almost no effect on this potential. This number of warheads is more than enough to eliminate any motivation to launch a first nuclear strike against Russia.

Numerous irrefutable studies by federal and independent experts have demonstrated the impossibility of building a missile defense system that could protect either the United States or Russia from a massive missile strike. It has also been shown that missile defense can only be relatively dense against a small number of attacking missiles and that it would be impossible to disarm a strike with high-precision non-nuclear weapons. None of this evidence prevents politicians at various levels from periodically intimidating the public with an imaginary catastrophe. This kind of behavior can lead to a real resumption of the nuclear arms race and the development of advanced weapon systems with negative consequences for the nuclear non-proliferation regime in particular and global security in general.

We could avoid the second scenario at the outset by extending the New START for five years and again in the foreseeable future by signing a new treaty. The recent meeting in Vienna gives some hope for that. However, the absurd and unpredictable international security policy pursued by President Trump and his administration leaves little, if any, chance of extending the New START and discussing a new treaty. This situation might change if a different administration is elected. In that case, it would be possible to consider new agreements limiting SOA.

Modern shoe banging

Of all the new types of weapons President Putin has announced at various times, the Sarmat ICBM, the Avangard missile system with a cruise-type glide vehicle, the Poseidon super torpedo (or atomic drone), and the nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile with unlimited flight range can be classified as strategic nuclear weapons.

The first two fit well into the conventional and current New START. The Sarmat ICBMs are intended to replace the Voevoda ICBMs in the Strategic Missile Forces launch silos. The Avangard complex, whose cruise-type glide vehicle is carried by the improved UR-100N UTTKh ICBM, is also based in Voevoda ICBM launch silos. The United States and Russia have agreed to include Avangard in the framework of the New START, and US inspectors have already performed a direct inspection of the complex at its operating site, in compliance with the treaty procedure.

Consequently, the Sarmat and Avangard missile systems do not formally prevent the New START from being extended or a new treaty from being negotiated.

The Poseidon and Burevestnik systems are a different matter. Their tests are at an early stage, and the timeline for their possible adoption into service will most likely go beyond the timeframe of the extended New START. However, their inclusion in a hypothetically possible new treaty could be considered if the United States had similar systems or other new types of weapons that are subject to control and do not upset the overall balance of deterrence potential. This issue is extremely difficult – even impossible – to resolve today.

If entering into another START with the United States is important for Russian leadership primarily as a status factor, then it is reasonable to assess the Poseidon and Burevestnik systems’ contribution to the country’s nuclear deterrence potential, taking into account that in the foreseeable future, even without these advanced systems, Russia’s existing and upgraded SNF triad provides guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which, as noted above, cannot be impacted by either US missile defense or high-precision non-nuclear weapons.

There are plans to deploy 32 Poseidon super torpedoes on four Belgorod-class nuclear submarines, one of which was launched in Severodvinsk at a ceremony attended by President Putin. The super torpedo is being assembled. There are differing assessments of its capabilities, depending on the range, speed, and depth, as well as US anti-torpedoes, detection systems, and other specifications. Experts have stated that the Poseidon, equipped with both nuclear and conventional armaments, should be able to destroy US aircraft carriers, two naval bases where missile-carrying submarines are deployed, coastal infrastructure, and other key facilities.

These tasks raise a pivotal question: in what scenarios of conventional or nuclear war can the Poseidon be used? Which country would start a large-scale war with conventional weapons? Obviously, the answer is none of the above. If the United States were to start a war, Russia's military doctrine promises a retaliatory nuclear strike, and it would be suicidal madness for Russia to trigger such a war.

Mutual nuclear deterrence is known to be based on the demonstration of the potential for a guaranteed retaliatory strike both in the context of a treaty and in its absence. The prospects of a retaliatory strike in response to a massive nuclear attack are assessed above. In a nuclear exchange scenario, what would be the role of the Poseidon equipped for super-powerful nuclear armament? A retaliatory strike is normally planned to be delivered within a short period of time after the aggressor’s first strike. As noted above, in the foreseeable future and without the Poseidon involvement, Russia’s existing and upgraded SNF triad provides guaranteed nuclear deterrence for the United States.

