Can Russia defeat US anti-ballistic-missile “shield” systems? Vladimir Putin unveiled two new nuclear-weapons systems, claiming that he has restored Russia’s status as the world’s greatest nuclear power. “Nobody listened to us,” Putin told the Russian parliament. “Listen now.”
But is this really a change?
Russia has developed new nuclear weapons capable of penetrating U.S. air-defense systems, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, sharpening rhetoric against the West and raising the prospect of a new arms race with Washington.
In his annual state of the union address, Mr. Putin boasted that Russia possesses newly developed intercontinental-ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and even underwater drones. In tones recalling the Cold War, the Russian president made his case that the country deserves a place among the world’s military superpowers. …
Among the weapons Mr. Putin displayed was a new Sarmat intercontinental-missile system that he said is capable of reaching any point on the globe and will be introduced into Russia’s arsenal as soon as next year. He said the weapons would defeat a U.S. missile-defense system that has been the target of frequent criticism by Moscow.
How serious is the threat? BBC analyst Jonathan Marcus warns to take at least one of these seriously as a credible advance, and notes that Putin’s pushing it to keep pace with Americans:
One – effectively a very long-range nuclear-tipped torpedo – has been rumoured to be under development since Soviet days but is now seen by US analysts as a credible [threat].
The second system – described by Mr Putin as a cruise missile – looks to be more of a work in progress and may be a kind of very high-speed “hypersonic” system – described by one arms control expert as a “glider on steroids” – that again could evade existing anti-missile defences.
China and the US are also working on similar systems of their own.
Actually, we have similar nuclear weapons systems now and in the past. The Tomahawk cruise system had a nuclear option (TLAM/N) that was installed for decades on US Navy surface ships. Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy gradually retired those systems from its surface fleet, wrapping it up in 2013, but it performed essentially the same function as Putin’s new system — to hug the ground, avoid radar, and strike with surprise. Yesterday, The Diplomat raised the question of whether the Trump administration would restore nuclear cruise missiles to the next generation of surface ships, as it suggested in a recent proposal:
As outlined in the recently released Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Trump administration seeks to expand the role and size of the U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons arsenal by adding two new missiles: a low-yield sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), which could be based on surface warships or submarines.
“It’s important to know that the NPR, when it talks about the Sea-Launched Cruise Missile, does not say ‘Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile,’” Hyten said in a February 16 keynote address in Washington, D.C., at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, according to Military.com.
“We want to look at a number of options — everything from surface DDG 1000s [Zumwalt-class destroyers] into submarines, different types of submarines” for the SLCM the general added in response to a question. “That’s what the president’s budget has requested of us — to go look at those platforms, and we’re going to walk down that path.”
Over the last 30 years, the U.S. Navy has gradually retired all non-strategic (low-yield) naval nuclear weapons including the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAM/N) in 2013. One of the cited reasons by the NPR authors for the reintroduction of low-yield nukes aboard Navy ships is that they may prompt Russia to retire its banned ground-launched cruise missiles–most likely a ground-based version of the Kalibr cruise missile dubbed the SSC-8. (The U.S. is also working on a new Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear-capable cruise missile.)
The impulse to add a nuclear cruise-missile capability to the surface fleet may be in part due to Russian work on their new cruise missile platform unveiled by Putin. Also, submarine-based nuclear missiles may be ballistic in nature but are expressly designed to penetrate within any defense capabilities by severely shortening the warning time for attacks. Both countries already have these capabilities, so the actual threat is already balanced.
US Navy submarines also had Tomahawk systems at one time, which means that they could carry the TLAM/N if ordered to do so. Russia had already unveiled a sub-based cruise missile, unveiled in Syria over a year ago, called the Kalibr. While the attacks in Syria used conventional warheads, NATO believes they have had a nuclear capability both in sea-land and ship-to-ship strategies. That also has a shorter-range variant called the Klub, which Russia has been exporting to its allies, although it’s unclear whether that has a nuclear option.
Besides, it’s not exactly all new for Russia, either:
Part of a video Russian President Vladimir Putin used in his big speech to highlight one of Russia's "new weapons" was 11 years old, according to some reports. https://t.co/0933QLeyvP pic.twitter.com/N5ISDcxEvL
— RFE/RL (@RFERL) March 1, 2018
In other words, this may not be anything new, but it’s also not a nothingburger either. Defense analyst John Noonan attempted to thread the needle on this earlier today:
we've played this game before and won. At the end of the day, Russia is Peru with nukes. Shouldn't allow him to play a straight flush off a pair of 7s.
— John Noonan (@noonanjo) March 1, 2018
Keep in mind Putin's still smarting from the thumping U.S. forces gave his mercenaries in Syria. Made Russia look weak. So back to the old playbook… puff out your chest, shake your saber and lob a few nuclear threats at the U.S.
— John Noonan (@noonanjo) March 1, 2018
To quote a meme — keep calm, and carry on. Putin’s running for another term as president-for-life at the moment, and to the extent he needs to campaign at all, he needs to proclaim Russia as the greatest nation on Earth, especially in comparison to the US. Russia has made significant advances, but these new weapons don’t change the balance of power as much as they make the balance a little more tricky. We have the same capabilities if we choose to deploy them — and the way things look, we probably will need to do so.