As the Salisbury saga continues and the world prepares for the drama and humanitarian calamity of the Idlib battle in Syria, leading journalists and scholars alike remain seemingly oblivious to the most concrete and ultimately dangerous manifestations of the new Cold War between the United States and Russia. These are, of course, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on new generations of strategic nuclear weaponry in both the United States and Russia, as well as the increasing tendency to deploy these weapons in destabilizing patterns of operations.
A window into Russian thinking on this weaponry is revealed in a book I picked up last year in Vladivostok. The 2017 work, by the author Alexander Shirokorad, concerns Russia’s strategic interests in the Arctic. A major theme of the book is submarine activity in the sensitive polar region. In his book, Shirokorad reviews the history of Russian (and Soviet) nuclear ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) operations. He notes with evident pride that on August 6, 1991, that the submarine K-407 successfully launched its full complement as a salvo [был залпом запущен весь комплемент] of sixteen submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in just fourteen seconds. That operation was called “Behemoth 2 [бегемот-2].”
After explaining this history, however, Shirokorad goes on to make an especially emblematic observation. He says that during 1991, there was an average of less than one single Soviet SSBN on deterrence patrol at sea for the year. Reflecting on that shortfall, he comments, “What surprises me is just a single point, why is Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev still a free man?” In other words, to a certain group of Russian strategists, the idea that their nuclear deterrent could be weakened to that extent amounts to an unacceptable failure and perhaps an act of treason too.
Those very same strategists might well have been relieved by the May 2018 launch of another significant salvo of SLBMs from a Russian SSBN in the high north. Indeed, it is in that light that one might consider an article that recently appeared on the website of Military Review [Военное Обозрение] under the intriguing, if disturbing title: “In place of thousands of warheads: will the ‘ Bulava’ (SLBM) save Russia [Вместо тысячи боеголовок: спасет ли Россию ‘Булава’]?” begins with the assessment that many “were in fact naïve to believe that Russia and the United States would curb their nuclear arsenals as they did half a century ago [На деле же наивно полагать, что Россия и Соединенные Штаты будут меряться своими ядерными арсеналами, как это было полвека назад.].”
Two disturbing trends are outlined. It is observed that “The capabilities of the countries have fundamentally diverged . . . [Возможности стран принципиально отличаются]” and this is obvious from comparing military budgets in 2017, wherein this Russian analyst suggests that U.S. spending is roughly ten times that of Russia. Moreover, the author notes the divergence in military capabilities is more visible on a tactical level than on the strategic level. It is noted that “America’s nuclear shield [американский ядерный щит]”—missile defenses in other words—are “obviously more modern, and even more important – better protected.” In assessing the strategic balance, this Russian military analyst gives high marks to the U.S. Navy’s ballistic-missile submarine force. The author explains that the fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs of the American sea-based deterrent are without peer in the world regarding stealth. Moreover, it is suggested that the solid-fueled Trident II is likewise the most capable SBLM system in the world. The author concedes that these systems are not new and require replacement, and it is noted that the U.S. Navy’s Columbia SSBN development program has a long way to go still.
According to the analysis, “Russia has, in theory, adequate forces for a guaranteed retaliatory blow [В принципе, России для гарантированного ответного удара хватило]” from its land-based forces in silos and mobile platforms. However, the author maintains that these systems are quite vulnerable. Even the rail-based system “Barguzin” is said to “also have inadequacies connected to vulnerability [тоже имел концептуальные недостатки, связанные с уязвимостью.].” For the author, there is no visible alternative to maintaining Russia’s nuclear triad.
Yet, there are substantial problems with the existing Russian strategic submarine force. In particular, the author maintains that Russia’s Project 667 Delta-class [Дельфин] SSBNs or so-called “boomer” submarines are now obsolete. “The [Project 667] ‘Dolphin’ is far from the quietest submarine.” The author continues: “It is believed that an old American Los Angeles -class can track a Project 667 submarine in the Barents Sea at a distance of up to 30 km. One has to project that for a ‘ Virginia’ or ‘ Seawolf’ class, that figure would be even better [Считается, что старая американская лодка типа ‘Лос-Анджелес’ обнаруживает подлодку проекта 667БДРМ в Баренцевом море на дистанции до 30 километров. Нужно полагать, у ‘Вирждинии’ и ‘Сивулфа’ данный показатель будет еще лучше].”