I am hesitant to write this because I do not want to leave the reader with the idea that I support the use of nuclear weapons. I do not. But the people of the United States, thanks to inept and corrupt political leadership, live under the fantasy that we are still in the strategic world that existed in the 1990s, when it was understood that a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States or Russia against the other would result in an unstoppable response that would leave both countries devastated and confront the world with a possible nuclear winter. In other words, Mutual Assured Destruction.
But then George W. Bush happened. In June of 2001, George W. Bush unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. If your are younger than 40 years old, you probably have no memory of the ABM Treaty. Here’s a quick refresher:
Signed in 1972 by Washington and Moscow to slow the nuclear arms race, the ABM Treaty barred both superpowers from deploying national defenses against long-range ballistic missiles and from building the foundation for such a defense. The treaty was based on the premise that if either superpower constructed a strategic defense, the other would build up its offensive nuclear forces to offset the defense. The superpowers would therefore quickly be put on a path toward a never-ending offensive-defensive arms race as each tried to balance its counterpart’s action.
I remember Bush’s first year in office clearly. My writing at the time was focused on the Bush Administration’s utter neglect of counter terrorism en lieu of focusing on developing a missile defense system. That was the priority of the Bush National Security team in 2001 until 9-11 happened. The Bush Team ignored the CIA warnings that Bin Laden was planning to hit the United States and only convened its first inter-agency meeting on terrorism on September 10:
Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US was the title of the President’s Daily Brief prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency and given to U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday, August 6, 2001. The brief warned, 36 days before the September 11 attacks, of terrorism threats from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, including “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for a hijacking” of U.S. aircraft.
In the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, the Bush Administration pivoted to a perverse counter terrorism policy highlighted by invading Afghanistan and going to war with Iraq. The new CT policy shifted the U.S. Government’s defense policy from building and deploying the ballistic missile defense system that was Bush and Cheney’s dream in the first 8 months of their Administraion, to combating terrorism and nation building. Billions of dollars that could have been spent on a new ABM system were gobbled up with feckless military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and other back waters in the the Third world.
What did Russia do? Initially, the folks in Moscow complained:
Senior Kremlin spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhhembsky said Moscow will voice regret about the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty, but would otherwise remain calm. Mr. Yastrzhembsky said Russia’s own nuclear arsenal is sufficient to protect the country in the future.
The chief of the Russian General Staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin says U.S. withdrawal from ABM will have an impact on strategic stability.
General Kvasnin says it will open the way for some countries to embark on an international arms race. But, he says it will not threaten Russia’s security.
Some Russian politicians are less restrained. Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin of the liberal Yabloka Party describes the U.S. move as a major mistake.
Mr. Lukin says ‘it’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.” He accuses the U.S. of using Russian assistance in the anti-terror coalition and then ignoring Russian concerns on other issues, such as the ABM treaty.
And then Russia did what Russians do–they created a robust, echeloned ABM defense. My friend, Andrei Martyanov, offers a general description Russia’s response in his terrific book, Losing Military Supremacy:
“Furthermore, if in the naval field the United States still maintains some strong positions, not least through the sheer size of her navy, the current situation and trends are even worse in the other military-technological fields. The F-35 or Littoral Combat Ship disaster are just few indications of the overall slide in American conventional capabilities, such as American air defense for the US proper which is simply non-existent—a rather telling fact for the nation which thought it didn’t need to have one. This shouldn’t be mistaken with anti-ballistic missile defense which does exist in the US—which is absolutely useless against sea- and air-launched land attack cruise missiles which have the capability to attack crucial American military infrastructure—a capability Russia demonstrated to dramatic effect in Syria. Unlike Russia which boasts arguably the best, deeply echeloned, national air defense, which today deploys the best anti-air and anti-missile complexes in the word, American shores are virtually defenseless. Deployment of batteries of the Patriot PAC-3 system, whose reputation is not very high to start with, or of the AEGIS ships along the American shoreline, does not provide a guarantee against conventional or even nuclear retaliation against the US proper in case of a major conflict. With the project 885 Severodvinsk-class nuclear-powered submarines coming on-line, together with the modernized project 949A class, all armed with the latest TLAMs, it is very difficult to foresee any measure which can realistically secure the US proper from a massive cruise missile attack.”
So, here is the critical question–Can the US block a nuclear missile?
A new study sponsored by the American Physical Society concludes that U.S. systems for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles cannot be relied on to counter even a limited nuclear strike and are unlikely to achieve reliability within the next 15 years.
If you are a Russian military planner, you realize that M.A.D is no longer a reality. In the event that Russia believed it faced a genuine existential threat from the West from a nuclear strike, even a tactical hit, the Russian military could present President Putin with a viable plan that would destroy the U.S. nuclear response with limited (albeit horrific) damage to Russia. I am not suggesting that Russia would walk away unscathed. But Russia, with a field tested, integrated anti-ballistic missile defense system, would have a better than even chance of surviving a nuclear exchange with the United States.
I will repeat–this is a last resort action and I am steadfastly opposed to it. But I think it should be part of the public discussion. Too many ignorant pundits and politicians in the West disparage Russia’s military capabilities as second rate at best. Jeffrey Lewis, writing in Foreign Policy four years ago, understood the reality of the moment:
“The real genesis of Russia’s new generation of bizarre nuclear weapons lies not in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, but in the George W. Bush administration’s decision in 2001 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the bipartisan failure by both the Bush and Obama administrations to engage meaningfully with the Russians over their concerns about American missile defenses. Putin said as much in his remarks. “During all these years since the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty,” Putin explained, “we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons.” Those technological breakthroughs are now here. Sadly, we’re never got the diplomatic ones we needed.”
“Putin’s Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile Is Bigger Than Trump’s. Jeffrey Lewis. Foreign Policy, March 1, 2018. http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/01/putins-nuclear-powered-cruise-missile-is-biggerthan-trumps/”
The war in Ukraine has given Russia a stage to showcase some of its advanced weaponry, such as the hypersonic Kinzhal. This missile has hit targets in Ukraine before the air raid warnings went off. Andrei Martyanov explains:
“many true professionals were gasping for the air when the Dagger (Kinzhal) was unveiled. This is a complete game changer geopolitically, strategically, operationally, tactically and psychologically. It was known for some time that the Russian Navy was already deploying a revolutionary M=8-capable 3M22 Zircon anti-shipping missile. As impressive and virtually uninterceptable by any air defenses the Zircon is, the Kinzhal is simply shocking in its capabilities. This, most likely based on the famed Iskander airframe, M=10+ capable, highly maneuverable, aero-ballistic missile with a range of 2000 kilometers, carried by MiG-31BMs, just rewrote the book on naval warfare. It made large surface fleets and combatants obsolete. No, you are not misreading it. No air-defense or anti-missile system in the world today (maybe with the exception of the upcoming S-500 specifically designed for the interception of hyper-sonic targets) is capable of doing anything about it, and, most likely, it will take decades to find the antidote. More specifically, no modern or prospective airdefense system deployed today by any NATO fleet can intercept even a single missile with such characteristics. A salvo of 5-6 such missiles guarantees the destruction of any[…]”
M.A.D. is dead. Let us pray that we survive.