Author/Compiler: Leviticus James

Most of America’s nuclear retaliatory power is inside our Ohio-class missile submarines. Fourteen subs, each carrying up to 192 nuclear warheads. That’s one heaping big American super-sized serving of retaliation!

In addition to the heavily-hyped hypersonic missiles, Russia has also been working on a nuclear torpedo called Poseidon. These are sub-launched and nuclear-powered as well as nuclear-armed. One could be programmed and launched from thousands of miles away. It would swim stealthily underwater into a city’s inner harbour and detonate. If it’s a deep harbour Poseidon can dive to the bottom first, destroying the target with an enormous wave and flooding. Or it can surface, producing the usual heat and shockwave of a ground burst detonation. Russia says they are building 30 Poseidon’s, to be deployed by the end of the decade.

Above: Avangard hypersonic missile in mobile launcher

Above: Poseidon nuclear torpedo (artist’s rendering). Wow, that’s huge!

Both of these research programs were direct responses to US progress in Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABMs). America now has two different ABM systems that Russia knows have reliably made repeated kills in live tests. (Success rate varies from 50% to over 90%. I know 50% doesn’t sound great. But that is for intercepting ICBMs while still in space, a huge technical challenge, and that missile is still in-development)

The doctrine of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD) is still in-effect between the US and Russia, simply because it’s worked for 70 years. Both sides understand and agree that “if I attack you, you’ll still be able to retaliate and destroy me too. If both sides know that we both will always lose in a nuclear exchange, we won’t start one”.

But that “be able to retaliate” part is critical. Even though we’ve agreed not to deploy large enough numbers of ABMs to defend against Russian attacks, that’s a political decision that could change quickly.

The American ABMs are meant to stop nuclear terrorists and “rogue” nuclear powers like North Korea. But if our ABMs threatened to change the playing field so much that Russian ICBMs were no longer a deterrent that could provoke Russia into a first strike attack before they were rendered helpless.

Developing a complex new advanced weapon takes decades. But once it’s ready, if the US did a “race to the Moon” style push and threw a trillion dollars at the project, we could build thousands of ABMs and make Russia’s ICBMs obsolete in about a decade.

If Russia couldn’t retaliate after a US first strike, there’d be nothing but our goodwill left to stop America from destroying them. An intolerable situation for any superpower!

So that’s how I view these new Russian weapons: They aren’t an escalation, just a new delivery system. They will maintain balance between the superpowers. The US will be able to counter the growing threat of small nuclear attacks against us, involving one or a few incoming missiles. Russia will create some new weapons that work around America’s new defences, MAD stays in-effect and we superpowers don’t destroy human civilization.

One more detail I should mention: The two sides here, Russia and US-plus-NATO, are allowed by treaty to each have about 6,000 nuclear weapons. These new weapons won’t be adding more to that total. New weapons will replace older ones, which will then be destroyed and their nuclear material recycled. And the process is monitored by international observers, so no cheating.

Maintaining these delicate balances of power keep the superpowers calm. Well, calmer anyway. MAD has worked for over 70 years. It’s a crazy doctrine that we basically fell into by accident. But it works, and we shouldn’t break it until we have a better one in-place.

This has all happened before: In the early 1950s, the USSR did a study (top secret then, but now declassified and available online) on how to get their nuclear bombers past the new American air defences being constructed, which were quite elaborate and sophisticated: Multiple layers of radar covering the entire continent, a nationwide computer control network, and manned interceptor jets plus nuclear-tipped surface-to-air missiles around the northern and coastal cities.

above: Several Nike Hercules missiles coming at your bombers at Mach 3.5, each carrying a 20kt nuclear warhead, is going to give any bomber formation a very bad day. In my opinion, the Nike Hercules were the coolest-looking missiles ever built. 🙂

The Soviet study concluded that their air forces could not penetrate these defences in enough numbers to successfully carry out an attack. So they looked for a new way to deliver nukes, and that’s exactly how ICBMs and Sputnik came to be. It scared the heck out of America at first, but we had our own ICBMs within a few years.

Above: Soviet R-7 ICBM. An invention that can truly be said to have “changed the world”.