Russian Efforts to Acquire Precision Conventional Strike and Defense Capability: Implications for Conventional Arms Control in Europe.

The conventional arms control framework, which was created with considerable effort and political sacrifice in the last years of the Cold War, has been largely dismantled. The CFE Treaty is effectively dead and attempts to fashion a replacement have been abandoned by most parties, first of all by the United States and Russia. The security situation in Europe has been entrusted to the Vienna Document, which has limited scope and depth, but ensures a sufficient degree of predictability to allow the majority of countries feel reasonably safe. This is probably the main reason why one can see little desire on part of European countries to make a major investment in creation of a new framework – an exercise that will require serious concessions and is thus fraught with considerable political costs.

That situation will not last forever, though, because in perhaps five or seven years Europe is bound to see a gradual change in the familiar landscape as a result of Russian efforts to catch up with the United States in modern conventional strike and defense capability. While we can rule out that the threat of war reemerges as a result, a noticeable increase in political tension and perhaps even a serious crisis within NATO seems to be likely. In fact, some members of NATO might insist on strengthening nuclear deterrence to offset the new Russian capability.

This undesirable chain of events can be mitigated through a set of arms control tools. It is advisable to begin considering them as soon as possible: the contours of the security situation in Europe are sufficiently predictable to allow taking appropriate steps in preemptive fashion instead of calling on arms control to mend consequences that have already taken place. At a minimum, it appears desirable to consider the expansion of the Vienna Document provisions to new categories of assets, both offensive and defensive, and first of all of those that have precision strike capability at long ranges. It is also desirable to include out-of-area assets in this category, for example, those deployed in the United States and in Russia beyond the Urals as well as naval based systems.

The Current Situation

NATO’s existing defense strategy is built around “an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities,” according to the 2010 Strategic Concept. To a large extent, that formula refers to the near-monopoly of the United States and its allies on the precision-guided long-range conventional strike capability coupled with advanced missile defense assets. This capability was successfully used on a number of occasions starting as early as the 1990 Gulf War and has fundamentally changed the global security landscape. It allows overcoming limitations inherent both to "traditional" conventional forces and to nuclear weapons. Military operations do not require large armies, can be conducted at a faster pace, and do not involve large-scale losses of own troops or collateral damage. At the same time, modern conventional forces do not carry the moral and political stigma of nuclear weapons, which makes them effectively unusable for achieving specific, limited political and military goals and renders threat with nuclear use hollow (with possible exception of general deterrence situations). In other words, technological progress has helped to return "raw" power into the interstate relations for both defensive and offensive missions.

In Europe, the US and NATO superiority in conventional assets has helped building a highly credible deterrence to a range of existing and potential threats not limited to Russia. Equally important, it has also allowed reducing reliance on nuclear weapons in the Alliance security policy as reflected in the Strategic Concept and a deep reduction of American tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

Two decades of near-monopoly on modern conventional strike and defense assets have resulted in complacency, however.  An unspoken assumption seems to underlie defense planning in NATO and especially in the United States, which provides the bulk of modern conventional capability of the Alliance, – namely, that technological superiority will continue almost indefinitely This assumption has resulted, among other things, in a stubborn resistance in the United States to any arms control measures that could limit US conventional power. This became particularly evident during the ratification of the New START Treaty:  the Senate resolution prohibits any additional limitations on the conventional strike and missile defense capability and this issue has contributed to the continuing deadlock at consultations on new measures to reduce nuclear weapons.  The refusal of a significant part of the US establishment and the public to apply arms control measures to these assets not only reveals strong belief in continuing US technological superiority, but also presents a serious potential challenge: namely, if Russia (as well as perhaps China) acquires a similar capability, it will also remain unrestricted.

The Challenge

It is well known that Moscow regards the US superiority in this class of weaponry as a potential threat. This perception has been exacerbated by a series of successful limited wars, which, in spite of military success, have also created numerous instabilities in Eurasia and are regarded as a potential direct threat to Russia itself. To counter it, the Military Doctrine adopted in 2000 and modified in 2010 proposed the option of limited use of nuclear weapons, but that strategy was explicitly classified as a “temporary fix” until Russia acquires a similar capability of its own. The downside of reliance on nuclear weapons is obvious: there is a strong international norm against the use and the threat of nuclear weapons; while they can be utilized for the purposes of deterrence, they cannot be used for power and influence projection; even as a deterrence tool, they lack credibility vis-à-vis conventional threats. Thus, the US conventional capability seen not only as a threat, but also as an example to emulate: it could give Russia a new leverage in its own foreign policy by enabling the use of military option whether overtly or through threats.

In the late 1990s and the first half of the 2000s work on modern conventional assets was slow, it was plagued by the chronic underfunding and the generally poor state of the defense industry. The pace of these efforts has since accelerated, especially following the 2008 war with Georgia, which, in spite of victory, was regarded by many, both inside and outside Russia, as an indicator of a poor capability to wage war. While it has become customary to wave away the prospect of Russian modern conventional capability, such an attitude is no longer warranted.

