During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union battled for global primacy. Although this rivalry often played itself out in proxy wars, the two superpowers obsessed over how a direct war between them would unfold. For the United States, conflict scenarios primarily envisioned using America’s technological advantages to offset the numerically superior Russian forces.
The end of the Cold War has greatly dampened the potential for conflict between Russia and the United States, and their massive nuclear arsenals make it further unlikely that they will come to blows. Nonetheless, the post–Cold War era did not herald an end to great-power politics, nor did it bring about anything approaching an alliance between Moscow and Washington. Real and persistent tensions have remained in bilateral relations, and these have grown considerably in recent years.
1. Ohio-Class Ballistic Missile Submarines
Any analysis of the U.S.-Russian military balance must begin with their respective nuclear arsenals. And the core of America’s strategic deterrent is the Ohio-class Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN).
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Of the three legs of the nuclear triad, America’s fourteen Ohio-class SSBNsprovide it with its “most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability.” Each submarine is at sea roughly 68 percent of the time, with seventy-seven days at sea followed by thirty-five days of in-port maintenance.
Each SSBN stretches 560 feet with a beam of 42 feet and a weight of 18,750 tons when submerged. Powered by a pressurized water reactor (PWR) and a single propeller shaft, the Ohio-class can travel over 25 knots at depths exceeding 800 feet.
Each vessel carries twenty-four Trident II D-5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles and four MK48 torpedoes. Developed by Lockheed Martin to replace the Trident I C4, Trident II SLBMs are three-stage, solid propellant, inertially guided SLBMs with a range in excess of 4,000 nautical miles (4,600 statute miles or 7,360 km). They have a greater payload capability than the Trident I SLBMs they replaced. Perhaps the biggest advantage Trident II SLBMs enjoy over their predecessors is a new, GPS-enabled navigation system that gives them a circular error probable of just 90-120 meters, as little as one fourth of the CEP of the Trident C-4.
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Trident II SLBMs also are equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), allowing them to carry up to eight warheads. Thus, each Ohio-class SSBN could carry up to 192 nuclear warheads on board. Altogether, America’s sea-based deterrent boasts 336 nuclear-armed missiles, with about half of America’s deployed nuclear warheads on board. However, under the terms of the New START Treaty, the United States will deactivate four of the missile tubes on each SSBN before 2018.
2. B-2 Stealth Bomber
When Ukraine began heating up in the spring of 2011, the United States sent a pair of B-2s to Europe on a short-range mission. Although the Air Force claimed their purpose was simply to train with European allies, the message to Russia was unmistakable.
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Indeed, the B-2 Spirit would almost certainly be an integral plan of any war between Russia and the United States, as its “revolutionary blending of low-observable technologies with high aerodynamic efficiency and large payload gives the B-2 important advantages over existing bombers” like the B-52.
Particularly essential, in light of Russia’s more-sophisticated anti-air systems, is the B-2’s low observability, which is “derived from a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures.” These make the plane highly survivable and allow it to penetrate the most sophisticated adversary defenses.
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The B-2 also boasts impressive range. With a fuel capacity of 167,000 pounds, each plane can travel around 6,000 nautical miles without being refueled,according to Northrop Grumman, the plane’s primary contractor. Although it flies at subsonic speeds, it can reach altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, which enhances its targeting capabilities. Speaking of targeting, it can receive retargeting information in the air. In fact, thanks to recent upgrades, B-2s can receive presidential orders directly, even in a postnuclear detonation environment.
The B-2 also has an enormous payload capability. Each plane can carry 20 tons (40,000 pounds) of conventional or nuclear weapons to drop on high-valued enemy assets. This makes it the only aircraft in the U.S. arsenal capable of carrying the 30,000-lb GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), which can reportedly penetrate 200 feet of solid concrete before exploding. In other words, Russia can run, but it can’t hide from the twenty B-2 stealth bombers.
3. F-22 Raptor
The aircraft “combines stealth design with the supersonic, highly maneuverable, dual-engine, long-range requirements.” It was built to replace America’s aging F-15 fighters, however, unlike its predecessor and other air superiority fighters, the F-22 is the first highly survivable fighter to be able to simultaneously conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions. It can also conduct numerous other missions, including “intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic attack.”
