The Illusion of Invulnerability: Corruption and Misinformation in the Era of ABM Systems

By Federico Pieraccini | Strategic Culture

In an era of mutually assured destruction (MAD), every speech regarding anti-ballistic missile systems should be noted with extreme care and attention. In my previous article, I described the danger arising from the American attempt to render obsolete the concept of MAD, thanks to major technological advancements in modern ABM systems.

In recent years, certainly since the mid-nineties, the US has largely neglected to upgrade its atomic arsenal in the aerospace and especially ballistic environments. The same cannot be said of the naval aspect of warfare, especially where it involves submarines. According to independent analysis, the nuclear triad of the US would today require about a trillion dollars to be renewed and modernized, a figure prohibitive even for a nation that is about to exceed 21 trillion dollars of debt.

What is evident in the required modernization of the nuclear triad, as well as in the related investments, is the obvious observation that Washington places a strong emphasis on submarines in its strategic nuclear forces. Specifically, the element of nuclear forces represented in inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is technologically stuck in the 1970s. Often when it comes to listing the main problems of a nuclear triad, one tends to note the weak development and updates of the Minuteman ballistic category of missiles. The first of the Minuteman missiles entered into service in 1962 with the designation LGM-30B. In 1965 it was the turn of the LGM-30F (Minuteman-II); and in 1970, the LGM-30G (Minuteman-III). The big news, in addition to the missile’s range, was the introduction of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), consisting of three warheads capable of independently aiming at and hitting three separate targets.

The other problem concerns the US Air Force’s strategic nuclear posture, specifically related to nuclear bombers, which are nowadays placed on standby rather than airborne alert. In today’s context, the use of strategic bombers to launch nuclear missiles would make little sense when compared to the use of nuclear submarines. The technologies available to detect the launch of a missile or a stealth aircraft are generally much superior to any available technology that is able to detect the location of, say, an Ohio-class submarine or a Russian Borey-class submarine and their subsequent launches of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This is due to the fact that such submarines are able to get closer to the coasts of an opponent without their being detected, as opposed to a stealth bomber or a Minuteman-III missile launched from a silo thousands of kilometers away.

It is therefore clear that the US has in recent decades, especially since the 1990s, placed its bets on SLBMs being the nuclear weapon of choice. This is easy to see when considering that it is SLBMs specifically that are the nuclear warheads and delivery systems that have seen modernization. As recently explained, W76-1/MK4A warheads are extremely lethal. A single Borey-class submarine armed with Bulava missiles (ten warheads atop each other) could carry 200 warheads, which is as much as the entire nuclear arsenal of the United Kingdom. An Ohio-class submarine can carry 24 missiles, with up to eight warheads each, totalling 192 nukes, each one 25 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Counting together the US and Russian nuclear submarines of the Ohio and Borei classes, there are 14 such US submarines and three Russian ones. This means that at any one time, there are more than 3200 nuclear warheads ready to be launched from undetectable submarines hidden under the seas and oceans of the world.

It is no wonder that in the minds of Pentagon planners, submarines constitute the bulk of US nuclear forces and could be employed in an effort to wipe out all the silos of the Russian Federation in a decapitating first strike.

In general, the US nuclear strategy has in recent years focused on finding ways to overcome the restraining deterrence posed by MAD. To do this, US military planners have taken into account three main factors: a preemptive nuclear strike (first strike) in order to prevent an opponent’s response (second strike), and, if this fails, the ability to intercept enemy warheads with anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) systems.

It is more than obvious to anyone other than the Pentagon that even thinking of a nuclear doctrine that contemplates a first strike is morally unacceptable. Donald Trump, during the presidential campaign, excluded employment of this type of destructive gambit; but to date, a real change in war strategy has not yet occurred. As things stand, the strategy that implies an American first-strike option, in order to decapitate an opponent’s strategic nuclear forces, remains in place.

When making evaluations and assumptions about such matters, it is always good to start with the proviso that it is based on necessarily scant information, due to the subject matter being amongst those most closely guarded by any nation, namely the details concerning its nuclear triad, anti-ballistic missiles, and nuclear-warfare doctrine.

A first-strike scenario has often been suggested with regards to North Korea. However, it is likely that not even an American nuclear first strike could stop Pyongyang from launching a retaliatory nuclear strike against US allies in the region. Thanks to development of the Sinpo-class submarine, Pyongyang will possess the capability to launch a Pukkuksong-1 SLBM that is armed with a nuclear warhead capable of targeting US bases in the region as well as South Korea and even Japan. It is common knowledge that in the next few years, North Korea will possess the capability to reach the US with a nuclear warhead from a fixed-base launch pad. In a sea-based scenario, the United States is overconfident in being able to track and destroy any submarine that has the ability to launch an SLBM. However, the Pentagon is even more confident that Pyongyang would not have the capacity to reach the United States with nuclear missiles, and if it launched a nuclear weapon towards any American partner in the region from land or sea, the US ABM systems like THAAD and Aegis should ensure a highly probable interception.

However, in the case of a North Korean first strike, there would be limited chances of them realistically stopping a South Korean second-strike response. More dangerous than the prospect of the US using nuclear weapons is the confidence Washington places in the ability of ABM systems to preclude a worst-case scenario.

