Almost ignored by the mainstream U.S. media, the strategic nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia has revived – with spending and weapons development at an intensity unseen since the days of the SS-18 and Pershing II deployments a quarter of a century ago.
On Nov. 17, as reported by United Press International, the U.S. Navy successfully carried out its most ambitious and successful test yet of an anti-ballistic missile interceptor launched from an Aegis class cruiser in the Pacific Ocean. The success of the test contrasted sharply with the enormous delays, cost over-runs and major test failures that have plagued the land-based anti-missile technology deployed by the Missile Defense Agency around Fort Greely, Alaska.
But meanwhile, Russia continues to push ahead with its most massive intercontinental ballistic missile testing and upgrading program since the collapse of communism.
Flush with oil export revenues, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pouring resources into his Strategic Missile Forces to upgrade the land-mobile SS-27 Topol-M and submarine-launched Bulova ICBMs and make them maneuverable and impervious to America’s still untried new anti-missile defense systems.
“You would think the Cold War never ended,” analyst James Hackett wrote in the Washington Times Nov. 14.
This week, the Russian Space Troops Force announced that it and the Strategic Missile Forces had successfully test-launched another Topol missile (designated by the Russians as RS-12M) from the high security Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia’s northern Arkhangelsk Region.
“The missile was launched from an autonomous launch station. The purpose of the launch is to confirm the flight, technical and operation characteristics of the mobile ground-based Topol missile complex so that its service life can be extended to 20 years,” Aleksey Kuznetsov, the head of the Space Troops’ press service, told the Interfax news agency. He said that the launch went smoothly and proceeded as planned.
The test was just the latest in a massive, ambitious and so far generally successfully series of tests previously reported by UPI.
Hackett noted that the SS-27 Topol is the strategic centerpiece of the rapidly upgrading Russian strategic nuclear arsenal. “The mobile version, harder to find and target, will be deployed beginning next year,” he wrote. “A rapid-acceleration, solid-fuel missile, it will be difficult to intercept in the boost phase and the maneuvering warhead will make it hard to stop thereafter.”
British analyst Duncan Lamont wrote in an executive overview to the new edition of Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems in November that the upgraded Topol-Ms and Bulavas now being tested are “armed with some sort of hypersonic payload which would be capable of maneuvering in its midcourse and terminal phase, and thereby evading the sort of ground-based, midcourse ballistic missile defenses currently being fielded in Alaska and California.”
“A new class of ballistic missiles is emerging, now being called ‘quasi- or semi-‘ ballistic missiles. These are missiles that can maneuver during the boost, mid-course, and the terminal phases of flight,” Lennox wrote.
Submarine-launched missiles, like the Bulova SRBM “have very depressed trajectories, possibly as low as 24 miles altitude for a missile with a range of 180 to 240 miles. The trajectory shape is flat, but with the ability to change direction across track as well as to increase or decrease the range. This will make it more difficult for any defensive system to forecast the impact point,” Lennox wrote.
Russia already has 46 Topols deployed in silos but that is only the tip of its strategic nuclear missile iceberg. Hackett writes that the Kremlin plans to upgrade all of them with three maneuvering warheads each, and to replace all its existing, road-mobile SS-25s with road-mobile Topols.
Money will not be a problem. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced last month a $1.8 billion increase in the Strategic Missile Forces budget to pay for the upgrades.
Hackett notes correctly that the only currently feasible way, even theoretically, to develop missile defenses against the dramatically upgraded Bulavas and Topols would be to pre-position space-based anti-ballistic missile interceptors in orbit. Russian analysts agree with this conclusion.
But of course, it would be much more expensive and technically demanding for the United States to add a space-based interceptor program to its current, vastly over-budget and behind schedule ABM programs at a time of unprecedented federal deficits. When the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has failed in two of its last three attempts to get even the basic engine of a ground-based ABM interceptor to ignite for take-off, the sheer engineering challenge of deploying a fleet of space-based interceptors that could intercept dozens of Topol Ms or Bulavas appears insurmountable.
Therefore, for all the scores of billions of dollars that have already been poured into ABM defense, the physics and engineering advantages on the High Frontier still lie overwhelmingly with the offensive systems. A quarter century after Ronald Reagan unveiled his “Star Wars” vision of an effective anti-ballistic missile space defense, the world remains locked in the straitjacket of Mutually Assured Destruction theory as its only viable deterrent against nuclear war.
The Shape of Things to Come