United States national missile defense and limited use of nuclear weapons: overstatements and genuine threats

At XIV session of the Valdai Discussion Club, a reporter of the New Defense Order Strategy magazine talked to Michael Kofman, a Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center and an analyst at CNA’s Center for Naval Analyses.

– The Russian Ministry of Defense authorities have recently been making frequent statements that the deployment of USA National Missile Defense is a direct threat to Russian nuclear strategic forces, furthermore – they claim that the number of American anti-ballistic missiles will exceed the number of Russian nuclear warheads by 2022. Is there really such a threat, in your opinion?

– I have absolutely no idea where these speculations on the military capability of American missile defense are coming from, because, as far as I understand, the National Military Strategy containing plans on what contracts will be made in future and reviews on technologies for the upcoming 20–30 years is just being formed this year. That is, the General Staff of Russian Armed forces apparently knows our plans and contracts before the US can put them together. The Strategy is still being worked on and nobody has reviewed and signed it yet. For this reason, I consider these statements a little tongue-in-cheek. More importantly, most of the anti-missile defense systems do not pose a threat to Russian strategic nuclear forces.

– They typically focus on the development of Aegis naval ballistic missile defense system and the production of a new modification of the SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor.

– Well, then any person may claim that every S-300V4 anti-aircraft missile unit is the Russian missile defense system. Let’s then technically count every ABM – and every launcher has four of them – and then compare how many such ABMs (or like that) are there in Russia, compared to the amount of American strategic nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles. So it’s rather strange to take the tactical destroyer-based Aegis anti-aircraft/missile defense system into account.

– It’s true, usually they only name the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) as a system, capable of intercepting the ICBMs.

– There are doubts regarding the capability of this system to shoot even one North Korean ballistic missile down [1]. Frankly speaking, the system still needs to go down a long development path. I’ve already taken part in many conferences, where this system is announced as one having absolutely unbelievable characteristics. I’ve personally seen Valery Gerasimov and other Russian military talking about how awesome the US Strategic Missile Defense is, when actually we can only dream of its operational capability.

– Let’s switch to another sensitive issue – the development of high-precision low-yield nuclear weapons. Is this process really an emerging trend and in what ways can such weaponry be used?

– In fact, it’s not the nuclear weapons that become high-precision, but weaponry in general gets highly precise. Meaning, the nuclear warhead is simply installed onto a high-precision nuclear delivery vehicle. With various technologies in development, the abovementioned ballistic missiles have become much more precise. As a result of this process, that took several decades, the explosion yield of nuclear warheads decreased continually, because with a high strike accuracy, you don’t need warheads with a yield of several megatons.

Another issue is how you can use high-precision nuclear weaponry with a low-yield subkiloton warhead, with an explosion yield of lower than one thousand tons in TNT equivalent. Such weaponry exists, for instance, the only nuclear air bomb in the U.S. arsenal, B-61, has a variable yield – starting with values of many kilotons to lower than a kiloton. The use of such nuclear weapons was debated a lot in the early 2000s by George W. Bush Administration during his first term. At that time they discussed such kinds of weapons as Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator – the idea was to penetrate a bunker (for example as a part of the fight against the Iranian nuclear program) and completely destroy it from inside with a micro nuclear warhead.

– The military and political circles in the USA repeatedly discuss the actual, limited use of high-precision tactical nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Do you think this may disrupt the existing international security system?

– Technically, this strategy is an approach Russia has applied since the 1990s. That is, we’re talking about a containment strategy that had nuclear weapons in its basis because Russia’s conventional military efficiency has been virtually depleted since the fall of the USSR. For this reason, both its Russian National Defense strategy and its military doctrine state quite clearly that the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is allowed in cases of threats to Russia’s sovereignty. This formula has kept changing slightly over the years, but it always contains this strategic ambiguity.

In addition, there are parts of different establishments – both in Russia and the USA, that are very much interested in further development of nuclear weaponry, in finding new tasks and roles for it. Firstly, this is used as a response to other nuclear states that also develop such weapons. I believe Russia is one of them. Secondly, this is a search for rethinking the ways when nuclear weapons can be used not just as a nuclear deterrence, but also as effective means against most challenges related to conventional weapons. I believe this is very dangerous from the standpoint of political and international standards, because the non-use of nuclear weapons standards, established after the WWII are very important and you cannot abandon them this fast due to switching to strategies and doctrines that depict low-scale or ultra-restricted use of nuclear weapons.

– Can the development of high-precision low-yield nuclear weapons, combined with the concepts of its actual use in local or regional conflicts, lead to further proliferation of nuclear weapons? Because the minor players will want even more protection from a nuclear attack, by creating their own nuclear shield.

– It is not so easy to obtain protection against nuclear weapons, because the creation of a nuclear bomb, which is a difficult technical procedure, despite its “antiquity”, is not equal to the creation of nuclear deterrence from another nuclear state. Even North Korea has nuclear weapons for a long time and we know it. However, they do not have any nuclear deterrence system, despite works on its development.

I don’t think there is a direct influence of this process on nuclear weapons proliferation, but there’s definitely an influence on the issues of strategic stability and stability during crises. The expansion of tactical nuclear weapons leads to an increase in chances of its use – simply just because of its availability.

[1] The GMD system was used to perform 19 test launches to intercept ballistic missiles, where 10 (52.6 %) were successful. The exercises were performed in very simple conditions, when the launch time and place of a target missile along with its characteristics and trajectory were known in advance (https://www.wired.com/2017/05/interceptor-missile-defense-test/). To hit an intercontinental ballistic warhead with a high probability (about 8090%), you need to launch at least 4 interceptors, whereas only 36 of them were deployed. Regardless, these are numbers, based on simplified tests.

Interviewed by Leonid Nersisyan, Military and Technical Cooperation Editor-in-Chief of the New Defence Order Strategy magazine