SCOTT RITTER: The End of US Nuclear Superiority

As Russia modernizes its nuclear arsenal it is no longer interested in trying to patch up an arms control relationship with the U.S. based on the legacy of the Cold War.

Crewmen perform an electrical check on an LGM-30F Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo in 1980. (Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News

On Nov. 1, the U.S. Air Force was forced to explosively “terminate” the flight test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This meant blowing it up in the air after it exhibited unspecified in-flight anomalies to engineers monitoring its progress.

The test launch, carried out by the U.S. Air Force’s Global Strike Command, is, according to the Air Force, “part of routine and periodic activities intended to demonstrate that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable, and effective to deter 21st century threats and reassure our allies.”

The U.S. Air Force maintains some 400 Minuteman III, stored in silos and ostensibly on 24-hour alert to respond to any potential strategic threat targeting the United States and/or its allies. The Minuteman III has been the land-based component of the “nuclear triad” of U.S. strategic deterrence (the other two being the sea component of Trident missiles onboard Ohio-class submarines and the air component of specially designated B-52 and B-2 manned bombers). 

The Minuteman III was developed in 1968, an improvement on the original Minuteman I missile design from 1958. It entered operational service in 1970. Originally conceived to carry three independently targeted warheads, the Minuteman III was retrofitted with a single warhead as part of the now defunct START II treaty, ratified by both the U.S. and Russia, but never entered into force. 

Presidents George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin sign START II on Jan. 3, 1993, at the tail end of Bush’s term in office, in Moscow. (Kremlin, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

While the New START treaty that remains in effect today does not limit the number of warheads the Minuteman III can carry, the warhead limitations of the previous treaty means that the Minuteman III continues to be fitted out with a single warhead, although the U.S. Air Force routinely carries out flight tests of Minuteman III missiles retrofitted with three warheads.

The Minuteman III is scheduled to be replaced starting in 2029 with a new generation of U.S. land-based ICBM known as the Sentinel. Some Minuteman III missiles will remain on duty until the Sentinel is fully deployed sometime in the mid-to-late 2030s.

Sometime last year a British Vanguard submarine, carrying 16 nuclear-armed Trident II missiles, suffered a mechanical failure during dive operations which, if left unrectified, could have resulted in a catastrophe for the 140 crewmembers aboard at the time. 

The Vanguard-class submarines (four were built) entered service in 1993, and are currently scheduled to be replaced with the new Dreadnaught-class missile submarine sometime in the 2030s. The Vanguard represents the totality of the British nuclear deterrence force. In 2017 a Vanguard-class submarine carried out a failed test launch of a Trident II missile which was kept secret from British Parliament during heated debates about the future of the British independent nuclear deterrent.

Royal Navy Vanguard Class submarine HMS Vigilant in 2014. (Thomas McDonald/MOD, Wikimedia Commons, OGL v1.0)

The failures of the aging U.S. and British strategic nuclear deterrence force contrasts sharply with a series of successful tests carried out by the Russian counterparts, including the recent launches of a modern Bulava missile from a new Borei-class submarine, a Yars ICBM equipped with an advanced Avangard hypersonic warhead, and the successful test launch of a new nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile (the Russians are not immune to test failures, either, as demonstrated by the failure of a Sarmat heavy ICBM earlier this year.)

The fielding of a new generation of Russian strategic nuclear missiles places additional pressure on both the U.S. and U.K. to push forward with expensive modernization programs at a time when competition for funding has created domestic political challenges in both nations. 

Missing Arms Control Framework 

Complicating things further is the lack of any viable arms control framework to keep the rush to deploy new strategic systems by all three nations from exploding into an arms race that could destabilize the strategic balance of power that has existed for decades. Citing the incompatibility of strategic arms control with the U.S. at a time when Washington’s official policy is to strategically defeat Russia, Moscow has suspended its participation in the New START treaty. 

