Open to question
Appeared in Foreign Affairs, September 1, 2006
By Pavel Podvig
In arguing that the United States has achieved nuclear primacy and thereby made mutual assured destruction obsolete, Lieber and Press rely on some questionable assumptions about the status of Russia's strategic forces.
To make their case that the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal "has sharply deteriorated," Lieber and Press quote statistics showing that Russia today has "39 percent fewer long-range bombers, 58 percent fewer ICBMs, and 80 percent fewer SSBNs [ballistic-missile-launching submarines] than the Soviet Union fielded during its last days." These numbers are generally correct, but a similarly one-sided examination of U.S. forces would have painted a similarly dire portrait; after all, the U.S. nuclear arsenal today has 66 percent fewer strategic bombers, 50 percent fewer ICBMs, and more than 50 percent fewer ballistic missile submarines than it possessed during the Cold War.
Lieber and Press claim that Russia's strategic bombers "rarely conduct training exercises," implying that Russia's military is neglecting strategic aviation. Yet Russia's strategic air forces participated in four major exercises in 2005 alone. Similarly, Lieber and Press refer to a number of failures during launches of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in 2004 to illustrate the decline of the Russian navy. But they do not mention the much larger number of successful launches or the Bulava SLBM development program, which has been quite successful so far.
It may be true, as Lieber and Press write, that "over 80 percent of Russia's silo-based ICBMs have exceeded their original service lives," but regular and successful tests of ICBMs that have been kept in silos for 25 years or longer suggest that this has not affected the missiles' reliability. Russia is decommissioning its ICBMs not because they are unreliable but because it does not need them. Lieber and Press claim that the development of the next-generation Russian ICBM, the Topol-M, has been "stymied by failed tests." But of 15 flight tests conducted to date, only one has failed -- a remarkable achievement for any missile-development program. It is true that the production rate of new Topol-Ms is low, but that may be because Russia has decided to concentrate on producing the mobile version of the missile, which it will begin deploying this year.
Lieber and Press are right to state that Russia may end up having as few as 150 land-based missiles by the end of the decade. But about half of those ICBMs would probably be road-mobile Topols and Topol-Ms, which, if operated properly, would have a good chance of surviving a first strike. Lieber and Press dismiss Russia's mobile missiles by saying that they "rarely patrol." In reality, very little is known about Russia's mobile-missile patrol rates, and although it is quite plausible that they are low, it is a stretch to assume that they are zero.
Lieber and Press describe Russia's early warning system as "a mess." In fact, although the system is past its prime, it has lost surprisingly little of its effectiveness. It may seem counterintuitive, but Russia would gain very little were its early warning system to be deployed to the fullest extent. Adding the capability to detect SLBM launches would not dramatically increase the time available to the Russian leadership for assessing attacks. The much-discussed "gaping hole" in the radar coverage east of Russia also should be put in context. Missiles launched from the Pacific could not cover the entire range of Russian targets that would need to be destroyed in a first strike. The scenario that Lieber and Press postulate, in which "Russian leaders probably would not know of the attack until the warheads detonated" because of flaws in their early warning system, is simply impossible.