Fears Grow Over Russia’s Dangerous Nuclear Escalation

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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Vladimir Putin’s government continues to show signs that it would not hesitate to launch a nuclear war, two top analysts of Russian strategic thinking said at a recent Mitchell Institute Forum on Capitol Hill which I had the privilege to host.

Unlike the United States, nuclear weapons are “literally the number one military priority” for Russia’s government and security agencies, said speaker Mark Schneider, senior consultant at the National Institute for Public Policy.

Putin declared last year that Russia has modernized 60 percent of its strategic nuclear forces, and suggested those efforts would continue.  A massive program of nuclear rearmament includes modernized ICBMs on land and sea, and a modernized strategic bomber force, Schneider said.

Russian doctrine on nuclear weapons first use is “one of the most troubling aspects of Russian military policy,” observed Schneider. “The Obama administration came in with, I think, some pretty rosy views about the Russians. It went out with a very different view.” Several senior Pentagon officials over the past two years have called Russia the “number one” national security threat. “They particularly focused on Russian nuclear doctrine.”

It is telling that Russia is the only country in the world where ambassadors make nuclear threats, said Schneider. “So we now face something which I think is fundamentally different from anything that goes on in the West.”

Arms control treaties are being violated, he said. Russia is deploying ground-launched cruise missiles that are banned by the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. And it’s unclear whether Russia will be in compliance with the New START Treaty in February 2018 when the legal limits come into effect, Schneider said. “Even if they are, and I think that’s unlikely, they will be well above the treaty number which undercounts dramatically the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

Schneider ran down a list of Russia’s nuclear modernization programs:

  • Two versions of a missile called the SS-27, a MIRVed and a single warhead missile. A new Boray-class missile submarine, two versions of which carry a new six warhead submarine-launched ballistic missile.
  • Russia has been testing hypersonic boost glide vehicles on the SS-19 ICBM and it may be deployed on the new Sarmat heavy ICBM.
  • Bomber modernization is well underway. They have deployed at least two, possibly three, long-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Two of them are clearly stealth designs.
  • Putin announced a program to produce 50 new T-160 bombers. A program has been underway since 2009 to develop a stealth bomber.
  • The new Sarmat heavy ICBM carries 10 to 16 nuclear warheads, according to Russian press reports.  The country is developing a new rail mobile ICBM, which won’t count under the New START treaty.
  • Russia is developing a new fifth-generation missile submarine for deployment after 2025 reported to carry both ballistic and cruise missiles.

Schneider then mentioned what he characterized as the “craziest program ever to come out of Putin’s Russia” — a nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, “ultra-fast, ultra-deep diving drone submarine,” which the Russian press says carries a 100 megaton bomb. This could end badly, Schneider cautioned. “You can’t test this thing safely. You can’t use it in any way consistent with international law because it’s designed to kill civilians by massive blast and fallout capability.”

There are two other programs that Schneider believes “have some credibility” but haven’t been officially announced. One is an air-launched ICBM that doesn’t count under New START limits, and a system that is clearly a space plane, he said. “A lieutenant colonel in the Russian ICBM force says it will be a nuclear-armed space bomber.”

The ongoing nuclear buildup speaks to Russia’s obsession with “great power status,” said Steve Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and the companion speaker at the Mitchell seminar.

Not knowing exactly how far Russian leaders will go, it is fair to say that they “expect to use this nuclear arsenal as a war fighting one,” Blank said. “Putin, as we have seen, is an irascible, in some ways passionate guy, who sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him.”

If a conflict broke out with the NATO alliance, hypothetically, “they would have to use nukes in order to force NATO to come back to the table and de-escalate the fighting,” said Blank. “Most of us believe that what they would probably use is a tactical nuclear weapon somewhere in Europe.”

The U.S. government needs to have an effective strategy, Blank said, that “recognizes the ladder of threats that we are dealing with in Russia’s case.”

Schneider insisted that the underlying problem is that the Russian attitude toward nuclear weapons, is “fundamentally different from ours.” Putin and the men around him, he said, are “aggressive, distinctly paranoid and have very little understanding of the rest of the world.”

And he cautioned that the United States should make an effort to develop credible sources of intelligence about Russia’s capabilities.

Recent statements by U.S. military leaders about Russia’s nuclear buildup are among the few in the last five years that have any value from the standpoint of assessing the development of the threat,” said Schneider. “We are right now almost completely dependent on Russian sources, and perhaps [Washington Times reporter] Bill Gertz, to a significant degree. … But the overall thrust of what the Russians are doing, the only real sources are the Russian press reports, and that’s a bad thing. We really do need a sanity check on some of these things because the Russians are in the propaganda business.”

Peter Huessy is director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute on Aerospace Studies .