A review of relevant Russian programs reveals that with regard to conventional cruise missiles, both air- and sea-launched, as well as precision-guided gravity bombs, Moscow has reduced the gap from 10-20 years in the 1990s to perhaps as few as 5-7. Where the missile defense capability is concerned, the gap has narrowed from about 10 years to perhaps no more than five, if not less (the new interceptor for the S-400 system should give Russian the capability to intercept intermediate-range missiles and development of the S-500 system with projected capability against strategic missiles is in full swing). The same is true for the space-based component (the GLONASS system) – the gap has been reduced from 15 or so years to only a few, and the system is currently coming online, albeit it will trail behind the US GPS system in terms of military capability for some time. The same is true for air- and sea-launched cruise missiles. With regard to prompt global strike (PGS) capability, Russia even today is probably only a few years behind the United States: while Washington has abandoned earlier plans to equip strategic missiles with non-nuclear warheads and has opted instead for development of new delivery vehicles, the Russian military has announced a plan to create a new ICBM for conventional missions. Given the state of the Russian missile industry, one should not be surprised if in the end it acquires an operational PGS capability at about the same time as the United States. In other words, pieces of the puzzle of the Russian conventional capability seem to be gradually falling into their places.

Of course, the success of these efforts depends on the ability of the Russian government to adequately fund and properly organize the R&D and production process (a major uncertainty given the anticipated drop in revenues from oil and gas exports). Yet, this progress begs for close attention and an assessment of its impact on international and especially European security. While one should not overestimate Russian achievements in that area and the chances for success, it would be equally undesirable to underestimate them – a tendency that has resulted in widespread complacency after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. It seems significant that the large-scale maneuvers in 2013 were apparently the first since 1999 that did not involve simulated limited use of nuclear weapons.

A feature of the emerging Russian conventional capability that deserves close attention is the emphasis on intermediate-range strike assets; short-range and strategic systems appear to attract somewhat attention than in the United States. The main reason for that feature is the simple fact that the majority of potential targets are in Eurasia, i.e., much closer to Russia than to the United States. In this regard, the proposals to abrogate the 1987 INF Treaty, which reappear with considerable regularity (in 2000, 2005-7, and, most recently, in 2012-13), deserve close attention: they apparently reflect the desire of the Russian military to acquire a conventionally armed analogue to the SS-20s, which were banned by that Treaty and could give Moscow a prompt strike capability with a Eurasian reach.

The Consequences

The impact of the Russian modern conventional capability, when it takes shape, is likely to be multifaceted and asymmetric. The most direct and visible consequences will likely be seen in Russia's policy in the Middle East, South Asia, and other areas to the south of its borders. There, the ability to credibly threaten the limited, targeted use of force from a distance will give it a major leverage to advance its interests, support friends and clients (even acquire new ones) and generally have a much greater impact on the development of events in Eurasia.

Consequences for Europe will be probably less visible or dramatic, but nonetheless significant.  On the one hand, Moscow's present concerns about the US conventional strike capability will be somewhat alleviated, which could have a moderating effect on its national security policy. It appears possible that Russia might become more open to reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons and perhaps even agree to put its tactical nuclear arsenal on the negotiating table.

On the other hand, the credibility of NATO's conventional deterrence is bound to decline. In the absence of the currently existing asymmetries (“usable” precision-guided conventional assets vs. “unusable” nuclear weapons and “outdated” conventional forces) Russia will acquire many of the capabilities similar to what NATO has, including the capability to credibly threaten the limited use of force. Accordingly, the ability of NATO (the United States first of all) to threaten the use of force (whether for the purposes of deterrence or coercion) will be less credible because it will be balanced by the Russian capability to respond in kind. While practical implications of that Russian capability will be modest (i.e., Russia is unlikely to openly threaten members of NATO), some members of the Alliance will nonetheless perceive the decline in the NATO deterrence capability as a threat to their security and request the strengthening of NATO deterrence.

This is particularly true for Baltic states, which regard even the existing Russian conventional forces as a direct threat. Other new members of NATO might also feel threatened by an expanded capability and range of Russian conventional forces. Advanced defense assets could be regarded by them as a sign of a diminished NATO ability to hold at risk vital military and political targets in Russian territory. Under conditions of military symmetry, one cannot rule out requests on part of some members of the Alliance to increase reliance on nuclear weapons to compensate for the perceived reduction in the credibility of conventional (strike and defense) deterrence.

