Arms Race Madness in Our Time


Sid Olufs[1]

The United States is currently in a dangerous arms race, and we are not racing wisely.  The Trump administration shows every sign of taking us into a dangerously unstable state where the chance of nuclear war is unacceptably high.[2]

Consider these four developments in the last several years. 

First, Russia abruptly changed from a possible partner in arms control to an aggressive invader of its neighbors.  Their forays into Georgia and Ukraine showed both an expansive vision of Russian international influence and severe limitation in the capabilities of the Russian military forces.  A troubling sign of the tension inherent here is their adoption of the concept of a de-escalating first nuclear strike.[3]  The term has been around for about eight years, and just this January the Russian Minister of Defense used the phrase in a speech to his defense community.  The term should give everyone the creeps. 

Second, our installation of anti-missile batteries in Poland and Romania, ostensibly to counter Iran or even North Korea, are clearly aimed at Russia.  Among the things it limits is the Russian de-escalating first strike.[4] 

Third, Russia responded to our quest for anti-missile capability by deploying a new missile mobile launcher, which can launch either cruise or shorter-range missiles that can adjust their course through the entire flight.  This effectively evades our missile defenses. 

Negotiations over the sale of these Russian missiles to Iran were apparently put on hold at the behest of an Israeli arrangement with Russia.  I don't know what Israel had to trade for this, but it was not done for free.  The weapon would add a dangerous, destabilizing possibility into an already volatile Middle East. 

And, fourth, the Russians are testing an underwater drone, a giant torpedo/small unmanned submarine with a very large and intentionally dirty nuclear warhead.  This adds another element to their inventory of land, sea, and bomber-based nuclear deterrent.  It appears to be able to avoid detection and should be considered a first-strike weapon, crude but terrifying.  An important target for this new weapon would be Puget Sound, both for the nuclear weapons stored at Bangor, and the technology/aerospace industries in the region.  The tsunami and fallout would devastate coastal communities and render the entire region, from Bellingham to Tacoma and East to the mountains, uninhabitable. 

The Russian leaders knew they could not counter overall US technical superiority in space, in the skies, or on the ground.  So they simply ducked underwater where they could act on less contested turf. 

There are other troubling features of this arms race.  Russia has deployed a "dead hand" nuclear command, a doomsday device that causes us to ponder the reliability of the computer now in charge of our fate.  A more recent addition is Russian development of very small nuclear devices, a term that should make your head spin.  These are sub-kiloton or in the low kiloton range, small, and were part of the development of the preemptory de-escalating strike concept.  But, since they have the weapon, why not ask where else it can be used?  One place is on top of a missile, along with three others that can be independently targeted.  This is happening as the US moves to having one warhead on each missile, an artifact of the time, several years back, when arms control talks were working. 

These examples have a lesson for us.  Our technical superiority is not a static thing.  Any particular technical advantage will be short-lived.  Adversaries will adapt and do so with what they have; Russia is a poor country with a leadership that seeks to play great power politics and their military budget is going down, not up.[5] 

As we can see, this means a perverse dynamic is at the center of today's arms race.  Russian adaptations to our technical advances are inherently destabilizing.  They are not playing the same game. 

The US approaches the arms race with technical superiority.  The Russians approach it with game theory.  It's what they have.  For example, the de-escalating first strike is premised on the belief that a war over, say, Lithuania matters much more to the Russians than to the US.  They will get to the capital first, in less than three days, and if the US tries to push them out, the Russians can enact their first strike on a base we care about but not enough to engage in a full-scale nuclear war.  So we back off, or stay in place, goes the logic.  De-escalating.  Maybe.  Only a million things can go wrong with this plan.[6] 

Together with the Russians, we have lowered the barriers to a first use of nuclear weapons, pursued automatic systems that increase the chance and consequences of error, and increased the lethality of our responses to conflict.  We live in a far more dangerous world than a decade ago, where miscalculation, simple errors, and the self-deception of leaders on both sides bring us closer to an actual nuclear war. 

Instead of rushing toward new frontiers of missile defense, hypersonic gliders, lasers aboard large lumbering airplanes, cognitive radar, surveillance satellites, while refusing to negotiate over the linkages between conventional and nuclear weapons and doctrine, we should be seriously listening to the professionals in the arms control community.  We need experience here.[7] 

Leaders in the Congress and the Trump administration should describe in detail their understanding of the dynamics of the arms race and work with the veterans of arms control negotiations to arrive at an honest comparison of available options.[8]  Ideology is the enemy of wise policy.[9] 

These discussions need to happen soon, before President Trump's first test of serious bad behavior by Russia.  One likely scenario will be an underground test of one of Russia's small warheads.  The Trump team thus far is full of opponents of the Iran nuclear deal and advocates for missile defense.  Left unchecked, their response will be predictable and further destabilizing.  The leaders on each side are escalators of conflict, not peace makers.  If the US imposes severe restrictions on the Russians coupled with a more intense nuclear policy, why shouldn't Putin just take one or two of the Baltic states? 

We can't control Putin, or other Russian leaders, and lead them to wisdom.  Our only hope is to do that at home.[10] 

[1] Sid Olufs is Professor of Politics and Government at Pacific Lutheran University, and is with the Center for Growth and Security, in Tacoma, WA.

[2] A general overview of Russian strategy, both conventional and strategic, is in Andrew Monaghan, "Preparing for War?  Moscow Facing an Arc of Crisis," Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, December 2016, available at 

[3] See "Russian Nuclear Strategy: Background, Current Status, Future," by Dr. Nikolai Sokov, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, available at 

[4] The point is made rather clearly in Thomas Karako, "Missile Defense: Time to Go Big," Transition 45, December 2016, The Center for Strategic & International Studies. Available at

[5] Richard Connolly, "Hard Times?  Defense Spending and the Russian Economy," Russian Analytical Digest, no. 196, 23 December 2016, pp. 2-5. 

[6] See Roger N. McDermott, "Russia's Conventional Military Weakness and Substrategic Nuclear Policy," The Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, January 2011, available at ADA549120.  An informative description of developments and conflict in modernizing Russian conventional forces is in Roger N. McDermott, "Russian Perspective on Network-Centric Warfare: The Key Aim of Serdyukov's Reform, The Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, January 2011, PDF Url: ADA549119. 

[7] See Anthony M. Barrett, "False Alarms, True Dangers?  Current and Future Risks of Inadvertent U.S.-Russian Nuclear War," Perspective, 2016, The Rand Corporation PE-191-TSF (2016), available at 

[8] A recent general consideration of US nuclear strategy by knowledgeable experts, which however does not emphasize the higher risk associated with adding multiple scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons, is in Clark Murdock,, Project Atom: A Competitive Strategies Approach to Defining U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture for 2025-2050, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2015.  Available at

[9] One constant problem with nuclear strategy is how to convince citizens and key constituencies to accept the weapons as necessary and normal.  Our pattern has been to acknowledge an eventual goal of elimination of weapons but emphasize the need for continued building of nuclear force options.  See Rebecca K.C. Hersman,, "The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative: Communicating the Rationale for the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1989 to Today," The Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 2016.  Available at 

[10] Attempts to inform the public on complicated issues meet formidable barriers. See Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, "When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions," Polit Behav (2010) 32:303-330, available at