During his presidential address on 1 March, Vladimir Putin revealed additional information on six major new Russian weapons systems, some unveiled for the first time. Four of the weapons, discussed below, are principally relevant in a strategic nuclear sense; that is, they carry atomic warheads and would most likely be used in a full-scale war, fired at the homeland of an adversary.
While claiming that the systems were not aimed at anyone, Putin made clear they had been developed to defeat the threat of the US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program. Putin said the US system might eventually be able to intercept of all Russia’s missiles, resulting “in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential” and leaving the country open to attack. What the Kremlin really fears is the potential for a BMD breakout, whereby the US secretly deploys huge numbers of defensive interceptor missiles without Russia having a chance to prepare countermeasures.
Most Western analyses have little sympathy for such fears. Moscow knows that the BMD system is aimed at defeating small numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from “rogue states”, such as North Korea and Iran. This is reinforced by the small numbers of interceptors deployed. Only 36 (out of 44 planned in total) of the main anti-ICBM element are in service. This is clearly far too few to threaten Russia’s approximately 1700 warheads spread across nearly 500 ICBMs and sea-launched missiles.
Further, these interceptors, which are designed to attack ICBMs in the vulnerable middle portion of their flight, are very unsuited to any “breakout” because they are enormous (and therefore hard to hide) and very expensive. They are also dubiously effective, recording only a 50% success rate in simple tests stacked in their favour.
But this is not the part of BMD that really worries Moscow. What concerns the Kremlin is another program Putin specifically mentioned, the ship-based Aegis BMD system. This is usually discounted in Western writings as its limited performance renders it largely ineffective against ICBMs. However, with its most recent SM3 Block IIA missiles and future upgrades, Aegis will have at least the technical potential to defend the entire US.
Aegis is also ideally suited to a breakout, being relatively cheap and able to fit in the standard Mark 41 launcher used across the US Navy: hundreds of the missiles could be deployed without detection. The system’s main constraint in ICBM defence is its limited speed and range, meaning it can only intercept missile warheads when they approach re-entering the atmosphere. Thus, if these targets can manoeuvre, they might circumvent these defences.
The four strategic weapons announced by Putin are well placed to counter this perceived threat, as emphasised in the videos accompanying his speech showing the systems targeting the US. The first two are the Sarmat super-heavy ICBM, and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, basically a super-manoeuvrable ICBM warhead, many of which would fit on the enormous Sarmat missile. Also there is the Kanyon long-ranged unmanned submarine, which clearly cannot be targeted by BMD interceptors, although it can attack US coastal areas, including where Aegis-equipped ships would patrol. Finally there is an as-yet unnamed nuclear-powered cruise missile that would fly at too low a level to be affected by US defences.
Yet in reality the new weapons represent complex and expensive solutions to a problem that largely doesn’t exist. The US has not shown the least interest in degrading Russian defences wholesale since the long-abandoned “Star Wars” program of the 1980s. This is reinforced by the limited numbers of interceptors so far deployed: the US could afford to install more, but it simply chooses not to.
Most importantly, Putin himself acknowledged Russia already deploys “highly effective but modestly priced systems to overcome missile defence ... on all of our ICBMs”. These include swarms of advanced decoys and countermeasures, such as chaff and jammers that would swamp any defence. The latest US Government assessment is that BMD can barely defend against a small ICBM attack with simple countermeasures, let alone any advanced assault from Russia.
So if there are existing cheap and effective ways to counter BMD, why the new weapons? There are likely various answers. First, the Kremlin has a well-recognised (and hardly unique) strategic paranoia about any and all threats to Russia’s power, sensible or not. Overreactions are common. Second, weapons programs tend to develop lives of their own, particularly if they seem to offer a novel, if not decisive, advantage. For example, Nazi Germany spent billions on its V2 rockets, the world’s first operational long-range ballistic missile, but could not alter the outcome of the Second World War.
Governments also have a habit of recognising a sensible path, then fail to pursue it. When Moscow had barely 1000 nuclear weapons, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared his country was satisfied with being able to wipe out the US “only once”. Why do it twice? Khrushchev and his successors went on to build approximately another 40,000 atomic bombs.
Despite some alarmist concerns about the impact of Russia’s new weapons, not much will change. The logic of mutually assured destruction endures because both sides can destroy the other comfortably. And Washington won’t give up its BMD system, especially as North Korea’s arsenal grows.
Instead, the main outcome will be to disadvantage Russia by eating a larger share of an already halved economic pie desperately needed for other purposes. Putin also mentioned in his speech that 20 million Russians live in poverty, and that more investment would address this; however, he provided no information on where funding for this could come from. On the defence side, Russia still assesses that nearly 40% of its military equipment is out of date, has repeatedly had to defer vital upgrade programs due to the limping economy, and recently took a whopping 25% budget cut.
Further modernisation will be hampered as roubles are spent on strategic novelties rather than on useful planes, ships, and tanks. And this, ultimately, benefits Washington by limiting Moscow’s ability to meddle effectively. The Pentagon’s measured reaction to Putin’s speech shows it’s simply following Napoleon’s advice: when your enemy is making a mistake, try not to interrupt him.