Putin and Worst-Case Nuclear Thinking: Rhetoric Has Its Own Impact


2015-06-17 By Richard Weitz

President Vladimir Putin’s boasting today that Russia will deploy 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles this year is another reminder of why it would be dangerous to de-alert more of the US nuclear force.

It is not because the Russian nuclear arsenal is poised to pounce on the United States.

As far as we can tell, Moscow remains deterred from attacking the United States or any other nuclear power.

Rather, the problem is that the current Russian leadership is prone to worst-case nuclear thinking and rhetoric.

“Over 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of penetrating any, even the most technologically advanced missile defense systems, will join the nuclear forces in the current year,” Putin told an arms show at Alabino, west of Moscow.

Last year, Russia obtained 38 new ICBMs, in what is planned to be a multi-year effort to upgrade Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg rightly denounced Russia’s continued “nuclear saber-rattling.” During his visit to the United States in May, Stoltenberg warned that Russia’s strategic buildup, nuclear saber rattling, and more aggressive bomber patrols throughout the transatlantic region have compounded alarm about Moscow’s violation of the INF Treaty as well as Russia’s continuing aggression against Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks at the opening of the International Military-Technical Forum ARMY-2015 in the military-patriotic recreation park Patriot in Kubinka, Moscow Region. (RIA Novosti/Alexander Vilf)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks at the opening of the International Military-Technical Forum ARMY-2015 in the military-patriotic recreation park Patriot in Kubinka, Moscow Region. (RIA Novosti/Alexander Vilf)

Responding to Putin’s message today, Stoltenberg said that, “They are developing new nuclear capabilities and they are also using nuclear rhetoric more in the way they are messaging their defense strategy and defense posture.”

Stoltenberg called Russia’s “nuclear saber-rattling … unjustified.

It’s destabilizing and it’s dangerous.”

Endorsing US plans to return advanced ground forces to the European Continent, Stoltenberg affirmed that, “We are responding by making sure that NATO also in the future is an alliance which provides deterrence and protection for all allies against any threat.”

US administrations have extensively reviewed and rejected proposals to de-alert more US nuclear forces in peacetime—an idea that President Obama and some of his advisers initially favored.

Obama has since participated in many exercises and top-level evaluations and concluded that de-alerting would weaken deterrence, reduce crisis stability, and deny the US important nuclear employment options.

US officials do not see the value of increasing strategic stability slight through de-alerting in peacetime, when the prospects of a Russia-US nuclear war are practically nonexistent and neither side has the capacity to conduct a disarming first strike, in exchange for reducing stability by having to rapidly re-alert more forces in a crisis, when the risks of nuclear use are much higher.

For example, US officials worry that having to bring more of the US nuclear force on higher alert in a crisis could be destabilizing and invite preemptive thinking by Russia and the United States since both sides would have incentives to strike the other sides’ forces before they complete their preparations to launch.

US policy makers fear that Russia and the United States could find themselves in a race to mobilize similar to that which prevailed in Europe before World War I, when national governments felt they had to mobilize their reserves to meet the dictates of the railroad timetables.

When German leaders found themselves at war with Imperial Russia, they felt that they had no choice but to attack France as dictated by their Shlieffen war plan.

The U.S. nuclear weapons command system is designed so that only the US President can authorize the use of nuclear weapons and has many safeguards against unauthorized or accidental launch.

For example, multiple people and networks would need to transmit and confirm a presidential launch order, and the launch code that must be fed into the missile only exists in hard-copy form.

In addition, the United States has an Open-Ocean Targeting policy in peacetime in which US nuclear missiles are aimed at the oceans just in case an accidental launch occurs.

According to those in charge of the US nuclear arsenal, US forces are not on “hair-trigger” alert status in peacetime.

At present, only the ICBMs and several of the strategic submarines on patrol are on full-alert status; the strategic bombers do not normally have their bombs loaded on their planes.

In a crisis, the rest of the force can be regenerated—with the bombers able to be more rapidly loaded and launched than the rest of the submarine force.

Any decision to raise the US nuclear alert status or actually employ the forces would follow only from an “attack assessment” based on U.S. early warning radars and satellites and the evaluation of their data by US command centers.

