US – Russia Strategic Arms Race Heats up
For a quarter of a century, the biggest strategic arms race in history – that between the US and Russia – has been relatively quiet. Although there were modernizations of weapons, the end of the Cold War meant that there wasn’t the need for new developments in the field of strategic nuclear weapons.
That has changed. As Putin has focused on his western neighbors and NATO has moved troops and equipment east, into countries bordering Russia, the specter of a nuclear arms race has grown.
There have been several events that have increased the tension between the US and Russia. First, President Trump has refused to clearly delineate when the US would resort to nuclear weapons. Trump has also called for a modernization of the US nuclear weapons stockpile, since many of the weapons designs are decades old.
On the Russian side, on March 2, President Putin has announced the development of several weapons designed to penetrate US defenses. Russian President Putin used his state-of-the-nation speech to showcase six superweapons that would supposedly revolutionize the game of geopolitics for Russia and give his country a significant military advantage over the United States. In particular, Putin revealed that Russia possesses hypersonic technologies that can render NATO’s U.S.-led missile defense system completely “useless.”
The US isn’t the only country worried about Russian ambitions. Last March, the prime ministers of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan held a meeting (Baku was represented by its deputy PM) in Kiev. It was the first high level meeting since 2008. The cooperation agreement signed by those foreign ministers last October mentions a free trade zone. The GUAM organization is expected to hold a summit this June. Three of its members – Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are pro-American.
Moldova has announced its decision to buy weapons from NATO members. Its government is anxious to join “Western institutions.” Ukraine is home to a US naval facility and is scheduled to receive American arms. Tbilisi is pursuing a “more NATO in Georgia and more Georgia in NATO” policy.
The US is also pressuring neutral countries. Neutral Sweden, which voted for the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty in July 2017, has been told by US Secretary of Defense Mattis that it would “negatively impact” relations with the US. Svenska Dagbladet said, “The implication is that if the government signs the convention banning nuclear weapons, including on Swedish territory, it would impact both defense cooperation during peace time and the possibility of military support from the USA in a crisis situation.”
The Russian Threat
From a national security perspective, Putin’s claims of hypersonic weapons should not be underestimated but should be analyzed in order to separate fact from fiction.
“Efforts to contain Russia have failed, face it,” Putin declared in a two-hour speech at his annual state of the nation address. Putin’s address included computer simulations of new arms including hypersonic systems, intercontinental missiles, and underwater drones.
Putin said the creation of hypersonic systems has made NATO’s U.S.-led missile defense shields in Europe utterly “useless,” and means the era of the Western world attempting to prevent Russia’s expansion is over.
One of the weapons Putin mentioned in his speech was an air-launched hypersonic anti-ship missile launched from a Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound. Upon closer examination, analysts found the hypersonic weapon closely resembles the Iskander short-range ballistic missile.
The Iskander is a short-range tactical ballistic missile. According to analysts, the Iskander is not an air-breathing cruisse missile, but instead has a solid state rocket fuel propulsion system.
The analysts even pointed out that the missile underneath the MiG-31 “doesn’t even look that highly modified, although it’s exhaust fairing, which drops off during launch, throws off the Iskander’s signature profile a bit at first glance.”
According to the Russians, “The Kinzhal [Iskander] system substantially boosts the capabilities of the Russian Aerospace Force to respond to any possible act of aggression against our country and along with other strategic weapon systems will help deter possible adversaries from rushing headlong into action… The fast-speed fixed-wing carrier allows delivering a missile with unique performance characteristics to the area of its discharge within minutes. The main propulsion unit mounted on the aero-ballistic missile accelerates a warhead to hypersonic speed within seconds. The missile’s maneuvering at speeds exceeding the speed of sound by several times allows it to reliably breach all air defense and anti-ballistic missile defense systems that exist or are being developed.”
“All the test launches of the most advanced hypersonic aero-ballistic missiles that have been conducted have ended with the accurate destruction of the designated targets. From December 1st last year, the first aviation unit armed with the Kinzhal aircraft missile system switched to accomplishing experimental and combat duty missions to practice the fundamentals of its combat use.”
Analysts concluded Putin’s air-launched hypersonic missile is nothing more than a modified Iskander missile. Nevertheless, Putin has leveraged existing assets turning the Iskander missile into a super missile, which should not be discounted in the national security community.
The War Zone analysts said, “An air-launched ballistic missile is a relevant capability that dramatically expends the reach (by roughly four times), deployability, and flexibility over existing Iskander missiles. But if this missile does indeed have anti-ship capabilities, that’s a huge leap in capability for Russia’s already incredibly dense anti-ship missile arsenal.”
“According to Putin, the system is somewhat mature and has already been deployed on experimental duty to airfields in Russia’s expansive Southern Military District.