So why was it developed, apart from demonstrating a new technology featuring small-sized nuclear power units and new materials? One explanation may be that in some future, the United States will make a great leap in development and deployment of continuous space, air, sea, and ground missile defense, reanimating the Star Wars program with new technology, and will be able to safely hit both stationary and mobile Russian ICBMs, missile-carrying submarines, and heavy bombers. If that were to happen, the Poseidon would become the last nuclear deterrent, unless the US develops some form of protection against it. However, Russia’s military-industrial complex mainly talks up US plans for such a program as a horror story that is useful for obtaining additional funding. Even if we allow that the United States might conceive of such a program, it would take decades to implement, and by then the Poseidon would be hopelessly outdated.

If the Poseidon is an invincible obstacle to highly desirable negotiations on a new START and spurs a nuclear arms race, it would be advisable to freeze its further development and the construction of Belgorod-class submarines, and to preserve the design and production groundwork in case absolutely unforeseen events arise.

Similarly, there is no real scenario in which the Burevestnik cruise missile will be able to contribute to Russia's nuclear deterrence potential, which is secured by the existing SNF triad. Even cruise missiles with a much shorter range than the Burevestnik’s are less likely to have a successful flight than the weapon types already employed by the strategic nuclear forces. Creating small-scale nuclear power units in non-military areas may be a more valuable experience.

Lessons not learned

Saving money is one consideration, but it is also reasonable to consider previous experiences when new systems were created or nuclear forces built up without taking the opponent's response into account.

The first lesson dates back to the late 1970s, when the USSR began developing the Kaskad and Skif orbital anti-satellite platforms equipped for missile and laser armaments and was preparing to test them. Both platforms were developed as part of a cooperation led by the Central Design Bureau of the then all-powerful academician Vladimir Chelomey. At one of the meetings, Yury Knyazev, a department head at the Defense Ministry’s 4th Central Research Institute, stood up and explained in detail that launching the platforms into orbit for testing would result in a powerful and disproportionate response from the United States in the area of military space, which could only hurt the USSR. Chelomey was indignant, shouting that colonel Knyazev was a nobody and had no right to object. The doubts, however, had been sown. There were wise people on the Military and Industrial Commission under the USSR Council of Ministers, including the well-known and reputable Krasnoslav Osadchiev, who always carefully considered scientists’ positions. Eventually, the program was abandoned (and not due to lack of funds).

The second lesson dates to the period before the INF Treaty was signed, when the Soviet Union ramped up production and deployment of the Pioneer missile systems. The United States proposed options for eliminating intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, but they did not yet have the Pershing II and cruise missiles (there was only the Pershing I). Soviet leaders resolutely refused because the exchange was clearly unequal, and the build-up of Pioneers continued.

It was only when the US deployed the Pershing II and precision-strike cruise missiles in Europe – which became extremely dangerous for the USSR, as our missiles posed no threat to US territory – that Soviet leadership began to understand the need for an INF treaty. As a result, the USSR had to eliminate twice as many missiles and three times as many nuclear warheads as the US.

Given its resources, it is difficult to forecast what the United States would do in response to the Poseidons today, and it is better not to open that door.

Negotiation proposals

In mid-July 2020, the US president's arms control representative Marshall Billingslea announced his intention to urge Russia to abandon the creation of nuclear-powered missiles. "There’s no good argument [or] logic for having these kinds of doomsday systems… these are enormous wastes of funds, and they should cease and desist and abandon these kinds of destabilizing ideas", he said.

Naturally, this categorical demand fueled sharp discontent among a number of State Duma deputies and experts. Arms limitation issues cannot be resolved this way. Nevertheless, taking into account new US research and development in response to Russia’s new weapons, it seems reasonable to invite the United States to negotiate a mutual ban on creating any types of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ground, air, and sea-based drones, including UAVs. The current US administration might engage on this issue in a way it won’t on strategic offensive arms. This would be a useful Russian diplomatic initiative to break the deadlock on arms control relations.

Source: Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozreniye