Military Review

The Dangerous Future of US Strategic Forces (PetroleumWorld, Venezuela)


The United States of America is today in a very interesting position in the field of international politics. If their non-nuclear military forces are unmatched, the once powerful strategic nuclear deterrent potential of the United States, consisting of nuclear forces and their infrastructure, gradually weakens.

With pain we have to admit that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington’s interest in strategic forces began to fade. Over the past two decades, the United States has not produced a single nuclear weapon, and their intercontinental ballistic missile forces and nuclear infrastructure are on the verge of depletion, given the scale of current tasks. The problems that it was impossible to think about during the Cold War times became commonplace. Such a recession is unprecedented, and it will have enormous strategic implications for American power in the coming years.

To understand this state of affairs is important for a number of reasons. First, conventional wisdom says that the strategic forces and infrastructure of the United States are strong and will retain their strength in the future. In fact, the opposite is true. America’s nuclear potential is currently sufficient, but it is declining in all directions, from the nuclear warheads themselves and the missiles delivering them to the target, to the scientists and engineers who create them. There are serious shortcomings in the nuclear arsenal that will be felt in the coming years. Because of them, US strategic nuclear forces may not be able to meet future combat requirements.

Secondly, if this problem is not solved, both the allies and the opponents of the United States will begin to doubt the reliability of the active forces of nuclear deterrence. The weak potential of the active nuclear deterrent forces increases the chances for the emergence of aggression and further limits the ability of Washington to defend the interests of the United States against its enemies, who for the first time stories may be better equipped with nuclear weaponsthan the United States.

Third, if the reliability of America’s strategic nuclear deterrent is questioned, the United States itself will create an incentive for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Under such conditions, it is quite reasonable to assume that many states currently protected by US commitments on active nuclear deterrence, such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea, will be forced to build nuclear forces themselves.

The bear is back

While the United States faces significant challenges in the area of ​​strategic forces, and is essentially the only country unable to produce new nuclear weapons, the remaining nuclear states — China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia — Do not go on such a 'nuclear holiday'. As we noted recently at The National Interest, the strategic nuclear balance has changed markedly in recent years, and not at all in favor of Washington (1).

Although China's nuclear modernization is important, and this issue will acquire ever-growing importance, in the framework of our discussion, it would be advisable to think about what Russia seeks in this area. It is caused by the fact that, firstly, the Chinese modernization of nuclear forces is proceeding, albeit correctly, but slowly, and its successes are very modest. The Chinese SSBN (atomic submarine with ballistic missiles) "Xia", for example, never went on a nuclear patrol. Secondly, and more importantly, we inevitably come to the conclusion that Washington did pass the baton to the strategic nuclear race to Moscow.

Simply put, Russia is creating a twenty-first century nuclear arsenal, but the United States does not. If the United States does not change course and does not take the necessary steps to modernize its arsenal, then Russia will secure strategic domination for itself by receiving the appropriate political dividends.

We do not say that the Russian nuclear potential is impeccable. No, it is not. There are serious flaws in the management of Russian nuclear forces, especially when it comes to intelligence, observation and gathering information about targets. However, over time, these shortcomings can be eliminated. In fact, the Russians are already taking steps in this direction, thanks to certain improvements in their strategic and conventional forces.

Beginning with the 1999 year, the Russians annually conduct strategic forces exercises, which in their scale correspond to what happened during the Cold War. This is much more significant than what the United States is doing in this area. The highest echelons of state power take part in Russian exercises. During major exercises in 2005, President Vladimir Putin personally flew aboard the Tu-160 bomber, which launched four X-555 long-range cruise missiles. There is no doubt that the Russian leadership is determined to create and maintain a modernized nuclear arsenal. The most convincing proof of this is the scale of the Russian efforts to modernize.