The aircraft’s stealth capabilities are enhanced by its high maneuverability and particularly its ability to reach speeds of greater than Mach 1.5 without afterburners. Its advanced avionics suite gives it a “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability.” In other words, it fights beyond the visual and radar range of adversary aircraft. This is made possible by the F-22’s weapons bay. Most notably, its six Raytheon-built AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs). It also boasts two AIM-9 sidewinder missiles, which—after scheduled upgrades to the aircraft are complete—will be of the AIM-9X variety.
In any conflict with Russia, the F-22’s primary purpose would be to “knock down the door” in establishing U.S. air superiority. The fifth-generation F-22 would be particularly crucial in defeating Russia’s highly effective Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E. As Dave Majumdar has noted in the National Interest, “the Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.”
4. Missile Defense
As Russia’s conventional military power has atrophied since the Cold War, it has become increasingly reliant on its strategic deterrent to meet its security needs. That is why, as Dave noted, Russia withdrew its “no first use” pledge and it is now willing to use nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” conventional conflicts. The vast majority of Russia’s nukes are deployed on ballistic missiles,particularly land-based ballistic missiles.
This is what makes missile defense such a harrowing prospect for Russia. Before the crisis in Ukraine last year, missile defense was without question the most potent disagreement between the two former Cold War adversaries.
Russia was especially irked about U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Europe ostensibly to counter Iran’s ballistic-missile capabilities. Under the Obama administration, U.S. theater missile defense in Europe takes a “Phased Adaptive Approach.” Specifically, the United States will rely on more sea-based Aegis BMD ships and “Aegis-Ashore” sites in Romania and Poland”to counter up to fifty short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
This is part of a “layered” ballistic-missile defense approach that also includes NATO’s own missile-defense system, as well as the Ground-Based Mid-Course System (GMD) that protects the U.S. homeland. The core of the GMD system, which uses ground-based kill vehicles to intercept strategic ballistic missiles in their mid-course phase, is the thirty interceptors the United States currently deploys in California and Alaska. This number will increase to forty-four interceptors by 2017, with the fourteen new interceptors using an updated kill vehicle known as the Capability Enhancement (CE)–II. Notably, the United States is considering the deployment of more interceptors on its eastern coast.
The system itself consists of ground-based interceptors and Ground Support & Fire Control Systems. The ground-based interceptors use a multistage, solid fuel booster with an Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) payload. When launched, the booster carries the EKV to the target’s predicted location in space. After being released from the booster, the EKV uses “guidance data transmitted from Ground Support & Fire Control System components and on-board sensors to close with and destroy the target warhead.” The Ground Support & Fire Control Systems have a communication system that “receives data from satellites and ground based radar sources, then uses that data to task and support the intercept of target warheads using GBIs.”
Russia has maintained that these missile-defense systems threaten to upset the nuclear balance by negating its strategic deterrent. The United States correctly points out that its missile-defense systems could never contend with a missile arsenal the size of Russia’s. However, this view assumes that Russia would be launching the first strike against the United States or its allies. Moscow’s fear is that the missile-defense system will give the United States greater confidence in its ability to conduct a surprise first strike to eliminate Russia’s nuclear arsenal, with missile-defense systems able to handle any missiles that aren’t destroyed in the initial attack. Moreover, today’s systems could be expanded in the future.
5. U.S. Allies
For one thing, allies provide forward deployed bases for the U.S. military, many of them along Russia’s perimeter. From NATO in Europe, to the GCC in the Middle East and Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in Asia, the United States has encircled Russia (as Truman ably demonstrated to the Soviet Union with conspicuous air exercises during the 1948 Berlin blockade). These bases would not only enhance the potency of America’s military capabilities by reducing their range, they would allow the United States to attack Russia from all sides.
The allies’ own military capabilities also pose a threat to Russia. With some exceptions like China, India and Brazil, most of the top military spenders in the world are U.S. allies. Although the United States frequently (and justifiably) chides NATO members for not spending enough on defense, even without the United States, NATO still spends about three times as much on defense each year as Russia does. Indeed, any combination of Germany, France and the UK greatly outspends Russia on defense. And this doesn’t factor in other countries like Japan, which itself has a military budget that is over half that of Russia’s. No Russian allies come anywhere close in terms of the contribution they could make to any war effort.
----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----
Zachary Keck is Managing Editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.