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Hypersonic Hype

Hypersonic missiles are not a terrifying new weapon. They are just another cog in the terrifying but remarkably stable strategy called nuclear deterrence.

“The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered service at 10:00 Moscow time on 27 December,” boasted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – and nobody quailed in their boots.

The new Russian missile can deliver nuclear weapons, of course, and the Russians are very proud of it. As President Vladimir Putin said, “Not a single (other) country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons.” They’ll all be green with envy.

A hypersonic missile’s warheads launch on a rocket, just like the traditional Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). However, instead of going very high and travelling most of the distance through space in a predictable ‘ballistic’ trajectory before plunging back down into the atmosphere and striking their target, the hypersonic missile’s warheads go low early.

The hypersonic missile launches on a ‘depressed’ trajectory, and then a ‘glide vehicle’ detaches from the rocket and skips along the edge of the atmosphere, travelling at up to twenty times the speed of sound. It only comes over the horizon and becomes visible to the enemy’s missile defence radars when it’s much closer to the target.

Even better, it can manoeuvre on the way in to its target, which makes it harder to intercept. As Putin proudly said, “The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defence.” Indeed, he claimed, everybody else is “playing catch-up with us.”

This would be deeply alarming to Russia’s potential adversaries if all the orthodox, traditional ICBM had suddenly become vulnerable to interception. Then only the Russians would have missiles that could get through the other side’s defences, and so they would rule the world. But in fact there are no effective defences against mass attacks by conventional ICBMs.

The United States has been working on anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems since Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ fantasies of almost four decades ago, and it does have one active ABM site in Alaska. It might be able to stop one or even two incoming ICBMs launched by, let’s say, North Korea. It certainly couldn’t stop the hundreds of ICBMs that Russia would launch in any real nuclear war.

The problem with any kind of anti-missile defence system is that it’s relatively cheap and easy to overwhelm it by sheer numbers. The dumb old ICBMs will still get through any ABM defences if used in quantity, which is how they would certainly be used in any great-power war. Hypersonic missiles are wonderfully fast and clever, but they’re also expensive and quite unnecessary.

So why has Russia spent what is clearly a great deal of money to develop a snazzy but pointless weapon? Because the ‘metal-eaters’ alliance’, the Russian equivalent of the US ‘military-industrial complex’, is still alive and kicking despite the demise of the old Soviet Union. Developing new weapons is what it does, whether they are needed or not.

This provides an entire Russian industry with interesting and well-paid jobs. In return, the industry provides the regime with cool new weapons that make it look powerful and even fearsome to people who don’t understand nuclear deterrence. These cool new weapons don’t actually change the strategic realities, but who cares? Nobody’s really planning to use them anyway.

That is not to say that nuclear weapons are not dangerous. Of course they are, and although nuclear deterrence has kept nuclear war at bay for three-quarters of a century, there is no guarantee that it will work forever. We would be much safer if these weapons were abolished.

But the long strategic stalemate will not be destabilised by some flashy new gadget like hypersonic missiles. As long as no effective defence is available against mass attacks with nuclear-armed missiles, mutual deterrence will persist. The only technological development that could really undermine it is directed-energy weapons.

High-energy lasers and particle-beam weapons would be far more effective than the ground-launched missiles employed in today’s rudimentary ABM systems. They would function at light speed, they would have absolutely flat trajectories (which allows precise targeting), and above all they would be able to switch almost instantaneously from one target to the next.

In theory, therefore, directed-energy weapons would make effective defence possible against any nuclear attack using missiles, whether they are ICBMs, cruise missiles, or hypersonic gliders. In practice, however, nobody has come up with an operationally credible directed-energy weapon in forty-plus years of trying.

Maybe one day they will, but until then innovations like hypersonic missiles are just minor new wrinkles in an essentially unchanging strategic scene. Both the Americans and the Chinese have been experimenting with the same hypersonic technologies, but neither is in any rush to deploy them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“This provides…abolished”)

US-Russia: Pressing the “Reset” Button

6 March 2009

US-Russia: Pressing the “Reset” Button

 By Gwynne Dyer

Over the past year the United States and Russia have been drifting into a hostile relationship, driven by the US decision to install anti-missile defences in eastern Europe, the war in Georgia last August, and the recent fiasco over Russian natural gas supplies to Europe. There was nervous chatter about a new Cold War, but last month US Vice-President Joe Biden said that the Obama administration was going to “press the reset button” in its relations with Russia. Now it has done it.

