Russian President Vladimir Putin recently revealed that Russia has begun to acquire its own version of the US military’s “Conventional Prompt Global Strike” (CPGS) capability. If true, it would appear that Mr. Putin has willfully disregarded his own criticism of such capabilities.
Initially proposed by the Bush administration, CPGS foresaw a conventional high-precision strike capability that could strike any target in the world with a conventional payload in less than one hour. Traditionally, only nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) could strike a target at such a range and within such a short time-frame. Given the dis-utility of nuclear weapons for most military contingencies, the US military believed that a conventional weapon with similar attributes could provide greater flexibility in situations requiring a quick military response short of a nuclear strike.
Now, President Putin has made it clear that Russia wants its own high-precision strike capability. Speaking to senior government officials in Moscow last week, the Russian president outlined his belief that high-precision weapons were now “becoming an increasingly important factor in non-nuclear deterrence” and presented a real “alternative” to nuclear weapons. He went on to claim that the Russian military has itself begun acquiring such “high-precision weapons.”
The announcement is somewhat surprising considering Russian deputy defense minister Yuriy Borisov suggested in July that Russia would not receive high-precision strike delivery systems until 2018 at the earliest. More surprising still is Mr. Putin’s apparent disregard for his own criticism of high-precision strike capabilities that was leveled at America’s CPGS program over five years ago.
Originally, US plans foresaw converting existing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, which already met CPGS speed requirements, to carry conventional payloads. Senior Russian officials promptly criticized these plans by highlighting the fact that no adversary could be sure that a CPGS ballistic missile was carrying a non-nuclear warhead. Existing early warning capabilities can only confirm the launch of a ballistic missile but cannot discern what type of warhead it is carrying. In view of this uncertainty, combined with the short time-frame to act as a result of the ballistic missile’s speed, a nuclear-armed adversary could feel compelled to retaliate with its nuclear weapons.
Embedded within this criticism is the accompanying fear that a true American CPGS capability could pose a conventional first-strike threat to Russian strategic nuclear forces. In May 2006, President Putin told the Russian Parliament that any CPGS launch “could spark an inadequate reaction by nuclear powers, including full-scale retaliation strikes.”
And indeed, Mr. Putin and his cohorts were correct to raise their criticism of the danger posed by the ambiguity of CPGS launches. Given the history of accidental near-launches, failure of early warning systems and the tendency for leaders to make hasty decisions in psychologically stressful situations, the likelihood that a converted ballistic missile could trigger a nuclear escalation is a very legitimate concern.
Responding to this fear, the US Air Force has since attempted to solve this problem by developing non-ballistic “boost-glide” delivery systems such as the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. These delivery systems are discernible from ballistic missiles primarily due to their maneuverability, a capacity that ballistic missiles do not possess. As a result, the escalatory risks associated with the inherent ambitiousness of a ballistic missile launch are considerably dampened (although, as James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment stresses, other escalatory problems exist with a “boost glide” CPGS weapon).
However, despite showing interest in these advanced technologies, there is little evidence that Russia has actually successfully developed and acquired them itself. If Putin is telling the truth and the Russian military has begun receiving high-precision strike capabilities of the sort he claims, then the only delivery system realistically available to the Russian military is some type of converted ballistic missile. And indeed, comments made last year by Sergey Karakeav, commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, suggest that converting existing ballistic missiles may be the route Russia is now taking.
Of course, the risk of ambiguity ominously articulated by Mr. Putin would also surround the launch of any Russian precision-strike ballistic missile weapon. While the US’s early warning systems are more advanced than Russia’s, they, like Russia’s, cannot discern the exact type of warhead any given ballistic missile is carrying. Other nuclear powers which would also take notice of any ballistic missile launch from Russia, such as China, the UK and France, would likewise be unable to discern the difference between a conventional or nuclear launch.
Russia is therefore playing a risky game if it is indeed developing and acquiring this type of high-precision strike capability as Mr. Putin contends. The array of risks potentially leading to nuclear escalation is still unacceptably high and the addition of Russian high-precision ballistic strike capabilities could add a further dimension.