The West is out of practice when it comes to serious strategic appraisal of the U.S.-Russian arms race, writes Michael Brenner.
Deployment of Russia’s hyper-sonic missiles is causing heartburn in the West. Media headline the news as a dramatic breakthrough on a par with the first Sputnik. “Experts” are rushed into play like those self-styled pundits pronouncing when the initial exit polls appear on Election Day. Pentagon officials assure us that the United States is at the top of the nuclear game and able to respond to (if not exactly match) anything that the Russians can put out there.
Ninety eight percent of all this instant reaction is “fog-horning.” It simply signals that something big and important is out there even though we don’t have a clear picture of its actual shape or dimensions — or its significance. That’s normal. What counts is moving swiftly to the “searchlight” stage of close observation and hard thinking.
Whether analysts, official or otherwise, get there is problematic. We’re out of practice when it comes to serious strategic appraisal. After all, we’ve been flailing about in Afghanistan for almost two decades with no realistic aim or evaluation of the chances of achieving it by whatever means at whatever cost. The disorientation on Syria is even greater. There, we haven’t as much as figured out who are the “bad guys” and who are the “good guys” — except for ISIS.
If you can’t differentiate friend from foe for want of rigorous strategic analysis, your actions are predictably erratic — little more than the expression of mental fibrillations. The same can be said for the rest of the Missile East.
The Washington consensus is sure about one thing: Russia is a mortal enemy. We sanction the Russians, we denounce the Russia, we coerce our European partners into ostracizing them, we conjure frightful images of Vladimir Putin while ignoring just about everything he says (as if they were Hitlerian rants). Still, no one seems able to provide a crisp formulation of what the Russian threat is — other than getting in our way in places where we demand to have full sway: Syria, Libya, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia.
Of course, we also accuse them of working relentlessly to undermine American democracy. Yet, that remains debatable as does everything that bears the dubious label of “Washington consensus.” Anyway, whatever minuscule role the Kremlin might have in the accelerated unravelling of the American Republic, it barely registers amidst the hammer blows struck by the craziness of President Donald Trump, his enablers and a largely compromised, abject resistance.
Cold War Dread
Understandably, it is not that easy to overlook nuclear weapons. It wasn’t that long ago that many of us were tormented by the dread of a prospective Armageddon, when the Cold War carried manifest dangers, when the air was thick with hostility and menace.
Those acute fears gradually faded over the 40 years of the nuclearized Cold War. We came to live with the Bomb — if not to love it. Subsequently, concerns shifted to the risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation among less stable states in more fraught places.
The reasons for this sedating were three-fold. Above all was the “balance of terror.’’ Leaders among the major nuclear powers absorbed the fundamental truth that not only was the notion of “winning” a nuclear war an oxymoron — but also that any use of nuclear weapons inexorably would escalate into acts of collective suicide. The survivors would envy the dead — as Nikita Khrushchev one said. That conviction became formalized in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Second, it was reified by a number of treaties and understandings: START I,II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the Anti-BallisticMissile Treaty (ABMT), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, introduction of the Hot Line between the White House and the Kremlin, and the several arms reduction accords signed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. Their collective purpose was to ensure that no conceivable advantage might be gained that would jeopardize — however slightly — the balance of nuclear power, i.e. the assurance that any resort to nuclear weapons was tantamount to the death of civilization.
Finally, a number of technological developments reinforced Mutual Assured Destruction: the deployment of submarine launched ballistic missiles — SLBM (immune to location and possible destruction in a “first strike” — thereby, guaranteeing a retaliatory capability); improved controls that reduced the chances of an “accidental” or miscalculated launch; and the moratorium in placing ballistic missile defenses around major population centers that could have the effect of removing their “hostage” status.
The last has turned out to be a largely redundant measure since the strenuous efforts of the Pentagon/NASA as well as their Soviet/Russian counterparts to devise a workable BMD all have come up well short of producing anything meaningful.
