“If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce,” warned Winston Churchill. That was in 1952, just two years after America tested the first hydrogen bomb, and five years before the United States deployed the first ICBM.
So what would Churchill make of America’s and Russia’s plans to build new missiles? Probably have a snifter of brandy and mutter about how silly the whole thing is.
Russia is deploying its new RS-28 Sarmat ICBM, a hundred-ton, twelve-warhead behemoth which makes America’s thirty-nine-ton Minuteman ICBM look like a rocket-propelled toothpick.
Meanwhile, the United States is also joining the new missile race with its Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), a replacement for its fifty-year-old force of Minuteman ICBMs. Estimated to cost at least $85 billion, the Pentagon says GBSD is needed because the U.S. land-based ICBM infrastructure dates back to the mid-1960s, while even the current Minuteman III missile was first deployed in 1970.
This is great news for defense contractors, east and west. But what do America and Russia—and their respective citizens—really get out of this spending spree?
Russian media boasts that the Sarmat is more accurate than its predecessors, and is “capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France.”
Yet since American missiles are equally capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Moscow or St. Petersburg, what advantage does Russia gain? If the goal is to deter an American attack, the old ICBMs will work as well as the new ones.
And if the goal is to develop a first-strike capability to destroy American missiles before they can be launched? Even if you choose to cast Putin as some kind of Cold War villain who rubs his hands in maniacal glee as he contemplates launching a surprise attack on the unsuspecting amerikantsy, he would have to be certain of destroying enough of America’s 450 Minuteman ICBMs in their hardened silos—not to mention nuclear submarines and bombers—that no counterstrike could be launched. Can you imagine Putin or any Russian leader taking a chance that his nation won’t be reduced to the level of Mad Max or the medieval Duchy of Muscovy?
Interestingly, Russian media reports that “Sarmat warheads will have an array of advanced antimissile countermeasures meant to penetrate the US ABM [antiballistic missile] shield.” Which suggests that the new missile may be aimed at penetrating American missile defenses, or at least signaling that Moscow has the capability to do so. But the fact is that the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System is only designed to stop a limited ICBM barrage from small nations like North Korea and Iran, not an all-out Russian strike. Ironically, Moscow has more faith in U.S. missile defense than the Government Accountability Office and other critics, who point to numerous flaws that quite possibly will render the system ineffective.
It is equally hard to see how GBSD will enhance American security. The Air Force says the Minuteman III force is becoming too vulnerable to attack. But if Russia were to contemplate launching a nuclear strike upon the United States, it seems unlikely that the age of U.S. ICBMs would make a difference. As for a rogue state like North Korea, they will launch a missile at the United States for their own reasons, and not because it will be a Minuteman or a GBSD that will turn the Hermit Kingdom into radioactive slag.
What does make more sense is the obsolescence issue for missiles that date back to the Nixon and Brezhnev era. The Sarmat is supposed to replace Russia’s aging 1970s RS-36M2 missiles. Think it’s hard to get parts for a fifty-year-old car or refrigerator, or MS-DOS software to play on your Windows 10 computer? The U.S. ICBM force was built with a lot of custom parts that aren’t built anymore. Notoriously, a special wrench was needed to install nuclear warheads on America’s 450 Minuteman III missiles: there was only one tool kit that had the wrench, which had to be FedExed from base to base.
So, perhaps it was inevitable that new missiles would be needed once the old ones became unreliable or too expensive to maintain. Nonetheless, there are promising technologies other than big, silo-based ICBMs, such as hypersonic weapons. Meanwhile, China is buffing its conventional military capabilities in the Pacific. Russia is waging a hybrid mixture of conventional and unconventional warfare, and American troops on the ground still face IEDs and insurgents. Is a new ICBM what America now needs to spend tens of billions of dollars on?
Michael Peck is a frequent contributor to the National Interest and is a regular writer for many outlets like WarIsBoring. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.