Moscow’s gambit to deploy new missile undermines all strategic arms agreements as it is a first-strike threat and a challenge to the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine and current missile defenses
Originally published in Asia Times
by Stephen Bryen
Russian China and the United States, though the US is further behind are all working on hypersonic weapons –weapons that fly so fast that current technology has difficulty picking them up on radar and even bigger problems trying to defeat them. Now President Vladimir Putin claims Russia is getting ready to deploy in 2019 an intercontinental ballistic missile that can fly up to 20 times the speed of sound called Avangard. The missile if it performs as advertised is a game changer because there is no missile defense system that can intercept a warhead flying to the target at hypersonic speeds.
How important is this? Today the US has only a few deployed missile defense systems and none of them are at all capable of defeating a nuclear attack from Russia or China. The reason for that is two-fold: firstly US missile defenses are not yet reliable interceptors (even in tests where the incoming missiles are neither deploying decoys or maneuvering); secondly there are too few interceptors (in the form of THAAD, PAC-3, Ground-Based Interceptor or land or sea-based SM-3s) to deal with mass missile attacks. Consequently the US has provided some missile and air defense systems to allies and friends (such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel), but mostly designed to deal with small scale attacks and focused on terminal air defenses (that is, killing the incoming missile while it is actually close to its target overhead). One of the reasons why Israel developed its own Arrow 3 interceptor is to be able to kill enemy missiles in the exo-atmosphere, that is capable of a missile kill outside the earth’s atmosphere, as an incoming missile hit overhead (called the endo-atmosphere) risks crashing into populated centers, as SCUD rockets did during the First Gulf war and as Houthi (Iran) rockets did in Riyadh, Taif and elsewhere.
US strategic doctrine has been torn between two opposing theories of what to do about missile threats.
In simplest terms the most pervasive operational theory has been “mutually assured destruction” or MAD. MAD posits that if an enemy attacks, the US will launch its own strategic missiles and bombs, some of them deep underground in hardened silos, others aboard strategic bombers and still others launched by missile-firing submarines (“Boomers”). Taken together the US calls this the strategic triad.
The other approach is not to rely on MAD as a sufficient deterrent but to build missile defenses. Mostly this has been justified as a means to deal with rogue states or errant missile launches against the United States or its allies. Even so, missile defenses are one of the sore spots in US defenses, because all the programs have been controversial and either under serious delays (problems in testing) or underfunded. MAD proponents, and Russian propaganda have typically attacked US programs like the Ground Based Interceptor and THAAD as intending to give the US a “first strike” capability. While making such claims Russia and China both have continued to pursue systems that offer “break out” from the constraints of MAD and to get out from under arms control agreements.
The latest Russian gambit to deploy Avangard directly undermines all strategic arms agreements because it is a first strike threat when measured against current technology that could defeat such missiles. The heart of all arms control efforts is to aim to stabilize the nuclear arms balance and control or eliminate systems that fall outside of the ambit of the balance. Thus for example the Intermediate range Nuclear Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) had a major purpose of removing high risk hard to intercept systems such as Russia’s SS-20 and the US Pershing II (both of which threatened Europe and European-Russia). The Trump administration has served notice it wants to cancel the INF because of Russian “cheating,” but it is still too soon to be sure that will be the final outcome.
Meanwhile Avangard (and surely others in the same class of hypersonic weapons) is a direct challenge both to MAD doctrine and to missile defenses and undermines in a fundamental manner all US-Russia arms control agreements. A dangerous consequence of all this is that Avangard will give Russian military commanders the idea they can strike first and “win” whatever conflict they may get into with the United States and NATO. Given that no one can be sure about Russia’s future stability, this is a huge threat and risk.
Avangard-like weapons are not so far away in Asia either. China is surely watching how the US will respond to Russia’s initiative on hypersonic weapons to see if Avangard-like weapons can be subjected to missile control agreements in future. The still very bad relations between Russia and the United States suggest any solution is far off. Meanwhile Avangard will wreak havoc on existing arms control measures and destabilize the nuclear-weapons arena.