Dr. Strangelove’s Advice to U.S. and Russian Nuclear Planners
Image Credit: Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove’s Advice to U.S. and Russian Nuclear Planners


Relations between Washington and Moscow are strained for many reasons. And advice from the ivory tower, no matter how well intentioned, can sometimes make things even worse. This year, a  working group of U.S. and Russian academics deliberated on how to make their two countries’ strategic forces more “compatible.” The lead authors, an American and a Russian professor – neither a specialist in security issues – looked for ways to assure stable deterrence despite a widening gap in each country’s economic and technological capabilities. Their report takes for granted that Russia has come to rely heavily on nuclear weapons rather than on modernized conventional forces to defend its borders (against whom is not clear, perhaps Estonia or Afghanistan?). As if taking its cues from a resurrected Dr. Strangelove, the report asserts:

Reliance on a first-strike nuclear capability, missile defenses, launch-on-warning systems, and other security policies considered destabilizing during the heightened tensions of the Cold War are much more stabilizing in the current context, and would be feasible ways to reduce nuclear arsenals while providing greater security and transparency.

It is strange to find seekers of strategic compatibility endorsing plans to launch on warning, if only because radar screens can mislead and have on occasion nearly provoked a nuclear first strike. The report could instead have backed calls to terminate such plans.

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The folly of continuing a posture of launch on warning is underscored by a recent Pentagon report detailing the material and human shortfalls of America’s strategic missile forces. Crews have one wrench to affix warheads for 450 intercontinental missiles. Aging blast doors for sixty year-old silos do not seal shut. Submarine lack spare parts. Human weaknesses are probably more serious. Poor morale and boredom are also issues. Looking to bolster spirits, some reviewers recommended restoring “select crew” patches.

Last year, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the entire ICBM force, was fired after an investigation into a drinking binge and other misconduct while he was in Russia as head of a visiting U.S. government delegation. Last March, nine officers were fired at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, which is the third of the three nuclear missile bases, in response to an exam-cheating scandal there. This November, the Air Force fired two commanders and disciplined a third in response to internal investigations of leadership lapses and misbehavior at two of its three intercontinental ballistic missile bases.

An even deeper problem, of course, is that a single human being, perhaps tired and frustrated, can choose to launch these missiles with no oversight from Congress or the public. Thus, the fate of humanity has rested on the good sense and calm nerves of leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and George W. Bush, as it does now on Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. To empower potentially frail chief executives with such power is madness.

If material and human weaknesses plague the American strategic forces, is there any reason to doubt that similar issues trouble the Russian as well – probably exacerbated by a culture that approves “pei do dna – drink to the bottom?”

And while American and Russian academics hope for “compatibility” of their countries’ strategic forces, Russian authorities announced in November 2014 that Russia will skip the international security summit to be hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016. The head of Russia’s state nuclear company, Sergei V. Kirienko, also announced that Russia did not contemplate expanded cooperation with the United States to safeguard Russia’s nuclear materials, even though they are still widely scattered and vulnerable to theft. Meanwhile, Russia has not only invaded Ukraine (and lied about it) but also sent bombers and ships to menace Sweden, Estonia, Spain, the United States, and even Australia.

Given all this, should Washington and Moscow follow the working group’s advice to devote greater effort to missile defense? No. This is another recommendation that is not only useless but probably dangerous.

Hope that ABM systems could fend off Armageddon has been a chimera since the 1960s. Little has changed since 1965 when a panel headed by Jerome B. Wiesner, science adviser to presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, warned the White House that efforts to defend against missile attack would goad the other side to bolster its offensive forces. Despite huge investments since 1983, when President Reagan launched a Strategic Defense Initiative, The Economist concluded in 2014 that: “Even with new technology, America’s multi-billion dollar efforts to build a shield against long-range missiles looks doomed.” The article gave dozens of reasons and quoted many experts to explain its conclusion.

If diplomacy fails, the best defense remains a strong offense. For the foreseeable future, defenses will never be able to cope with decoys and other penetration aids launched by any actor capable of firing an ICBM. The defenses now deployed in Alaska and California would do nothing to stop cruise missiles launched from offshore. They would not stop weapons of mass destruction smuggled into the country on trucks or in containers from cargo ships. The Germans easily skirted the Maginot Line in 1940. The U.S. Secret Service in September 2014 could not even stop a knife-wielding invader from traipsing through the White House. Missile defense pretensions spur illusions. Most Americans have believed for years that the United States already possesses an effective defense. Some industries lobby for more R&D outlays no matter the prospects. Some Americans assume America needs only to improve Patriot and Israeli Iron Dome systems, which – despite PR exaggerations – have intercepted only some artillery shells and a few tactical ballistic missiles, which are much slower than ICBMs and rise to much lower trajectories. Some Americas want to be tough on North Korea and Iran, counting on U.S. defenses to stop their ICBMs if they acquire them. All these hopes are unwise and unfounded.

