The U.S. Has No Defense Against A Russian Nuclear Attack. Really.

I write about national security, especially its business dimensions.

The Obama Administration is proposing that the United States spend about a billion dollars per week in the fiscal year beginning October 1 to defend Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations against various threats they face. That’s how much money is in the Pentagon’s request for “overseas contingency operations.”

So guess how much money the administration is seeking to defend America’s homeland against an attack from Russia using nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Russia has about 1,600 missile warheads capable of reaching U.S. territory, and if even a small fraction were launched, they could wipe out our electric grid, our financial networks, and quite possibly the whole U.S. economy.

The answer is that the administration is proposing to spend nothing. Even though we know that most of those Russian warheads are pointed at America. Even though we know relations with Russia are deteriorating. Even though we know that Vladimir Putin’s subordinates have repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear consequences if it seeks to block expansionist moves along the Russian periphery such as last year’s invasion of Ukraine.

The mushroom cloud from a 21-kiloton blast over Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Strategic warheads in the current Russian arsenal typically have over 20 times the yield of the Nagasaki bomb. (Retrieved from Wikimedia)

The mushroom cloud from a 21-kiloton blast over Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Strategic warheads in the current Russian arsenal typically have over 20 times the yield of the Nagasaki bomb. (Retrieved from Wikimedia)
The mushroom cloud from a 21-kiloton blast over Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Strategic warheads in the current Russian arsenal typically have over 20 times the yield of the Nagasaki bomb. (Retrieved from Wikimedia)
Just this week, Putin stated in a documentary commemorating Moscow’s annexation of Crimea that he had considered putting the nuclear arsenal on alert to dissuade the West from pushing back, observing that he was ready for “the worst possible turn of events.” It isn’t so clear what a heightened state of alert would mean, since Russian military officials insist that even in peacetime, most of the country’s missiles are ready to launch within minutes.

But this commentary isn’t about Russian military intentions. It is about the utter absence of U.S. active defenses for repulsing the sole man-made threat capable of wiping out American civilization for the foreseeable future. Imagine every person you know dead, injured, or lacking shelter and sustenance. Not at some dim point in the future, but by this time tomorrow. Russia has that power, because America has no defenses against long-range ballistic missiles.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Great nations have always defended themselves against the most pressing threats to their survival.  So when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, in the process demonstrating the ability to build long-range rockets, U.S. policymakers immediately began efforts to construct defenses against a missile attack.  But Russia kept adding to its arsenal until by the 1970s it had 40,000 nuclear warheads of all types and sizes.  By that time, Washington had given up on defenses and was just trying to slow the arms race.

In order to get Moscow to stop increasing its arsenal, the U.S. agreed to an Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972.  In effect, it traded away the right to defend its homeland in return for stabilizing the arms race.  But stabilization in this case meant the two countries would have an assured ability to wipe each other out.  The thinking was that if each side knew launching a nuclear attack would result in devastating (“unacceptable”) retaliation, then neither would ever commit nuclear aggression against the other.

The nicest thing that can be said about this approach to security is that it opened the way to reductions in nuclear arsenals on both sides.  The arms reductions have been substantial, but in a way they don’t matter: Russia still has an assured capacity to obliterate America’s society and economy.  That isn’t going to change, because Moscow doesn’t trust Washington and nuclear weapons are its sole remaining claim to superpower status.

A few U.S. leaders, most notably Ronald Reagan, understood what a bad bargain this was.  They saw that a security system based on “mutual assured destruction” would be unable to cope with enemies who were irrational, or accident prone, or unable to secure their arsenal against a breakdown in the chain of command.  They also understood that miscommunication and misjudgments are common in confrontations such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Even rational leaders can make mistakes when arsenals are poised to launch on a hair trigger.

However, Reagan’s efforts to develop ballistic missile defenses of the homeland were derailed by the end of the Cold War, because many observers assumed the waning of superpower rivalries would diminish the danger of nuclear conflict.  Missile defense lost its urgency until the end of the Clinton years, when the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea reignited interest.  George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the treaty banning homeland missile defenses, but his concern too was mainly with North Korea (and to a lesser extent Iran) – Russia was not a focus of his administration’s modest missile defense efforts.

The Obama Administration has followed the lead of past Democratic administrations in viewing homeland missile defense as (1) too hard, (2) too expensive, and (3) too destabilizing.  Until Russia unexpectedly invaded Ukraine, Obama’s security team preferred to focus on further reductions in nuclear arsenals and maintaining a minimal defensive shield on the West Coast oriented to North Korea.  To the extent it thought at all about the possibility of Russian nuclear aggression, its solution was a survivable retaliatory capability — in other words, offensively-based deterrence.

That deterrent — a “triad” of land-based and sea-based missiles plus bombers — is arguably the most important feature of the U.S. military posture for the simple reason that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the most important threat.  However, on the day deterrence fails, America’s highly capable strategic force will be little comfort because it can’t do anything to intercept incoming warheads.  All it can do is lay waste to Russia.

The minimal defensive system the Obama Administration has sustained against North Korea’s fledgling nuclear threat, called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, can potentially intercept warheads attacking from any direction, but more than a dozen Russian warheads would overwhelm it.  So here we sit, able to detect a Russian launch almost immediately and retaliate with devastating force, but powerless to defend our homeland and loved ones from nuclear aggression.

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