Only soon-to-be President Trump's intervention can de-escalate this arms race
The US is mulling a major overhaul of its nuclear triad. The Air Force is working on a new version of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program. The Navy is studying the plans to replace the Ohio-class submarines. According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the plans to recapitalize the nuclear triad will cost more than $700 billion over the next 25 years.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has warned that the US is on the «brink» of kicking off a new nuclear arms race that will elevate the risk of nuclear apocalypse to Cold War levels.
Moscow has no choice but to respond.
Russia has successfully conducted its first test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) designed for the upcoming Barguzin railway-based strategic nuclear offensive system. It was an «ejection» test with a missile leaving a container.
The launch trials were carried out at the Plesetsk spaceport two weeks ago, paving the way for further flight tests to be carried out in 2017.
Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev, commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, told reporters that the new railway-based missile system would be ready for deployment in early 2017.
Previously, Yuri Solomonov, the Chief Designer of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), promised that the first ejection test will take place «in the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2016».
Each Barguzin-armed train will carry six RS-24 Yars ICBMs ready for launch within minutes. The missile’s maximum range is 11,000 km (6,800 mi). It has at least 4 MIRVs with 150–250 kiloton warheads. The speed is over Mach 20 (24,500 km/h; 15,220 mph; 6,806 m/s). Guidance is inertial with GLONASS. Accuracy is 150-200 m.
Disguised as a freight train, the moving platform cannot be spotted either by satellite or electronic surveillance. It is worth mentioning that the Russian railways are ranked second longest globally. In general, the combat system can pass up to 1,000 kilometers daily. It is extremely difficult to locate it on route. With relatively lightweight Yars missiles on board, there will be no tell-tale signatures such as three locomotives in the old train-based systems decommissioned by 2005.
The system is created as a counterbalance to NATO’s ballistic missile defense (BMD), which is able to launch Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles, in addition to interceptors. The planned deployment of the system is also a response to the challenge posed by the US Prompt Global Strike (PGS) concept which envisions the capability to deliver a precision-guided conventional strike at any target in the world within one hour with hypersonic weapons.
Both – the BMD and the PGS – are considered as destabilizing factors by Russia. The Barguzin is an answer that does not violate the provisions of the 2010 New START Treaty.
There is another milestone event related to strengthening Russian nuclear strategic deterrent. The eighth Knyaz (Prince) Pozharsky Borei-class nuclear-powered submarine will be laid down at the Sevmash shipyard in Russia’s northern town of Severodvinsk on Dec. 23. Knyaz Pozharsky submarine will be the last of the eight Borei-class submarines and the fifth of the advanced A-batch.
The submarine carries 16 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles. The MIRVed missile carries 6 re-entry vehicles with a yield of 150 each. The operational range is 8,000-8,300 km (5,000 – 5,100 mi).
All these developments make remember that Russia and the US – the two nations that account for more than 90 % of world strategic nuclear potential – have to make a very important decision about the future of arms control. The New START Treaty expires by 2021 without any prospects for a new agreement coming into force. President Putin and President Trump are the ones to rectify the situation.
There are many things that complicate the already complex problem: the future of INF Treaty, US conventional strike superiority, NATO tactical weapons (B61-12) capable of striking Russian territory the same way strategic weapons do, the refusal of other nuclear states to join the arms control process, you name it.
Since the US withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty, the ballistic missile defense has become the main obstacle on the way of achieving progress. The BMD capability that would make the Russian deterrent less credible because the US would be able to degrade Russian second strike retaliatory capability.
The New START mentions the interaction of offensive and defense arms but contains no limitations. No doubt, Russia will raise the issue as a prerequisite for any discussions on what to do about arms control. The new US president will have to think long and hard if he wants to proceed with this highly destabilizing system that can make go down the drain all future efforts to gain progress.
The US does maintain an inactive stockpile that includes near-term hedge warheads that can be put back into operational status within six to 24 month. Extended hedge warheads can be made ready within 24 to 60 months. And it preserves some of this upload capability on its strategic delivery vehicles. This is a problem the New START does not address.
In 2002 the US pulled out of the ABM Treaty setting a precedent as it was the first time that a superpower withdrew from an arms control agreement. What if the United States decides to withdraw from the New START or any other treaty it may have with Russia? If it does, it would be able to return warheads from storage back to missiles (upload capability), and build up its strategic potential by several thousand warheads in several months at most. Russia’s apprehensions are justified. Will the new US administration be able to respect the other side’s concerns?
According to its provisions, the New START treaty can be extended for 5 years more but from Russia’s perspective there are concerns that should be taken into account before the issue hits the arms control agenda.
With Russian and US militaries maintaining no regular contacts, there is a danger of hair trigger alert – another problem for the two nations to address.
Having assumed power on January 20, Donald Trump will inherit the downturn in Russia-US relations and growing nuclear tensions and uncertain future for arms control.
Mr. Trump has said many positive things and there is each and every reason to hope for progress on such issues as Syria, for instance. It’s logical to expect that the present downturn in the bilateral relationship will be reversed. But so far, nothing has been said by Donald Trump and the members of his team about the revival of nuclear cooperation. Perhaps, binding agreements on the capabilities of BMD systems or limitations on existing and emerging long-range, precision-guided conventional offensive weapons and reductions in substrategic nuclear arms could help achieve gradual progress.
«The risk of a nuclear conflict may be higher today than at any time since the 1980s», warns Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at Washington’s Georgetown University and former head of Carnegie Moscow Center, in a forthcoming report on US-Russian relations. «Unfortunately, societies and political establishments … seem in large part unaware that this truly existential threat has [returned]».
There may be cooperation in some areas of mutual interest but no real reversal of the dangerous downturn in the relationship is possible without progress in arms control. With the new US administration in office, it may be expedient for the experts to take the bull by the horn and start discussions. With Mr. Trump’s victory, there is a chance that should not be missed.