Putin’s Phony Arms Race

- Maret 09, 2018

In the early parts of his recent state of the federation speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered some hints of openings to the United States. But that has been lost by the response to the last third of his speech, an extravagant hype of a “breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons,” designed to ensure that Russia’s nuclear forces can defeat any defense the U.S. now has or can build.

Regrettably, the response in the U.S. has focused almost entirely on that last part of the speech and overlooked any potential openings for a U.S.-Russian dialogue on our mutual security interests.

I believe Putin’s aggressive stance was almost entirely for domestic consumption and geopolitical posturing. Though I don’t want to underestimate the importance of geopolitical posturing—U.S. perceptions of Russian military capability can be important—it is also important to assess the actual military and technical significance of what Putin said. To date, much of the American commentary on the weapons part of his talk tends to belittle these new systems by saying he doesn’t have the capability yet, that he might not be able to achieve it in the near future, or that it’s not new and we already knew about it.

Those comments miss the most important point from a military and technical point of view: Whether or not these new weapons work and whether or not they are available, they don’t change the basic deterrent posture or military capability of Russia.

Consider the new missile that presumably can defeat all of our defenses: Russia now has, and has had for many decades, missiles that can readily defeat U.S. defenses. Russia does not have to attack the U.S. from the south to do so. We have always believed that Russian missiles have decoys that can defeat our defenses by saturating them, even if our defenses were to work as advertised. And if we were to build more and better defenses, Russia would then build more and better decoys, or for that matter, more warheads for the missiles they already have. Building more decoys or more warheads is always easier and cheaper than building bigger and better defenses to defeat them. Even if our defenses were to shoot down 80 percent of the warheads in a large-scale attack (a percentage that no experience and no test data supports), 200 to 300 nuclear warheads detonating in the U.S. could hardly be considered a successful “defense.” That is what the Russians can do with their present arsenal—and we can do the same. That is what mutual deterrence is all about.

Consider the widely touted new Russian long-range nuclear robotic submarine, designed to totally destroy any of our port cities. Russia already has a multitude of systems that can do the same thing in a different way. And we can do the same to Russian cities without resorting to robotic submarines. So even if these systems are real, even if they can do everything Putin claims, even if they are already available—it doesn’t change the deterrence posture and it doesn’t give Russia any significant new capability.

It seems to me that more than anything, Putin’s new weapons represent a marketing triumph of the military-industrial complex in Russia, which has succeeded in selling the Russian government on new, expensive systems that look good in brochures and in videos, but do not give Moscow any meaningful new capability. Even if they work, they are solving a defense problem Russia does not have: an American counter to Russia’s deterrent force. These new weapons will prove to be a major blunder in Russian defense spending unless we fall for their hype and truly believe that they somehow threaten our deterrence.

What is more likely is that the U.S. will decide that because Russia has such systems, then we must have them too. Never doubt that the U.S. could build these same systems if we chose to—and of course we would want even better such weapons. There will certainly be voices in the U.S. calling for us to do just that—voices that will argue that we must have a bigger “nuclear button” than Russia.

The really dangerous aspect of this speech is that Putin seems to be welcoming a new nuclear arms race and challenging the U.S. to join in. It is easy to imagine such an arms race, with each side trumpeting its fearsome new weapons based on their latest technology.

I note sadly that the U.S. indirectly stimulated these Russian programs when we withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2001 and then deployed an ABM system in Europe. The U.S. has consistently argued that its ABM system does not threaten Russia (which is true), but Russia has always seen it as a first step toward a system that could undermine its deterrent capability, and has sought to develop a capability to overcome it. Now they believe they have such a capability and are trumpeting it to the world.

It is the Cold War arms race all over again—this time with the race in “quality” rather than quantity. The quantity race led the world to more than 70,000 nuclear weapons. God only knows where a quality race would lead us. But you don’t have to be God to know that it will be very dangerous and very expensive.


 

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