It probably doesn't matter if Putin's new nukes are going hypersonic

When I woke up this morning it briefly felt as if I’d fallen through a time warp and gone back to the 1980s. The United States had pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Then the Russians pulled out. And before you had time to process all of that, Vladimir Putin was talking about building new, hypersonic nuclear weapons. So, of course, the United States will need to invest in upgrading our own nuclear arsenal. Weren’t we supposedly done with all of this saber rattling? (NY Post)

President Vladimir Putin says that Russia will abandon a centerpiece nuclear arms treaty, following in the footsteps of the United States, and that Moscow will only deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles if Washington does so.

Putin spoke after the U.S. announced Friday it was pulling the plug on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty over alleged Russian violations. Moscow denied any breaches and accused Washington of making false accusations in order to justify its pullout.

Following the U.S. notice of withdrawal from the treaty in six months, Putin said in televised remarks Saturday that Russia will do the same.

The Russians had already been working on new sea-based intermediate-range nukes, but those weren’t technically a violation of the INF. Now Putin is ordering the development of land-based missiles of the same type. That would have been a clear violation of the treaty, but since the INF is apparently defunct now I suppose that’s all water under the bridge.

Hopefully, I’m not being too naive here, but why are either of us flushing all of this money and effort into weapons that we’re never going to use? By this point, the reality of what would follow a nuclear war seems to be generally accepted around the world. We’ve been living under the protection of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction for as long as much of the country can remember. When it comes to Russia and America, we won’t launch a first strike at each other because we know what happens next. Even if a new generation of hypersonic missiles can get past the other side’s missile defense systems and do so faster than they can get off a counter-strike, their boomer submarines will surface a few hours later and wipe the other side out.

As for launching a nuclear strike at a smaller opponent, as was discussed regarding North Korea, that’s a non-starter too. Any country who did that, including the United States, would immediately become an international pariah and potentially face a catastrophic military coalition forming against them.

There are only two scenarios I continue to worry about in terms of a nuclear conflagration. One would be a rogue state with leadership just crazy enough to launch while knowing they would be turned into a smoking pool of glass in response. The leading candidates there would be North Korea, Iran and (possibly) Pakistan. The other, more likely scenario would be terrorists cobbling together a dirty bomb if they can get their hands on enough material. But neither of those scenarios are really affected by treaties anyway.

It would be nice to see America and Russia return to the table and act in a civil manner when it comes to nuclear weapons. But if we don’t, I’m not sure it changes the overall international scenario all that much in the 21st century.