About the difference in approaches to assessing America’s military power

MOSCOW, 24 Sep 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

The report of the RUSSTRAT Institute of Russian International Political and Economic Strategies on the state of the US nuclear forces – “Threats to Russia due to the collapse of the US nuclear triad” – dated July 12, 2021, caused an active discussion in the expert community. This is definitely a good thing.

However, in the course of the statements made by the parties, a noticeable divergence of the views and approaches of critics on the very concept of nuclear power, its practical purpose, as well as its role, taking into account the changing factors of the national security complex as such, was clearly indicated. However, this is not surprising. It is a typical problem to isolate what is clear only for oneself from a complex multifactorial question. Therefore, RUSSTRAT considers it necessary to explain to its colleagues the difficult points they faced.

In our opinion, it makes no sense to discuss whether Russia is trying to “catch up and overtake America”. This slogan appeared in Soviet times as a primitive degradation of the consequence of the global confrontation of systems. In addition to the United States and the “collective West”, there were no other worthy geopolitical opponents.

Hence, it turned out that Moscow inevitably compared absolutely any of its actions with Washington. And not all the results of the comparison were “in our favour”. Since ideologically communism was considered a more advanced social formation than capitalism, it means that “everything Soviet” should have been obviously “better than American”.

Although the USSR ceased to exist three decades ago, the echoes of this phenomenon continue to affect today. Periodically, some “experts of the old school” continue to perceive any strategic analysis in the field of the Russian-American confrontation out of habit, instinctively, in outdated “racing” categories.

However, we must admit that there are indeed some grounds for this. Russia’s restoration of geopolitical subjectivity inevitably aggravates its confrontation with the leading centres of power. First and foremost, traditional ones, since this undermines the foundations of the indisputability of their world hegemony. And any competition, in general, always comes down to comparing the effectiveness of opponents in certain areas.

One of them is the military. According to the chiseled definition of Karl von Clausewitz, war is the continuation of politics by other, namely, specifically military, means. In other words, this means that any problem in interstate relations is automatically assessed multilaterally by the competing parties.

Including comparing the “cost” of achieving the desired goal not only by peaceful, but also by military means. So, when one of the parties comes to the conclusion about the indisputability of its superiority, combined with the admissibility of collateral losses, wars usually always start in the world.

So, there is no need for Russia to “catch up with America”, but it is absolutely necessary not to yield to it militarily. To be ironic about this, to put it mildly, is ignorant. In putting pressure on Russia, the United States is limited only by economic sanctions, not out of kindness, but because of the still remaining balance in the strategic nuclear forces.

Another question is that the balance is only a momentary projection of the result of comparing never-stopping processes. Russia is improving the material part of its Strategic Missile Forces not because it has nowhere to put money and nothing to occupy engineers of the appropriate specialty. The matter is different. Since the late 70s, the United States has realised the senselessness of the path of a frontal extensive increase in the number of nuclear warheads and their carriers. What difference does it make if you can guaranteed to destroy the entire world six or eight times when one is enough for the eyes?

Since it makes no sense to further increase the number of means of attack, Washington decided to change the strategic balance in its favour by significantly reducing the scale of damage to itself from the enemy’s retaliatory strike. Read – Russia, although now the Pentagon is already conducting similar calculations for China.

The essence of the balance is that whoever starts a nuclear war first, the opponent will always be able to turn the aggressor’s territory into a total nuclear dump with a guarantee. Therefore, if we come up with a way to somehow reduce the scale of retaliatory damage to relatively acceptable values, then it becomes possible to “win”a global nuclear war. Yes, with losses, yes, with damage, but all this will become a trifle compared to the complete destruction of a strategic enemy.

It is from here that the roots of American initiatives for the accelerated development of missile defence and the invention of any other, formally defensive, weapons, such as orbital lasers with nuclear filling from the notorious “Star Wars” by Ronald Reagan, come from. With a rather controversial final performance, in relation to the technical level of strategic carriers of the sample of the 70s-80s and even the beginning of the 00s, they still significantly increased warheads’ successful interception percentage.

This means that in the conditions of a strict limit on the number of carriers and warheads established within the framework of existing international agreements (for example, the START III treaty), the chance of “not so fatally suffering” began to increase.

The current state of affairs in the balance of the strategic nuclear forces arose due to the fact that the military-political leadership of the United States for at least a quarter of a century was absolutely convinced that Russia was unable to win this new race, not just directly, but at least “bring the game to a draw”.

Therefore, they did not develop the material part of their strategic nuclear forces particularly, deeming it unnecessary. If the concept of a fundamental strengthening of the anti-missile shield is successful, other things being equal, the existing types of weapons would be quite enough to achieve victory in a nuclear war.

But reality has refuted these American expectations. Firstly, the Americans have not managed to create this very shield to this day. Its individual elements are being tested, but it did not go further than field tests with controversial, most often unsuccessful, results. Secondly, it turned out that Russia has managed to significantly improve its missiles (ICBMs RS-12M2 “Topol-M”, R-36M “Satan” and its successor-R-36M2 “Voevoda”), as well as to actively re-equip the strategic missile forces with new types of systems, for example, RS-24 “Yars”.