The main types of Russian strategic nuclear weapons

Modernization programs

1. Development of MBR RS-24 with separable warheads (MF) for individual targeting

2. Deployment of a mine-based ICBM "Topol-M"

3. Mobile Topol-M ICBMs

4. Development of ICBMs with separable warheads based on the Bulava

5. Launching the fourth generation nuclear submarine cruiser

6. Adoption of a sea-based ballistic missile "Bulava"

7. Adoption of a long-range cruise missile

8. Continuation of the production of Tu-160

9. Electromagnetic Weapon Upgrade

Russia seriously began to modernize its strategic forces in the current decade. Unlike the United States, it modernizes each of the components of its nuclear triad, significantly changes its nuclear doctrine and continues to create new types of nuclear weapons. In other words, the break in strategic nuclear construction in Russia, which was observed in the 90s, ended about 10 years ago with the arrival of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. This construction continues to this day under the leadership of Putin's protege Dmitry Medvedev.

Strategic long aviation has never been the basis of the Russian nuclear triad, but the modernization of its bombers, nevertheless, is proceeding at a very steady pace. Every three years, the Russian Air Force will take into service two strategic bombers, as told by the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, General Vladimir Mikhailov (2) (former commander-in-chief. He commanded the Air Force until 2007 - approx. Transl.). In strategic aviation, Russia has three types of bombers: Tu-160 (Blackjack in NATO classification), Tu-22 (Blinder) and Tu-95 (Bear). All newly commissioned bombers are the Tu-160.

Like bombers, submarines in the Russian nuclear forces have always played the second fiddle. Nevertheless, substantial modernization is also being carried out in this element of the nuclear triad. It began with the destruction of the rudimentary remnants of the Soviet underwater fleet nuclear submarines. By the beginning of 2007, Russia had written off 148 of the 197 Soviet-built submarines. It annually dismantles and disarms eighteen nuclear submarines. Moscow hopes that by 2010 it will be able to decommission all Soviet-era submarines. (3)

Russia is also making progress in the development of sea-based ballistic missiles. In June, 2007, she successfully tested her new missile, the Bulava, launched from a submarine. This happened after a series of unsuccessful launches that lasted the entire 2006 year. The Russian leadership is still firmly committed to bring the development of this system to a successful conclusion, despite an unsuccessful launch during the last tests of the Bulava (December 2008 of the year). Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in January 2009 that the Bulava tests will continue. (4) After adopting the Bulava into service, this missile (this is a slightly modified version of the new Topol-M ICBM) will equip three Borei-class nuclear missile carriers. The power of a nuclear warhead missile is 500 kilotons, plus false targets. It has the maneuverability of unknown efficiency, and is able to overcome the elements of the American missile defense system.

As in the days of the Soviet Union, the basis of Russian strategic nuclear forces are intercontinental ballistic missiles. The P-36M missiles (SS-18 in the NATO classification) will remain in service until the 2016 year. In addition, Russia developed and built silo-based Topol-M missiles (SS-27 in the NATO classification). Now she has 40 of such missiles, and soon 34 will appear. A mobile version of the missiles transported on the roads on a tractor is also being developed. By the year 2015, Russia is expected to have their 50. (5) In addition to this, in May and December of 2007, Russia conducted a test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile with a PCG-RS-24. This rocket, which has not yet received the name according to the NATO classification, will replace the old models of the RS-2050 Satan and SS-20 (SS-18 Stiletto) by 18 in the year.

There are reports that Russia is working on the creation of a new ICBM on liquid fuel, which will be equipped with ten warheads, having a payload of four tons. (6) Thus, it will far surpass its closest American competitors - the Minuteman and Trident II missiles. Also, with regard to possible types of weapons, the Russians are talking about the development of a supersonic planning aircraft that can quickly reach distant continents, having the ability to penetrate American missile defense systems. (7)

The Russians are also upgrading their nuclear warheads with low-power charges, which are used for operational and tactical purposes. Moscow is developing low-precision high-precision nuclear weapons, which are in the TNT equivalent from a few dozen to 100 tons, as well as a “clean” warhead of deep penetration into the ground. At the same time, Congress abolished new low-power nuclear weapons programs, such as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). (8)

