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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Rockets for No Man's War




One of Russia's new intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, the Topol-M (SS-27), exploded shortly after takeoff recently, casting a pall on plans to modernize the country's strategic forces. However, ballistic missiles regularly explode during tests in all countries where such technologies are developed. Soviet missiles also exploded in the past, sometimes killing hundreds of technicians and officials. But under Communist rule such mishaps were never reported.


The explosion of the SS-27 after the fifth launch can hardly be considered a serious setback. The U.S.-made TAAD antiballistic missile has failed in all test launches, yet still the U.S. Defense Department and Congress continue to pump billions into the project as if nothing happened.


Many military products, including ICBMs, are tested and deployed under rules of reliability that are far more lax than those applied to civilian aircraft or missiles that send commercial payloads and men into space. Reliability is not really that much of a problem since no one actually intends to use ICBMs in any real war.


All professional Russian military officers I have ever spoken to, including those from the Strategic Rocket Forces, told me that they do not believe that nuclear war is possible. "They [the Americans] will never attack us, since they know we will destroy them and we, of course, will also never go on the offensive." Russian generals say they never genuinely believed all the hullabaloo about "aggressive Western imperialists attacking the Fatherland." Still, the same Russian generals deliberately used this imaginary threat to pump more money into the defense budget.


The new Topol-M ICBM could have been made of tin, but even such a hoax would not destroy the "nuclear balance" or cause war. Nuclear deterrence is a balance of fear - not a balance of real weapons or military capabilities. In the nuclear age, a bundle of chopsticks can sometimes "balance" a nuclear warship.


During the Cold War there was often no numerical "nuclear balance" whatsoever, while Russia and the United States constantly lied about their nuclear capabilities. Today, former Soviet defense officials say that the Soviet SS-11 ICBMs were considered so unreliable and unsafe that most of these silo-based missiles were deployed in the 70s without nuclear warheads. The SS-11s were to have been tipped with nuclear warheads only in an emergency that never happened in the end. Today, all 326 SS-11 ICBMs have been successfully scrapped under the START I nuclear disarmament treaty.


During the Cold War both sides knew the other was lying, but neither ever ventured to take the terrible risk of calling the other's bluff and launching a nuclear attack. On the contrary, the military establishment on both sides of the Iron Curtain confirmed the enemy bluff so as to scare their respective political leaders into spending more money on defense.


During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis Russia had no more than five ICBMs that could reach North America. These were the bulky SS-6 rockets of the same type that had put the first sputnik and the first man into space.


Using these ICBMs, a handful of easily detectable strategic bombers and some medium-range missiles already sneaked into Cuba, the Soviet Union in 1962 could have landed no more than 20 warheads on U.S. territory, while the Soviet Union would have been scorched with thousands of bombs, together with Western Europe.


Several big American cities would have been destroyed in 1962, millions would have died, but Main Street America would have survived to rule the world unchanged. But nuclear deterrence still worked.


Today, China has four silo-based ICBMs that can actually reach the United States. Nevertheless, the United States with its 8,000-plus warheads and bombs treats Beijing with all due respect as a nuclear power. So why should Russia continue to seek costly "nuclear balance?"


The problem with the new Topol-M is not its reliability, but that Russia does not need it at all. Russia also does not really need the unratified START II treaty or the follow up START III. These disarmament treaties are based on the flawed principle of numerical nuclear balance. No surprise the Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev supports START. Only in the context of "nuclear balance" can Sergeyev continue to squander resources on making ICBMs no one needs and no one will ever use.


Pavel Felgenhauer is the chief defense correspondent of Segodnya.