Moreover, the new Russian missiles differ not only in the energy characteristics of movement. They are more accurate and provide a guaranteed breakthrough of any level of missile defence of a “potential enemy”, both existing now and, as far as it is known, capable of appearing in the next 20-30 years.

So, when we talk about the “old age” of the American arsenal, we are not referring to those strange fantasies that critics are trying to attribute to us, but a purely technical comparison of the practical capabilities of the opposing weapons. The Americans also modernised their “Minutemen”, but this process meant something completely different there. First of all, it was the replacement of “closed “suppliers of “nodes and blocks” with currently existing ones. No fundamental improvement of tactical and technical characteristics was expected.

That is exactly why the missiles currently in service with the US strategic nuclear forces do not differ significantly from their first versions. Because of this, the Pentagon received a mirror image of the strategic situation. The existing American weapons have remained at the level of capabilities of the last quarter of the 20th century, while Russia has managed to improve both its attack tools and create significantly more effective air/missile defence systems.

Will the United States be able to develop new, more advanced models? Most likely, yes. They have not yet ran out of intelligent engineers. There are certain difficulties with the production base, but, at least theoretically, they are also generally surmountable. Another question is – when will they have it?

The mentioned GBSD (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) system, designed to replace the ageing “peacekeepers”, is not actually such. This is a completely different class – hypersonic, that is, it is not an opponent of the silo P-36M2 “Voevoda”, but serves as an American “answer” to the Russian newest Avangard system.

But it already exists in Russia, it has passed state tests and has been adopted, and work on the GBSD program in the United States actually began only in 2019, when the Northrop Grumman company cunningly bypassed a competitor in the face of Boeing Corporation at the tender.

No, the Pentagon is seriously talking about expectations to start putting GBSD on combat duty as early as 2027, and it will replace the last “Minuteman III” in 2036, but it’s autumn 2021, and Northrop Grumman still does not even have a technology demonstrator. So, most likely, the LGM-30 Minuteman III ICBM, developed in 1970, will continue to form the basis of the land component of the US strategic nuclear forces for at least the next decade, if not more.

The situation is exactly the same with its marine component. The US Navy has indeed begun developing new strategic missile carriers to replace the Ohio-type  ballistic missile nuclear submarine. But even here the devil is in the details. Firstly, the launch of the first submarine of the “Columbia” series is expected no earlier than 2028. Secondly, the new boat will be armed with the same UGM-133A Trident II (D5) missiles, of the 1995 model, which the Ohio “carries”.

Thus, we are not talking about the critical obsolescence of the existing nuclear missile arsenal in the United States in the form that critics are trying to present it. Almost like “Russia already has a Kalashnikov assault rifle in series, and the Americans continue to sit with the wick muzzle-loading karamultuk.” However, attributing a deliberately erroneous thesis to an opponent, and then defeating it demonstratively is an old demagogic device from the time of Goebbels.

American nuclear weapons are sufficiently effective as a tool for maintaining the overall nuclear balance, keeping the world from falling into a global nuclear war. Another question is that technically and technologically it is already significantly outdated. Even for the current air/missile defence conditions. Not to mention promising ones, when the armed forces of the Russian Federation will finish re-equipping units with the S-500 “Prometheus”, the “Peresvet” laser complexes and those systems that are mentioned very superficially today, because of the secrecy of the developments.

To say that the analysis of the current situation in any way “can anger our opponent” is ridiculous in the least. In fact, all the above-mentioned initiatives to change the nuclear balance in their favour are initiated precisely by the United States. They do not need any special pretexts from our side at all.

That is why Russia is forced to continue improving its weapons and carefully emphasise the impossibility of achieving the superiority of any one side in this “game”. The winner in a global nuclear war, as in the last century, is guaranteed to get only a nuclear dump the size of the entire planet. Therefore, it is better not to start it, no matter how much anyone would like it.

But the Americans want to. Since the issue of continuing geopolitical competition is not only not removed from the agenda, its acuteness only grows over time. The United States can no longer maintain its global hegemony in accordance with the “peaceful rules”. And since they do not want to “give up their hands” and give up, too, their analytical centres continue to search for “alternative options for victory”.

The key of these options at the moment is the strategy of “War Space”, mentioned in the analytical report of RUSSTRAT. It is certainly not indisputable. Moreover, the verification of a number of its key elements in a series of large United States and NATO exercises, gave, to put it mildly, a “very ambiguous” result.

It is so far from what was expected that some Pentagon analysts publicly “expressed their deep concern.” However, for now it remains dominant. Therefore, to ignore it, to put it mildly, is short-sighted, unprofessional, and, more importantly, fraught.

This is exactly because of the preciseness of the definition of the general meaning of the concept of war itself, given by the director of the Prussian Military Academy. As the scale of problems increases due to the impossibility of maintaining global geopolitical hegemony, the ruling elite of the United States is increasingly forced to look for “new ways”, including in the field of military decisions.

The lack of understanding of such simple and obvious interconnections by experts who undertake to criticise the field of global national security processes raises serious reasonable doubts about the level of their competence.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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