Moscow is also interested in weapons with an electromagnetic pulse. It is believed that it has significant capabilities in this area, which allows it to use for its own benefit the American dependence on its inadequately protected electronics at military and key civilian facilities. The scenario with the use of such weapons may seem far-fetched, but it is quite plausible - and will have disastrous consequences if it is used. Brian Kennedy of the Claremont Institute recently wrote the following in the Wall Street Journal:

The gamma rays produced by the explosion, due to the Compton effect, generate three types of destructive electromagnetic impulses that completely damage household appliances and electronics, the electronics of some cars, and, most importantly, hundreds of large transformers that distribute electricity throughout the US . All of our lighting, refrigerators, pumping stations, televisions, and radios will stop working. We will have no connection, no opportunity to provide 300 with millions of Americans with water and food. (9)

Russia has the world's largest military-industrial complex for the production of nuclear weapons. It has two facilities for the assembly of nuclear weapons and one plant for the production of charges of plutonium and uranium. Russia says it has enough power to dismantle 2000 nuclear charges a year. This is equal to its technical capabilities for producing approximately the same number of warheads. The United States, meanwhile, has not developed and does not produce any new warheads since 1989. In an emergency, the United States will be able to produce around 40 warheads per year at TA-55 Los Alamos. In accordance with existing plans today, the US will receive large facilities for the production of charges for nuclear weapons no earlier than 2023. Russian testing facilities require a minimum of time to prepare for conducting nuclear tests; Russia also recognizes that it is conducting a large-scale program of hydrodynamic experiments, or "subcritical" nuclear explosions, the power of which the TNT equivalent is negligible, making up the 0,1 gram.

From the analysis made, it becomes quite clear that the Russian leadership regards the modernization of strategic nuclear weapons as a priority task. Russia, unlike other countries, recognizes that nuclear forces remain an important source of strategic power for it, and for this reason it will continue to be engaged in the production of the most advanced nuclear weapons in the world. Nuclear infrastructure in Russia is also one of the most advanced and combat-ready on our planet. Given this potential, as well as Russia's weaknesses in the field of conventional weapons, it is not surprising that it has the lowest threshold for the use of nuclear weapons among all nuclear powers. In January, 2008, Yuri Baluyevsky, then the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, openly and in great detail revealed the details of this threshold level:

We are not going to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary that all our partners in the world community clearly understand that, in order to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, the armed forces will be used, including, preventively, including using nuclear weapons. (10)

Remark Baluyevsky about the preventive use of nuclear weapons shows how great importance Russia attaches to its nuclear forces and means. In the coming decades, nuclear weapons and strike strategic forces will have the highest priority in the Russian Federation in terms of technical support, services and supplies.

Update program

Unlike Moscow, in Washington, nuclear weapons faded into the background both for statesmen and politicians, and for the military leadership. If the US nuclear forces were a block of shares, their price would have collapsed back in the 90s, and their value would now be at a record low. However, nuclear modernization is a non-negotiable necessity and imperative if the United States wants to pursue ambitious goals in the future, including ensuring compliance with its obligations in the field of active nuclear deterrence to its allies, such as Japan and South Korea. Taking into account the time required for the design and development of all these complex systems, as well as the time for their adoption into the composition of the existing forces, the modernization should be started immediately.

If we use the 2009 year as the reference point, we will see that the life span of the operating systems of the nuclear triad is 39 years for Minuteman III, 19 years for boat Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles, 48 years for bomber B-52H, 12 years for bomber B-2 and 28 years for Ohio-class nuclear submarines. The aging of these strategic systems, as well as the increase in the cost of their maintenance and servicing, greatly contributed to the rapid reduction that has been carried out in the US nuclear forces since the 2001 year. As part of these actions, an 18-percent reduction in intercontinental ballistic missiles, an 63-percent reduction in the number of bombers in service, and an almost 25-percent reduction in the fleet of nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles on board were made. (11)

The first step to end the recession is to modernize the American forces of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Today, these missiles form the basis of the US strategic nuclear deterrent, and there are good reasons for this. The ICBM has a large payload; it retains its combat effectiveness after the first strike of any potential adversary existing today. In addition, ICBMs can hold a whole range of diverse targets for constant attacks, both for striking a nuclear strike and for striking conventional equipment.

