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The Impact Of National Missile Defense On Russia and Nuclear Security

Dr. Bruce Blair, President


Russia's nuclear arsenal is broke and broken. Moscow's overall economic decline has taken a large toll on Russian security during the past decade. Its military cannot adequately perform traditional, essential security missions – airspace surveillance and defense, territorial defense against invasion, border control, and maintenance of internal cohesion. The sole exception to this dismal state of military affairs is nuclear deterrence, and even this mission is becoming burdensome.

The nuclear mission is also becoming accident-prone as Russia's military crumbles and its nuclear control and early warning deteriorates. The litany of the afflictions that plague the Russian nuclear establishment must begin with its sheer physical deterioration. Surveillance satellites and radars are wearing out and are not being replaced. Russia's early warning system has developed gaping holes. It is growing more and more susceptible to false alarms, as happened in 1995 when a scientific rocket launched by Norway set off an alarm in Russia that started a count-down to a nuclear launch.

Training and Maintenance Shortfalls

Nuclear warfighting units are rusting and breaking down and not getting repaired. Budget shortages, among other problems, prevent submarines and mobile land rockets from leaving their bases for their ocean and forest sanctuaries.
- The Russian navy strains to keep on patrol one or two ballistic missile submarines out of a fleet of twenty-six and at times cannot keep any at sea.
- The Strategic Rocket Forces strain to disperse into covert field locations a single regiment of mobile rockets – nine missiles out of a force of 350.
- Russian bomber pilots accumulate only about twenty hours of flight training per year compared to hundreds for their U.S. counterparts.
- Underground command posts are crumbling.
- Prestigious institutes such as the laboratories that design nuclear weapons, build the deep underground command posts, and engineer the communications links that would be used to send the "go code" to the strategic rocket forces are virtually bankrupt and cannot properly troubleshoot the aging equipment they designed.
- Even the famous nuclear suitcases that accompany the Russian president and other top authorities are reportedly falling into disrepair.

Personnel Problems

At the human level, hardship is evident in the living and working conditions of nuclear units. They endure housing and food shortages, extended duty shifts owing to manpower shortages, and pay arrears that force many to "moonlight" just to make ends meet. The commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces recently disclosed that 80 percent of the families in his command live below the poverty line.

The competence and integrity of the generals who lead them have declined. Rank-and-file officers and enlisted people are demoralized and alienated from the state which fails to support them adequately and from society which no longer holds them in high esteem. They are themselves less impressive individuals because the standards of quality for admission to the higher military academies have dropped substantially.

NMD: Is Moscow The Real Target?

Russia must now confront the theoretical possibility that a future U.S. national missile defense (NMD) system would be the straw that breaks the back of Russia's nuclear deterrent. Russia today can barely cope with U.S. offensive power, let alone a combination of offense and defense, a one-two punch they fear could deliver a knock-out blow to their strategic forces.

The Pentagon argues that its proposed 250 interceptor NMD system is so limited that it could protect only against a threat from a few dozen warheads. Under the proposed START III Treaty, the Russians would still possess 1,000 to 2,000 warheads over the next decade and beyond. The Administration contends that such a large force gives Russia "the certain ability to carry out an annihilating counterattack on the other side regardless of the conditions under which the war began."

In reality, a surprise offensive U.S. strike could, under some conditions today, destroy all but a few tens of Russian warheads, and Moscow's control over those surviving weapons might be lost. In the event of such an attack on Russia, all the rest of its strategic forces would be vulnerable to quick destruction.

Surviving weapons might consist of one submarine (48 warheads for a Delta III or 64 warheads for a Delta IV) and one regiment of SS-25 mobile land-based missiles (nine warheads). Depending on the effectiveness of U.S. anti-submarine operations against their Russian counterparts (this Cold War cat-and mouse activity continues to this today) and the extent of disruption of Russian command and communications, it is possible that only a very small number of Russian warheads remain available to fire at targets in the United States – and these could be neutralized by the proposed NMD.

In the future (2010-2015), moreover, the total size of the Russian force could easily drop below 500 warheads, in which case the protection afforded by a "very limited" U.S. NMD system would loom even larger in Russia's estimation. A few tens or even hundreds of deliverable Russian warheads is not an acceptable number of surviving weapons from a Russian standpoint, just as several hundred surviving U.S. forces would not be acceptable to the United States.

As a point of reference, the United States currently requires its strategic forces to be able to destroy, in retaliation to a Russian attack, the vast majority of the nearly 3,000 targets assigned to them. (The number of targets in the U.S. strategic war plan actually grew by 20 percent over the past five years.) In other words, the United States must be able to deliver about 2,000 warheads in retaliation in order to adequately execute the nuclear war mission.

Rising Tensions

These calculations of Russia's vulnerability – shocking from Moscow's point of view – were basically irrelevant as long as Russia felt it could credit the West with benign political intentions. This benefit of the doubt all but evaporated with NATO's war on Yugoslavia. The war jolted Russia into the realization that NATO could rally politically and militarily around an offensive assault on a sovereign state and would act unilaterally outside U.N. auspices and with no regard for the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

For the Russian General Staff, the NATO campaign invoked their nightmare scenario of rapid escalation to nuclear strikes spearheaded by decapitation sorties by undetectable U.S. cruise missiles and B-2 penetrating bombers. As Russian planners daily watched NATO delivery platforms in action, they doubtlessly realized that the nuclear versions of the air- and sea-launched U.S. cruise missiles had enough range to reach Moscow from Kosovo airspace and the Adriatic.