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and after signing the New START treaty in Prague, April 2010. (, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The New START treaty expires in February 2026. While both Russia and the U.S. had indicated an interest in pursuing a follow-on treaty that would maintain the strategic equilibrium that existed under New START, the lack of any ongoing contact between arms control negotiators from the U.S. and Russia makes any chance of having a new treaty vehicle ready in time to replace New START highly unlikely.

[Related: SCOTT RITTER: On Horseradish & Nuclear War and SCOTT RITTER: Reimagining Arms Control After Ukraine]

But the fact is that Russia appears unlikely to pursue such an option even if it were doable. Based upon a series of discussions with senior Russian officials who are knowledgeable about strategic nuclear policy, Russian officials are no longer interested in trying to patch up an arms control relationship with the U.S. that is founded in the legacy of the Cold War. The prevailing mood in Russia is that the U.S. has, over the years, negotiated in bad faith, seeking to use arms control as a vehicle to sustain U.S. strategic dominance as opposed to nuclear parity and stability. 

When treaties are negotiated that achieve a modicum of reciprocal benefit, such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the U.S. withdraws once the treaty is deemed to be inconvenient to U.S. strategic objectives, such as missile defense or responding to developments outside the framework of the treaty (such as Chinese missile systems not covered under the INF treaty.)

Russians believe that the strategic arms reduction treaties, individually and collectively, were never designed to produce nuclear parity, but rather to sustain U.S. nuclear superiority. The New START treaty has been singled out as an example of U.S. duplicity, where the Obama administration kept issues pertaining to missile reductions separate from missile defense, promising to address each separately, only to walk away from missile defense once the missile reduction treaty (New START) was ratified.

[Related: Summing Up Russia’s Real Nuclear Fears]

When New START expires in 2026, Russia is positioning itself to pursue its current nuclear modernization programs free of any treaty constraints. This will complicate the nuclear modernization efforts of both the U.S. and U.K., whose follow-on capabilities, being developed at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, will be inferior to the systems Russia is in the process of deploying. 

Russia will not entertain any negotiating process which seeks to nullify its strategic advantage, especially so long as the U.S. and its Western allies embrace policies which paint Russia as a strategic enemy and seek the strategic defeat of Russia.

If there is to be any hope for a revival of nuclear arms control between the U.S. and Russia, it will not be through a vehicle which sustains the legacy of the Cold War.

Instead, a new strategic relationship will have to emerge based upon modern realities, where the U.S. either must spend huge amounts of money to reach nuclear parity with Russia or negotiate from a position of strategic inferiority.

The day and age of unquestioned American nuclear superiority has passed.

Whether U.S. policy makers can adjust to this new circumstance remains to be seen. But any failure to do so will only trigger an inevitable arms race which the U.S. cannot win, and for which the consequences of failure could be fatal to the entire world. 

Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. His most recent book is Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, published by Clarity Press.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

15 comments for “SCOTT RITTER: The End of US Nuclear Superiority

  1. Bilejones
    November 30, 2023 at 18:43

    Who would have thought that ceding control of The Empire’s Foreign Policy to a Bronze Age Death Cult. wouldn’t end well?

  2. Marvel
    November 29, 2023 at 21:08

    I live among people who think that if they are exposed to massive doses of radiation … that they turn into SpiderMan.

  3. Helen G.
    November 29, 2023 at 20:52

    Interesting how people never got the message that in Global Nuclear War it does not matter who has the advantage. In Global Nuclear War, there is no way to win the game. They even tried putting it into a Hollywood movie. But still, people think they can come up with some way to ‘win’.

    If one side thinks they have somehow won, and got their hair mussed with maybe half their population and half their economy left after the missiles stop flying, they still won’t survive the nuclear winter. Nor the cancers and birth defects to come if by some miracle they get through that. And I’m no biologist, but this has to be in a world where every other living thing is having the same effects, if it is not already been blasted into extinction. And all of this in a world where the technology stopped working with the first EMP wave, so people aren’t going to be able to look up “how to make a bow and arrow” on their phones.