Unfortunately, two policy developments have awakened the nuclear issue from its somnambulant state. One is Washington’s abandonment of arms control treaties that were important parts of the nuclear stability package. George Bush removed us from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty(while observing its provisions), and effectively voided restrictions on ballistic missile defense in the vain hope of countering remote threats from prospective nuclear powers (Iran), bolstering the sense of security of some East Europeans (a non-solution to a non-problem)and – frankly – to get under the Russians’ skin. Barack Obama had neither the conviction nor political courage to reverse those retrograde moves.
Under Donald Trump, there has been a comprehensive plan to break free of all manner of restrictive commitments — military, diplomatic or economic. Deployment of regional BMD systems directed at Russian, Chinese and North Korean forces has been expanded despite their demonstrated efficiencies (one version could not even protect Saudi oil complexes or U.S. air bases in Iraq from primitive Iranian missiles).
Modernization of Nuclear Arsenals
The other troubling development concerns the modernization of nuclear arsenals by both the United States and Russia. President Barack Obama committed us to a trillion-dollar program to refine and upgrade American warheads and delivery systems over the next 20 years. The strategic rationale is obscure.
The Russian hypersonic missile development is a parallel development. In a purely technical sense, they obviously are “ahead” of us. And that irritates the hell out of the American security establishment.
Does being “ahead” have any practical meaning, however? Is there a genuine contest for advantage that translates into their gaining an upper hand in some sense or other? The clear answer is “NO!” It is strategically meaningless. Why? Because it in no way alters the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction.
Theoretically, there are only two imaginable ways to do that. The most significant would be development/deployment of a massive, truly effective BMD system that shields population centers and other critical, high value sites from retaliatory attack. That has shown itself to be impossible – even if the initiator of an attack succeeded in reducing the other side’s retaliatory forces by some significant fraction.
A totally disarming first strike in principle could be the second method logically to qualify MAD. It cannot be done, though.Fortunately. The combination of SLBMs, cruise missiles, and increased warhead lethality makes the idea of a disarming first strike a pipe dream of military strategists disengaged from reality. Hypersonic weapons do not change that calculus.
Accuracies of MIRVed warheads were lowered to 100 feet many years ago.(CEP, or Circular Error Probability = 50 percent chance of landing within radius.) Reducing that to 20 feet, therefore, is pointless – the silo is destroyed either way unless its missile has been “launched on warning” (tripwire automaticity as ultimate assurance of retaliatory strike). Similarly for missile defense.
Then, there is the question of an incoming missile’s speed. Current ICBMs that may give 18 minutes warning do not permit any defensive measures to be taken. If they arrive on target within six minutes, there is no additional benefit to the attacker. Today’s missiles that follow a straight trajectory cannot be intercepted — with or without their distracting decoys.
The fact that “swerve” capable hypersonic missiles can mambo their way to the target adds nothing to their effectiveness. Anyone who tells you that the Russians gain a strategic advantage thereby is lying — either in order to extract larger sums for R & D from the Treasury or to accentuate irrational fears of Russia.
Finally, no reasonably sane leader would risk national suicide for a 1 percent chance of getting away with a first strike and surviving retaliation. There is no stake worth even contemplating it. Indeed, that logic holds even were there an impossible 50 percent chance of pulling it off.
Today, the United States and Russia are not engaged in a life-or-death struggle for world domination or for ideological vindication. Ascribing anything like that notion to Vladimir Putin is simply a sign of mental derangement – ours, not his. The same holds for the super-power competition between the United States and China.
So, if this line of reasoning is compelling, why did Russia’s leaders bother with investment of great sums to produce hyper-sonic missiles? The answer is a matter of speculation. Doubtless, technological and bureaucratic momentum has much to do with it. These sorts of long-term programs take on a life of their own — just as they do in Washington. The is no more reason for the United States to squander a trillion dollars in refining our nuclear arsenal as two successive administrations have committed us to doing.
In Russia’s case, there likely is another factor at work. Historically, Moscow leaders have exaggerated American technical capabilities; they have something of an inferiority complex on this score despite their own remarkable accomplishments. It is particularly acute in the nuclear realm — most especially in regard to ballistic missile defense.
This goes back to Nixon’s proposed Safeguard system, followed two decades later by Reagan’s Star War’s plans. Neither of which in actuality had the potential to alter the strategic balance. This free-floating strategic anxiety should be placed in historical perspective. There is a touch of paranoia in the Russian strategic mind — engraved by the events of the 20th century.
