Playing with Fire: Anti-Ballistic Missiles in the Age of Mutually Assured Destruction

World (SCF) – With the introduction of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, the balance of militarily power altered radically. The nuclear arms race became an essential part of many nations’ military doctrine.

Nuclear weapons came about as a result of the United States’ famous Manhattan Project during World War II. The first atomic test, called Trinity , took place in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 with an explosive yield of 19 to 21 kilotons. In the course of the next seventy years, the Bomb appeared in the arsenals of many nations on virtually every continent: Russia (USSR), France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel.

The concept of mutually assured destruction soon became clear, especially following the use of atomic bombs against Japan in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Commonly identified with the initials MAD, it summarizes the consequences of a nuclear exchange between nuclear powers. The calculus of MAD implies the assured destruction of both protagonists in a hypothetical nuclear exchange.

The MAD theory, presented throughout the course of the Cold War, shaped international relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two nuclear superpowers. From 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Washington and Moscow continued to base their military strategy on two fundamental factors, both intrinsically linked to the concept of MAD: a race to produce more nuclear weapons than their direct adversaries, and the high importance given to the diplomatic effort to never use them. Curiously, these were two diametrically opposed strategies, where on the one hand there was the production and accumulation of nuclear warheads with the clear intention of intimidating the enemy with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, while on the other hand effort was expended towards always providing a diplomatic solution. Although the accuracy of the MAD proposition was never disputed, this did not prevent the manufacture of thousands of nuclear weapons (at the height of the nuclear race, the United States and the USSR altogether possessed about 60,000 nuclear weapons) of various sizes (the US MK-17 had a capacity of about 25 megatons; the Soviet Tsar of about 50 megatons).

Diplomacy between the two superpowers became an essential break against such a destructive trajectory. During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington faced complex and potentially catastrophic scenarios potentially involving nuclear exchanges. Former Soviet and American military personnel have repeatedly told of how they foiled at least nine possible nuclear exchanges that turned out to be false alarms, literally saving the world from assured destruction. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the telephone contacts between Moscow and Washington remained open in the interests of diplomacy, ultimately resulting in a telephone conversation between Kennedy and Khrushchev that reduced the tension and avoided a potentially lethal nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.

During the 1970s, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) was ratified by the US and USSR in May 1972. Its main purpose was to limit the anti-missile defenses of both nations in order to curb nuclear proliferation. The treaty was part of a strategy by both sides of pursuing strategic parity in nuclear weapons. According to the treaty, each side had the ability to install two anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) complexes, each of which was to be limited to 100 anti-ballistic missiles. Another key aspect of the Treaty prohibited the development of a system capable of covering and shielding the entire national territory from incoming threats. The treaty was aimed at strengthening MAD by limiting the ability of one party to defend itself from a devastating nuclear attack. In this way, the idea of a “first nuclear strike” became pointless. Whoever attacked first would still remain at the mercy of the inevitable and massive response from the opponent, suffering terrible nuclear destruction in the process.

The ABM Treaty represented a phase of the Cold War during which both the United States and the Soviet Union were convinced that they could not win a strategic nuclear war. The Americans focused on ensuring a high “second strike” capability to buttress their deterrence posture. The second option for nuclear strategists in the Pentagon was to deal a crippling “first blow” on the Soviets and then absorb their retaliatory strike by reducing losses with the help of anti-missile systems. It was this second strategy that prompted Reagan to set out on his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars. The course set by Reagan would serve to render meaningless the ABM Treaty by providing total missile-defense coverage over American soil, spelling the beginning of the end of this strategic balance.

With the arrival of Reagan to the White House in the beginning of the 1980s, the United States began to wander away from the conviction that MAD was insurmountable. At the same time, unsurprisingly, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) initiative was born, aiming to reduce the nuclear arsenal under negotiated agreements between Moscow and Washington.

In the minds of the strategic planners at the Pentagon, the START I initiative was in fact a prerequisite for altering the concept of nuclear deterrence and even the use of nuclear weapons. Rather than numerically increasing and maintaining a nuclear arsenal with tens of thousands of weapons, entailing high maintenance costs, it was thought more convenient to have less but more effective nuclear weapons, especially when factoring in a system able to intercept and shoot down opponents’ missiles. The SDI was proposed by Reagan in March 1983 to deploy weapon systems on the ground and in space that would provide the United States with protection against intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.

