Putin’s Nuclear Arms: a Pyrrhic Victory

The statements made by Russian President Putin during his ‘state of the union’ have been a source of media attention to the nuclear developments he emphasised. While his speech contained a concentrated portion of declarations on newly developed nuclear weapon systems, Putin referred only to weapon systems that have been in development for some time and were already publicly known. What is more interesting, however, is the way in which Putin portrays these weapon systems as offering Russia an ultimate advantage over their opponents, and specifically the United States of course. In reality, these achievements may not be so much of a victory, and perhaps more of a cost forced upon them by the United States.

Putin focused a lot on the ability of these weapons to overcome the United States missile defense systems. It is true, of course, that any further development of Russian delivery systems of nuclear warheads increases the challenge to the United States missile defense. Some of the systems Russia is developing, such as hypersonic reentry vehicles, will indeed be able to pose a tremendous threat to the effectiveness of United States missile defense. In fact, the actual feasibility and effectiveness of existing United States missile defense systems remain untested, and the broad system may not even live up to the public statements on its performance.

The development of a hypersonic reentry vehicle would mean a drastic improvement in Russian nuclear capabilities, but this actual technological capability has yet to be demonstrated. A maneuvering reentry vehicle gliding at hypersonic speeds would be virtually untouchable by existing missile defense systems, but it requires Russia to make technological achievements at the limits of existing technology. The Russian investments in the development of these nuclear weapons are a direct response to the existence of the United States missile defense system, and as such, the cost of cutting-edge technological research and development that goes into these new Russian systems could already be considered a tremendous achievement on behalf of ballistic missile defense. Without having intercepted a single actual incoming missile, this system has forced Russia to allocate considerable resources into reinventing its nuclear forces to maintain confidence in the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The costs incurred by the challenge of overcoming missile defense systems go beyond the development of these hypersonic reentry vehicles, however, as they still require an ICBM to lift them into space. Russia is developing the RS-26 Rubezh, a solid fuel ICBM, to lift a single one these hypersonic reentry vehicles into space, although there has also been speculation about possibly carrying multiple such hypersonic gliders in the heavier RS-28 Sarmat missile.

In addition to developing the hypersonic reentry vehicle to defeat missile defense systems, Russia also continues to invest in increased capabilities to launch multiple non hypersonic reentry vehicles towards their opponents. By using MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), they hope to overwhelm missile defense systems by presenting them with too many targets to deal with simultaneously. For this purpose, they are developing the RS-28 Sarmat, which is a slight improvement on the older R-36M2 missiles that are rapidly ageing. Russia traditionally insists on building their ICBM with a much higher ‘throw weight’ – the total weight of warheads on a single missile – than the United States. The RS-28 is estimated of being capable of launching 10 metric tons of nuclear armament towards Russia’s opponents. Compare this to the throw weight of the United States Minuteman III ICBM, which is just over one metric ton, and you can clearly see how Russia is pushing the limits of these systems.

Russia obsesses over the throw weight of its missiles, because according to their nuclear doctrine, it is more efficient to be able to launch multiple warheads with a single ICBM. The main assumption there is that this group of warheads can overwhelm terminal phase ballistic missile defense (the elements of missile defense specifically targeting the reentry vehicles as they home in on their targets). These systems are only the last line of defense, of course, and the United States doesn’t see things the same way. They believe the risk of putting that many warheads onto a single missile is too great. After all, when the missile is intercepted during an earlier stage of flight, or the missile fails, a larger number of warheads fails to reach its target.

Who is right in this matter is debatable, and perhaps we should hope not to find out at all, but an important element to consider here is the specific missile design Russia is forced into accepting in order to follow their strategy. Launching missiles carrying such considerable weight can only effectively be done by using liquid fueled missiles. The United States ICBM are exclusively solid-fueled, this means they can be launched faster, are more reliable, but of course lack the thrust to carry as many warheads as Russian ICBM do. For Russia, in order to launch one of its missiles, it first has to be fueled. Storing liquid fuel within these missiles can be dangerous, and they can’t be stored in that state as long as solid fuel missiles are typically kept in service. The fueling itself takes up time before a launch can take place, and this process itself is also relatively risky of course. In a true nuclear war scenario, where dozens of ICBM are launched simultaneously, the odds of mishaps become very high and Russia could lose numerous warheads to accidents during fueling or launch. As such, United States Ballistic Missile Defense isn’t only incurring great costs on Russian defense spending, but also encouraging Russia to stick with their riskier design approaches.