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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT


There Is No Strategic Offence - Strategic Defense Problem

by Valery E. Yarynich

November 25, 2002

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Not much time has passed since May of 2002, when President Bush and President Putin signed a framework agreement on the long-term perspective of reducing strategic nuclear weapons in the two countries. Evaluations of Moscow's surprisingly calm official reaction to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 varied within Russia and abroad. Along with support for, and rational argumentation of President Putin's decision, there is still criticism -- from doubts to direct or veiled accusations of political and military-strategic erring or the infringement of Russia's national interests.

An analysis of publications on the topic shows that often the evaluations and conclusions are developed only in the political plan. And in cases where military-strategic arguments are used for supporting political conclusions, these arguments are of a conjectural nature. This is not surprising, since, on either side of the Atlantic, the contents of plans for global warfare and calculations of adequate nuclear potentials have been kept in utmost secrecy until the present time. Military strategies seek to maintain the right to have a monopoly over answering the question: "What does a nation need to securely protect its interests?" Of course, it is difficult to fully trust deductions and recommendations made in the open press under these conditions, and to use them for the formation of a position toward the policy of the top leadership on a question as critical as the threat of nuclear war. And yet it would be nice to have this opportunity.

It is pointless to hope for a revolution in the attitude towards the secrecy of nuclear war plans and a sudden decision of the governments to open the calculations of adequate nuclear potentials kept in the Pentagon and the General Staff. But, it looks as if this is not necessary. It seems that it could be possible to use simple logic to determine whether Bush and Putin are right in their coordinated decision, or whether one or both of them have made a serious mistake. In general, many simple people have an intuitive sense that they are right and are very calm about their decision and the developments in this sphere. Yet we are not talking about this majority of people with common sense, but about those who don't tire of yelling "help!" and obstructing further movement in the right direction.

Because this really is the correct joint political decision under present conditions, a decision that does not contradict the national security interests of Russia, the US, or anyone else. Let's try to prove this. At the same time we will leave aside the current political calculations as well as the existing economic "basis" of Russia's decision: that, supposedly, it would like to maintain a threatening nuclear arsenal, but cannot. Let's take only the purely military-strategic aspect of the security problem, which should be the primary criterion for the accuracy of political decisions.


President Putin went against the standard official calculations of the military and ignored its fears regarding a future National Missile Defense (NMD) system and its influence on the effectiveness of Russian nuclear retaliation. It is not known for certain whether this was his personal decision, based on common sense, or he listened to the arguments of those experts who managed to escape the habitual framework of evaluating the sufficiency of nuclear deterrence that was established over the years of the Cold War.

In Russian and foreign open sources, the scheme for such traditional calculations is occasionally presented. It is brilliant in its simplicity: Let's say Russia has 5,000 nuclear warheads (blocks) in combat alert. After an initial powerful US attack (not necessarily nuclear) only 200 will remain (also hypothetically). Let's say the US has an NMD with 90% effectiveness. Then, "calculations show" that 20 blocks from the Russian retaliatory attack will reach their targets on US territory. If this result is not considered adequate for deterring the US, then Russia's security cannot be guaranteed. Wonderful!

The numbers used in this example are conditional, and they are not important. The important thing is that this method itself is incorrect: one cannot use fixed (averaged) evaluations of the extent of the attacks (the first attack of the aggressor as well as the retaliation) and the effectiveness of the NMD system. All of these processes work on chance, and in the multiple modeling of every concrete scenario of the war, one gets a large range of various results of retaliation. The correct method is to evaluate all of the results instead of using only the most likely (the most frequent) outcomes for the conflict.

For example, the right approach to analyzing results of the modeling can present us with the following scenario. In 1000 cases played out by this scenario, there would be 970 "weak" retaliations with no more than 5-6 blocks. But in 30 cases, the retaliation would be no less than 200 blocks. Is this range of possible retaliation results sufficient for keeping the Americans from attacking first?

It would be best, of course, to ask the Americans themselves. Maybe one day we will reach that level of partnership and cooperate in creating models for ensuring the safety of mutual deterrence. But in the meanwhile we can take a look from the Russian point of view. Apparently, even a unilateral evaluation of the aforementioned results should be rational, and it seems that 200 blocks with a probability of 0.03 are a sufficient factor of deterrence for a "potential aggressor." At the same time, 5-6 blocks with a probability of 0.97 are neither a gift, nor a cause for hesitating in making a decision "to attack first or not?" A careful reader might ask: what does probability have to do with anything? A nuclear war (God forbid!) can only happen once!

