Ukraine Dilemma: U.S. Can't Prevent Russian Expansion Without Better Missile Defenses

May 12 2014, 11:40am CDT | by

Vladimir Putin has called Washington’s bluff, and as a result the U.S. is headed for a major loss of influence in Europe.  Having watched the Obama Administration carefully avoid new involvement in overseas military contingencies for six years, Putin has figured out that he is a lot more willing to fight for the territories on his borders than NATO is, so he is going to keep up the pressure on former Soviet territories where sizable Russian minorities exist.  These are not the acts of a madman; he has accurately assessed Western resolve, and knows he can prevail.

The biggest reason for Putin’s confidence is not Moscow’s proximity to the lands in question or its local military advantages.  What makes Putin think he can win is Russia’s rapidly modernizing nuclear force, a capability for which Washington and its European allies have no real counter.  Although the U.S. has nuclear strike capabilities that match or surpass those of Russia, they cannot stop a devastating strike on the American homeland or whatever overseas allies Moscow elects to hold hostage.  That was the message Putin sought to send last week with multiple tests of long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable munitions carried on bombers.

As the well-sourced Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon pointed out, the exercises included the first test of a Russian sea-launched ballistic missile in the Pacific theater in over a decade, and followed close on the heels of an April 14 test of a new land-based intercontinental missile that simulated the use of multiple warheads.  Last week’s demonstrations of firepower were witnessed by representatives of four Russian allies — all of them former Soviet republics — at the Russian National Command Center.

The main reason these alarming developments didn’t get more coverage in Washington was that U.S. political elites do not fully grasp the challenge Putin is posing.  Having been treated to a continuous stream of commentaries about how Russia’s annexation of Crimea reflects weakness rather than strength, they have failed to see that recovering the former territories of the Soviet Union is Putin’s solution to the specter of decline.  If America and its allies cannot present a more convincing response to Moscow’s rediscovered expansionist impulses, then Putin will continue on the path that has already given him approval ratings above 80% with the Russian public.

Which brings me back to that Russian nuclear arsenal.  Without it, Russia really is no more than the faltering regional power that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have described.  With it, though, Russia represents the one existential threat to the future of American democracy.  It is a threat that far exceeds the potential dangers posed by terrorism, cyberattacks or even biological weapons, because it could literally destroy the foundations of democracy in a day.

Putin correctly calculates that Washington will not do anything potentially risking nuclear use.  Intelligence analysts can argue endlessly about what Putin might really do if he felt his power being undermined by U.S. military action, but knowing what he could do is enough to deter America from decisive action.  Even if he occupies Ukraine.  So without some way to blunt the threat posed by Russia’s nuclear weapons, it’s hard to see what will deter Mr. Putin from gradually reassembling the Soviet Union that he misses so much.

What that should mean is that missile defense becomes a much bigger part of America’s military posture than it is today.  The United States currently spends only about 1% of its $600 billion military budget on defenses against missile attack, and much of that is for defense of allies and deployed military forces rather than the homeland.  Washington largely gave up on funding active protection of the homeland after the Reagan years, judging the technical challenges to be too great and the collapse of the Soviet Union to be an opening for massive reductions in nuclear arsenals.

Both judgments were correct a quarter-century ago, but things have changed.  There have been huge advances in technologies relevant to missile defense, while Russia has recovered its footing and begun exhibiting some of the expansionist tendencies that so worried Western leaders in the bad old days.  So continued reliance on a nuclear posture that offers no real defense again nuclear attacks – accidental or deliberate, authorized or unauthorized – looks increasingly foolish.  Enough time has passed since the ideological debates of the late Cold War period to consider the possibility that even imperfect defenses might strengthen deterrence by making Russian leaders doubt the success of their nuclear plans in wartime.

The Russian strategic arsenal consists of three types of weapons — land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers equipped with cruise missiles.  Superficially, this arsenal resembles the U.S. nuclear triad.  However, the Russians traditionally have relied on land-based ICBMs (of which there are currently about 400) to provide the backbone of their nuclear deterrent.  The dozen submarines that carry sea-based ballistic missiles typically stay close to home, with only one on patrol at any given time — probably because Moscow doesn’t entirely trust their crews to follow orders.  The bombers are antiquated aircraft with radar cross-sections as big as the Chrysler Building, making their ability to approach U.S. airspace dependent on precursor attacks.

In order to field a defense capable of significantly degrading this very potent arsenal, the U.S. would above all require two things.  First, it would need a layered defensive network that is highly reliable and resilient, since leakage of even a few warheads through the perimeter would cause damage without precedent in U.S. history.  Second, it would need defensive technologies offering a favorable cost-exchange ratio in defeating attackers — meaning systems that cost less to defeat each incoming warhead than it would cost for the Russians to add another warhead to their arsenal, so they cannot overcome the defense by simply expanding their offensive forces.

The prevailing view among U.S. elites for two generations now — basically since the advent of the ICBM — has been that this was just too hard to do.  The thinking was that there were too many ways of circumventing or negating strategic defenses to make the required expenditure of resources worthwhile.  Unfortunately, that meant that U.S. survival would depend for the foreseeable future on the hope that nuclear-armed adversaries were (1) sane, (2) not accident prone, (3) always in complete control of their nuclear forces, and (4) not inclined to take big risks in pursuit of political goals.  Over the long run, one or more of these assumptions is likely to prove unrealistic.  Vladimir Putin’s recent actions may be concrete evidence thereof.

Defense against ballistic missiles is just about the hardest military mission there is.  Much of it would probably have to be done from space to achieve maximum effect (long-range ballistic warheads coast through space for most of their trajectories).  And it wouldn’t be enough to defend the U.S. homeland, because aggressors would then move to hold U.S. allies hostage with their theater nuclear weapons.  However, if we can’t figure out how to block a restoration of the Russian Empire for fear of provoking use of nuclear weapons, then the time has come for a serious investigation of what could be achieved with emerging missile-defense technologies using 10% of the Pentagon’s budget rather than 1%.  I’m guessing that we could do a lot more than was feasible in the Reagan years – maybe enough to make Mr. Putin rethink his goals.

 
 

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