At the same time, significant quantitative reductions in the forces of the ICBM caused by the decommissioning of the Minuteman II, Minuteman III and Peacekeeper missiles, as well as the lack of a replacement for Minuteman III, cast doubt on the US combat capability for the coming years. Perhaps today, American intercontinental ballistic missiles are very reliable, but in the future things will change.

The second issue that requires concentration of efforts is the development of reliable missile defense systems against ballistic and cruise missiles. The spread of rocket technology around the world increases the vulnerability of the United States. Ballistic missiles are capable of delivering to the target both weapons of mass destruction and powerful warheads in conventional equipment, and the technologies needed to manufacture such missiles are widely available - they can both be created and purchased on the market. Currently, ballistic missiles are in service with 25 states. Many of them, for example, Iran and North Korea, not only produce ballistic missiles, but also sell them for export, and also share important missile technologies with other countries. Thus, the Pakistani medium-range ballistic missile Ghauri is based on the North Korean No Dong. She also made with the assistance of North Korea. The Iranian medium-range ballistic missile Shahab-3 is a variation of No Dong that has undergone modernization with the assistance of Russia. Superpowers did not retain a monopoly even on intercontinental ballistic missiles. Over the 8-10 years, it is expected that Iran and North Korea will master the production of such missiles, which will enable them to target objects in the United States and in the territory of their allies.

To combat the growing threat of ballistic missiles, the Bush administration deployed a limited missile defense system during its time in power. The key components of this system are ground-based interceptor missiles in Fort Greely, Alaska, and at the US Air Force Vandenberg base in California. The third missile defense position region, which will give the United States and NATO the opportunity to provide limited protection against Iranian Shahab missiles, is planned to be created in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But it is not clear how the Obama administration intends to address the issue of missile defense. The first signs of particular optimism do not cause. In November 2008, the Obama transition team made the following statement after a telephone conversation with Polish President Lech Kaczynski:

"President-elect Obama has not taken on obligations in this regard [to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland]. His position throughout the campaign remains unchanged: he will support the deployment of a missile defense system when this technique proves its performance." (12) Such uncertainty is alarming, since reliable missile defense systems not only increase the deterrence potential of Washington, but also serve as a guarantee of protection in the event of failure and failure of such deterrence forces.

Moreover, the equipment in question has already proven its efficiency. The successful destruction by the Pentagon of a failed American satellite using the Standard Missile-3 interceptor missile in February 2008 demonstrated the operational flexibility and versatility of this technique. This operation also confirmed the justification for further investments in this area. No less important is the fact that the leadership in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and Tehran knows that American anti-missile defense technologies work.

But it remains to be done a huge amount of work. Thus, cruise missiles pose no less threat to the United States than ballistic missiles, but politicians and the media do not pay practically any attention to this problem. A cruise missile can be launched from anywhere: from the ground, from the sea, from under the water, from the air. It is difficult to detect because it flies at a low altitude at a fairly high speed, it has a small effective reflective surface and very modest characteristic features in the infrared range of radiation.

Cruise missiles are ideal weapons for countries like China, Iran or North Korea if they want to attack the United States. This is a well-proven system, it is quite cheap, easy to maintain and deploy. It is difficult to destroy, and the launch can be made from different platforms. The United States of America is extremely vulnerable to such missiles: 80 percent of the US national wealth and 75 percent of the population is concentrated within 200 miles (a little more than 300 km) from the seashore. Moreover, cruise missiles are much more widespread than ballistic ones. It is estimated that they are in service with approximately 75 countries, and by 2015, at least 24 states will pose a serious threat to the United States in the use of cruise missiles against them. This will occur due to the proliferation of such advanced weapons systems. With an effective missile defense system, the United States will be able not only to defend itself against an attack using ballistic or cruise missiles, but also to give reliable guarantees of protection to its allies.