Some of this sentiment is conveyed by Putin’s remarks in announcing the deployment of hypersonic missiles: “We’re used to being in the position of catching up. That no longer is the case. Russia is the only country that has hypersonic weapons.”
To some unknowable degree these neuralgic points in the Russian psyche have been stimulated by the aggressive American program to surround Russia with BMD systems. “Might it just be conceivable that the United States could perfect them, make it work, and somehow jeopardize the credibility of our nuclear deterrent? Why are they expending so much money and effort? Why do those BMD sites make Poland and the Baltics feel more secure when they are in fact militarily useless and it makes no sense for us to attack them?”
Informed analysis suggests that the answer is negative to all these questions. The alternative explanation: U.S. leaders are inclined to do feckless things; they are strategically obtuse.
The broader lesson is that there is truth to the old adage: “Russia never is as strong as it seems; Russia is never as weak as it seems.” We wrote it off as a world power in the 1990s and never since made the proper adjustment. That perception may have contributed to the glaring failure of the United States’ intelligence community in missing Russia’s remarkable break-throughs in weaponry.
It’s intelligence that counts more than Intelligence.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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I think Professor Brenner has overlooked an important aspect of the hypersonic missiles. While attention is focused on the exotic, Mach 20 Avangard, it is the conventional missiles, the Kinzhal (Mach 10) and Zircon (Mach 8) that are most important. These missiles are meant to be used against the hammer of American Empire, the aircraft carrier battle groups. If these missiles work as advertised, American carriers can no longer approach Russia closely enough to launch attacks. This gives Russia a measure of safety from conventional attack by sea that it didn’t have before. These missiles will not prevent attacks by Tomahawk missiles launched from submarines, however.
One can say that such attacks were never likely, but the US Navy practices these attacks, as I well remember from my time serving as a Fire Control Technician aboard USS Enterprise during the Cold War. Russia built their entire Navy during the Soviet era on the concept of defending itself from attacks by American aircraft carriers, so this is not a small consideration.
Hypersonic missiles, if effective, would be the answer to any military buildup prior to offensive action. The military assets could be destroyed cheaper and faster than they could be assembled. Like cruise missiles, they would be far more useful as conventionally armed weapons than as nukes.
Given these notions, modernizing nukes is a complete waste of time and money. But then the Pentagon budget was never about national defence or NATO: it was and is about political pork barrels rolling around at election time, and general staff egos needing to feel wanted (I thank you for not blowing up the world today).
The real work, if anyone remembers WWI after watching ‘1917’, must come with the complete refurbishment of strategic thinking.
I don`t believe the Russians are intimidated by the aggressive american military posturing. It is reflected in their military equipment manufacturing processes. For example the SU 57 Stealth Fighter. They have produced a dozen or so of these planes. The US likes to say that they only produce so few of the planes because they can`r afford them. But from where I sit the Russians see no need to go into full production of these cutting edge fighters. After all who is going to attack Russia. Putin has said many times that if Russia was attacked by NATO that they would not hesitate to resort to nuclear weapons.
The US on the other hand goes into full bore on production of the F35, Zumwald ships, Ford Aircraft Carriers etc. esentually bankrupting the country on weapons systems that either do not work or at the very least fail to perform to spec. Who is smart here? Why should Russia build 1,000 SU 57s when a better fighter might just be over the horizon , or even on the drawing board. Why do like the USA and squander billions on the F35 , a plane that has not even come close to it`s expectations, and that the US military prays will never have to fight a peer military competator, because essentially it is a flying rock, Not very fast. Not very manuverable, and most of the systems in it do not work.
Echoing Bob In Portland, the ignorance of the US Defense (sic) establishment in not acknowledging the effectiveness of Russia’s hypersonic missiles in a conventional conflict could be disastrous for US forces, which are based on aircraft carrier groups. Andrei Martyanov’s recent book, The (Real) Revolution in Military Affairs uncovers the absurdity of US military planners whose techniques are cemented into archaic thinking.