Missile defense has been a fantasy for decades – especially among Republicans. With Republican majorities in both houses, strong voices in the U.S. Congress will be tempted to cite the “Harvard” recommendations and demand more investment to protect the United States from missile attack.

Starting with Andrei Sakharov, many Russian scientists have advised the Kremlin that America’s ABM efforts are futile. Indeed, the U.S.-Russian working group report affirms: “Given current technology and the size of Russia’s missile forces,” Russia’s missile forces will remain “robust” against all foreseeable missile defenses (p. 14). Still, Russian planners have naturally been cautious about the potential of American technology, fearing that the Pentagon might find a way to neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Even the Pentagon’s plan for a limited defenses based in Eastern Europe to counter an Iranian missile attack on Europe raised major worries in Moscow. Russian planners have been neuralgic about Star Wars and its successors. Chinese also perceive a limited defense ostensibly against North Korea as really aimed at China.

The report’s American author, Keith Darden, associate professor at American University’s School of International Service, responded to my critique in an e-mail dated September 8, 2014: “Whether missile defenses reach the point where they are effective against slower, smaller, and less sophisticated arsenals is certainly open to dispute, but not terribly relevant to our paper. If anti-ballistic missile defenses of any type prove to be an illusion, then the U.S. will rely solely on deterrence, much as Russia does. Perhaps we could have added a line to this effect in the paper, but most of the pressure on us has come from the other direction – e.g. Russian generals arguing that the defenses are going to be effective against their nuclear arsenal.” But an outsider must wonder: Could ivory tower analysis alter the anxieties and ambitions of Russian generals?

The bottom line is that missile defenses will never do their assigned task but, at the same time, they will foster daydreams in America and add to the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow. Their main “contribution” is to profits for military contractors in each country. Those Americans who want to invest in more missile defense can cite the “Harvard” report to buttress their case. The very title of the report, “Sword and Shield,” implies a constructive role for missile defense.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The report fails to recognize continuities in the strategic balance. It errs in claiming that earlier arms accords between Washington and Moscow were based on symmetry. To be sure, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s demanded equality but he never got it. Instead, both “superpowers” relied on permutations of asymmetry. The USSR had more soldiers and tanks but no aircraft carriers and a highly constrained long-range bomber force. Soviet warheads were larger; American, more accurate. The U.S. submarine fleet could be on station for much longer periods than the Soviet. The Americans had reliable allies and few foes – not so the USSR. The U.S. had great soft power; the Soviets, practically none. Still, joint overkill provided a sort of deterrent. Precise equality was not needed. It was unnecessary and unwise to demand symmetry during the Cold War. This is not a new situation. Policymakers as well as policy analysts need to know what factors are of long standing and which are novel, possibly requiring innovative solutions.

The working group’s assertion that Russia’s military power relies mostly on nuclear weapons is also wrong. Putin’s operations in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine, along with large-scale exercises along Russia’s western regions and increasing sorties by Russian planes into or close to NATO airs space, reveal a different picture. They also undercut any assertions about an end to the Cold War.

Whatever the Russian General Staff thinks about other aspects of the compatibility study, it should be pleased to see that the working group describes Russia’s operations in Georgia in 2008 as “peace enforcement [sic!].” American and Russian Sinophobes will welcome the report’s unfounded claim that China “has expanded its territory through purchase or conquest multiple times in recent decades.” To be sure, China may eventually occupy much of Siberia, but such expansion will probably not require or use military means.

Last but not least, the report says nothing about the political culture of the two countries. Russia’s seems to incline most Russians to back their iron fisted, revanchist, and revisionist leader. Russian political culture along with the contradictory impulses in American culture make it hard to search for compatibility. Most Americans prefer to stay at home but can also be stirred to resist bad guys real or imagined.

Instead of endorsing dangerous atavisms such as launch-on-warning and ABM, the report might have called for changes in the status quo: for example, withdrawal and perhaps abolition of all tactical nuclear weapons. It could have reinforced demands for a reduction of each actor’s weapons to a modest nuclear umbrella. It could have recommended continuation and deepening of U.S.-Russian cooperation to control nuclear material. It could do everyone a favor by calling for a freeze on Pakistani and Indian as well as North Korean and Iranian weapons development. Russians and Americans need to do something to restore a positive peace – not just maintain the absence of war. Updating practices from the bad old days will not help.

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University, and Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. His most recent book is Complexity Science and World Affairs (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013). 

Update: Two of the links have been fixed.

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