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

The Russians are modernizing their low-yield nuclear weapons as well, which can be used for tactical or strategic purposes such as holding at-risk or attacking high-value leadership targets. Moscow is developing a precision, low-yield nuclear weapon and a "clean" nuclear earth penetrator designed to destroy deeply buried targets like government bunkers, while the U.S. Congress canceled the equivalent U.S. program. By maintaining a robust portfolio of tactical and strategic nuclear capabilities, Moscow is able to enjoy more flexibility to make and back up their nuclear threats.

The Russians are also strongly interested in electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) weapons, and are suspected of having a robust capability to threaten one of the United States' well-known weaknesses: its dependency on insufficiently hardened electronics for its military and key civilian sectors. An EMP attack against a major urban center in the United States would be catastrophic. It would destroy the fabric of American society and bring cities and many governmental functions to an abrupt halt. It would have profound implications for the economy, politics and personal security, on a scale never before witnessed in the United States.

Russia enjoys the most robust nuclear infrastructure in the world. As a result, Moscow should be recognized as the world leader in the ability to design and produce nuclear weapons. It has the world's largest nuclear-weapons-production complex, with two plants for nuclear-weapons assembly and one plant for plutonium and uranium pit production. Russia has admitted the ability to disassemble two thousand warheads a year, which equals the technical capability to produce about the same number of warheads. The United States, on the other hand, has not developed or produced a new warhead since 1989. Russia also has nuclear-testing facilities that are able to be used for nuclear tests with minimal preparation, and Moscow has admitted to conducting a robust program of subcritical tests that produce a small yield. So Russia's leadership can certify the reliability of their strategic systems through actual nuclear testing rather than relying on technical extrapolations, which are less reliable.

Russia will continue to produce the most advanced nuclear forces in the world not simply because of its technical capacity but because of its commitment to the maintenance of this tremendous source of strategic power. Nuclear weapons and strategic strike capabilities will remain the highest force-maintenance and force-procurement priority of the Russian Federation for decades to come. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for the United States.


AS RUSSIA expands its nuclear forces like gangbusters, the United States moves at a snail's pace. Washington faces two major strategic weaknesses: its ICBM force and its nuclear-weapons infrastructure. If these problems are not rectified, they will affect U.S. strategic forces' ability to deter other powers around the world. There are no "quick fixes" here given the lengthy timeline for the design, which may easily be ten years from conception through production to actual deployment. Accordingly, the strategic vulnerabilities of the United States must be confronted immediately, if the United States is to maintain its strategic position.

In the 1990s, the United States started its strategic-nuclear holiday, and began to reduce its nuclear forces and infrastructure and the attention which policy makers and the military paid to nuclear weapons. To meet the grand-strategic goals of the United States, including credible extended-deterrence commitments to allies like Japan well into the future, U.S. strategic forces must be modernized.

Washington's neglect of its strategic forces is shocking. There are no efforts to develop or produce new nuclear weapons, and no new ICBMs or SLBMs are under development. B-2 production has halted, and no U.S. bombers are on alert. Many strategic and tactical nuclear-weapons programs have been canceled. U.S. Army, Marines and Navy surface and air components are out of the nuclear-weapons business. The number of NATO substrategic nuclear weapons in Europe and NATO nuclear-delivery systems have gone from eleven to one, over an 85 percent reduction, and are no longer maintained on alert. This means that the nuclear umbrella the United States has held over our European allies has some huge holes. Should NATO face a major crisis with Iran or Russia, Washington would rue the day these weapons were withdrawn.

The first step to reverse the decline is to modernize the ICBM force. In the post-cold-war period, the ICBM force continues to make major contributions to the U.S. strategic deterrent. ICBMs possess a relatively large payload capacity, and are survivable against first strikes launched by any of Washington's potential opponents. Because of this, they complicate and discourage an adversary's counterforce attack options. Thus, ICBMs still fulfill a traditional cold-war mission of deterrence against peer or near-peer adversaries. However, this will change in the future if the United States does not modernize its ICBM force to address modernizations undertaken by the Russians and Chinese.

Drastic reductions in the size of the ICBM force will raise doubts about the capabilities of the United States. The ICBM force is robust now, but will not be in the future. However, as with every aspect of the U.S. strategic infrastructure, knowledge is at risk thanks to an aging workforce: the United States has a "critical skills" gap that is only widening.

The transmission of such hard-earned knowledge is critical for contractors and subcontractors alike. The ICBM community has recognized the need for skills management as an asset equal to any component of the missile. The human-capital element of modernization cannot be understated. It requires not only an investment in weapons systems but an investment in people-namely the scientists, engineers and military personnel who ensure the safety and security of this crucial source of U.S. power.

This problem affects all components of U.S. strategic systems. Research-and-development scientists and engineers, command-and-control of strategic forces, the ICBM, SLBM and bomber industrial base, and members of the nuclear-weapons design and production community in the United States all face this challenge. But no other nuclear country does, since all others are modernizing their strategic forces.

The aging workforce also hinders U.S. strategic forces' ability to gauge the effects of nuclear weapons on strategic systems. Many of the requirements for EMP hardening have been reduced in the wake of the cold war due to the perceived reduction in threat. This would have been unthinkable during the cold war, when the EMP threat, which could destroy any unprotected electrical equipment and cause massive system failures, was seen as a potential Achilles' heel for U.S. strategic forces.

Today, U.S. strategic forces may have EMP vulnerabilities that "snuck" into the design of new systems or subsystems because radiation hardening and survivability protection was ignored or could not be funded due to the added expense. These are real vulnerabilities that a U.S. adversary like Russia or China can exploit. The vulnerabilities will only become greater if they are not addressed immediately, because many of the people who developed EMP expertise during the cold war are no longer part of the workforce.

Even the nuclear warheads of the United States are problematic, since ensuring the reliability of the U.S. strategic arsenal will be quite a challenge. The last underground nuclear test conducted by the United States was in 1992. So the nuclear-weapons labs are faced with the problem of ensuring reliability of weapons without certain proof they work.

Attempts at revitalizing the nuclear infrastructure have been stymied by Congress, which consistently reduced and more recently zeroed out funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. The RRW program is critical because the weapons that comprise the backbone of U.S. strategic forces were designed during the cold war, and do not properly address the requirements of the United States in the post-cold-war period.


Finding a replacement for the W-76 warhead is particularly important because it accounts for about a third of the U.S. arsenal and, with modifications to its design, comprises the totality of the British arsenal. The W-76's replacement is called the Reliable Replacement Warhead-1 (RRW-1), and is designed to be safer, cheaper and more secure while improving longevity. New military capabilities were not incorporated in the design, but new safety features were.

The RRW-1 and subsequent designs were intended to exercise the creative abilities of the weapons designers, engineers and others involved in the design, production and certification of nuclear weapons. Whether it is building submarines or nuclear weapons, much of the knowledge about how to design and build the complex system is conveyed personally, as are solutions to problems encountered in design, production or deployment. The "graybeards" among the military, civil service and industry are retiring, and if their knowledge is not passed on to a new generation, then it will be lost-damaging the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Despite the RRW-1's great advantages, Congress refuses to fund it. In Washington, opposition to modernizing the United States' strategic deterrent has been bipartisan: nuclear weapons are largely considered to be unnecessary relics of the cold war by many on Capitol Hill.


THE UNITED States clearly faces substantial problems in its strategic-force posture. Worse, other nuclear states-China, France, Great Britain, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia-have not taken a "nuclear holiday." As a result, the relative strategic balance between the United States and its near-peer competitors has changed, and not in Washington's favor.

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