And what could possibly go wrong?
Do not be alarmed by Russia’s announcement of production on a new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. While the ICBM, RS-28 Sarmat, will likely be operational within the next few years, it will not change the nuclear strike balance of power in Russia’s favor.
In a nuclear war with Russia, U.S. victory would remain the most likely outcome. That’s primarily because the U.S. has better potential to get more nuclear warheads onto Russian targets than Russia could get onto U.S. targets.
The extension here is that while both nations retain a triad of nuclear strike forces — ICBM-armed ground bases, aircraft, and submarines — Russia would struggle to utilize the aircraft and submarine components effectively.
For a start, Russia’s strategic bomber force is aged and nonstealth in nature.
While the Russians are attempting to upgrade these capabilities, they are a long way from being able to rival U.S.-equivalent platforms such as the B-2 bomber. Correspondingly, in the event of war, Russian strategic bombers would find themselves highly vulnerable to detection, interception, and destruction by U.S. fighter interceptors.
Similarly, Russian nuclear strategic submarine, or SSBN, forces are also less adept than their U.S. counterparts.
Yes, the Russians have developed a relatively new class of SSBN, the Borei class, but that program has been delayed repeatedly and only three boats are currently operational. While the Russian Navy has ten other SSBNs, all those boats were built in the Soviet era and they struggle with maintenance issues. They are also loud.
That matters in better enabling U.S. intelligence services to monitor the location of Russia’s SSBN force at all times. In war, this would enable U.S. Virginia class attack submarines to hunt and kill the Russian fleet before they reached their launch patrol sectors. In a crisis, the U.S. would surge its attack submarines to ensure redundant capability.
Moreover, the U.S. Navy is considering placing nuclear-armed missiles on some of its Virginia class attack submarines and is actively developing a next generation SSBN boat, the Columbia class.
The second weakness of Russian nuclear forces is that they are underfunded and less competent than their U.S. counterparts. Put simply, their equipment is less reliable, less available, and their leadership lower in quality. This is a problem for Russia in that the exigency of effective nuclear strike command, control, and operational competency is impossible to overstate. If one unit fails to deliver on its mission, an adversary could launch a counterstrike or its second wave strikes.
Still, this is not to say that the Russian strategic forces are not courageous. As I’ve noted, we all owe a particular debt to one of these men, Stanislav Petrov, for his decision to stand up against superiors and save the world.
Ultimately, Petrov’s courage speaks to the broader issue: the horror of nuclear war.
After all, even if the Russian air and submarine strategic forces were defeated by U.S. forces, the Russians would still retain their ground based ICBM forces. And the range of Russian ICBMs mean they would be able to hit every major U.S. city with confidence.
Put another way, even if the U.S. won a nuclear war by retaining smaller cities and a large rural population and denying the Russians the same, the social and economic consequences of any nuclear exchange with Russia would be horrendous.
And that should remind us of a great quote from the movie “Crimson Tide.”
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