As the saying is, thanks for good question. This is the essence of the right approach. With a single "real case" there can be any retaliation. Including one that is unacceptable in all aspects. The awareness of the existence of such a catastrophe is the real factor of deterrence -- even with the small probability of this outcome.

Of course, one can't say that military analysts have not or do not use the probability approach in evaluating nuclear deterrence. They have been and are doing so, and statistical modeling is no news to them. But for some reason they do not take into account the "least likely but most horrible" possibilities of retaliation. These are rejected as extraneous and uncharacteristic, as is the practice in regular multiple modeling. But here we are talking about a phenomenon as unique as nuclear war, even if a hypothetical one. And the method of analyzing possible outcomes must be unique as well.

It's possible that the given correct method is already being used for official evaluations. In that case, why not speak openly about it -- there is nothing secret in the method itself. And the benefit from such reciprocated information is immeasurable. If the Russians know that the Americans are using the same approach, that they are thinking the same way, then they should stop being afraid of the impending US NMD, no matter how effective it would be. And at the same time, they should calmly continue decreasing their nuclear arsenals within the framework proscribed by the gentlemen's agreement of May of 2002.

Apparently Vladimir Putin understood this when he signed the aforementioned Russian-American agreement. And it's possible that he and George Bush discussed their opinions of this simple truth at the Texas ranch.


The reflections on the nature of mutual nuclear deterrence can be used by the American side as a foundation for the argument that Russia has nothing to fear from the impending US NMD. China as well. It's possible that the exchange of opinions on the given approach between official experts of the nuclear nations is underway, but there is no open information on such contacts.

When looking through the given prism at the American position on the development of a National Missile Defense system, the question arises: how is the situation with the assurance of the protection of US territory from one-time launches of missiles from rogue states? Most of the media currently uses the following formula: The US NMD cannot stand up to a nuclear attack of adequate scale (read: Russia); but it will be able to protect the nation from one-time launches. Neither statement is true.

It is clear from what was said above that the correct forecast for the NMD of any level is: "anything can happen." In other words, it can be even that no single Russian nuclear block will reach US territory in a retaliation attack -- i.e., the NMD will work with 100% effectiveness. However, most likely "some" will make it. Nor is everything so certain concerning missiles from the rogue states. One cannot give a 100% guarantee that one or two nuclear (or biological or chemical) blocks will not fall on some American city. Of course, the more powerful the NMD, the less is the probability of this -- down to insignificant. And yet this probability remains, and this condition can give international terrorists a cause for blackmail. The only way to avoid this, is to get rid of the object of the blackmail -- the missiles.

But then -- why the NMD? The question seems silly, and it seems that the circle has closed.

It appears that there is an explanation. One can't forbid a nation to try to protect itself. One can't deprive a concrete person from the hope that -- at the critical moment -- the NMD will save his house from a treacherous attack or from an accidentally launched missile. And if the Americans are finding money for the creation of this hope -- even if it's not 100% certain -- well, that's their business. At the same time the US will make a new technological leap forward, drawing further ahead of other countries. The US has a right to do that as well.

Any speculation about Strategic Offensive Weapons (SOW) and NMD can be refuted by a simple argument. One cannot be condemned for trying to protect oneself from an attack from without -- no one is arguing about the Ballistic Missile Defense system around Moscow. But never will a rational leader of a great nation think about attacking a nuclear country first, from underneath the NMD (BMD) shield -- because no system can guarantee absolute impunity.

The inference from the above is simple and obvious: It's time for Russian and American experts to sit down at one computer and jointly prove the absence of a SOW - NMD problem. It's possible to do this without imposing on each other's "holiest of holies," but by simply relying on conventional initial data.

Col. Valery E. Yarynich, Ret. is a Candidate of Military Sci., Professor of the Academy for Military Sciences. He holds the position of Visiting Associate Professor of California State University San Bernardino since June, 2001. Col. Yarynich is the author of "Evaluation of A Guarantee" (Moscow State University of International Relations, 1994) and many articles on the issues of arms control and strategic stability in Russian and foreign periodicals.

The opinion expressed reflects the author's view only and may not coincide with the views of the STAR Site editorial board.

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