The White House has announced that President Obama will be visiting Hiroshima, Japan, May 27 in order to deliver a speech promoting a nuclear-free world, just days after Russia announced it will soon complete its largest inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Obama’s visit would make him the first U.S. president in history to visit the city, one of the two which was hit with a nuclear weapon by the U.S. during World War II. Last week, Russian officials announced that they will be deploying the RS-28 Sarmat ICBM in 2018. The respective moves come as Russia continues its massive revamp of its military capabilities, while Obama continues his goal to decommission nuclear arsenals worldwide.
“The President and Prime Minister Abe will meet bilaterally to further advance the U.S.-Japan alliance, including our cooperation on economic and security issues as well as a host of global challenges,” said the White House statement announcing the trip. “Finally, the President will make an historic visit to Hiroshima with Prime Minister Abe to highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
According to the Arms Control Association, the U.S. is 600 nuclear warheads behind Russia’s arsenal. Russia currently administers around 7,700 warheads to the U.S. 7,100. The massive RS-28 is slated to replace the SS-18 Satan, pending successful tests scheduled to begin sometime this year.
The new Sarmat will be able to carry a 10-ton payload and will have an operational range of around 6,000 miles. What makes the missile particularly deadly is its potential to carry up to 15 individual nuclear warheads, making the Sarmat what is called a MIRV, or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle. Weighing in at 100 tons, the Sarmat will not only be Russia’s largest ICBM, it will be the largest the world has ever seen.
“Like other modern Russian ICBMs … the Sarmat is being designed specifically to overcome ballistic missile defenses using a combination of decoys, a host of countermeasures and sheer speed,” said Dave Majumdar, the defense editor for The National Interest, in a piece Monday. “It might also be equipped with maneuvering warheads—which would make it much more difficult to intercept.”
In an apparent effort to match Russia’s missile advances, the U.S. military is pursuing a wholesale replacement of the Minuteman III ICBM with what is being referred to as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Deployment of the GBSD may be too little too late, however, given that current defense budget proposals will push its release to 2028, a decade after the Sarmat is planned to be operational.
The decade-long gap could be temporarily alleviated should the U.S. modernize its Minuteman III arsenal, according to a RAND Institute study. That said, Majmudar has expressed doubts that the aging system could act as a proper deterrent in the face of Russian advances, saying “the elderly Minuteman III is not likely to be able to provide assured deterrence as enemy missile defenses continue to improve rapidly.”
Responding to the announcement of the planned visit, Michael Auslin, an expert in Asian politics at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Forbes Tuesday that “if statesmen and rulers had taken seriously their responsibility to protect, the world would have been spared a slaughter that few of us today can imagine.”
“When Barack Obama visits the Cenotaph in Hiroshima, he should therefore not talk about a world without nuclear weapons, for such a thing is more fanciful now than in 2009.” said Auslin. “Instead, he should stand by his Japanese counterpart, and reflect on our ability to move past the gaping wounds of war, to ally together to keep peace.”
Auslin believes that Obama should use the opportunity to “reaffirm the liberal world’s commitment to preserving and defending today’s precarious global order,” especially given the threats posed by China, the Islamic State and Russia.
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