Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Potemkin Strategic Rocket Forces?

Is Russia losing their ability to reach the continental United States with their nuclear missile force?

The Russians are experiencing major problems with their sea-based nuclear deterrent:

The Russian Navy has made a mess of its SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs) force and has done slightly better developing new SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile). This is all about what kind of SSBN force Russia will have in the future and what those SSBNs will be capable of. At the moment the answers seem to be “diminished” and “not much”.

Their Soviet-era SSBNs work. But they are going to be too old to go to sea safely.

The new Borei-class SSBNs are having troubles because the state of Russia's nuclear weapons industry has been pretty bad:

Despite initial failures the government insisted that the Bulava SLBM be made to work, no matter what it takes. Many Russian officials believed that the root of all these problems was the flight of so many skilled engineers and scientists from Russian defense industries after the Soviet Union collapsed (and defense orders promptly dropped over 90 percent). The smart people quickly found lucrative jobs in other industries, and there has been little new blood in the last two decades. The same thing happened on the manufacturing end. During the Soviet period defense industries had the cash and fringe benefits to attract the most skilled manufacturing staff. No more. And the dismal Bulava test performance is yet another result of this brain drain.

The Russians are resigned to having these missiles even though they probably will work only half the time.

And they will be based in the east rather than the northwest as the Soviets based their SSBNs with America as the primary target. In the east they can reach America and China.

The Russians need these long-range missiles to work because they allow Russia to defend "bastions" in coastal waters against enemy anti-submarine forces (ASW) that must operate close to Russia against land-based air and short-range naval assets.

With shorter ranged SSBNs, you have to fight your way through enemy ASW forces to get close enough to launch. So problems with their new missile subs are a problem for a survivable Russian nuclear deterrent.

If your SSBNs are as vulnerable as silo-based land missiles are (because of increased accuracy of  incoming rounds at an identifiable land target), you have a problem of deterring an enemy. And in fact you get dangerously close to having a negative deterrent by encouraging your enemy to attempt a disarming first strike to knock our your vulnerable missiles.

The Russians also have a problem with ICBM reliability, as I noted some time ago (quoting Strategypage):

While Russia got the new Topol M ICBM into service since 1991, this was a Cold War era project, meant to replace the older, and much less effective and reliable ICBMs. While Russia has several thousand nuclear warheads, most are undeliverable because of the post-Cold War military meltdown. In fact, they can launch only a few hundred warheads, with any assurance that these will land anywhere near where they are aimed.

That bolstered my impression that the Russians can't afford to maintain their huge nuclear arsenal. Honestly, that's been my impression given the state of the Russian military that has pockets of excellence and a slice of adequate military power resting on top of a far larger portion of their military that shouldn't be sent to control a Pussy Riot concert let alone combat.

As I noted in this post, I wasn't too eager to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Russia because I figured their deterrent was going to deteriorate with or without a treaty. A treaty was really a gift to Russia to save them the futile expense of trying to keep all their nukes in place, and so we should have gotten concessions for that gift.

That's one reason I wasn't overly upset that the New START treaty didn't cover Russian shorter-range nukes (especially if the Russians reduced general hostility to America). Russian problems with their longer range missiles would erode their arsenal, and in need of a nuclear deterrent, Russia would have to emphasize simpler shorter-range missiles that can't reach America.

Britain, France, and China all have missiles that can reach Russia as a partial compensation for America's weakness in the shorter-range categories.

And the Russian violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty that limits development of shorter-range nukes that Russia can still build (another note of this here)--because they are simpler and give more bang for the ruble--may indicate just how bad Russia's longer range missiles ("strategic"--although if you are within range of a short-range "theater" or even "tactical" nuke, you won't feel the nuance of the distinctions based on the US-USSR situation) are and will be.

So Russia's long-range missiles are eroding but they will likely be a deterrent because we can't really know how reliable they are and just thinking a 50% success rate exists still means that is a lethal threat.

But Russia, which will know the real state of their nukes (one assumes), isn't counting on that uncertainty and seems to be emphasizing shorter-range missiles that are more reliable because they are simpler. And relying on those weapons to the point of violating the INF treaty.

Well, Putin is relying on shorter-range nukes and idle boasts:

Russia's new weapons, including an array of new nuclear systems, will ensure the country's security for decades to come, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday at a meeting with top military brass.

Which probably means that Russia's strategic missiles really are fading away.