The focus of US attention is naturally Russia—the only country that for the next decade will be able to launch a counterforce attack against US nuclear systems based in the United States.

The United States does not have a “launch on warning” posture, according to which US forces would attack Russia before Russia actually launched some of its nuclear forces.

The United States does have “launch under attack” (LOA) options, but the United States does not need to use them, since a sufficiently large number of US nuclear forces on alert would survive a preemptive Russian attack whether in peacetime or in a crisis, but only provided US forces are regenerated rapidly enough to match Russian launch preparations.

The assumption is that any US forces not on alert can and would be destroyed in a preemptive Russian counterforce attack.

However, US policy makers believe that having LOA options, which de-alerting would reduce or eliminate, can enhance deterrence.

Notwithstanding Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric, the present Russian government does not seem to care about the de-alerting issue, meaning that Moscow is unlikely to reciprocate any unilateral US concessions.

The last time there were any official Russia-US talks on the issue was during the Yeltsin-Clinton years, when the two governments agreed to their Open-Oceans targeting agreement—aiming their missiles at the sea rather than each other in peacetime.

Despite earlier complaints by Russian arms controllers, Russian government officials no longer make an issue of the so-called alleged US “upload potential”–the ability of the United States to return nuclear warheads to strategic delivery systems from where they had been removed under earlier arms control agreements placed in storage pending dismantlement.

US experts believe that their Russian counterparts understand that the United States would require months to return these warheads to US strategic submarines and ICBMs since the United States has only a limited number of skilled technicians and specialized equipment for loading warheads on delivery vehicles.

US officials would like to renew official strategic stability talks with Moscow, but Russian officials insist that their US counterparts cannot pick or choose—they must re-launch the entire two dozen Russian-US presidential commission working groups rather than resume the few ones, such as regarding strategic stability, that the United States considers most important.

In addition, President Obama, like his predecessors, has participated in many exercises and reviewed many studies and decided that he wants to have a range of nuclear employment options, which requires having some of the US nuclear arsenal on full-time alert—and more than required simply to deter a Russian attack against the United States..

Instead, the Obama administration has decided that a better way to strengthen strategic stability that through further de-alerting is to improve the US command and control system to counter the challenges of having aging hardware and to thwart efforts at cyber manipulation of US nuclear forces.

Note: The Topol-M system is shown in the video above.

According to the Foxtrot Alpha website:

The TOPOL-M missile was designed to penetrate an American anti-ballistic missile shield by leveraging high-speed, a relatively small infrared signature during its boost phase, advanced decoys (as many as ten carried on a single missile), maneuvering mid-course capability, and maneuvering independently targeted reentry vehicles, of which it can carry up to six, although they are said to carry just one operationally.

The missile’s high speed shortens the time anyone can react to it, and every second matters when it comes to ballistic missile defense. The rocket motors were designed for a short, very powerful boost stage so that American space-based infrared detection satellites (SBIRS, DSP) have less time to detect and track it. Its decoys make it hard for radar to adequately track the correct target, and its countermeasures are said to have been upgraded to fool infrared tracking systems, which are use for mid-course interception. The missile and reentry vehicles’ ability to dynamically maneuver outside of their ballistic track makes producing an effective kill solution, or even predicting the TOPOL-M’s target, problematic. All these features come together to make a missile that is probably outside of America’s missile defense capabilities today, and the sheer number of them that exists makes the idea of defending against anything but a limited barrage totally invalid.

Editor’s Note: The Russian re-emphasis upon nuclear weapons across the tactical and strategic spectrum, along with their assertive global policies, come at a time when the rules established in the past are not simply that — rules of the past being redefined by new nuclear states forging a second nuclear age.

The Russian actions against US and NATO pilots seen in the Baltic, are either provocations or a new generation of pilots who have not learned that moving within 1o feet of a non-fighter combat aircraft is not safe and not acceptable. 

This is a microcosm of a bigger problem — what are the rules of deterrence going forward?

For a broader look at the dynamics of the second nuclear age see the discussion on the Second Line of Defense Forum: