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Q&A: Arms Expert Says Putin's Weapons Boasts Look Like 'Overkill'

Putin's 'Invincible' New Weapons
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President Vladimir Putin used a speech before lawmakers and other Russian officials on March 1 to accuse the international community of attempting "to contain Russia" and vowed that a new generation of strategic, homegrown, nuclear-capable weapons would compel the international community "to listen to us now."

Questions emerged quickly about the capabilities and preparedness of Russia to deploy the array of nuclear-powered, hypersonic, and underwater weapons he described, despite his assurance that it was "no bluff."

RFE/RL talked to Ian Williams, an associate fellow and associate director in the Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) International Security Program who focuses on missile defense and strategic forces and deterrence, about whether Putin might have broken new strategic ground or put the United States on the defensive.

RFE/RL: What are you first impressions of Putin's speech today?

Ian Williams: It follows a long pattern, I think, of Russians' professed attitude towards what the U.S. is doing. Particularly the Putin regime attitude that the United States is trying to encircle them and trying to negate their strategic-deterrent force through missile defenses and a variety of other deployments. I think this is in some ways a culmination of that paranoia and fear.

ALSO READ: 'I'm Not Bluffing': Putin Boasts Of New, Advanced Russian Arsenal

I do think again, and it's somewhat unjustified -- I think their opinion of the capabilities of U.S. missile defenses is much greater than they actually are. We look at our missile defenses -- we really think of them as being defenses against much lower-tier threats like North Korea, Iran -- countries with less-sophisticated and smaller missile capabilities. We have nowhere near the capability to even put a dent in Russia's strategic deterrent with our [currently] deployed interceptors.

So, the new technologies and the new missiles they are deploying are really just piling on to an already very capable strategic deterrent.

Ian Williams
Ian Williams

RFE/RL: Was there anything that surprised you from the various missile and weapons programs that were announced today? Something that you hadn't heard about before?

Williams: I think the nuclear-powered cruise missile is the one that is getting the most attention. I was a little shocked when they said "nuclear powered." I thought they meant nuclear tipped, and then realized...they actually are talking about a nuclear-fueled cruise missile…. It's actually not new technology, per se, the United States actually experimented with nuclear-powered missiles back in the 1960s...and it worked, but ultimately the intercontinental-ballistic missile...that technology became more attainable and was seen as being more practical and so we gave up on the long-range intercontinental cruise missile idea, but it is something that it looks like Russia has revived and brought back, which is quite interesting.

Putin used massive video screens to show off Russia's new "strategic weapons," almost all of which he suggested were nuclear-capable.
Putin used massive video screens to show off Russia's new "strategic weapons," almost all of which he suggested were nuclear-capable.

RFE/RL: I don't know if you've seen, but just a few minutes ago there have been reports that the Russians have twice tested this new nuclear-powered ballistic missile in the Arctic and they were unsuccessful and the missiles crashed.

Williams: That does confirm one of the concerns that I have when I first learned about the concept of a nuclear-powered missile. We have these nuclear reactors on a lot of military things, mostly ships and submarines. And you know there is enough danger having them on those -- there's been...eight or nine nuclear-powered submarines that have sunk over the years and these things are sitting at the bottom of the ocean. If you start having these things flying around, you can imagine the danger of nuclear material being spread and the risk of accidents.

RFE/RL: Do you think the U.S. military was surprised today by anything that it heard from Putin?

Williams: It's hard to know what the Pentagon knows, but it certainly was a surprise to us in the open-source community. It's possible they have intelligence on this beforehand so were not surprised. I think perhaps the tone of it and how they have rolled these things out…. This is almost a kind of North Korean way of announcing a new weapons system. They had big fanfare about it. It's not typically something Russia does.

I would imagine it certainly is a concern over at the Pentagon, these new kinds of technology. It doesn't fundamentally shift too much -- we're currently very vulnerable to Russian cruise missiles. You know the big distinction between a cruise missile and a ballistic missile is that a ballistic missile flies very high, it flies into space, sort of on an arc; a cruise missile flies more like an airplane. It flies flat, along the curve of the Earth; they fly very low. They are both interceptable by missile defenses, but they are a slightly different challenge.

With ballistic missiles, the challenge is hitting them because they are moving so fast. With cruise missiles, the challenge is seeing them coming because they fly so low and often times below radars and so you need some other kind of sensor to see them coming. Once you do see them coming, they are fairly easy to hit because they are just like shooting down an airplane.

So the fact that this is a nuclear-powered cruise missile means that it has an almost unlimited range -- you could have it flying around for long periods of time before you order it to hit something, which would be new…. [But] I wouldn't say this makes it impossible to shoot them down. We certainly don't have the infrastructure in place to detect cruise missiles right now. We're really geared toward ballistic missiles. But we certainly could, I think, craft a cruise-missile defense system for the U.S. homeland.

RFE/RL: So when Putin says that some of these weapons he announced today will render missile defense useless, does that ring true to you?

Williams: It rings true in the sense that our ballistic-missile defense systems would not be of use. So these 44 interceptors that we have deployed in Alaska defending the United States against ballistic missiles, you know, these high-flying missiles that can fly through space. The kind of missile defenses that we have in Europe, so these facilities that we have in Poland and in Romania, these systems cannot intercept missiles in the atmosphere. They only work in space.

