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Russia Is Getting New Nuclear Missiles — But It's Probably Not the End of the World

Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will deploy 40 new nuclear ICBMs in the coming year, but it's not necessarily the beginning of the end of the world.

by Ryan Faith
Jun 20 2015, 1:20pm

Photo via EPA/Ria Novosti

Speaking at the opening ceremony of a military theme park outside of Moscow, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will deploy 40 new nuclear ICBMs in the coming year, prompting a great deal of handwringing about the prospect of a new nuclear arms race between the US and Russia and a return to the bad old days of the Cold War.

But fear not! You can put down your shovel and stop digging that fallout shelter — this is not the beginning of the end of the world.

Granted, Putin made this new nuke proclamation just days after the US announced it would be prepositioning forces in various NATO member states in Eastern Europe, leading some folks to make a connection between the two. But the notion that the ICBMs are a response to NATO escalation is nonsense. 

Related: US Plan for Eastern Europe Is 'Not Provocative,' Says NATO Head — Yet Moscow Disagrees

Russia's plans to modernize its military have been on the books for quite some time, and Putin is pretty much in keeping up with his previous statements on this. The only change is that Putin said six months ago Russia would have 50 missiles instead of 40.

Jeffrey Lewis, a leading expert on nuclear weapons issues, told VICE News that the slight reduction in missiles is not necessarily significant. "It's clear that they're modernizing their force, but they've been doing this for a long time, and it's happening now because they're behind schedule," he said. "It's not great news, but it's unsurprising." The reduction from 50 to 40 missiles may simply reflect typical delays, he explained.

Lewis added that it certainly seems Putin is "trying to make [this announcement] newsworthy."

"Putin has tried to link this to recent events, but this was a decision that was made a couple of years ago," he said. "The modernization that's happening this year doesn't reflect recent tensions it reflects the kind of crappy relationship we've had for the last five or six years."

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Russia's nuclear modernization may come as a surprise, but the fact is that systems get old and need to be replaced. Russian nuclear missiles are no exception to this. And with any modernization program, Russian defense planners and engineers are no different than any of their counterparts: They have a definite preference for erring on the side of caution.

The new road-mobile missiles that Russia will field sport a number of advancements over their predecessors, particularly in the way they can defeat missile defense systems. Those enhancements are collectively called "penetration aids," which is probably a pretty poor choice of jargon for an already incredibly phallic system. Now, there's a lot of open debate about whether the US missile defense system is even aimed at Russia, not to mention questions about whether it even works at all.

There's a school of thought in defense planning and estimating threats that revolves around the premise that you defend against capabilities, rather than banking on intentions. In other words, planning based on what your hypothetical opponent is capable of, rather than fooling around and guessing what they may feel like doing. In this view, it makes perfect sense for the Russians to plan around what their presumptive nuclear opponent, the US, is capable of doing.

Related: America's Aging Nuclear Arsenal and the 'Earth-Shattering Kaboom'

According to Lewis, the kind of land-based, mobile missiles that Russia is planning on fielding next year are the backbone of the Kremlin's strategic deterrent. The big nightmare scenario for Russian nuclear warfighters is that the US would launch a sneak attack that would take out the Russian leadership in what's called a "decapitation strike." In the ensuing madness, Russia would only be able to get a few missiles in the air.

In that scenario, the US missile defense system wouldn't be faced with the prospect of defeating clouds of inbound Russian nukes. If that were to happen, even a limited missile defense could conceivably stand a fighting chance of blocking most or all of the Russian retaliatory strike. Without the guaranteed of ability to launch a devastating retaliatory strike, the Russian thinking goes, the balance of terror that underpins mutually assured destruction would be threatened. And that just won't do.

If you accept that premise, then Russia's program to modernize their nuclear force, including development of a lot of penetration aids, is perfectly reasonable. The fact that this ongoing modernization program is happening at the same time the US is beefing up its missile defense systems in Europe would therefore appear to be an almost-instant validation of logic behind the missile upgrade program.

Making a public announcement about that program is basically a political statement to the West, and a validation of the decision to modernize the Russian military, rather than a direct military threat per se. Putin probably didn't set out on a mission of so-called "nuclear saber rattling," but rather he needed to rattle something back at the West, and found a handy nuclear saber right in front of him. It's certainly not great news, but reading too much into the announcement would be a mistake.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter:@Operation_Ryan