There is another problem in the US strategic forces that is rarely analyzed. This is an aging workforce in this industry. This problem arose due to a long interruption in the procurement of strategic systems. No other nuclear power is facing such a problem, since they are all modernizing their strategic forces. And this personnel gap in the "critical skills" is constantly increasing. The working group of the United States Department of Defense Science Council established in 2006 to study the problems of qualified personnel for the future needs of the shock strategic forces divided such “critical skills” into six categories: analysis and design capabilities and skills; production capabilities and personnel for production; opportunities and skills to meet future needs; availability of materials; most important suppliers, as well as special facilities, such as nuclear test sites. The assessments presented in the report of the Scientific Council are simply shocking. It turned out that the United States is in grave danger in areas such as the reliability of guidance systems, atmospheric entry systems and ICBM rocket engines. (13) The state of ballistic missiles launched from submarines, as well as the atomic rocket carriers themselves, is better, at least for now. But as clearly stated in the report of the Scientific Council of the Pentagon, the current demographic situation is clearly not in favor of maintaining critical skills over the next ten years. (14)

With regard to the management of nuclear forces, there are two issues of concern. The first is the availability of outer space, on which the US military potential depends. Compression of rocket launch schedules due to an increase in the number of commercial satellite launches, a decrease in the number of rocket launches by the military and NASA, as well as the aging of qualified personnel means that fewer people take part in successful launches, fewer people will know what difficulties may arise and how to overcome them. Secondly, staff aging also limits the ability of governments to properly assess the effects of nuclear weapons on various systems. The Scientific Council recognizes the following:

Today, the number of people working under the C4ISR programs (command, control, communications, computers, data collection and analysis, surveillance, reconnaissance) and those who are concerned about the vulnerability of systems and nodes for electromagnetic pulse (EMP) damage - including their temporary and permanent exit from the system - and also about other damaging factors of nuclear weapons, is constantly decreasing, and no one comes to replace these people who have such qualifications and skills. (15)

Moreover, such vulnerability will most likely increase if the solution to these problems is not immediately taken up, because many of those who during the Cold War dealt with issues of protection from EMR, retire.

With regard to strategic forces, including warheads and their delivery systems, the United States looks even worse in this area - for three main reasons. First, in the aftermath of the cold war, the costs of nuclear weapon systems have dropped significantly. Now the smallest share of the military budget is spent on these goals, starting with the 40s. This is the most significant decline among offensive nuclear weapons strike systems. Funding for such systems has dropped to 4 percent of the total current budget of the Ministry of Defense. In 1991, the United States allocated funds for the last nuclear missile submarine and the last Peacekeeper ICBM. And in 1993, the country bought the last B-2 for its bomber force. Thus, funding is reduced, and each of the components of the nuclear triad is aging.

The second important reason lies in the nuclear warheads themselves. Currently, the main problem for the United States is to ensure the reliability of its strategic arsenal. The Bush administration opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but it didn’t lift the nearly twenty-year US moratorium on nuclear testing. As a result, nuclear weapons laboratories face enormous challenges in trying to ensure reliability, but without scientific evidence that can only be obtained during testing.

In the meantime, Congress is consistently reducing funding or stopping funds altogether for nuclear modernization programs, including the Reliable Warhead Replacement Program (RRW). In September, 2008, the Congress again refused to allocate money for this program. The opposition on Capitol Hill is represented by both parties. Only a small group of congressmen, including Republican Senators John Kyl (Jon Kyl) from Arizona and Jeff Sessions from Alabama, as well as Rep. Terry Everett from Alabama, constantly vote for funding the most important modernization efforts such as the RRW program. Fortunately, the Obama administration is signaling that it may pay much more attention to this problem. Speaking on the pages of Foreign Affairs for January / February 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (Robert Gates) showed the same thing when he criticized Congress’s inaction on the issues of a Reliable Warhead Replacement Program. He said that "Congress needs to do its part by financing the RRW program - in the interests of ensuring security, as well as improving the reliability of nuclear deterrence forces." (16)

