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Putin’s Secret ‘Weapon’: Russia Knows America Is Scared of a Nuclear War

Russia Sarmat ICBM
Credit: Vitaly V. Kuzmin Copyright: CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Russia’s nuclear threats in support of his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine are clearly an exercise in nuclear blackmail. Putin’s recent extreme, and in some cases unprecedentednuclear threats have changed attitudes toward nuclear deterrence in a number of NATO states; unfortunately, the Biden administration has gone in the opposite direction. The Biden administration did not increase our nuclear alert status (and, hence, reduce the vulnerability of our nuclear forces) in response to Putin’s aggression, nuclear war threats and his declaration of a nuclear “special combat duty alert.” Moreover, in its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, it weakened the U.S. nuclear deterrent and nuclear declaratory policy.

U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees respectively wrote, “…this revised policy seems to be little more than a rehash of the Obama administration’s approach.” (Emphasis in the original). Their reference to the “Obama administration’s approach” is to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review report. This, of course, was years before Putin came out of the closet and began his aggression against Ukraine and threats to NATO nations.

Perhaps the two weakest nations in NATO regarding Russia are France and Germany. Yet both of them have taken actions to enhance NATO’s nuclear deterrent in response to Putin’s aggression and threats. Conversely, the Biden administration has not taken any action to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear deterrent forces to a pre-emptive nuclear strike. (Former Chief of the Russian General Staff General of the Army Yuriy Baluyevskiy, has stated that the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”) The Biden administration did nothing effective to deter the Russian invasion of Ukraine and their massive bombardments of civilians. Additionally, it has imposed restrictions on Ukrainian use of U.S. weapons that may ultimately result in a Russian victory. Furthermore, its constant talk about the risk of World War III has actually enhanced the effectiveness of Putin’s numerous nuclear threats.

After France’s Foreign Minister reminded Putin that NATO is a nuclear alliance, France, for the first time since 1981, deployed more than one of its nuclear ballistic missile submarines to sea at one time – indeed, three submarines. In addition, France put its aircraft carrier, which is part of its nuclear deterrent, under NATO command. This is essentially what we would call generated alert. France also tested its supersonic nuclear cruise missile. It sent a clear message to Russia during a period of unusual tensions in Europe. The Biden administration did the opposite, taking no action to enhance the survivability of our deterrent and cancelled routine ICBM tests. Indeed, it also delayed a conventional hypersonic missile test. In stark contrast to the U.S., France is developing a nuclear “hypersonic cruise missile with a range expected to exceed 1,000 kilometers.” The U.S. is not developing a nuclear-armed hypersonic missile.

Germany has the distinction of having both one of the weakest policies toward Russia and nuclear deterrence in NATO. Yet, in response to the 2022 Russian attack on Ukraine, Germany announced a major increase in defense spending and the procurement of 35 F-35s as nuclear bombers. Germany’s Defense Minister stated, “There is only one response to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression: unity within NATO and a credible deterrent.” This represents quite a change in priorities. In 2018, Germany fired the head of its Air Force for supporting the procurement of the F-35. After Putin’s nuclear threats and his invasion of Ukraine, the German government suddenly became interested in nuclear deterrence and military effectiveness. Again, the Biden administration has done essentially the reverse, cutting back on the planned Trump administration’s defense program by not even taking into account inflation and Ukraine and is in the process of weakening our nuclear deterrent.

Britain actually began its reaction to Putin’s aggression and his nuclear threats in 2021. In an obvious reference to Russia and its nuclear capability, the U.K. Ministry of Defense noted the development of a “range of technological and doctrinal threats” and announced that the U.K. was increasing its self-imposed limit on the number of its nuclear warheads to up to 260, and increase of over 40%.

Thus, the Biden administration has the distinction of being the only NATO nuclear state to announce what amounts to a weakening of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and overall defense posture after the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has not released an unclassified version or even a detailed fact sheet concerning the conclusions of its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review. However, a defense official, in a background briefing, confirmed the cancellation of the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile program. This is a terrible decision that reportedly will be reversed by the Congress. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told Congress that he supports the missile. STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard commented that in light of the “…current situation in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory convinces me a deterrence and assurance gap exists.” He went on, “To address this gap, a low-yield, non-ballistic capability to deter and respond without visible generation is necessary to provide a persistent, survivable, regional capability to deter adversaries, assure allies, provide flexible options, as well as complement existing capabilities. I believe a capability with these attributes should be re-examined in the near future.” The Commander of the U.S.’ European Command General Tod Wolters, in Congressional testimony, also told the lawmakers that he supports the nuclear SLCM.

To have the top military leadership of the nation break with the White House on a nuclear issue is unprecedented and clear evidence of how irresponsible the decision is. The only U.S. nuclear cruise missile is the AGM-86B nuclear ALCM which is 40 years old, pre-stealth, pre-precision/near precision accuracy and has seriously eroded reliability. Indeed, the Air Force explained the 1980s decision to develop and deploy the AGM-129 stealth cruise missile on the grounds that, “In 1982 the Air Force began studies for a new cruise missile with stealth characteristics after it became clear that the AGM-86B would soon be too easy to detect by future air defense systems.” The elimination of the AGM-129 ranks up there with the most irresponsible U.S. nuclear deterrence decisions ever made.

The decision to terminate the nuclear SLBM program will be of particular concern to Japan. As far back as 1965, Japan told the U.S. that, “We expect the United States to retaliate immediately using nuclear weapons” if there is a war with China. Japan preferred the strikes to be launched from the sea.