    It don’t matter who wins, because nobody wins.

    Of course, America is becoming quite famous for starting wars where it has absolutely no plan about how they are going to win. They seem to thing a war is a good idea, so they start it, then everyone eventually figures out that they never had a plan about how to win. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Ukraine, is any of this sounding familiar? So, the odds of these idiots starting Global Nuclear War without a clue about how they could possibly win are …. ?

    If anyone needs a good planet, with a few scars, but otherwise quite a paradise, come back in a few hundred thousand years. Or whenever both the radiation and the monkeys that thought that they were intelligent will be gone. Its hard to tell the way it is now, but it really is a garden of a planet.

  4. Which One is Pink?
    November 29, 2023 at 20:15

    Roger Waters Poem of the Day

    Two Suns in the Sunset

    In my rear view mirror the sun is going down
    Sinking behind bridges in the road
    And I think of all the good things
    That we have left undone
    And I suffer premonitions
    Confirm suspicions
    Of the holocaust to come.

    The wire that holds the cork
    That keeps the anger in
    Gives way
    And suddenly it’s day again.
    The sun is in the east
    Even though the day is done.
    Two suns in the sunset
    Could be the human race is run.

    Like the moment when the brakes lock
    And you slide towards the big truck
    “Oh no!”
    “[scream] Daddy, Daddy!”
    You stretch the frozen moments with your fear.
    And you’ll never hear their voices
    And you’ll never see their faces
    You have no recourse to the law anymore.

    And as the windshield melts
    My tears evaporate
    Leaving only charcoal to defend.
    Finally I understand the feelings of the few.
    Ashes and diamonds
    Foe and friend
    We were all equal in the end.

    “…and now the weather. Tomorrow will be cloudy with scattered showers
    spreading from the east … with an expected high of 4000 degrees

    — performed by Pink Floyd, as the last track on their final album … “The Final Cut”

  5. Utu
    November 29, 2023 at 20:05

    Russia need only ank any Native American what a treaty agreement with the US government is worth.

  6. paxmark1
    November 29, 2023 at 19:16

    Nukewatch (which back in 80’s mapped and named all 1000 icbm silos) has been covering the problems of the land icbms but also the grave deficits in the missileers (cheating, drug usage etc), the lcf’s (launch control facilities) with sewage not functioning, the 1970’s 8 inch floppy disk operating system and the degradation of the silo’s and the degradation of the the the bomb system for over a decade. To have had 2 SNIC heads on retirement state that land based icbm systems are not worth continuing over the last 30 years speaks volumes. Myself, I have stood on top of a missile silo west of Larimore for several hours while the blood froze, thawed and froze again. At arraignment we found out that a few drops of blood damaged the microwwave cloth (sodium) and I threatened with sabotage charges. This was for the 10th annual MLK disobedience in 1990 around Grand Forks. All charges were dropped.

    The trillion dollar renovation of the triad is Obamas greatest sin.

    BTW, hundreds receive ban and bar letters and tickets and/or arraignments for trespass at the naval ELF sites in Wisconsin and Michigan every year for over a decade until dismantled. Over 4 years combined jail time in WI. Does anyone know what if anything replaced the Extremely Low Frequency system that maintained limited communication with the SSBN’s below 150 meters.

  7. susan
    November 29, 2023 at 11:44

    Why don’t we just decommission all WMDs and instead start promoting détente??? What a concept!!

  8. Paul Citro
    November 29, 2023 at 07:33

    The duplicitous actions of the US demonstrated by its repeated overthrowing of legitimate foreign governments along with its willingness to engage in wars that kill millions of innocent people demonstrate that it is brutal and untrustworthy and can only be encountered with with great caution and robust defenses.

  9. Roger Hoffmann
    November 29, 2023 at 00:31

    Thanks for this analysis, Scott. I was frustrated when under Shrub the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty; and again when Trump agreed to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Withdrawal from both showed not Washington’s bad faith but also , especially when coupled with deployments of ABMs to Poland and determination to NATO-ize Ukraine, the deliberate encirclement of Russia with weapons that would end Russia’s ability to rely on MAD to ward off nuclear blackmail.

