Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why the US-Russian nuclear balance is as solid as ever

Ok. Today I am going to address the nuclear threat canard one last time.  After that, I will just ignore this topic which, frankly, is a waste of time.  Here are two comments which were recently posted on the blog:
"Security experts in the U.S. do not agree that Russia has a credible nuclear deterrent. The story is that the Russian nuclear force is in disrepair and that the U.S. can easily destroy most of what is left. They may be wrong--but that's what seems to be the thinking by at least some officials. "

"How exactly do YOU know that the US military knows that a successful nuclear first strike against Russia is impossible? So far, Saker, you have basically merely claimed this without providing any serious evidence whatsoever."
Both of these comments are typical of the kind of nonsense which have flooded in blogosphere in the recent times. The first one quotes "experts" who speak about the state of disrepair of the Russian nuclear forces.  The second one hints at some secret capability which would make a first-strike possible.  I will address both.

The state of disrepair of the Russian nuclear forces

This is an old canard which really had it's days of glory during the Eltsin years when, indeed, so much stuff in Russia was in an advanced state of disrepair that it sounded very plausible.  The Air Force was in disrepair, the Navy was in disrepair, the Land Forces were in disrepair and, frankly, all of Russia was in a total disrepair.  I even had Russian friends who were telling me that if Eltsin pressed on the button all the Russian ICBMs would basically explode in their silos (mind you, friends with PhDs in physics!).  It was all nonsense.  How do we know it?

Because during the 1990s and later Russia often fired missile which had reached the end of their life cycle, that was a part of the normal readiness test program.  In one case a submerged Russian nuclear submarine even ripple-fired its full complement of missiles (I forgot the date, but it's on YouTube - I am sure somebody can post the link to that test).  As far as I know, this is the only case in history of a "boomer" firing its full load of missiles in one volley (correct me if I am wrong).  Every single time the missiles worked.  As far as I know (again, correct me if I am wrong) the only failed launches were during the testing of the new "Bulava" SLBM which was a real pain to develop and which had to be redesigned several times.  By the way, now the system works and, for all their efforts and pain, the Russians now have the newest and most advanced SLBM on the planet.  So why did these systems work so well?

Two things: the extraordinary quality of the Soviet engineers and the very rigorous quality control system of the Soviet nuclear forces.  I cannot go in detail here, but the fact is that the folks who worked on these systems were in a different league all together and even during the Eltins years they managed to keep the Russian nuclear weapons in working condition.  The Russian deterrence system was also in total disarray - the early warning radars were gone to the newly independent Republics, the early warning satellites were reaching the end of their lives and no new ones were sent up, the Russian military secrets were exported to the USA by the ton - and yet even in these horrible circumstances the Russians never let their weapon of last resort (intercontinental nukes) go offline.  Even at the peak of the "democratic horror" of Eltsin and his oligarchs, the US knew that Russia could - and would - strike back if attacked.

Ever since the condition of the Russian nuclear deterrence forces has dramatically improved as have the Russian second strike capabilities.  The early warning system is finally back online, Russia has build new and truly formidable intercontinental systems designed to defeat any foreseeable ABM threat (I am thinking of the road-mobile RT-2UTTKh Topol-M and the submarine launched RMS-56 Bulava and R-29RMU2 Lainer).  Furthermore, the Russian submarine fleet has been dramatically modernized including its attack submarines which can not only protect the big "boomers" but also attack US submarines and even the US mainland (with cruise missiles).  The US Naval Institute has published a good article on this topic entitled "The Russian Submarine Fleet Reborn" which I highly recommend to those still stuck in the 1990s.

Now, I will readily admit that the Russian Air Force is still not what it should be.  It's Tu-95 and Tu-160 are still adequate, but Russia does need a new bomber.  In fact, they are working on a new bomber so far referred to as PAKDA (future aviation complex of long range aviation), but I am concerned that they picked the wrong philosophy.  The choice was to go hypersonic or a subsonic "stealth" bomber similar to the B-2.  Alas, it appears that they have decided for the second version which I think is a huge mistake.  Still, the bottom line is that the Russian nuclear forces, attack weapons and early warning system, are on a very high level of readiness,  their capabilities have sharply risen over the past years, and they will rapidly continue to do so in the future.

What is weapon X negates all of that?

This argument basically says that the US can (or even has) developed some fancy technological weapon system or technology which would make the entire Russian deterrence system obsolete.  Sometimes this argument is combined with the "state of disrepair" argument for a bigger shock effect.  And if that is not enough - then the last argument is "well, how do you know?!".

The reply is really easy.  Strategic nuclear weapons are only as good as their tests shows.  Yes, maybe the USA or Russia has some super-dooper mega killer weapon hidden somewhere in a vault, but unless it has been tested, real life tested, it is useless.  Also, the testing of these missiles is a very public event, if only because Russia and the USA warn each other about them months ahead of time.  They also then spy the crap out of each other because both sides are not stupid and they really, really, care about that.  So really, there are very few secrets in this field or, better put, the many secrets which do exist are technical ones, but not of the kind which would affect the global balance.

