Russia’s New Missile Means the Nuclear Arms Race Is Back On
Team Putin is talking up fearsome new hardware that could accelerate a nuclear contest not seen since the Cold War.
Russia has a new nuclear missile—one that Zvezda, a Russian government-owned TV network, claimed can wipe out an area “the size of Texas or France.”
Actually, no, a single SS-30 rocket with a standard payload of 12 independent warheads, most certainly could not destroy Texas or France. Not immediately. And not by itself.
Each of the SS-30’s multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle warheads, or MIRVs, could devastate a single city. But Texas alone has no fewer than 35 cities of 100,000 people or more.
Which is not to say the instantaneous destruction of a dozen cities and the deaths of millions of people in a single U.S. state wouldn’t mean the end of the world as we know it.
Nobody nukes just Texas. And if Russia is disintegrating Texan cities, that means Russia is also blasting cities all over the United States and allied countries—while America and its allies nuke Russia right back.
Moscow’s arsenal of roughly 7,000 atomic weapons—1,800 of which are on high alert—and America's own, slightly smaller arsenal—again, only 1,800 of which are ready to fire at any given time—plus the approximately 1,000 warheads that the rest of the world's nuclear powers possess are, together, more than adequate to kill every human being on Earth as well as most other forms of life.
One new Russian rocket doesn’t significantly alter that terrible calculus.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be alarmed. The SS-30 is only the latest manifestation of a worrying trend. After decades of steady disarmament, the United States and Russia are pouring tens of billions of dollars into building new and more capable nuclear weaponry that experts agree neither country needs, nor can afford.
The SS-30 by itself is just slightly more destructive than older Russian missiles. It’s what the new weapon represents that’s frightening. The post-Cold War nuclear holiday is over. And apocalyptic weaponry such as Russia’s new SS-30 are back at work making the world a very, very scary place.
Moscow approved development of the SS-30 in 2009 as a replacement for the Cold War-vintage SS-18. Seven years later, the first rockets are reportedly ready for testing. The Kremlin wants the new missiles to be ready for possible wartime use as early as 2018.
Details about the new weapon are hard to come by. Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news website, described the SS-30 as a two-stage rocket with a mass of 100 tons and a range of 6,200 miles. Launching from underground silos in sparsely-populated eastern Russia, SS-30s could fly over the North Pole and rain down their dozen MIRVs on cities and military bases all over North America.
Incidentally, America’s own nuclear attack plans more or less mirror Russian's plans. U.S. rockets would cross the North Pole headed in the opposite direction and deploy their own MIRVs to smash Russian cities and bases.
Those plans haven’t changed much in 50 years. Nor have the nuclear missiles themselves changed very much. The older SS-18 is actually slightly heavier than the SS-30 and boasts a similar range while carrying 10 MIRVs. One difference between the two missiles is that, being newer, the SS-30 will undoubtedly be easier to maintain.
And then there are the countemeasures. The SS-30 reportedly comes equipped with what Sputnik described as “an array of advanced anti-missile countermeasures” that, in concept, could distract U.S. defenses and ensure that the warheads strike their targets.
But no country—neither the United States nor anyone else—possesses a working missile shield able to intercept a heavy, intercontinental ballistic missile traveling at 20 times the speed of sound. America’s costly missile-defense systems, including ship- and land-based interceptors, are designed to knock down relatively slow-flying, medium-range ballistic missiles fired by, say, Iran or North Korea.
In that sense, the SS-30’s offensive advancements are solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist. The SS-30 is no more, and no less, capable of ending the world as part of the wider nuclear war.
What’s worrying is that Russia even wants to replace its old SS-18s. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, Washington and Moscow have both cut their nuclear stockpiles by thousands of weapons. And the two government had a chance to eliminate even more weapons and advance U.S. president Barack Obama’s stated goal of “stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and ... seeking a world without them.”
But Russia’s military resurrgence under President Vladimir Putin and tensions over Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014—not to mention the destabilizing effects of America’s own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—ground atomic disarmament efforts to a virtual halt.
“As tensions between Russia and the West have grown over the last two years, Kremlin officials have appeared to emphasize Russia’s nuclear capacity and perhaps even threaten its use,” Olga Oliker, an analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained in a new report.
Russia began developing new nuclear weapons to replace its existing munitions and maintain its overall atomic arsenal. The SS-30 is just one of the new weapons. Russia is also working on a new submarine-launched nuclear missile and a new sub to carry it, as well as new cruise missiles and upgraded bombers to carry those.
Moscow began work on a new medium-range nuclear missile in possible violation of a 1988 treaty, prompting a formal complaint from Washington. In March 2013, the Kremlin even staged a mock nuclear attack on Sweden.
“Unless a new arms reduction agreement is reached in the near future, the shrinking of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal that has characterized the past two decades will likely come to an end,” nuclear experts Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“Combined with an increased number of military exercises and operations, as well as occasional explicit nuclear threats against other countries, the modernizations contribute to growing concern abroad about Russian intentions,” Kristensen and Norris warned.
Actually, Russia’s intentions are pretty clear. Under Putin, the Kremlin is determined to pause, if not entirely halt, nuclear disarmament. New missiles and other weapons are just the means of executing this policy. The SS-30 “will determine in which direction nuclear deterrence in the world will develop,” Zvezda claimed.
Sure enough, Obama has suspended further reductions in America’s own atomic arsenal. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is in the early stages of a 10-year, $350 billion program to upgrade land-based nuclear-tipped rockets as well as build new nuclear-capable missile submarines and bombers.
The Obama administration has portrayed this program as a mere safety upgrade—and nothing else. The efforts “are not providing any new military capabilities,” Madelyn Creedon, an deputy administrator with the U.S. Energy Department, said in October. “What we are doing is just taking these old systems, replacing their parts and making sure that they can survive.”
Critics have challenged the administration’s sanguine views of its own nuke programs. “Today's heavy U.S. investment in nuclear modernization seems at odds with the objective of nuclear disarmament,” Lu Yin, a researcher at Beijing’s National Defense University, wrote on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
All the same, Michael Krepon, a nuclear expert who blogs at Arms Control Wonk, insisted that disarmament will eventually continue. “Deeper reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces will happen because both face budget crunches,” Krepon wrote.
But the United States and Russia shouldn’t wait for shrinking budgets to force nuclear cuts, Krepon advised. He recommended the two countries begin negotiating a new arms-reduction deal soon. “Nuclear risk-reduction succeeds most when pursued in parallel with treaty obligations.”
The SS-30's imminent deployment, however, is a pretty clear sign that Moscow isn’t interested in a new nuke treaty just yet. And that, more than the danger a single missile poses to Texas, is why Russia’s new nuclear rocket is so scary.