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ICBM

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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“This provides…abolished”)

North Korea’s ICBM

“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about his country’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday. And indeed Americans are not happy about it, although it would be overstating the case to say that panic is sweeping the United States at the news that North Korea’s ICBMs can now reach America.

One reason for the lack of public panic is that Alaska is not a central concern for most Americans, and Alaska is the only part of the United States that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile can actually reach.

Another reason is that the US authorities insist that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are too big and heavy to fit on its ICBMs. (It’s not clear whether they have actual intelligence that confirms this, or are just whistling in the dark.)

And a third reason might be that Americans are secretly embarrassed by the sheer hypocrisy of their own government’s position in this affair.

Well, no, not really. The vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware that there is any hypocrisy involved in demanding that North Korea refrain from getting what the United States has had for the past 72 years. So is the US government.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was being entirely sincere when he said that North Korea’s ICBM test “represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.” Wrong, but entirely sincere.

He is obviously aware that the United States has had nuclear weapons since 1945, and has even dropped them on Asian cities. He knows that his country has had ICBMs since the 1950s, and still has hundreds ready to launch on short notice. How is the American posture different from the one that North Korea aspires to?

Two differences, really. One is that the United States has at least a hundred times as many nuclear weapons as North Korea, and delivery vehicles at least two technologcal generations further down the road. Another is that the United States has a clearly stated policy that says it might use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Weirdly, this just makes American ICBMs sound more dangerous than North Korea’s.

That’s not really true. The United States used its first nuclear weapons as soon as it got them in 1945, but despite all the wars it has waged in the 72 years since then it has never used them again. Nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they actually force the people who possess them to think seriously about the consequences of using them.

Pyongyang has obviously been thinking hard about the grave implications of nuclear weapons too, because it never actually threatens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s always about deterring a nuclear attack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blusters a lot, you can believe it about this.

North Korea will probably have ICBMs that can reach big American cities in three to five years if it keeps up the current pace of development and testing. That would buy North Korea a limited degree of safety from an American nuclear attack, because one or more of its missiles might survive a US first strike and be able to carry out a “revenge from the grave.” That is how nuclear deterrence works, at least in theory.

But even full-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the ability to launch a nuclear attack on America (or Japan, or South Korea) without being exterminated in an immediate, massive nuclear counter-strike. So you can probably trust the North Korean regime not to do anything so terminally stupid – unless people like Kim Jung-un are literally crazy.

That’s why American diplomats work so hard to convince everybody else that the North Koreans really are frothing mad, impervious to logic, and not even interested in self-preservation. Only then can they argue that the North Koreans should be denied nuclear weapons, although Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, French, Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis can be trusted with them.

There is no evidence that the North Koreans really are crazy. In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War they have never risked a war, and they are extremely unlikely to do so now. And while there is a rather erratic leader in Washington at the moment, there are probably enough grown-ups around him to avoid any fatal mistakes on the American side either.

So North Korea will probably get its nuclear deterrent in the end, and we will all learn to live with it – like we learned to live with mutual US-Russian nuclear deterrence, mutual US-Chinese nuclear deterrence, and mutual Indian-Pakistani nuclear deterrence.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Pyongyang…this”; and “That’s…them”)