One of the worst decisions in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review is the termination of funding for the B83 bomb. This decision is also opposed by Admiral Richard and General erdxcWolters. The B83 bomb is our highest yield nuclear weapon and the best weapon against many types of very hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs). Since the Congress killed the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) program during the George W. Bush administration, the B83 is apparently the best weapon against HDBTs built in hard rock areas. We are also losing the B61 Mod 11 earth penetrator weapon. The RNEP was supposed to replace it.

Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, put enormous resources into assuring the survival of the Russian leadership. Hard and deeply buried facilities are very difficult to destroy. The Soviet-era deep underground bunkers have enormous survivability. In 2012, Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Jr, then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated, “Russia is upgrading massive underground facilities that provide command and control of its strategic nuclear forces as well as modernizing strategic nuclear forces as another top priority.” President Putin said that the existing Russian systems “are in a good state.” In 2014, the Chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, Lieutenant General Andrey Kartapolov, said the newly operational National Defense Management Center in Moscow was safe from a nuclear strike.

In August 2016, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is building large numbers of underground nuclear command bunkers in the latest sign Moscow is moving ahead with a major strategic forces modernization program.” If the Russians are building new leadership bunkers they will obviously be more survivable than the Soviet-era facilities. The new Russian facilities, “will have a very high safety margin” against nuclear attack, according to President Putin. Putin places high value on his own hide. Assuring the survival of President Putin by eliminating our most effective weapons against his bunkers, could impact his decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. The Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, is not funding life extension of our two most effective weapons against hard and deeply buried targets, the B61 Mod11 earth penetrator and the B83 high-yield nuclear bomb.

According to Dr. John Harvey who served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs in the Obama administration (and in senior nuclear weapons related positions in previous administrations), “The Biden NPR’s approach to hedging is still an open question—I have not read the classified NPR document but, based on rumint, I have concern[s] that the Biden team may have understated the importance of the hedge.” This is quite alarming because the U,.S. ability to “hedge” by increasing the number of its deployed nuclear weapons rapidly has seriously eroded since it was announced by the Clinton administration in 1994. Because of its withdrawal provision, the New START Treaty delays for six months even the start of any significant increase in the number of our ballistic missile warheads.

According to STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard, “…two-thirds of those [U.S. nuclear] weapons are ‘operationally unavailable’ because of treaty constraints, such as provisions of the New START treaty with Russia.” Thus, the Biden administration’s ill-advised decision to extend the seriously flawed New START Treaty without changes (and apparently without any real analysis), a reversal of the Trump administration’s policy, reduced the benefits of the U.S. modernization program by two-thirds.

The 2006 decision to eliminate the AGM-129 stealth cruise missile also eliminated most of the older U.S. AGM-86B nuclear ALCMs, reducing the inventory to 528 weapons. The excess missiles were actually destroyed. This is actually the opposite of what would hedge against unexpected adversary threat levels. These decisions were made on the basis of the recommendation of a STRATCOM Commander who, after his retirement, in 2012 authored a report saying Russia was not even among the top 20 threats to the U.S. and who later received a Presidential pardon after being “…charged with making false statements during a probe into disclosure of classified information.” Since this was 16 years ago, the ALCM inventory must have been significantly reduced by routine flight testing and the replacement LSRO missile will not be available until early 2030s. The effect of these decisions has been to reduce our rapid upload capability of the bomber force from about 2,000 weapons to no more than a few hundred.

Since the decimation of the U.S. hedge capability with bomber weapons is very old news, what Dr. Harvey is concerned about is clearly a similar result involving U.S. ballistic missile capability.

Since the Biden administration revealed the total U.S. active and inactive nuclear stockpile is only 3,750 warheads, the total U.S. hedge capability has to be less than that. What Dr. Harvey is apparently suggesting is that the Biden administration will not run enough of these warheads through the life extension programs to maintain the current arguably inadequate hedge capability. The 3,750 warheads is less than the lowest credible estimates of the current Russian nuclear stockpile which is growing. Moreover, “Russia has improved and expanded its production complex, which has the capacity to process thousands of warheads annually.” In addition, China is engaged in a massive increase of its nuclear capability. Hence, there is even more need and urgency for a hedge capability.

In March 2022, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Scott Berrier said Putin has “…invested in tactical nuclear weapons….I believe that he thinks that [these niche weapons] gives him an asymmetric advantage.” He also observed, “As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.” We do not know whether Putin will decide to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. His low opinion of President Biden, his health problems and the lack of any real effort to deter the use of nuclear weapons by the Biden administration means such an eventuality could happen. The only effort by President Biden to make a real threat concerning Russian use of WMD was immediately walked by the White House and was based on a complete misunderstanding by the President concerning what our capabilities actually are.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Christopher Bort emphasizes, “Putin also knows that in the back of his opponents’ minds lurks a fear of escalation to nuclear conflict, which limits their willingness to challenge him militarily.” Lieutenant General (ret.) Henry Obering III and Ambassador Robert Joseph have pointed out that Putin’s nuclear threats have “…barred vital weapons and targeting assistance [to Ukraine] that it believed would risk escalation to “World War III.”

The Biden administration seems terrified about the idea of threatening Russia. Without credible threats (declaratory policy) and credible capability to implement these threats there is no credible deterrence. The Biden administration has turned all of Russia into a sanctuary by restricting the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to attack Russian territory. Russia can apply massive firepower against Ukraine without fear of the consequences. This is happening every day. If Putin or his successor were to attack NATO, the Biden administration would probably fail to launch strikes against Russian territory because of its fear of escalation. Its attitudes toward deterrence appear based on some unstated view concerning the effectiveness of some form of Minimum Deterrence.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served as Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

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