This was the moment that a new dark phase began in the millennial existence of mankind. A device capable of ending life on earth was incorporated into the military calculations and war doctrines of the main military superpowers, treated as a tool that could be reasonably employed in a war scenario. At the beginning of the discussions on the START I treaty, the United States and Soviet Union had between them more than 60,000 nuclear bombs in various forms. Shortly after the treaty’s full implementation in 1995, the number had dropped to 37,577. The START I treaty signed by George H W Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev on July 31, 1991 ended in 2009, but was renewed in the form of START II treaty signed by George H W Bush and Boris Yeltsin on January 3, 1993. At the end of START II in 2005, the number of nuclear weapons held by the US and Russia stood at around 24,700.

What distinguished START II from START I (in addition to the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons) was the emphasis placed on the delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons. The use of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) was banned. The turn of the new millennium saw the rapid deterioration of these agreements governing nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles when in July 2002, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Washington decided to unilaterally withdraw from the ABM Treaty, obliging Moscow to withdraw a few days later from START II. Despite the withdrawal from ABM and START II, Moscow and Washington, in the spirit of reducing the risks from nuclear weapons, in May of 2002 signed the “Treaty of Moscow” (Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT), which aimed to replace the START I treaty by reducing the number of nuclear weapons down to a number between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. In 2010, SORT was replaced by New START, signed by Obama and Medvedev, superseding all prior agreements such as START I (expired in 2009), START II, and SORT, aiming to reduce by 30% the number of nuclear warheads set by the previous SORT agreement. The New START treaty will remain in force until 2021.

In spite of the good intentions reflected in the disarmament treaties, the past 15 years have seen a setback due to the withdrawal of the US from the ABM Treaty. This move has seriously threatened to alter the balance of power between the nuclear powers. Since Reagan’s initiative in 1983, the military-industrial complex has worked hard to develop a fully functioning ABM system for the interception of missiles of various kinds. The first models, still in use, are based on the AEGIS system, tested for the first time successfully in 1995 and continuously updated to the present day with the 4.0.1 version of the Aegis system. Other newer systems center around THAAD, recently in the news given its deployment to South Korea.

Since the beginning of Reagan’s program in 1983, the US has cherished the dream of altering the calculus of MAD in their favor by creating an anti-missile system capable of destroying incoming ICBMs. For Washington, the important question is no longer so much to possess more nuclear weapons than her opponents, but rather to possess the ability to neutralize nuclear launches of rival states and respond with all the firepower at its disposal. The danger for life on the planet has increased significantly as this strategy increasingly becomes acceptable. In other words, the use of nuclear weapons in a situation of war is no longer unthinkable thanks to the hypothetical capabilities the US has developed in the interception of ballistic missiles.

Image Source – Pixabay

Moscow has over the past 40 years been pursuing its own missile-defense doctrine, having inaugurated the S-300 system in 1978 and continuing with several updates until introducing in 2007 the S-400 system. In response to the US aim of nullifying the ABM treaty and achieving the full capability to intercept ICBMs, Moscow has developed the new S-500 system that will guarantee the ability to intercept any nuclear ICBM under any circumstances. With the threat posed by NATO becoming more pronounced (NATO enlargement), threatening Moscow’s strategic nuclear deterrence, the Russian Federation has developed in response delivery vehicles that can overcome any ABM system. It is currently well recognized in the US military that Moscow possesses much more efficient and combat-ready nuclear weapons and a more reliable missile shield with its S-300 and S-400 complexes.

