Russia Goes Ballistic

September 2, 2008 Topic: Security Tags: Nuclear WeaponsNuclear PowerHeads Of State

Russia Goes Ballistic

Mini Teaser: Russia will surpass U.S. nuclear capabilities within two decades if trends continue. America’s strategic force is a cold-war relic, and while Washington’s weapons break down, Moscow is making bombers and missiles that are newer and deadlier.

by Author(s): Bradley A. ThayerThomas M. Skypek

OVER THE next ten to twenty years, the erosion of American nuclear superiority will have major ramifications for the global balance of power. It will place new constraints on our freedom of action and lead our friends and foes alike to doubt the credibility of all instruments of U.S. power. As a result, decades-old alliance structures may fracture amid a drift toward multipolarity. Leadership from Tokyo to Riyadh to Seoul may find new incentives to develop their own deterrents as the relative power of states like Russia and China increases. With our extended-deterrent power lost, the international system will change-and not in Washington's favor. But this scenario is preventable if policy makers cast away the illusion of safety and act quickly to correct a trend which has plagued Washington for nearly two decades.

The giant has feet of clay. Though today the United States is widely seen to be dominant in almost every aspect of military power, and the expectation is that it will remain so, an examination of its nuclear forces and infrastructure reveals that its position is far from assured. The critical question is not whether the United States enjoys a strategic advantage in the area of nuclear forces presently, but rather what the forces and nuclear infrastructures of the United States and its competitors will look like ten or twenty years from now. If Washington does not modernize, Russia could acquire a nuclear advantage within the next two decades.

The United States faces major problems in the maintenance of its nuclear forces and infrastructure. It is the only nuclear country that cannot manufacture a new nuclear weapon because of a self-imposed moratorium, which has halted the modernization of warheads and delivery systems alike. Even though Washington possesses an unparalleled capacity to modernize, Congress has failed to fund any new nuclear initiatives. Strategic forces have been continually overlooked by Department of Defense and air-force leadership because of a constant de-emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons within the halls of the Pentagon. This began after the cold war and has only been accelerated by doctrinal shifts outlined in documents like the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, which argued that advanced conventional munitions could supplant nuclear forces in certain instances. But the problem of leadership on this issue extends across the Potomac to Capitol Hill. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle simply fail to understand the ongoing strategic military competition in which the United States finds itself, where the major powers are continuously jockeying for advantage.

What was true during the cold war remains so: nuclear weapons are a tremendous source of power in the international system. Conventional military superiority will almost always be trumped by nuclear superiority. But the United States cannot continue to live off of nuclear capital accumulated during the cold war. We must combat the false impression that the U.S. nuclear enterprise is still strong and will remain so into the future. It is decaying in almost every respect, from the nuclear warheads themselves to the missiles that deliver them to the scientists that build them. These weaknesses in the nuclear arsenal will cause U.S. strategic forces to fail to meet future mission requirements.

That is good news for our competitors, who have not taken a "nuclear holiday." Though Beijing's rise should be watched closely by Washington, our biggest rival in the nuclear realm is not China. While the United States is letting its arsenal degenerate, its nuclear peer-Russia-is constantly improving its nuclear forces and infrastructure. The overwhelming military superiority of the United States cannot simply be assumed to last into the future; it's time for a concerted effort by policy makers in Washington to invest in needed capabilities. The repeated failures to properly fund U.S. nuclear-modernization efforts are both shortsighted and dangerous.