At the NATO summit on 5 March, the alliance agreed to resume high-level contacts with Moscow in the NATO-Russia Council, which were suspended after the Georgian war. The following day, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brussels and gave him a mock reset button. “There was a rather confrontational approach towards Russia in the prior administration,” she explained.

The notion of a new Cold War was pretty silly anyway, since Russia, unlike the old Soviet Union, is not a “peer competitor” to the United States. It has only half America’s population, its former industrial base has largely evaporated, and the only areas in which it is technologically competitive with the rest of the developed world are defence and space.

Even if there were a NATO-Russian confrontation, it would a little local difficulty, not a world-spanning Cold War.

None of the disputes and misunderstandings between Washington and Moscow came from a hostile intent on either side. Take the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences being built in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Bush administration said that the interceptor missiles and radars of the system were there to intercept nuclear-tipped long-range missiles fired by Iran, and expected the Russians to believe it.

Unsurprisingly, the Russians didn’t believe it, because Iran has neither missiles capable of reaching the United States nor any nuclear warheads to put on them. So Moscow thought the ABM system was really intended to shoot down Russian missiles and thus undermine the country’s ability to deter the United States.

Russia worked itself into such a lather about the ABM missiles that President Dmitry Medvedev announced on the day after Barack Obama’s election victory last November that short-range Russian missiles would be installed in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Polish border, to destroy those American bases on short notice. But the ABM missiles are in the wrong place to intercept Russian ICBMs, and they don’t really work anyway.

They have never worked properly, despite tens of billions of dollars poured into the ABM project (aka “Star Wars”, National Missile Defence, etc.) during the past quarter-century. The sole practical result of the programme, over the whole of its existence, has been to pour money into the pockets of American defence contractors. But the Russians are too paranoid to accept that, and the programme has such strong support in Congress that the Obama administration is merely “reviewing” it, rather than cancelling it outright.

As for the war in Georgia last August, it was Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili who started it, not the Russians. They responded violently to Georgia’s attempt to conquer South Ossetia in a surprise offensive, but they did not stay long in Georgia itself, nor did they seize the capital, Tbilisi, although the road was wide open.

Hillary Clinton still insists that the door is open to Georgian membership in NATO, but that would simply turn it into a two-class alliance. Regardless of what promises they made, NATO countries would never really fight a war with Russia on Georgia’s behalf.

It’s the same with the quarrel between Russia and Ukraine over the price of gas that left half of eastern Europe freezing in their homes last December. There was incompetence and bloody-mindedness aplenty on both sides, but it wasn’t part of some Russian master-plan for world domination.

So it is high time to reset the relationship.

There are belligerent minor players on both sides, but the Obama administration seems to have sent out orders to squelch them. Last week, for example, a couple of Russian bombers flew to within a couple of hundred kilometres (miles) of Canada’s Arctic coast, a mere five thousand kilometres (three thousand miles) from the Canadian capital.

Canada scrambled fighters to “send a strong signal that they should back off and stay out of our airspace,” according to Defence Minister Peter McKay, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper sternly declared that Canada would not be intimidated. “This government has responded every time the Russians have done that,” he said. “We will defend our airspace.” But the Russians were not in Canada’s airspace.

“The Russians have conducted themselves professionally,” responded General Gene Renuart, the American officer who commands NORAD, the Canada-US air defence alliance, in an implicit rebuke to the sabre-rattling Canadians. “They have maintained compliance with the international rules of airspace compliance and have not entered the internal airspace of either country.”

That is probably just what the Obama administration wants from

Russia: a professional relationship between two grown-up countries that know and respect the rules. For a start, Hillary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov committed the two countries to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by the end of the year, but more will follow. The tide has turned.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“The notion…War”; and


The Missile Defence Scam

27 August 2008

The Missile Defence Scam

By Gwynne Dyer

Cynicism and hypocrisy are always part of international politics, but in the case of Poland and the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) missiles everybody is over-fulfilling their norm. Nobody involved in the controversy, Polish, Russian or American, believes a single word they are saying about this misbegotten missile defence system, whose principal characteristic is that it doesn’t work — never has, and probably never will. And yet we’re all expected to report what they say as if it mattered.

Washington insists that the ABM missiles are being put into Poland to protect the United States and its allies from Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles (which do not exist) tipped with nuclear warheads (which Iran doesn’t have either). Yet after months when U.S.-Polish talks on the subject were stalled, suddenly last Wednesday Warsaw agreed to provide a base for the “missile defence system” — because it would infuriate the Russians.

The Poles, who are anxious about Russia’s intentions in the light of recent events in Georgia, want to send a signal of defiance to Moscow and get a permanent American military base of some kind on their soil. They’re not worried about non-existent Iranian missiles — and if they do occasionally worry about very real Russian missiles, they are not so foolish as to believe that this American missile defence system would actually protect them. It doesn’t work.

So why are the Russians so upset about all this? Why did General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, publicly warn Poland last week that hosting the American interceptors could make it the target for a nuclear strike? Don’t the Russians know they don’t work?

Of course they do, but the Russian military, like any professional military force, need a dramatic foreign threat to justify their demands on Russia’s resources, and for that purely political purpose the American missiles work fine. Russian strategists claim that this system is actually intended to shoot down Russian ballistic missiles, and so undermine Russia’s ability to deter an American attack by destroying its ability to strike back.

It’s nonsense, of course. Even if the American ABM missiles did work as advertised, ten launchers on Poland’s Baltic coast are not going to make much difference given Russia’s 848 long-range ballistic missiles, including hundreds that can be launched from submarines that are much closer to the U.S. than the interceptors in Poland. The Russians are only pretending to be worried about the ABM missiles in Poland, although they are seriously annoyed by U.S. military bases there.

The symbolic importance of the U.S. opening a new military base so close to Russia in the midst of the diplomatic confrontation over Georgia is clear to everybody, and Moscow is reacting to that. Even so, to threaten a nuclear strike against Poland sounds a bit extreme — except that in reality it doesn’t mean a thing, and everybody knows that, too.

Poland is already a target for nuclear strikes in the most improbable event of a Russian-American nuclear war. Everybody in the American-led NATO alliance is. Yet they don’t lose much sleep over it, because such a war is so very unlikely. General Nogovitsyn didn’t announce a new policy; he just spoke more frankly than usual about a permanent reality, in the hope of intimidating the more naive sections of the Polish population.

It would make about as much sense militarily if this mini-crisis were about the basing of a crack American team of kung fu dancers in Poland. The new American missile defence base in Poland gives all the interested parties a way to make their political points, while having no serious strategic importance whatever. But why has the United States spent between $120 billion and $150 billion on this ludicrous white elephant of a system since President Ronald Reagan first launched the “Star Wars” project in 1983?

Precisely because ever since 1983 the missile defence project has provided American senators, congressmen and presidents with the opportunity to pour enormous amounts of money into the pockets of defence industry, in return for much smaller but politically vital campaign contributions by those same companies. The technology can never be made cost-effective, but the project is impossible to kill because so many politicians benefit from it.

How can we know that the technology will never be cost-effective? Because even if the technology could finally be made to work to specifications, the whole notion of ballistic missile defence is ridiculous. It will always be ten to a hundred times cheaper to evade the ABM defences by adding decoys and other “penetration aids” to the incoming warheads, making them manoeuvrable, etc. than it is to upgrade the performance of the interceptors.

That performance, after a quarter-century’s work, is so poor that only two out of the last five tests worked. And those tests are rigged in the ABM system’s favour, with the defenders knowing the incoming missile’s type, trajectory and destination. In more recent tests, they have used no decoys at all in an attempt to get the hit rate up. And yet they have deployed the system anyway, first in Alaska and now in Poland.

This is fantasy strategy in the service of the military-industrial complex, and no strategist in the know takes it seriously. But it does allow the owner to make quite impressive symbolic gestures, albeit rather expensive ones.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.