The latest US attempt to undermine the nuclear strategic balance with Russia, and even with the People’s Republic of China, can essentially be divided into two aspects. The first is the early warning system, a series of radars ready to detect in advance a missile launch. The second is related to the land-based AEGIS system that can easily shift from a defensive to an offensive configuration simply by changing the missiles mounted on the system. In the case of the early warning, it is possible for the US to pick up all the possible signs of an intercontinental launch and proceed to target the missile in the initial takeoff phase, which is the most vulnerable stage of the missile’s flight. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as other NATO and Asian countries, have already joined this project that aims to undermine Moscow’s, and even Beijing’s, strategic arsenal. The second scenario is even more dangerous, with AEGIS ground-based systems located in Romania and Poland directly near the border with the Russian Federation. Of course Moscow believes this is an unacceptable situation, as the missiles of the AEGIS system could be easily replaced in an unverifiable manner with other missiles suitable for hitting the Russian strategic nuclear missiles contained in silos. In this sense, the asymmetrical response from Moscow relates to what the INF treaty regulates, namely prohibiting the deployment of weapons between 500 and 5,500kms within certain areas like Europe.

Since 1983, the world has on the one hand seen continuous progress towards nuclear disarmament, thanks to the danger posed to humanity by nuclear weapons. On the other hand, countries like the US have continued dangerous efforts seeking nuclear invulnerability, hoping to do away with the strategic balance guaranteed by MAD. This continuous aggressive policy, especially by the eastern European NATO member states, has forced Moscow to pursue two objectives. The first is the deployment of intermediate nuclear or conventional weapons, such as with Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad. The second response is a nuclear deterrence policy that heavily relies on missile technology that overcomes any modern anti-ballistic systems. This was a response to the American withdrawal from the ABM in 2002, which Moscow answered by withdrawing from START II and resuming research in and production of nuclear missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). For this reason, since 2011 Russia has been developing a new ICBM named RS-28. These characteristics leave little to the imagination:

According to the designers, to hit the North American continent, and invalidate anti-missile defenses, the new device uses new flight paths, ensuring the survival of the weapon system. The time of preparation for planned launch is about 1 minute, greatly reducing the chance of being hit in the silos from an enemy attack.

The RS-28 has two main features: it is launched at such speed that it does not allow for its detection by the early warning radar complex that alerts the ABM system to shoot it down; and it can also change range and trajectory, accelerating to Mach 20.4, thereby becoming too unpredictable for modern ABM systems to intercept. Of course the new RS-28 carries 10-24 independent warheads that, added up, can reach the amazing and frightening capacity of 50 megatons, an asymmetric response by Moscow to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002.

Over the past two decades Moscow has been obliged to reinvigorate its nuclear deterrence capacity following the US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, perhaps the most significant treaty of all, even more so than the INF, START I and START II agreements. The Russian Federation, in accordance with its own military doctrine, has strongly invested in the modernization of antimissile systems, achieving brilliant results within the space of only a few years, implementing the most advanced system in the world against missile threats, the S-400. In this sense, the most advanced ABM system, the S-500, is yet to be introduced, but it is already known it will enable the Russian Federation to target and intercept multiple incoming ICBMs, and is expected to be operational by 2020. The S-500 will deliver another distinct and direct advantage over US counterparts still struggling with an effective system to intercept ICBMs. Moscow has achieved a technological advantage that Washington struggles to recognize, feeding doubts about the capabilities of the Russian systems to effectively intercept ICBMs.

There is another fundamental problem, and that is the false sense of security engendered by the belief that the US and her allies are protected by an impenetrable ABM shield. It is a dangerous perception that is likely to lead to military doctrines that could will have catastrophic consequences. Circumventing the concept of MAD, thanks to ABM defense, remains a dream for any nuclear power. But actively pursuing this strategy, while at the same time threatening a nuclear power in the hope of shielding one’s territory from a nuclear exchange, seems like a suicidal strategy rather than a well-considered military doctrine. Increasingly, the idea of a perfectly working ABM system capable of intercepting an ICBM is spreading in the US military, thanks to think-tanks funded by the same manufacturers of these systems. There could probably be no more a deadly and mistaken belief.

In the next article I will focus on explaining how the Russian Federation is now in an enviable position compared to the United States when it comes to missile defense and advanced ICBM capabilities. I will also show why the United States seems to exist in a media bubble in which arms manufacturers and military experts agree to extol the capacity and performance of their ABM system without actually showing effective tests conducted in unfavorable scenarios. The sum of these situations over time has raised authentic doubts about the real capabilities of the US missile system to intercept long- or mid-range missiles directed at US territory, thereby misleading US military planners and any future strategic doctrines.

This report prepared by Federico Pieraccini for Strategic Culture Foundation.