As the United States' nuclear capabilities and skills atrophy, a time will soon come when the United States is weaker in relative strategic power than Russia. The impact on national security will affect every ally from Europe to Asia. The substantial benefits the United States derives from its nuclear umbrella will be no more. Thanks to these weaknesses, our allies and enemies will doubt the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent, giving other powers freer reign to threaten U.S. interests abroad. Aggression against the United States will become more likely because Washington's ability to respond to such force will be diminished. And advancement of U.S. interests against foes who-for the first time in history-may be better armed with nuclear weapons than the United States will be hindered. Other nuclear states will continue to modernize their arsenals and maintain robust nuclear infrastructures if the credibility of the U.S. strategic deterrent is doubted. Moreover, states now covered by U.S. extended-deterrent commitments, such as Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, would likely acquire nuclear forces. And current allies may align themselves with emerging nuclear powers. The most dangerous threat to the United States is the hubris and shortsightedness of those who believe that American military dominance is guaranteed.


TODAY, THE most modern nuclear-weapons capabilities belong not to the United States but to Russia. If unchecked, Russia's modernization will ensure that leadership in the realm of strategic forces will pass from Washington to Moscow. This is not to argue that all is well with Russia's nuclear capabilities. Other recent analyses have argued that Russia's strategic arsenal has so deteriorated that the country no longer has a survivable second-strike capability. Or even that Moscow's nuclear-weapons capabilities can't rival those of Washington. Russian forces may have deteriorated since the cold war, and they may not yet be modernized completely. But Moscow has begun to revamp its arsenal, and the United States has not kept pace. These competing analyses are incomplete because they examine the current strategic nuclear balance, but fail to analyze how Washington's nuclear paralysis will affect U.S. strategy and strategic commitments over the next two decades.

One conclusion is inescapable: the Russian strategic hiatus of the 1990s ended when Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin. Since 1999, the Russians have conducted annual strategic exercises for all to see, the scale of which matches what was typical during the cold war, and far beyond what the United States has done. Indicating, too, how important, Russian exercises also involve the highest echelons of the government. In August 2005, in the course of a major exercise, then-President Vladimir Putin actually flew in a bomber that launched four land-attack cruise missiles. The Russian leadership has made the modernization of its strategic nuclear weapons a priority; Putin was its greatest supporter and it is unlikely that his handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, will change course.

These efforts are remarkable, standing in stark contrast to the stasis and even decay of U.S. strategic forces. Buoyed by its vast energy resources, Russia's economy has grown over the past decade, creating the revenue base needed to modernize its military.

Major nuclear states organize their nuclear forces into three parts, or a triad-bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Moscow's new doctrine calls for updating each leg of the triad. The country is developing new strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, as well as radically lowering the nuclear threshold (the conditions under which Russia will employ nuclear forces). All of these weapons could be used in a first strike against Russia's enemies.

A hallmark of Russia's strength has always been its capacity to act on the continent. Bombers help Moscow do just that. Although bombers have never been as important to Russia's nuclear-weapons program as they have been to the American one, they are now a higher priority. Russia has a strategic-bomber modernization policy, which is fully in accord with its broader strategic-modernization goals. As with its bomber fleet, submarines have never been equal to the Russian ICBM force. But there is significant modernization to this leg as well with its new Bulava SLBMs, which offer a higher degree of survivability than ICBMs. Eventually, this could enable Russia to negate the U.S. Navy's long-held advantage in this realm.

But just as with the Soviet Union, the strength of Russian strategic nuclear forces lies with the ICBMs. They allow Russia to exercise its strength far beyond its borders, holding at risk countervalue targets like cities and counterforce targets like nuclear arsenals throughout the United States. Accordingly, the modernization program stresses these weapons. Russia has developed the silo-based SS-27, and is creating a road-mobile derivative of it, enhancing Moscow's second-strike capability. In addition, Russia tested a new ICBM, the RS-24. It has not yet been given a NATO designation, but will eventually replace the old SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs.

More alarming still are reports that Russia is working on a new liquid-fueled ICBM which would far outclass U.S. missiles. Also in the realm of potential weapons, the Russians have discussed the development of a hypersonic glide vehicle that would reach distant continents quickly and be able to penetrate U.S. missile defenses. Russia is even developing a new long-range cruise missile. The United States canceled its equivalent in 2007.

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