By Dmitry Orlov
Watching the Rockets
Rockets are important. They are symbolically important, as the most virile, masculine, phallic manifestation of the superpower contest. To wit, the US national anthem: “the rockets red glare… gave proof through the night… that our flag was still there.” No rockets—no flag—no “home of the brave.” Rockets are strategically important: if the other side’s rockets give it the ability to destroy your side with impunity, then your strategy is to negotiate the terms of your surrender.
First, what about the US nuclear deterrent: does it still have one? Its Minuteman ICBMs still sit in their silos but they are really old and recent attempts to test them have failed. The Trident missiles which the US has on its nuclear submarines probably still work, but all of the submarines are rather old and approaching the end of their useful life with no replacements being readied. The Minutemen and the Tridents are obsolete in any case, being ballistic—following a ballistic trajectory, like a cannonball or like water sprayed out of a garden hose. They pretty much follow a flat parabolic track, making them easy for the Russians to spot, to target and to shoot down using their new generation of defensive weapons.
The last bit of the nuclear triad—the strategic bombers—fall into two categories: the ancient lumbering B-52s that carpet-bombed Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, and stealth bombers. Stealth technology was invented by the Russian engineer Peter Ufimtsev, a true Russian patriot who moved to California and gave his knowhow to Lockheed, thus playing an amazingly cruel joke on the unsuspecting Americans. His knowhow had to do with calculating radar reflections from various objects, making it possible to design airframes and hull shapes that didn’t fly or sail particularly well but didn’t show up hardly at all on the sorts of radars found in the nose cones of missiles and fighter aircraft, making them hard to target.
In response, the Russians shifted to using much larger land-based radar systems that can see these stealthy objects just fine, communicating targeting information to planes and missiles via satellite and allowing them to get close enough to track them optically. This is rather similar to the classic example of writing in space: the Americans spent millions inventing and manufacturing high-tech pens that worked in zero gravity and in a vacuum, while the Russians just brought along some pencils
Along the way the Americans have lost the ability to make new nuclear bombs. The plants they used to produce weapons-grade plutonium have been dismantled. They are still able to maintain existing weapons by melting down, re-casting and re-milling plutonium parts, resulting in fewer and fewer weapons with each iteration. Crucially, they seem to have lost the recipe for making the high explosive needed to make their nuclear bombs detonate. Radiation-hard electronics are also apparently a problem for them.
Meanwhile, Russia has completely rearmed with new offensive and defensive systems, including hypersonic missiles that cannot be intercepted using any existing technology. The latest S-500 air and space defense systems can shoot down targets anywhere from 100km up to ground level within a 600km radius, simultaneously tracking and destroying up to 10 supersonic ballistic targets. The Russians make no secret of their new technology and offer it for sale around the world, including to NATO nations such as Turkey.
What does this mean for such quaint concepts as strategic parity and mutual assured destruction? To start with, the US is in no position to ever consider a nuclear first strike against Russia or any Russian allies, China first and foremost. Nobody knows how many Minutemen would make it out of their silos. The nuclear subs are also old but in better shape; if they manage to launch their Tridents without getting sunk and if the Tridents get intercepted or go off target and blow up somewhere in the tundra—then what? Nobody can predict if any of of the strategic bombers will be able to get through. The giant lumbering B-52s are an easy kill, and the other pseudo-stealthy bombers are visible all the way from Moscow. So much for offense.
Moreover, it seems like the reality of the situation is sinking in slowly but surely. The US has pulled out Afghanistan, is pulling out of Iraq, is removing its proven useless Patriot and THAAD missile defense systems from the Middle East and is inching ever closer to the decision to cut adrift Russophobic Eastern Europe, abandoning the Ukraine to its eternal fate as the “okraina” (border zone) of Russia.