The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

More Missile Shield Misunderstandings

As a kind of appendix to the previous post regarding Charles Krauthammer’s woolly and often wantonly disingenuous Washington Post column on Obama’s missile shield stance, the Parallax Brief would like to explain just why Russia is concerned about the possibility of a US missile shield in Europe.

An argument the Parallax Brief often hears against Russia’s view of the missile shield as a threat is “what use are the ten interceptors against Russia’s thousands of missiles?” To a certain extent, that’s true: a few interceptor missiles as part of a US missile shield would be useless against a Russian first strike.

However, that’s not the issue. As far as the Parallax Brief can deduce, Russia is not concerned about its ability to perpetrate a first strike, but its ability to offer a credible deterrent against one.

To understand this, we need a better understanding of the various options available to the US and Russia in a potential nuclear war.

There are two kinds of nuclear strike, countervalue and counterforce. Countervalue is perhaps the kind of attack we most associate with nuclear war: a strike against a nation’s industrial, commercial and transport infrastructure, as well as against population – in short an attack against a nation’s cities and its very existence.

However, it is clear that a countervalue attack against, for instance, Russia’s cities, would be suicide because it would still have its missiles to sling back the other way and devastate the attacking country. And this is the central tenant of the infamous mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine.

A first strike, therefore, is most likely to be counterforce, which seeks to circumvent MAD by attacking a nation’s missile silos, mobile launchers, submarine pens, bomber bases and airfields, as well as command and control facilities and persons, and thereby hobbling its ability to strike back.

This is the balance the Russian government believes will be upset by the missile shield: not ten interceptors against thousands of Russian missiles streaking toward their targets on a first strike, but the shield against what is left of the Russian arsenal after a surprise counterforce first strike.

In this sense, the missile shield has a worrying forbearer: the nuclear missile submarine.

When the missile sub was first introduced in the early 1960s, it was seen as the guarantor of MAD. It was thought that because the submarines were hard to detect and destroy, that they could guarantee counterstrike capability.

In practice, however, the opposite was true. Because the submarines could close the distance between the launch and target by sneaking close to the enemy’s coast, they raised the spectre of a countervalue strike that could disable an enemy before it had time to react. Instead of 30 minutes between launch from, say, the Krasnoyarsk missile fields to impact on Central Park, a submarine could ghost onto the US continental self and turn the Capitol into four meter deep radioactive glass within three minutes of launch. Too little time for decision makers to react before being vapourised; likely too little time to launch missiles before they are destroyed in their silos. Potentially, game over.

And the missile shield can alter the balance of terror likewise.

The 12 US Ohio submarines carry between them approximately 336 Trident II missiles, which are accurate enough to be considered a first strike weapon. Each weapon can potentially carry eight multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, each with a warhead yielding 300-474 kilotons.

Each of the 20 US B2 Spirit stealth bombers can deliver 16 B83 nuclear bombs, which can yield anywhere from the low kiloton range to over 1.2 megatons.

Both delivery platforms are near undetectable and can destroy targets with little or no warning.

In these circumstances, it is clear that what Russia is concerned about is whether a missile shield makes a first strike viable by mopping up the few missiles not destroyed in a US first strike.

Of course, a US sneak attack using stealth bombers and Ohio subs is not likely, but the doctrine of mutually assured destruction is potentially skewered by the missile shield, which should concern us all.

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Filed under: Defence, Foreign policy, Russia, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. darussophile says:

    Very true and something the Western commentariat studiously avoids mentioning. More info here:

    http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060301faessay85204/keir-a-lieber-daryl-g-press/the-rise-of-u-s-nuclear-primacy.html

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