This development will likely only increase calls for broader, more layered ballistic missile defense, not to mention the fielding of new targeting new sensors, and the distributing of some “shooter” roles to airborne systems. This includes those armed with directed energy weapons (lasers) and even very-long-range air-to-air missiles.”
The hypersonic ICBM – a version of the Sarmat ICBM system – is capable of deploying a wide range of nuclear warheads, which will be able to strike targets from the south and North Poles, Putin said. This allows Russia to avoid current American anti-missile systems.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that the hypersonic missile “can rip [US] air defenses apart,” adding that “at the moment [the US defense shield] poses no serious military threat to us, except for provocations.”
There are also reports of other Russian weapons. Russian defense companies have created a plane-mounted laser that can hit satellites – according to an anonymous source quoted by Russian news agency Interfax. The program builds off the Soviet-era Beriev A-60 gas laser, which is a technology that has been well researched by both the US and Israel.
A Joint Chiefs of Staff report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon in January, predicted that Russia or China would be able to destroy U.S. satellites within a decade.
However, it’s important to remember that Putin’s superweapons are still in the research or testing phase, with unknown timelines of deployment. Still, last week, the Russian president’s clever act rattled America’s military community.
The American Response
Although hypersonic weapons are a clear threat, that doesn’t mean the US hasn’t been moving towards hypersonic defenses. As mentioned in previous reports, the US has developed high power lasers. In addition, the US is working on critical technologies like tracking hypersonic ICBMs in flight and developing lasers that can disable an ICBM at high speed.
But, nuclear defense isn’t the only issue. The American nuclear deterrent is generally decades old and hasn’t been significantly upgraded since the end of the Cold War. America’s oldest nuclear bombers were developed and deployed in 1950s, the newest ones in 1980s and 1990s. Their intercontinental-range ballistic missiles have been on a continuous alert since 1970s and the first Ohio-class strategic submarine was commissioned in 1980s.
The big problem is that the US nuclear arsenal was designed to fight the Russians and isn’t designed to counter smaller nuclear powers like North Korea or Iran. In addition, many of the weapons are old and the effect of radioactivity on the plutonium core may have degraded the yield.
Part of the modernization includes rebuilding the plutonium pits that are at the heart of the nuclear device. They are to be built at Los Alamos, NM and will be interoperable between Air Force and Navy ICBMs.
There will also be modernization of the B-61 nuclear weapon that is used on aircraft. The new variant of the nuclear bomb, called the B61-12, is now expected to replace the older types 3, 4, 7 and 10 as well as the bunker-busting B-61-11 and B-83 strategic nuclear bombs. These bombs have the “dial a yield” design, which gives war planners more flexibility. It is also more accurate, which allows planners to use lower yields.
The first B-61-12 is expected to be completed by 2020. By 2024, all the old bombs are expected to be replaced. Then, according to the plan, the new weapons will be deployable using fighter jets like the F-16, the new F-35 and with strategic bombers like the B-2 “Spirit.” The bombs will be compatible with any new bomber design.
Although it isn’t mentioned, these “dial a yield” bombs are basically neutron bombs at lower yields. These mean that they are very effective against massed tank attacks like those once envisioned in a hot war in Europe.
Needless to say, American modernization (like Russian modernization) worries Russia. The editor-in-chief of Russia’s National Defense magazine, Igor Korotchenko, warned that the second test of the B61-12 could indicate that the US is speeding up its rearmament program while “both Washington and Brussels are considering the scenario of a limited nuclear war in Europe.” He added that NATO forces have already conducted drills in the Baltic Sea, including mock nuclear strikes on Russia. “During regular exercises, including those in the Baltic Sea, the air forces of NATO countries have repeatedly carried out combat training tasks involving tactical nuclear strikes on targets located in the northwest of our country,” Korotchenko told RIA Novosti.
Despite the claims from both sides, a stalemate continues to exist. Although Trump has maintained the freedom to use nuclear weapons, even if the opponent hasn’t used a nuclear device, Russia still has enough weapons to cause irreparable harm to the US mainland.
Conversely, Putin realizes the US can cause irreparable damage to Russia. Not only are there land based ICBMs, nuclear bombers, and submarine launched ICBMs, there are nuclear capable aircraft and nuclear tipped cruise missiles stationed all around the periphery of Russia.
Although many point to the belligerent talk of both Trump and Putin, it is important to remember that such talk was common in the “hotter” times of the Cold War. Yet, nothing happened.
The fact is that “war talk” is cheap. Both Putin and Trump realize the outcome of a nuclear exchange. They will not be eager to “push the button” in a crisis.
How Congress Funds the Military Needs to Change
By Frederico Bartels
March 7, 2018
Suppose your aging car has become unreliable and hard to maintain. You’ve decided to buy a new one, and the bank has approved the loan. But there’s a catch: you can’t get the money until the bank decides what other loans it will make for the entire year.