If we take a look at the possibility of a US nuclear first strike on the People’s Republic of China, it is clear that the United States find itself faced with a completely different scenario. Given the capacity of Beijing’s nuclear triad, there is a very low probability that Washington could eliminate most of the Chinese silos in a nuclear first strike. Such a calculation is based on the low number of warheads contained in China’s silos (50-75) when compared to the numbers held by Moscow and Washington.

If the DPRK poses a serious danger because of its ability to launch a nuclear-armed missile using a submarine, with China it is a different matter altogether. The main problem for US strategic planners remains the use of nuclear-armed submarines or camouflaged ground-based mobile launchers. Currently, the Type 094 submarines carry the JL-2 missile, which has a range of 5,000 miles. Therefore, it is clear that the Chinese have the necessary means to deliver a devastating second strike that would wipe out the US continent in the event of a nuclear attack by Washington. As always, Washington lives under the illusion that its ABM systems would be capable of intercepting Chinese warheads, as well as its hope of being able to track and destroy the four Type 094 class submarines currently in service, therefore obviating any Chinese capacity to retaliate.

If we consider this same calculation being applied to Russia, then it is difficult to see how any Pentagon planners entertaining such ideas can continue to be taken seriously. The Russian nuclear triad is simply unstoppable. If we combine the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) that can be launched from fixed, mobile, maritime, rail, sea, or air platforms, and the amount of submarines, trains and Topol-M ICBMs, it ought to be easily understood that a nuclear first strike would trigger a Russian second strike that would override any ABM systems currently active in the United States or any allied nations, wiping away the entire American continent. Simply put, the MIRVs already exceed any capacity of the ABM systems to stop them, due to Mach 20 speeds and the variability of their trajectory upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. Other than that, the diversification of delivery systems, and the quantity and the capacity of Russian nuclear forces, makes it impossible for any opponent to wipe out Moscow’s multifaceted ability to respond to a nuclear attack.

What is clear from the three previous scenarios is simple and obvious: a preemptive nuclear strike would lead to unimaginable consequences, and there is currently no scenario in which the DPRK, China or Russia would be unable to respond upon being attacked. This is to take into account that ABM systems are essentially designed to operate and conduct interceptions only under the most favorable conditions.

Over the years of testing ABM systems, the United States has obtained mixed results, often resulting in resounding failures. The main problem is that it is in actual fact much easier to build missiles that are able to travel along an unpredictable trajectory, re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, and then accelerate to a speed above Mach 20, making such missiles impossible to intercept. The following reality about ABM systems is difficult to digest but it is also the most truthful, and that is that in the case of a nuclear exchange, it is very unlikely that the US ABM systems will be able to intercept any SLBMs or ICBMs, because the optimal conditions under which the ABM systems were tested (and even then they were only occasionally successfully) would not obtain in any real-life conflict. Lt Gen Kevin Campbell, head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, said almost a decade ago: «it is true that there has not been enough realistic testing of GMD in terms of countermeasures and interceptors».

The US faces different problems surrounding the ABM situation, ranging from corruption and lies emanating from the military-industrial complex, to illusion and misinformation surrounding such systems. On the one hand, the military programmers dream of overcoming the restraining nuclear balance entailed in MAD with first-strike doctrines and the ABM systems that allow for the entertainment of such ideas. On the other hand, we see that even North Korea would have the capacity to inflict serious damage on Washington’s regional partners in Asia with both conventional and nuclear weapons. In the case of China and Russia, the question becomes ridiculous, given the high level of capability that Beijing and Moscow possess to deliver a devastating retaliatory second strike. The other important aspect is the illusion, often promoted by American think-tank policy-makers, of ABM systems as being the solution to every problem. This is mainly because the funding for such think tanks often come from the manufacturers of said ABM systems (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell).

American strategic thinkers thereby make their calculations based on a distorted set of assumptions, as if inhabiting some sort of make-believe world in which ABM systems work perfectly while also often underestimating the ability of opponents. Another problem stems from the lying that goes on concerning actual capabilities, as well as when discussing war scenarios in a partial and incomplete way, focusing on a specific scenario that in the real conditions of warfare are very unlikely to happen. As you might guess, in the case of a nuclear attack, it is unlikely that the US will have the ability to predict what will be targeted and what kind of response tactics the enemy will employ. Such fog-of-war aspects as unpredictability and lack of information on opponents is often ignored in the assessment of US think-tanks. It unfortunately represents an excess of confidence that in the case of a nuclear war would spell the deaths of tens of millions of people. Lately, this craziness has reached its peak, with thinking shifting to kinetic ABM space designed satellites.

All military planners simply use the ABM systems as an academic exercise to speculate on nuclear exchange scenarios between powers. The reality shows us how a simple exchange between India and Pakistan, reduced by the limited scope of both countries, could trigger a nuclear winter, with disastrous consequences for the entire planet.

The hope for humanity is that the concept of MAD will continue to remain critical, relevant and insuperable for all military doctrines. The danger for the world lies in the delusional thinking of an omnipotent American war apparatus. Falling in love with their own lies and fake marketing, touting their systems as being the best around and able to overcome their opponents in every and all situations, this serves to undermine the concept of mutually assured destruction, especially in the case of ABM systems, and endangers the survival of the human species.

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