Thus, the greatest challenge for the Alliance will likely be the risk of internal disagreements and conflicts, which could undermine its cohesion. Depending on the political lineup in the United States five or seven years from now, calls for greater reliance on nuclear weapons could meet a favorable response, which, in turn, might alienate countries that have consistently advocated the removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe and reduction of reliance on nuclear weapons in general. In other words, fault lines, which were visible several years ago during the discussion on tactical nuclear weapons and were mitigated with some difficulty by the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR), could reappear at a greater scale. This time, it might be more difficult to mend them, however, because the security landscape in Europe will have changed. To more clearly understand the dynamic of the situation, it might be advisable to recall the debates of the 1980s when the credibility of the US security guarantees was called into question: since the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a stable mutual deterrence relationship, some European members of NATO began to fear that Washington might be reluctant to use force if Europe is attacked. The intensity of security concerns will certainly not be as high as it was then, but we could witness the emergence of similar sentiments.

The Inadequacies of the Existing Arms Control Frameworks

The existing arms control regimes as well as, more broadly, the arms control toolbox developed during the last years of the Cold War was not designed to address military assets that are moving to the center of security dilemmas in Europe. For example, the only category of delivery vehicles for precision-guided assets that is covered by the CFE regime is aircraft. Conventional cruise missiles on strategic bombers, short-range land-based missiles, and a broad variety of sea-launched cruise missiles remained outside the scope of that regime; if the INF Treaty is abrogated, conventionally armed intermediate-range missiles will also be outside any limitations. There are no arms control instruments to address more futuristic systems, such as hypersonic vehicles.

To remedy the negative impact of the progress in conventional strike and defense technologies, including their acquisition by Russia, on both European security as a whole and on NATO, one will need a new set of arms control tools that could help enhance predictability and mitigate the perception of an increased Russian threat to some members of the Alliance as well as the Russian perception of a continuing threat from NATO.

The characteristics of the assets in question, especially their long ranges, mobility, and possibility of use on short notice, make the traditional territory-based principles inapplicable or, at best, only partially applicable:

  • Under some scenarios, even small-scale use of long-range precision-guided conventional weapons can have significant political and security implications; hence straightforward limits used by the CFE cannot have the same effect when applied to modern assets (a hundred tanks do not make much difference, but a hundred delivery vehicles with precision-guided weapons might). Moreover, a precise accounting of items following the rules of the US-Russia START treaties cannot be used either: the dimensions of items in question are small (making an intrusive verification difficult) and coincide with dimensions of weapons that do not have a precision guidance;
  • Many assets in question have long ranges (in particular air- and sea-launched cruise missiles) or can be quickly moved from one region to another (from Siberia to the European part of Russia or from the United States to Europe, for example) using aircraft, ships, or submarines. As a result, the zone approach used in the CFE Treaty will have very limited application; even Europe as a whole (from the Atlantic to the Urals) will not encompass all relevant items. Worse still, naval weapons (including submarine-launched cruise missiles) are not subject to the CFE and there is no mechanism for including them into a CFE-type regime (in fact, mobility was one of the arguments the United States used to exempt naval weapons from the scope of the Treaty).
  • Defense assets (whether air or missile defense) are not subject to any limitations and, moreover, there is little chance that the United States or NATO will be prepared to accept such limits. Yet, if used in conjunction with offensive conventional weapons, these assets can be seen as a factor that enhances military capability, both for deterrence and for the use as a political lever. Baltic states might be especially sensitive to a combination of offensive and defensive assets on the Russian side.

In Search of a Solution

One possible way forward to contemplate might be building a new system of arms control measures around the principles of the Vienna Document, namely, to emphasize transparency and notifications about movement of weapons systems; these measures could help enhance predictability of the overall security landscape. The provisions of this document will have to be expanded to new areas and systems, though, including notifications about movement of relevant weapons systems on both sides, their general characteristics, an estimate of time it might take to move them to Europe or its vicinity (and hence determine the timing for advance notifications). It will also require a set of confidence building measures, including an obligation to refrain from large-scale movement of such assets, notifications about military exercises that involve their relocation and/or concentration, etc. Similar measures could be applied to defense systems. While numerical limits are hardly advisable (or feasible), it might make sense to consider an exchange of technical data and notifications (maybe even some loose limits) on concentration of these assets in particular areas, inclusion of these systems into notifications about large-scale military exercises, etc.

As noted above, it would be best to begin considering these and other arms control measures preemptively – before the acquisition of a modern conventional capability by Russia begins to affect both the security situation in Europe and relations within NATO. The very fact that we do not have precedents from past arms control negotiations to rely on will make the task of devising a new toolbox a challenging and lengthy process. Without doubt, preemptive arms control is politically controversial – the domestic political process in the United States is bound to become a major obstacle to such an exercise, among other problems. Consequently, consideration of options might best be started within the expert community both within NATO (especially in Europe) as well as in the form of Track II dialogue with Russia. Options developed (or at least discussed) within that format could at a later stage be used by policymakers and negotiators when the time is ripe for action.