    Any objective observer, looking at this history and the fairly clearly articulated Washington / NATO intentions to bring Russia to heel, would say that Washington has been the center of the “Evil Empire”. How ironic, given that it was U.S. Presidents who coined that term, projecting it on others. But that- projection of one’s own malintent upon others – is what most of Washington does nowadays.

  10. Walter Dublanica
    November 28, 2023 at 20:22

    We Americans need people like Scott to tell us the truth. American MSM can not be relied on. We all are living in dangerous times. We need peace with Russia.

  11. Guy St Hilaire
    November 28, 2023 at 19:49

    The tables have changed and it is now time to talk to each other with respect and on an even keel if you will .Russia no longer having to bend the knee in subservience to anyone will not have to offer the proverbial olive branch but now wait for negotiations across the table on an even basis .The world is changing very fast now and the winds of peace and change are upon us all .No more lies,racism and undercover workings will do . A new world is being born with equality ,respect and the need for all provided .

  12. Lois Gagnon
    November 28, 2023 at 18:53

    Bad behavior on the world stage has consequences. Russia has tried to the point of understandable frustration to negotiate in good faith with the US only to have sand kicked in their face by the adolescent style leadership in Washington. It is incumbent upon the people of the US to remove the idiots who pose as experts on matters of state and replace them with grownups whose egos are not entangled with their jobs as representatives of the US population.

  13. Jeff Harrison
    November 28, 2023 at 17:21

    Ah, the price of duplicity and hubris. It looks to me like the US is going to do what we claimed we did to Russia that brought an end to the USSR. We’re going to spend ourselves into penury to compete with a country that is already way ahead of us. And it will be a perfect storm. By weaponizing our money, we’ve made it toxic. “De dollarization is moving apace and, while it won’t happen overnight, it won’t take all that long. It’s really nothing more than going back to the international system that existed prior to the Arab oil embargo. The second shoe will be the loss of the US$s privileged position as reserve currency. It wasn’t all that long ago that T-bonds were only yielding a half point. Now the interest rates are (relatively speaking). As interest rates go up, the value of your bond goes down. There’s a reason why central banks around the world (see China) are unloading their US T-bonds. Soon, we’ll be paying higher interest rates on T-bonds because nobody will want them and it’ll go straight downhill from there.

  14. bardamu
    November 28, 2023 at 17:01

    It’s always good to hear from Scott Ritter on these matters that involve technical and military as well as political understanding.

    Some of our broader political orientation to this, though, requires parsing some finer points that I don’t think that the vocabulary fully renders, at least not for a non-expert like myself. We talk about “parity” and “superiority” when, by all accounts that I am aware of, either Russia or the US could essentially destroy the world or damage it beyond any conventional political concern even by detonating their own arsenals on their own home grounds.

    I have long shrugged and imagined that such talk was sufficiently warped in perspective as to be largely moot: perhaps oversimply, if either can destroy all, does that not constitute ample deterrent? Why worry about the style points?

    But maybe I am being naive. I am as convinced as ever that imagining that one might gain by catching a major power off guard with at nuclear strike, however one may wish to call it “tactical” or “strategic.” But for just over 20 years, I have become used to Scott Ritter dealing with matters related to palpable results, and I have to imagine that he finds this to be the case here.

    So I assume that there are political consequences here related to technological aspects that relate to deployment. I take the broad lesson that it is unwise for US rulers to be messing with these things. But I suspect that there is something else involved, something conceptual and of more specific and limited application that I should be asking.

    How directly can this be described?

  15. Jack Lomax
    November 28, 2023 at 16:59

    Personally I feel the future is safer in regards to the nuclear threat with Russia (and soon China) being in front competitors to the out of control Zionist western empire

Comments are closed.