The other thing which civilians truly struggle with is the phenomenally high degree of redundancy built into the system.  Again, the Russians and Americans who work on these systems are truly cream of the crop, the smartest and best educated people in both countries and from the moment both sides had the nuclear weapon (1949) survivability became the single most important consideration because if a nuclear weapon is the ultimate weapon it is also the ultimate target, the one target your enemy is going to try to hit really, really hard. 

You have probably heard that Russia and the USA can nuke the planet many times over.  Well, there is some truth to that.  There is an "overkill" capability on both sides and the reason for that is not a Dr Strangelove kind of insanity, but the very smart and deliberate realization that to be truly effective a nuclear deterrent needs to be strong enough to still deter the other side EVEN IF 90%+ OF IT IS DESTROYED.  This is called "first strike stability".  Here is how this works:

If I design my system with, say, 10 times over "overkill" capability and
If my opponent somehow destroys 90% of my forces
I will still have enough to inflict and unacceptable retaliation on him and
He will therefore have to renounce that option

Simple and very, very effective.

What this means today is this:

If the Russian nuclear forces are in an advance state of disrepair and
If the US builds up and effective ABM shield and
If the US hides a super-weapon in space and
If the US destroys 90% of all Russian nukes in a first strike and
If then the US also intercepts 50% of all the leftover Russian nukes
Then Russia will still have more than enough nukes to obliterate the US as a country

These are a lot of 'ifs' (which are all false!) that still result in an absolutely unacceptable 'then'.  And I don't care if McCain or Hillary are in office - if they even suggest such a move they will be told in unequivocal terms by the US "deep state" something along the lines of "shut up, sit down and get back to your business".  I also have met enough US force planners and officers (including one Chairman of the JCS) to make me confident that they would never allow such a crazy plan to proceed.  Yes, there are a lot of crazy and arrogant US politicians, and yes, there are even some lunatics in the military, but, as I said, the folks actually in charge of nuclear deterrence are really the cream of the crop, especially those on the middle level (not top commanders, not the guy who turns the key - the operational commanders, typically with a colonel rank).

So unless we assume a case of collective and suicidal insanity all this talk about a US-Russian nuclear war is absolute baseless nonsense.  Good stuff for movies, but absolute nonsense in real life.

Now, all of what I wrote is only true about the USA and Russia.  In theory, the other nuclear powers could possibly disarmed in a first counter-force nuclear strike because the China, France, Pakistan or Israel do not have that apparently stupid but in reality crucial "overkill" capability.  Nor are their weapons that survivable.  Mind you, I still would emphatically advise against trying that because what if just one or two of them get through and hit their targets?  The consequences would be disastrous.  Would you play Russian roulette if your chances of success were, oh say, 4 in 5?  


I really do not want to turn this blog into a nuclear deterrence theory blog.  Not that I don't find the topic interesting - I love it!  I had the immense privilege to study force planning with Bob Haffa (Col, USAF), one of the sharpest officers I ever met (I still recommend his short but extremely well written book "Rational Methods, Prudent Choices: Planning U.S. Forces"), and ever since I have loved this topic.  But, frankly, I think that right now we all have more important fish to fry and I don't want to spend any more time debunking media myths about a US nuclear attack on Russia.  So I will end with something which will probably not endear me to a lot of folks (what else is new?).

I also happen to think that most US officers, especially the real professional, are decent people who love their country and who even if they are objectively serving the AngloZionist Empire, hope that their service will also benefit their country.  I cannot imagine that enough of them would agree to go along with a lunacy like starting a nuclear war with Russia, not if that means that their families, friends, hometowns and country will go up in radioactive flames.  Call me naive if you want, but I don't see that happening.  It is one thing to (reluctantly) go alone the stupid imperial wars in Iraq of Afghanistan, quite another to take the risk of seeing your loved ones turned into dust or slowly die in horrible conditions.  Again, I know how evil the AngloZionist Empire is, but I cannot forget that the many US officers I met were honorable and fundamentally decent men (I am talking about the armed forces here, not the freaks in Langley).

Anyway, that is my last post on this topic.  I hope that I have contributed to reassure at least some of those who were sincerely worried about a possible nuclear war.  To those, like myself, who are compulsive pessimistic "worst-casers" I can "offer" this: there still is one thinkable scenario for a nuclear war - a conventional war which one sides begins to lose so badly that it feels compelled to use nukes as a last way to avoid a total defeat.  So NOT a deliberate nuclear war, but a failed conventional war which slowly creeps into a nuclear one (first tactical, then strategic).  We have plenty of credible models of escalation and no credible ones (that I am aware of) for de-escalation.  That is the problem.  Which is why I consider even a conventional war between the two superpowers as total folly to be avoided at all cost.  But screw-ups and miscalculations do happen - history is full of them.  That is what sometimes keeps me up at night.  And I sure hope that the scum in the White House will not end up stumbling into a hot war with Russia.  Lord have mercy!

Kind regards,

The Saker