He writes, “…modern war between nation-states became so complex, in reflection of the tools of such wars, that it is an axiom, not even a theorem, that people who cannot grasp fundamental mathematical, physical, tactical and operational principles on which modern weapon systems operate are simply not qualified in the minimal degree to offer their opinions on the issues of warfare, intelligence operations and military technology without appropriate
Say goodbye to US Imperialism’s hegemony.
“…(one version could not even protect Saudi oil complexes or U.S. air bases in Iraq from primitive Iranian missiles).”
The author asserts ‘primitive’ here. The outcomes in both situations suggest otherwise. Their pinpoint accuracy belies the assertion, no matter the lack of effectiveness of the missile defense systems, or perhaps their operators as well.
Other than that, thanks for this assessment of our contemporary situation and informative history, all of which I consciously lived through.
I agree with Bob In Portland, the significance of hypersonics is mostly in conventional war, not with nukes. The strategic situation is not changed by hypersonics, though they can be seen as reinforcing MAD. If you are aware of the affect ATGMs [anti-tank guided missiles] have had in the Syrian war, you can think of hypersonics as big long-range ATGMs for use against ships and planes as well as land targets.
If you want to understand the rationale behind Russia’s development of hypersonics, a look back to 2006’s “The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy” in Foreign Affairs magazine should prove enlightening (its behind their paywall but you should be able to find a pdf copy). It sets out the terrifying situation the Putin administration found itself in in the early C21st. Not only was the US seeking to develop a feasible BMD that could neutralize a small-scale missile attack, but also seeking to combine this with a massive increase in the lethality and accuracy of SLBMs (via the ‘superfuze’), and the stealthiness of cruise missiles to create a viable First Strike capability.
The final element of this supremely dangerous situation was the precipitous decline in Russia’s Nuclear Forces and Early Warning capabilities in the Yelsin era. Russia’s missile subs were in such a poor state that they were often confined to port, while their previously much-feared road-mobile ICBMs were concentrated in vast ‘hangers’ most of the time rather than being dispersed to survive an attack. The satellites designed to warn of such an attack were in a worse state, meaning Russia could no longer ‘Launch on Warning’, instead being reduced to waiting for the first bombs to drop.
When combined, these factors added up to a viable US First strike capability (99%+ chance of success according to the FA article). Without a viable early warning system, Russia’s silo based missiles could be annihilated by a coordinated strike from the US silo based ICBMs and the now equally accurate sub-launched missiles with their ‘superfuzes’. With the subs in port and the road-mobile ICBMs concentrated, these could be easily destroyed as well and thus deprive Russia of a chance to retaliate. Any stray missiles could be dealt with by the US’s BMD.
Since it became clear during Putin’s second term that no rapprochement was possible with an increasingly unhinged US, Russia has worked tirelessly to reestablish deterrence. Putin’s speech of March 1, 2018 was an announcement that this work was now complete. Russia’s submarine and road-mobile missiles are no longer sitting ducks, and with a revitalized Early Warning system a Second Strike is almost assured. If the US was still tempted by delusions that its BMD could offer protection, Russia’s hypersonics combined with its long range underwater drones and unlimited range cruise missiles make retaliation certain.
Despite the apoplectic response from the US (from Russiagate to the tearing up of the IRNF treaty), the world is certainly a safer place in light of these developments.
“Today, the United States and Russia are not engaged in a life-or-death struggle for world domination or for ideological vindication…” That’s a joke, right?” When has the West NOT been engaged in an attempt at “world domination”? Please.
Yeah I thought that that over looked the obvious as well.
With the paranoia rife in the USA and its conviction that spending lots of money means they have a good product, the behavior of the US “leaders” is neither rational nor effective. Russia actually has its defense system for defense!!!! The USA uses the word, but is only interested in aggression and telling others what to do. Check out all the information given by Russia, especially since Pres. Putin’s March1, 2018 speech, which many in the Pentagon sneered at. Throughout his presidency Putin has tried to improve the lives of his countrymen, make agreements with other leaders and only “interfere” after long reflection eg 2015 to help long-term ally, Syria.