So, from that perspective, yes, these new Russian cruise missiles would render [them so that they]...would not be useful against a cruise missile.

RFE/RL: There's a meme going around on Twitter earlier today that said Putin was engaging in "nuclear trolling." Does that sound accurate?

By trolling, do you mean that he's perhaps faking it?

RFE/RL: Well, that he's kind of giving it to the [United States]...

I think they likely have developed this technology, so I think the fact that he wants to rub our faces in it is no surprise. That's kind of how he operates. I think he relishes any opportunity to do that, to appear to have a technological leg up on the United States. I think he certainly relishes in that.

RFE/RL: He said there's no equivalent in the West to all these weapons. Does that sound right?

Well, we don't have a nuclear-powered cruise missile. We do have a lot of cruise missiles that are very accurate and can do a lot of interesting things. You know, you have things like the Tomahawk Block IV, which is the latest Tomahawk that we're deploying. It has the ability to change targets after being launched; they can talk to each other -- you can fire several and they can communicate with each other and then coordinate reassigning targets. They're very flexible; it's pretty impressive. And the precision that they have is pretty incredible.

So no, we don't have a cruise missile that's powered with a nuclear reactor, but we do have a lot of very capable weapons in the U.S. arsenal that can go toe to toe [with Russia]. And when you look at being able to hit anywhere on Earth, and from a nuclear weapons perspective, we have the U.S. nuclear triad (Editor's note: He's referring to the United States' three delivery options for nuclear weapons: land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), which has the ability to strike anywhere on Earth.

RFE/RL: How about the hypersonic capability, at 20 times the speed of sound. Is that something that the U.S. has as well?

Williams: ...All the three big powers -- the United States, Russia, and China -- have some kind of hypersonic glide-vehicle program. But the thing about hypersonic glide vehicles, they're not like cruise missiles. They're like a combination between a cruise missile and a ballistic missile.

Again, when you're looking at Russia, China, United States, these countries are very vulnerable -- already -- to each other's existing, conventional, normal nuclear ballistic missiles. Russia can penetrate the U.S. missile-defense system right now, without any new technologies. We don't have the capacity -- the numbers that they do -- there's no way. Nowhere near. And we're probably not going to anytime soon. So I think all of these kinds of hypersonic, boost-glide vehicles, these new kinds of propulsion systems -- a lot of it is just overkill, I think, from their part. But if that's what they want to spend their money on. I don't think it fundamentally changes the strategic situation, the strategic balance of power, at all.

RFE/RL: Putin today somewhat blamed the U.S. for forcing his hand into doing this by going back to 2002 when the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. What do you think of that charge?

I think that's kind of revisionist history. When we did withdraw from the ABM Treaty, if you look at the initial statements that Putin himself made, they were very measured. It was an expression of disappointment, but he admitted at that time that it was not a threat, didn't pose a threat to Russia. That rhetoric has changed over the years as it has become convenient for Putin. But to go back and say that we started this with the [ABM Treaty] withdrawal [is inaccurate].

RFE/RL: Do you think that any of these weapons announced by Putin today breach the current U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaties?

Williams: I don't think so. In order to stay compliant with the New START treaty, which is the main arms-control treaty that we have right now, as long as they stay under a certain warhead count, it doesn't really matter what those warheads are on or how they're delivered.

One question would be the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which forbids the U.S. or Russia from deploying ground-launched missiles capable of hitting between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. This would [possibly] bend that a little bit, because if you ground-launched it, it certainly could land earlier than its maximum range, which if it's unlimited, is hard to say. I would probably say it doesn't violate any of these things. But it's hard to say until you can actually see what this missile is and what its capabilities actually are. The INF distinctions are somewhat arbitrary.... But we know that Russia is already violating the INF Treaty with other ground-launched cruise missiles -- not this new one but with other ones. We've known that for some time.

RFE/RL: Do you think this puts us in a new arms race or escalates a current one? Does the U.S. have to respond in kind?

I don't think the U.S. needs to respond in kind. When you have a lot more low-flying -- one of the cornerstones of stability is the ability to see an attack coming. If we have Russian missiles heading toward the United States, we need to be able to see them coming so we can prepare our response -- that's part of our deterrent, our retaliatory deterrent.

So if we do have a lot of lower-flying cruise missiles, or hypersonic-glide vehicles, what we need to do instead of trying to create similar weapons [is to] create some kind of system where we can see them coming. We have many radars right now so that we can see ballistic missiles incoming. But these are different kinds of threats. They may fly differently and they may fly underneath those existing early warning radars. So a good thing [for the United States] to do...would be to develop and start deploying, augmenting, that early warning radar system with new kinds of sensors that can detect these low-flying threats so that we have some warning if we are under attack. I think that's important.

And then the next step after that, I think, would be looking at some kind of defense: How can you shoot these things down? But first you would need a sensor architecture; that would be a first step. I don't see a reason to start developing nuclear-powered cruise missiles or even the hypersonic stuff. Nobody can stop a U.S. Minuteman ICBM right now, and no one appears to be trying to, so why invest more now? But on the defensive side, the detection and early warning and defense, there are opportunities to explore.