Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly on March 1 garnered a lot more international attention than usual, after he claimed Russia had developed five new nuclear-delivery systems meant to beat American missile defences.
The most startling of these was a new intercontinental cruise missile running on a nuclear-powered engine. Describing it as a ‘fundamentally new type of weapon,’ Putin said the unnamed system was ‘a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range’. An accompanying video showed an animation of the missile maneuvering past detection nets and hugging the terrain as it swung around South America and flew towards the US west coast.
The second system was a heavy thermonuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Sarmat, which reportedly underwent an ejection test in December. The Sarmat, which weighs more than 200 tonnes, ‘has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for missile defence systems,’ according to Putin.
The third weapon was the Avangard hypersonic payload, which is likely to be mounted on the Sarmat missile. According to Putin, the Avangard travels at Mach 20, hurtling towards its target ‘like a meteorite, like a ball of fire.’
The fourth system Putin unveiled was the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile that can reportedly fly at Mach 10 and has a range of 2,000 kilometres.
The fifth weapon was not a missile, but instead a nuclear-powered autonomous underwater vehicle carrying a thermonuclear warhead. Called Status-6, the novel system came to public attention last month when it received a mention in the US Nuclear Posture Review.
The reasons why
While it’s not clear what progress Russia has made in actually developing these weapons, Putin left little ambiguity as to why he was pursuing them. They were, the Russian president said, a response to ‘the unilateral withdrawal of the United States of America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defence systems both in the US and beyond their national borders.’
The US and USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972, limiting themselves to just 100 ground-based missile interceptors each. The treaty came soon after the US developed the Minuteman III missile armed with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that could penetrate Moscow’s anti-missile shield. The ABM treaty held for 30 years, until the George W. Bush administration formally withdrew from it in June 2002.
The US decision to withdraw from the treaty came in the months after 9/11, and Bush used the new anxieties about mass casualty attacks to justify the decision. US-Russia relations were much better then, and Moscow’s reaction was muted. Putin did call the US withdrawal a mistake but added that it did ‘not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.’
By 2016, the mood had changed. When NATO inaugurated a Romanian facility deploying the land-based version of the Aegis SM-3 missile interceptors that May, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson called it a ‘direct threat to global and regional security’.
Russia also alleged that the Romanian site was capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, thus violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which banned all ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. The US in turn accuses Russia of violating the INF Treaty as well by deploying a new type of cruise missile.
Russia is clearly unhappy about the proliferation of American missile interceptors, which are intended to reinforce that country’s extended deterrence posture, primarily against North Korea, but also Iran. China is similarly concerned about the American THAAD interceptors in South Korea, and is warily eyeing Japan as it considers the land-based Aegis system. In response, Beijing appears to be pursuing its own MIRV programme that would help it counter interceptors. It’s also building its own ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. Last month, Chinese engineers tested their new DN-3 mid-course interceptor against a DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).
The US insists its interceptors pose no threat to Russia and China’s nuclear deterrents, being solely intended as defences against the limited arsenals of ‘rogue states’. There is some truth in this. The THAAD and Aegis systems are designed to knock out shorter range missiles and are useless against Russian and Chinese ICBMs. At present, only the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) systems based in the US can intercept ICBMS, but there are currently only 44 of these missiles. What’s more, the GMD missiles only have a successful hit rate of 50%, which means at least two of them would need to be fired to have a reasonable chance of bringing down a single incoming ICBM. Finally, the GMD system in its present form would be overwhelmed by MIRVs as well as decoy warheads- so-called ‘penetration aids’.
Of course, the US could expand its interceptor arsenal or develop new multi-object kill vehicle (MOKV) warheads to increase GMD’s effectiveness against MIRVs and penetration aids. While none of this will be enough to drastically erode the mutual vulnerability at the heart of the US-Russia deterrence relationship, Moscow clearly does not want to take chances.