If reports in Russian state media last Friday are accurate, the world may be on the brink of seeing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) race, though of a conventional type rather than the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.
According to a report by RIA Novosti, Moscow may be developing a heavy-liquid-fuel, non-nuclear, precision-guided payload capability for a new class of ICBMs, which would give Russia near-global coverage similar to that sought by the U.S. under the controversial “Prompt Global Strike” program.
Using rhetoric that harkened back to the dark days of the Cold War, Russian Strategic Missile Forces Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev warned that Russia could develop its own strategic conventional ICBM force if the U.S. did not pull back from its efforts to create such a system, which gives the U.S. the ability to strike targets anywhere in the world within a matter of minutes.
In an apparent reference to U.S. and NATO plans to deploy missile defense systems in Europe, Karakayev said the new ICBM would be able to penetrate “any missile defense system likely to emerge in the near future.” Although the U.S. claims that the defense systems are targeted at a nuclear-armed Iran, Moscow contends that the deployment will also allow for the intercept of Russian ICBMs and thus undermine its deterrent capability.
Unlike current solid-fuel ICBMs, “the higher energy provided by liquid fuels gives it more varied and effective methods of countermeasures against global missile defense screens, including space-based elements of those systems,” Russian media quoted Karakayev as saying (“while less stable than solid fuel, liquid fuel propellants provide the highest energy per unit of fuel mass and variable thrust capability”).
Karakayev’s remarks could furthermore indicate breakthroughs in missile maneuverability, an important component in a missile’s ability to penetrate air defenses.
Despite the advantages of having a conventional global strike capability — especially if coupled with hypersonic projectiles — proponents of the program tend to highlight its potential in the context of an attack against countries or intrastate organizations that do not possess long-range nuclear capability. For clear reasons, conventionally armed ICBMs quickly lose their appeal if an opponent has a countervailing nuclear force: Given the difficulty of distinguishing between an incoming ICBM equipped with a conventional warhead and one that carries a nuclear weapon, targets might not wait until detonation to discern the nuclear status of the incoming payload, and instead retaliate through nuclear means.
Meanwhile, in what was ostensibly the first confirmation of the existence of the project, Karakayev also mentioned that a series of tests of a new solid-fuel ICBM had already been conducted and that the program was “right on path” (in its reporting on Friday’s announcement, Agence France-Presse seems to confuse the two types of ICBMs). The latest test, using a mobile launcher, was held on October 24 at the Kapustin Yar firing range in southern Russia — less than a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin personally led Moscow’s most comprehensive test of its strategic nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War.
According to separate reports, Russia plans to test-fire a total of 11 ICBMs in 2013. Karakayev said that a new, fourth-generation automated battle management system was being introduced for the strategic missile forces, which will possess a rapid and automated retargeting capability for the nation’s ICBMs.
As the U.S. and Russia are both unlikely to abandon plans to create their conventional global strike missile forces, other countries, primarily China, and perhaps India, are likely to follow suit. In an odd twist, by adding conventional warheads to hitherto nuclear-tipped ICBMs, Moscow and Washington (and whoever else comes after) risk adding noise to what is already a dangerous game of signals interpretation, one that held the world hostage for decades.