I would like to see Professor Brenner conclude his brilliant analysis (about which I fully agree) with at least a comment as to what the solution to MAD is: World Government with a democratic World Parliament. At least, Professor, refer your readers to “Einstein on Peace.” World federalists have looked at history to conclude that treaty-based solutions to militarism and war are like building on quicksand.
Treaties are routinely broken when a nations senses an advantage…or a disadvantage. Moreover, the UN System has no sheriff at the global level so leaders of powerful nations responsible for world crimes (like Bush, Jr. , Obama, Clinton, Trump, Netanyahu, etc.) have impunity. They are above the law.
We must convert the failed United Nations system into a world federal union government. There is no shortcut. As a psychologist, it is obvious that the geopolitical UN system is a dangerous failure. It breeds paranoia at every turn, and produces the psychopathic militarism that endangers our world.
Democratic World Federalists have called for UN Charter Review to open the door for a comparison with the World Constitution & Parliament Association’s EARTH CONSTITUTION — ready to go and replace the obsolete UN Charter.
The main nations that will resist this global peace system are the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. All meet the definition of rogue nations under international standards.
Why should the countries of the world surrender their sovereignty to some putative world government? Weber seen how that worked for the European Union – a dysfunctional mafia gang existing to serve as the Amerikastani Empire’s handmaiden on the one hand and to enrich Germany and France at the expense of Greece and Italy, for example. Why should anyone want this?
MAD is not a policy to assure limitless spending of Congressionaly-Military-Industrial-Complex, it is rather an indicator of mental status of ruling class and its inability to accept Reality. There is nothing new in this situation, which was brilliantly analyzed by Karl Marx in the 1st volume of Das Kapital.
He noticed that unlike labor, which is able to fight Capital back, the Nature is passive. However, it does not mean that there will be no consequences for uncontrolled actions of Capital. Nowadays we know all too well what are in store for us in the observable future.
Let’s welcome Comrade Marx the first environmentalist.
Mr. Brenner makes an assumption here which I feel should be addressed. Well two actually. First? We assume the leaders of the USA to be reasonable. As income and wealth disparities continue, more and more will sacrifice for fewer and fewer. We see this now with cuts to social programs followed by tax breaks to the privileged and increases in military expenditures. In short? A crazy society will require crazy leaders
Second? He doesn’t recognize the concept of a “winnable nuclear war”. These weapons he referenced? They are meant for limited nuclear war, what is called “managed escalation” in the parlance of those (American psychopaths) who discuss these things. The US has long resisted calls to renounce first use of nukes, and now clearly makes plans for just that.
After WW1 people were sure that Germany had learned its lesson, and would, “never try again”.
Russian hypersonic weapons give a distinct advantage, and it is one we here are very familiar with. Those missiles allow for decapitation strikes, probably the single most effective deterrent they have. It’s money well spent in their view.
Very good assessment about the state of military build up between the US and Russia.I would only point out that IMHO ,Russia has sought to build defensively ,now is capable of eliminating any nation that seeks to eliminate them, now capable of doing so and has demonstrated as much to the to the US state dept.of defense .
We must also remember that Russia suffered more than probably any other nation in the defense of their country in order to defeat the Nazi regime of Hitler and is very much at the position to express to it’s citizens ,never again .
Thank you Prof. Brenner, for addressing the dangerously neglected issue of nuclear warfare. You mention G.W. Bush’s abrogation of the ABM Treaty, the keystone of nuclear strategic stability. Barack Obama could have entered office and without undue delay announced that he wanted to re-negotiate an ABM treat, perhaps including China. Instead, “Saint Barack of Chicago” doubled down and proceeded with plans to deploy ABMs, plans since implemented.
US provocations of Russia, beginning with Clinton’s expansion of NATO in the 1990s, continued apace under Bush and Obama, with the worst provocation being, of course, Ukraine. Ukraine, as Russia expert Stephen Cohen has correctly pointed out, is not one country, as events after the US-encouraged coup in 2014 proved. “Who provokes and who responds?” is the key criterion we should always use when looking at any conflict in the lawless world of nation-states.
Yep, Robert. Warfare is dumb no matter how you look at it.
