As Putin boasts new nukes, an arms race looms

One graphic depicted an ICBM plunging down on Florida

Matt Saintsing
March 01, 2018 - 12:37 pm

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Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that his country had developed new nuclear-powered missiles completely immune to missile defense, and with unlimited range, sparking new talk of a return to a Cold-War style arms race between two rival nations.

Addressing the nation in a televised speech to the country’s political elite in Moscow Thursday, Putin said their ballistic missiles are capable of penetrating any missile defense system, and can reach any target around the world.

“No defense systems will be able to withstand it,” said Putin, while warning the West that “They need to take account of a new reality and understand…(this)…is not a bluff.”

The announcement came with animation and graphics, with one portraying a nuclear ICBM plunging towards Florida.

Putin’s comments come a day after Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), called Russia “the only existential threat to the country right now.”

While speaking at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Air and Missile Defense conference Wednesday, Hyten said, “I wish I could look at them as friends and partners, but when you have weapons that are clearly built for you as a military officer and as a combatant commander, I don’t get a choice,” adding “I have to figure out how to counter those threats, and I look at them as threats.”

"What we should take away from Putin's comments are, together with those of President Trump, we are starting a new arms race. We don't need that," Philip Coyer, a senior adviser at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Connecting Vets. 

The United States has plenty of conventional capabilities in the face of a potential match-up with Russia, but intercepting ICBMs are much trickier. 

"The problem with intercepting ICBMs is that in the flight intercept tests we've conducted so far our success rate has been very poor since President George W. Bush declared the systems in Alaska operational. The tests have only been successful 40 percent of the time," said Coyers. "When I was in school, 40 percent was not a passing grade."

President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget calls for increasing the number of strategic missile interceptors from 44 to 64, with the additional 20 located at Fort Greely, Alaska.

The Pentagon would also invest heavily into the Navy’s ship-based Aegis system and the Army’s Patriot air and missile defense system—both designed to defend against missile with ranges shorter than ICBMs.

Trump himself has said the country needs an updated nuclear arsenal. “We're modernizing and creating a brand-new nuclear force. And frankly we have to do it because others are doing it," he said in February.

Saber-rattling exchanges between the two nuclear rivals isn't new. Putin's announcement is seen by some experts as a reaction to the United States' missile developments in 2004, when the Russian president warned President Bush that if the U.S. kept developing new missile defenses, Russia would follow suit. 

"If there's one thing we know about President Putin it's when he says he's going to do something, he does it," Coyers added. 

The Russian declaration comes at a time when U.S. national strategy is pivoting away from the Global War on Terror, to focus on great power competition. 

A new national defense strategy, unveiled by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Janurary, prioritizes countering the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” over focusing on fighting terrorism.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis said in a speech presenting the strategy, the first of its kind since 2014. 

The Defense Department's recent budget request of $686 billion emphasizes countering newer emergering threats from Russia and China.