Friday, May 19, 2006

American Military Supremacy: Can it Last?

For many decades, hecklers have been predicting the end of american economic and military dominance. Several candidates have come forward to take the crown from the US, including the USSR, Japan, the EU, and now China. But the USSR fell apart, Japan is imploding from low birthrates, the EU has no military power to back up its bluster, and only China is still hanging in there--so the jury is still out. It is also true that Russia still has many hundreds of nuclear warheads that could be aimed at North American targets. What are the facts regarding current nuclear strategic balance in the world?

In a very recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press presented the article "The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy," in which they claim that the US nuclear deterrent is overwhelmingly capable of destroying either China or Russia in an all out exchange, while suffering very little damage to the North American continent.

Since the Cold War's end, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has significantly improved. The United States has replaced the ballistic missiles on its submarines with the substantially more accurate Trident II D-5 missiles, many of which carry new, larger-yield warheads. The U.S. Navy has shifted a greater proportion of its SSBNs to the Pacific so that they can patrol near the Chinese coast or in the blind spot of Russia's early warning radar network. The U.S. Air Force has finished equipping its B-52 bombers with nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which are probably invisible to Russian and Chinese air-defense radar. And the air force has also enhanced the avionics on its B-2 stealth bombers to permit them to fly at extremely low altitudes in order to avoid even the most sophisticated radar. Finally, although the air force finished dismantling its highly lethal MX missiles in 2005 to comply with arms control agreements, it is significantly improving its remaining ICBMs by installing the MX's high-yield warheads and advanced reentry vehicles on Minuteman ICBMs, and it has upgraded the Minuteman's guidance systems to match the MX's accuracy.

...Even as the United States' nuclear forces have grown stronger since the end of the Cold War, Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal has sharply deteriorated. Russia has 39 percent fewer long-range bombers, 58 percent fewer ICBMs, and 80 percent fewer SSBNs than the Soviet Union fielded during its last days. The true extent of the Russian arsenal's decay, however, is much greater than these cuts suggest. What nuclear forces Russia retains are hardly ready for use. Russia's strategic bombers, now located at only two bases and thus vulnerable to a surprise attack, rarely conduct training exercises, and their warheads are stored off-base. Over 80 percent of Russia's silo-based ICBMs have exceeded their original service lives, and plans to replace them with new missiles have been stymied by failed tests and low rates of production. Russia's mobile ICBMs rarely patrol, and although they could fire their missiles from inside their bases if given sufficient warning of an attack, it appears unlikely that they would have the time to do so.

The third leg of Russia's nuclear triad has weakened the most. Since 2000, Russia's SSBNs have conducted approximately two patrols per year, down from 60 in 1990. (By contrast, the U.S. SSBN patrol rate today is about 40 per year.) Most of the time, all nine of Russia's ballistic missile submarines are sitting in port, where they make easy targets. Moreover, submarines require well-trained crews to be effective. Operating a ballistic missile submarine -- and silently coordinating its operations with surface ships and attack submarines to evade an enemy's forces -- is not simple. Without frequent patrols, the skills of Russian submariners, like the submarines themselves, are decaying. Revealingly, a 2004 test (attended by President Vladimir Putin) of several submarine-launched ballistic missiles was a total fiasco: all either failed to launch or veered off course. The fact that there were similar failures in the summer and fall of 2005 completes this unflattering picture of Russia's nuclear forces.

Compounding these problems, Russia's early warning system is a mess. Neither Soviet nor Russian satellites have ever been capable of reliably detecting missiles launched from U.S. submarines. (In a recent public statement, a top Russian general described his country's early warning satellite constellation as "hopelessly outdated.") Russian commanders instead rely on ground-based radar systems to detect incoming warheads from submarine-launched missiles. But the radar network has a gaping hole in its coverage that lies to the east of the country, toward the Pacific Ocean. If U.S. submarines were to fire missiles from areas in the Pacific, Russian leaders probably would not know of the attack until the warheads detonated. Russia's radar coverage of some areas in the North Atlantic is also spotty, providing only a few minutes of warning before the impact of submarine-launched warheads.

Moscow could try to reduce its vulnerability by finding the money to keep its submarines and mobile missiles dispersed. But that would be only a short-term fix. Russia has already extended the service life of its aging mobile ICBMs, something that it cannot do indefinitely, and its efforts to deploy new strategic weapons continue to flounder. The Russian navy's plan to launch a new class of ballistic missile submarines has fallen far behind schedule. It is now highly likely that not a single new submarine will be operational before 2008, and it is likely that none will be deployed until later.

Even as Russia's nuclear forces deteriorate, the United States is improving its ability to track submarines and mobile missiles, further eroding Russian military leaders' confidence in Russia's nuclear deterrent. (As early as 1998, these leaders publicly expressed doubts about the ability of Russia's ballistic missile submarines to evade U.S. detection.) Moreover, Moscow has announced plans to reduce its land-based ICBM force by another 35 percent by 2010; outside experts predict that the actual cuts will slice 50 to 75 percent off the current force, possibly leaving Russia with as few as 150 ICBMs by the end of the decade, down from its 1990 level of almost 1,300 missiles. The more Russia's nuclear arsenal shrinks, the easier it will become for the United States to carry out a first strike.

The authors similarly argue that China's nuclear forces are hopelessly outclassed by the US, and will remain so for "the next decade."

No doubt the authors stand in awe of that phrase "the next decade", although I doubt that Pentagon planners are at all reassured. In fact, as serious as the threat from North Korea, Islamic terror, and Iranian insanity may be, without the spectre of China in the background, the muslim and North Korean problems would be manageable for decades. If you toss China into the mix, nothing is certain.

The authors are correct that US nuclear (and conventional) technology is currently superior enough to that of US large power rivals, that for now they can not seriously consider a direct challenge to US peacekeeping anywhere in the world. That may not continue to be the case with US presidents of a different type than Bush.

We saw during the 1990s that the US allowed China very wide latitude in accessibility to advanced nuclear technology--which allowed China to make up decades of research in only a few years. With a new president possessing similarly soft attitudes toward China, and with at least another decade of the huge trade surpluses that China has maintained, and China could easily put itself into a position to challenge US hegemony--at least in East Asia. The true test of the new hegemony would be the conquest of Taiwan.

As impressive as the Lieber/Press article may be, it fails to address the true reality of the situation, given a change in political power in the US. It is only the energy and determination of the current US administration that has allowed the US to maintain the current technological gap in nucear weapons with China. When that gap is allowed to close by less vigilant administrations, the world will return to MAD--mutually assured destruction--and the nightmares of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

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