While you’re waiting for the bank to hash out all those other requests, you’re stuck with driving that (increasingly) worn-out car. Our military is in the same situation. And the bank with the dysfunctional rules is Congress. Recognizing the declining level of our military readiness, Congress has wisely decided to boost the defense budget. But the military can’t get access to these extra resources until lawmakers pass a budget that funds the whole government. In the meantime, the Pentagon has to rely on continuing resolutions that provide only short-term, status quo funding, contributing to the deterioration of our military might.
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Stop Pretending America and Turkey Are Allies
By Doug Bandow
March 5, 2018
Washington officials routinely call Turkey a vital ally, yet Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government has threatened U.S. forces cooperating with Kurdish militias in northern Syria. After American military spokesmen warned that U.S. troops would defend themselves, Erdoğan promised the famed “Ottoman slap.” Alas, doing so probably would increase his popularity with Turkey’s highly anti-American public. While no one quite believes the two governments will come to blows, U.S. policymakers are deluded or lying when they assert America’s and Turkey’s unity of purpose. After visiting Ankara, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared: “We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.” However, the threat of open conflict between the two governments is real, and demonstrates the extent to which they have diverged. The differences continue to grow with every new day and military operation. Rather than sacrificing American values and interests, Washington should drop its fantasy expectations and establish a more realistic relationship with Erdoğan.
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America’s “Chaos Strategy” in the Middle East and South Asia
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 26, 2018
It does not take a great deal of vision to see that the United States has no clear strategy for any of the wars it is fighting in the Middle East and South Asia, and no clear strategy for dealing with any of the other strategic challenges in either region. The day-to-day focus of the media on some individual problem or event cannot disguise the fact that the U.S. makes decisions from day-to-day on a piecemeal basis. It lurches from issue to issue and high-level trip to trip. It wins tactical victories with no clear strategic impact or lasting impact on regional stability. It reacts in the short-term, and U.S. grand strategy is little more than the chaos dictated by external events. America’s longest wars are still being fought without any clear goals, and the U.S. is dealing with challenges like the broad instability in the Arab world, Iran, Russian intervention, and Turkey’s war with the Kurds in an inchoate and piecemeal fashion. More than that, it has focused on fighting ISIS and the Taliban without any clear strategy for dealing with the other military challenges in the region, and without addressing the civil dimension of the insurgencies in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, or the need for political stability and economic development.
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Draft Working Paper: Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons: Whoever Dies with the Most Toys Wins?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 5, 2018
Whatever his other limitations, Vladimir Putin has shown he is a master in exploiting Russian nationalism and American and European sensitivities. His latest gambit—publicizing three new nuclear systems—two of which are in development and may have key components that are either untested or do not yet exist—give him political credibility in Russia in an election year, and emphasize the one key area where Russia remains a leading global super power: its possession of nuclear weapons.
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Forget the Ultimate Deal: Trump and Netanyahu Should Save Gaza For Now
By David Makovsky
March 4, 2018
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visits President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday, they might commiserate over the domestic investigations each are facing as well as take great satisfaction over Trump’s affirmation of the opening of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s existence this spring. Trump could still trumpet what he famously called the “ultimate deal”—his idea for an end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But this not attainable now. It probably never was. This does not mean that an unpredictable Trump would not try anyway, but he should not. The gaps between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were too wide even before the December announcement on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Instead, the Trump-Netanyahu summit should focus on what is needed now.
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Easing the Minds of Egyptian Generals Is Key to Continued Cooperation with Israel
By Haisam Hassanein
February 24, 2018
Cooperation between Israel and Egypt has increased to a high level in recent years, evidenced by recent reports on military coordination in Sinai. Yet this somewhat secret alliance has not been easy for some Egyptian generals to reconcile, given their predilection for conditioning the public to believe that Israel is Enemy No. 1 in order to gain legitimacy and maintain control. Their uneasiness stems from the inability to define the relationship with Israel since the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979. As a result, three schools of thoughts have emerged within the military establishment over the past four decades.
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Nervous In North Africa
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
February 22, 2018
Officials in Morocco are apprehensive. “Africa is approaching a dangerous moment,” one of the Kingdom’s most senior political figures told me recently in Rabat. His bleak assessment, which I heard in virtually every meeting during my recent visit to the country, stems from what are essentially two factors. The first is the dawning realization, now proliferating among regional governments, that the security challenges confronting Africa following the Islamic State’s collapse in Iraq and Syria might be more daunting than ever before. The second is a persistent worry that policymakers in Washington do not have an adequate appreciation of this increasingly perilous security environment – and of the need to resolutely address it. The problems start with the Islamic State.