In a stunning display of arrogance, ignorance, and hubris, President Trump’s new arms control czar threatens to spend America’s adversaries into “oblivion” in any new arms race. But the joke is on him.
Trump’s newly appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea has breathed new life into an historical interpretation that holds the United States won the Cold War with the Soviet Union by escalating an arms race that turned out to be unsustainable for Moscow, bankrupting the Soviet economy and accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union as a political entity.
In remarks made to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, Billingslea noted that the threat of a new arms race would be enough to bring both China and Russia to the negotiating table for the purpose of crafting a new trilateral arms control treaty that would replace the current bilateral New START treaty, scheduled to expire in February 2021.
“We intend to establish a new arms control regime now, precisely to prevent a full-blown arms race,” Billingslea said. If, however, either Russia or China (or both) decided to forego negotiations and continue to pursue new strategic nuclear weapons, then President Trump “has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here”.
We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.
There are numerous factors that mitigate against Billingslea’s seemingly desire to refight the Cold War. First and foremost, the United States, like the rest of the world, exists in a new post-pandemic economic reality. Whether or not the American people or their elected representatives in Congress are prepared to shoulder the costs of an avoidable arms race with Russia and China while on the cusp of an economic depression is very much a debatable point.
Even if the political will for the kind of open-ended spending extravaganza required to “spend the adversary into oblivion” existed (and with 30-plus million Americans currently out of work, and millions more expected to follow, such thinking rests more in the realm of fantasy than reality), it is virtually impossible for the US today to replicate the conditions that existed back in the 1980s. The current Russian and US defense economies of today are a far cry from those that existed during the Cold War, a fact that bodes well for Russia, and less so for the US.
Russian defense industry today is founded on a legacy inherited from Soviet times, when defense industries took precedence over every other aspect of the Soviet economy and attracted the finest scientists and technicians, backed by a virtually unlimited budget. Under former Minister of Defense Dmitry Ustinov, the Soviet ballistic missile production base benefited from a multitude of research and design centers, each connected to its own supporting infrastructure of production facilities responsible for manufacturing diverse components and assembling them into finished products. By 1988, the Soviets had seven different ICBM types deployed. Those were a mix of third-, fourth- and fifth-generation liquid and solid fuel missiles.
While impressive in terms of scope, scale and quality, the Soviet ICBM procurement model was, in the long run, unsustainable. The demands generated by the perestroika reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985 meant the existing model of multiple design bureaus working in parallel in a virtually competition-free environment had to transition to a missile procurement model driven by cost accounting methods and the limitations imposed by a new era of bilateral strategic arms control agreements.
In the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there remained only two missile design bureaus involved in the production of ICBMs. After the fall of the USSR, one of them – Yuzhnoye – fell under the control of Ukraine.
Today, Russia’s JSC Votkinsk Machine Building Plant produces the RS-24 Yars missile, deployed in both a mobile- and silo- based variant, and is developing the RS-26 Rubezh, a modification of the RS-24 capable of deploying the advanced Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. Votkinsk also produces the solid-fuel RS-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), its first foray outside of the world of ICBM development and manufacturing. In a sign of the times, the Makeyev JSC in Miass, which formerly only produced SLBM’s, is producing the massive RS-28 Sarmat ICBM, intended to replace the aging R-36 Soviet-era heavy silo-based ICBM.
The new Russian ICBMs are the finest in the world—no nation has anything that can compare, even the United States. They are also among the most cost-effective in the world today. The fact that these missiles are produced in an manufacturing environment plagued by shortages of materials needed to produce critical components is a testament to the resilience of the Russian defense industry, which has literally been forced to both adapt and overcome in the course of the three decades of economically difficult times that have passed since the end of the Soviet Union.
For its part, the US defense industry has been the benefactor of virtually limitless largesse, feeding off a bloated defense budget that has expanded from some $300 billion in 1990 to over $740 billion today. However, over the course of the past 30 years, this money has not been spent on modernizing the US strategic nuclear force. The example of the Minuteman III missiles serves as a point of illustration.
The United States currently deploys a force of 400 Minuteman III silo-based ICBM’s. The original Minuteman ICBM was developed at a cost of $17 billion (measured in 2020-equivalent dollars) over the course of five years. The Minuteman III—the version deployed today—is derived from the same 1960’s technology and was initially deployed in 1970. Originally designed for a lifetime of some 10 years, the Minuteman III has been subjected to a series of life-extension upgrades that will keep it viable until 2030. After this time, the missile must be replaced.
The US Air Force is currently developing a new silo-based ICBM, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The missile will be designed to last until 2075, and in addition to incorporating new technologies, will also involve significant upgrades to the related silos and launch control facilities. Current estimates published by the US Air Force for the cost of the GBSD are some $62 billion (by way of comparison, the total Russian military budget is approximately $65 billion).
Even this high cost is disputed by the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, which projects the actual cost of the GBSD to be between $85 and 100 billion. One of the major reasons for this discrepancy lies in the fact that the United States has not designed a new ICBM since the 1970’s, with the MX Peacekeeper. The final contract for the GBSD is expected to be let in September 2020, although as the only bidder, Northrop Grumman, Inc. is expected to be the awardee. This fact alone makes the CAPE estimate seem overly conservative—Northrop Grumman has developed a well-earned reputation in defense industry circles for projects it is involved in coming in over budget and behind schedule. Based upon current examples of contractual cost overruns, the GBSD costs could skyrocket to $200 billion or, and this number does not incorporate the negative impact on defense procurement resulting from the failure of Congress to pass a defense budget on time, making long-term procurement decisions impossible and further driving up the cost.
The GBSD is but one of a range of modernization programs being planned by the US, involving every aspect of its strategic nuclear triad. These programs, which include new manned strategic bombers and new missile-carrying submarines, are expected to cost more than $1.2 trillion over the course of the next 30 years—and these are conservative estimates. Given the spectacular budgetary inefficiencies in the US defense procurement system today, it is almost certain that any new strategic nuclear weapons system, whether it be an ICBM, SLBM or manned bomber, will cost the US taxpayer far more than originally planned, and more than likely perform far less than originally designed.
Marshall Billingslea can bluster all he wants about spending an adversary into oblivion. The reality is that the US is not prepared, politically or economically, to engage in any new arms race predicated on open-ended budgetary support.
In the Cold War, it was the Soviet Union playing catch-up to US superiority in the field of ballistic missile technology. Today the tables have been turned. Any arms race will find the US operating from a disadvantage right out of the gate, with Russia already fielding the kind of fifth-generation missiles the US has yet to design, let alone produce.
Billingslea is right about one thing—if the US were to engage in an arms race with an adversary where cost was not a limiting factor, the result would, in fact, be oblivion. But the victim would be the US, not Russia or China.
By Scott Ritter