Great article. However I have to take issue with this statement “Today, the United States and Russia are not engaged in a life-or-death struggle for world domination…”
It is not the United States per se, but there is a struggle for world domination. It is the vision of the PNACers that Russia never become powerful enough to challenge Empire, and instead offer up its resources on the cheap, and for the benefit of the western based capitalists. Under Yeltsin this pillaging was in full force, and Russia was set to become Empire’s newest vassal. Putin put a stop to it, and dared to put improving the standard of living and life expectancy of Russians ahead of profits for the 1%. This was his mortal sin, and the reason we are engaged in a life-or-death struggle. The struggle is between a uni-polar Global Empire protected by the US military and a multi-polar world based on National Sovereignty, with governments serving their people instead of the Oligarchy.
Our nuclear was getting very tired.. Now we have it in, as we would say, tippy-top shape. Tippy top. We have new and we have renovated and it’s incredible. We all should pray we never have to use it.
That was before hypersonic surprise. One should remember the context of the above quote: hurling threats of conventional warfare.
In simple terms, American self-perception of nuclear superiority is very dangerous for Russia because it unleashes reckless policies and strategies that impose real costs and real threats on Russia. It is no just Iran that is supposed to become a normal country, rolling over any time the American overlord cracks his whip — like normal Europeans and other equally normal countries. Russia and China are on the “to do” list as well, targets for Pompean normalization. Professor Brenner understand that the pursuit of first strike capability through improved BDM, accuracy and, apparently, applying spa treatment to our tired nuclear, is futile because it can be overcome with tweaks of the existing systems that cost a small fraction to develop. We understand it. But do American decision makers understand? Well, a short video is worth years of patient explanations.
Haven’t certain Pentagon operatives expressed views on a “winnable small scale nuclear war” ?
As long as such mad thinking prevails in the US, it is Russia’s sense of self-preservation that leads to the development of these hypersonic missiles.
Kill, murder ,and steel just on pretense ..
What would really change the calculus is if Putin decided to sell one of his shinny new hyper-sonic weapons to Venezuela, Syria or Iran. Watching Lindsey or Rubio’s reaction might be well worth risk of Armageddon.
Seriously funny ,though I would not want this to happen .S-300s or 400s would work well for defensive purposes. They are smaller nations and don’t need to get offensive militarily.
In the case of Russia ,I really don’t think they presently seek imperialism ,but good that they have checkmated the ones that do.
Russian hypersonics and other nuclear weapons projects have always been defensive in nature meant to keep MAD alive , as many in the west trough exposure to constant propaganda seem to believe BMD actualy works , that could lead to actions based on false assumptions. US abandoning all these treaties ,reneved interest in smaller nukes and their potential use sugests problems with such thinking are quite real.
The author downgrades these arguments somewhat.
Any nuclear war would destroy civilization and most of the people in the world.
However, there are advantages to hypersonic missiles in a conventional war. Hypersonic missiles could defeat defensive systems and sink the American fleet parked in the Indian Ocean, for example. A hypersonic missile designed as an anti-aircraft weapon would make it hard to enforce a “no-fly” zone, if in fact aircraft were too defenseless to react to them.
But they may very well may become an excuse for one side to try the nuclear route.
Not in complete agreement on its excellence I regret to say although you make two good points that make a resort to use of nukes slightly more probable. The aspect that this author omits is the economic one – the US economy requires growth to maintain itself and these days that’s coming largely from the arms industry. Does not that explain the maintenance of siloes, electronics and the weapons themselves?
“The West is out of practice when it comes to serious strategic appraisal of the U.S.-Russian arms race “
Any nuclear war would destroy civilization and most of the people in the world.”
The headline writer’s assertion is misinformed as are the comments incorporated in Bob In Portland
January 17, 2020 at 14:54
The increasing reliance upon and development of “regime change” plus “low emission tactical nuclear weapons” scenarios from 1984 onwards by the opponents, were and continue to be informed by strategic appraisal of nuclear winter.
Many opponents also perceive that there is not a US-Russian arms race but the belief of “their” (possessive case) population that a US-Russian arms race exists has continuing utility, plus that the opponents’ interlocutors agree that such beliefs have utility, although the definitions of utility differ as functions of differing purposes.