The heavy bombing punctured any Russian illusion, or Western pretense, that NATO is a strictly defensive alliance. It was a defining moment in Russia's perception of NATO's potential to turn on Russia. Within the instinctively suspicious Russian military establishment, this display of Western military might resurrected a number of threatening scenarios – implausible from an American standpoint – that had been shelved and perhaps thoroughly dismissed in the early 1990's: Western military intervention in Chechnya, NATO attacks on Russia's nuclear forces using smart conventional weapons, even U.S. nuclear strikes against the Russian homeland.

Moscow's Response: Hair-Trigger Nuclear Alert

To overwhelm an NMD shield, Russia must plan to launch massively and quickly in a crisis, either firing first or firing on warning from a deteriorating network of early warning satellites of an incoming missile strike.

Thus, in response to NMD, the alert rates of missile submarines at sea and road-mobile rockets on land might be increased. Russia's SS-18 force might increase its readiness to launch on warning even if it means breaching the 1994 Clinton-Yeltsin de-targeting pact. In striving to ensure that its missile forces in silos and on dockside alert can be launched before incoming U.S. missiles strike them, Russia might heighten the readiness of its remaining functional early warning radars and nuclear command posts.

Such increased emphasis upon accident-prone quick launch options would be virtually certain if the United States deploys a national missile defense in this decade. To deal with this contingency, Russia would likely deploy multiple warheads on its new land-based Topol M strategic missile and might even consider extreme responses including the fielding of space mines designed to disable the NMD's space-based sensor system in the event of U.S.-Russian hostilities.

U.S. officials point to Russia's current posture of hair-trigger, launch-on-warning and its continuation under START III as a form of "insurance" for the Russians that they could mount an annihilating counterattack capable of overwhelming America's proposed missile defenses. However, Russia's alert posture actually heightens the risk of a mistaken or unauthorized Russian launch. The decay of the Russian nuclear arsenal has already eroded its safety and safeguards, along with its basic offensive capability.

This progressive deterioration increases the risks of mistaken, illicit, or accidental launch and of the loss of strict control over Russia's vast nuclear complex. One need only consider that a degraded early warning network not only loses some ability to detect an actual attack, it simultaneously loses some ability to screen out false indications of attack generated by the sensor network. Similarly, a broken communications link may delay the transmission of a legal launch order, but may also degrade safeguards against an illegal launch.

Resolving Russia's NMD Conundrum

American officials dismiss Russia's suspicions of NMD as unwarranted on the grounds that U.S. defenses are not aimed at Russia except for scenarios involving accidental Russian launches. But Americans cannot dictate Russian perceptions. Russian suspicions, while perhaps unfounded, are understandable given recent setbacks in U.S.-Russian relations. And statements such as the following, taken from a 1995 analysis prepared for Congress by the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, do not help: [Defenses against the former Soviet Union ballistic missile threat] "...could augment deterrence by significantly increasing the Soviet planners' doubts that any military attack on the United States could succeed."

While fielding a U.S. missile defense could redound to our grave disadvantage, disruption of U.S.-Russian relations and of strategic stability might be avoided if fully offsetting reductions in offensive forces are made. If severe constraints on offensive firepower are imposed, missile defenses may be tolerable to Moscow and, in theory, could even strengthen stability.

One promising formula for striking a stable balance between offense and defense is to cut deeply the offensive missile arsenals and take all silo-busting U.S. warheads off alert and put them in long-term storage. By de-alerting most or all of the current 2,200 U.S. weapons on high alert, a U.S. national missile defense would appear less threatening to Russia. Russian strategic missiles would be far less vulnerable to a sudden attack by U.S. offensive forces and thus would be more capable of overwhelming U.S. defenses. Russia in fact would be able to de-alert its own strategic missiles and thereby greatly reduce the risk of a mistaken or unauthorized Russian missile attack.

Unfortunately, neither country is presently pursuing this formula. We have instead embarked on a collision course with Russia that threatens to increase, not decrease, the nuclear peril to Americans.


- Russia views the NMD program as a real threat to its nuclear deterrent forces and thus to its national security.
- Russia will respond to NMD deployment in ways that increase U.S.-Russian nuclear tensions and the risk of accidental nuclear launch.
- NMD will increase the net nuclear threat to the United States. The additional danger of an accidental Russian launch will outweigh the addition protection from "rogue" state missile attacks that NMD might provide.

Sources For Further Reading

Harold A. Feiveson (ed.), The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons (Brookings, 1999).

Ambassador John Holum, "Talking Points" (January 20, 2000), on The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website.

Bruce Blair, "Some Sensible Options for U.S. Missile Defense", (appeared in: Moscow Times (June 3, 2000).

National Missile Defense: What Does It All Mean?, a CDI Issue Brief, available in print, PDF, and HTML with a free e-mail update service at the CDI National Missile Defense home page.


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