Nuclear renaissance

In our world after the cold war, the United States of America will continue to rely on its nuclear forces to achieve lofty and important strategic goals. But it will be harder and harder to do this if America does not act - and act now - in the interests of eliminating the shortcomings of its arsenal. Such shortcomings do not attract much media attention, but they are noticed by both allies and enemies of the United States. Nuclear weapons remain a huge source of strength in the system of international relations. Simply put, nuclear powers are treated differently than states without nuclear weapons.

America currently does not always demonstrate an understanding of this fact of reality. There is no development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-based ballistic missiles. US missiles are not aimed at any state in the world. The production of B-2 bombers has been stopped, and none of the US strategic bombers are on alert. Many programs to create strategic and tactical nuclear weapons canceled. The surface and air components of the ground forces, marine corps and navy do not have nuclear weapons. The number of NATO tactical nuclear weapons systems in Europe has been reduced by over percent by 85, and the number of types of their carriers has been reduced from 11 to one.

The upcoming publication of a four-year defense review document (analysis of strategic tasks and potential US military threats conducted by the Department of Defense - approx. Transl.), As well as a Nuclear Posture Review (report "On the development of US nuclear potential" - approx. Transl.) gives the Obama administration a good opportunity to improve America’s decaying nuclear potential. Modernization of the entire nuclear complex should be the main priority for these major strategic and political documents.

The stakes are higher than ever. The overwhelming military superiority of the United States is not guaranteed to us forevermore. Over time, if the country's nuclear potential and personnel shortages continue, the United States will lose the great advantages that they have now, because the rest of the nuclear states will continue to modernize their arsenals and maintain their nuclear infrastructure in safe working condition. And after losing these advantages, it will be more difficult for America every year to ensure the reliability of its active nuclear deterrent forces.

Bradley Thayer is an associate professor of military-strategic studies at the University of Missouri, who lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Thomas Skypek is a military analyst from Washington.


1. Bradley A. Thayer and Thomas M. Skypek, 'Russia Goes Ballistic,' The National Interest,? 97 (September / October 2008), p. 61-68.

2. 'Russian Air Force to Get Two Strategic Bombers Every Three Years,' RIA News, 19 January 2007,

3. 'Russia Scraps 148 Out of 197 Decommissioned Nuclear Submarines,' RIA Novosti, December 27 2006,

4. 'Russia Not to Give Up Bulava Missile Test Launches,' RIA Novosti, January 4, 2009,

5. Vladimir Isachenkov, 'Weapons Plan Strikes to Beat Soviet Readiness,' The Washington Times, February 8 2007,

6. Mark B. Schneider, The Russian Federation, "In Bradley A. Thayer, ed., American National Security Policy" (Fairfax, VA: National Institute Press, 2007), p. 148.

7. 'Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: Russia,' Arms Control Association, November 2007,

8. Schneider, 'The Strategic Nuclear Forces and Doctrine of the Russian Federation,' p. 148.

9. Brian T. Kennedy, 'What a Single Nuclear Warhead Could Do,' 'Wall Street Journal, November 24 2008,

10. Steve Gutterman, 'Baluyevsky Warns of Nuclear Defense,' Moscow Times, 21 January 2008.,

11. These figures are based on data on the reduction of the US nuclear arsenal from 2001 to 2007 a year.

12. Christina Bellantoni, 'Obama, Polish President at Odds on Call,' The Washington Times, November 9 2008,

13. Reporting on the Future Strategic Strike Skills, March 2006 g., P. 24-26.

14. Ibid, page 32-34.

15. Ibid., P. 43.

16. Robert Gates, 'How to Reprogram the Pentagon,' Foreign Affairs, January / February issue 2009.
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