Update | 10:19 am PST 4 September 2013 Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov (aka Anatoly Anin aka Tolya aka Huggy Bear) made a reference to the 1995 Norwegian sounding rocket episode in terms of explaining why Russia is less than happy with the launch. “Antonov called on those who launched the so-called missile-like targets to be more responsible for regional security and ‘not play with fire.’ … He recalled that a meteorological rocket launch by Norway in 1995 was mistaken as a possible rocket attack on Russia.” (Russian|English)

 

It may be the vodka talking, but let’s roll!

The Russians detected two missile launches associated with an American-Israeli ballistic missile defense test in the Mediterranean — its not clear at the moment if, in fact, the test involved two launches. (Jonathan McDowell @planet4589 and Pavel Podvig @russianforces are puzzling that out at the moment on Twitter.)

 The initial press reporting, as described by Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times, suggests the Russians early warning capabilities are not much better than they were in 1995:

…In Russia, the missile launch was first reported by the RIA Novosti state news agency, which announced early Tuesday afternoon that Russian radar had detected the launch of what it called two ballistic missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, giving no further clarification.

The announcement set off breathless conjecture on Russian news sites and social media networks of an American strike against Syria. Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, was reported to have briefed President Vladimir V. Putin about the missile launch, even as the lack of details in state media reports raised the question of whether Russian officials knew precisely what had occurred.

The reports from the Russian Ministry of Defense said rockets had been launched more than two hours before the news broke and yet the missiles had not seemed to hit any target in the region. When the missiles were reported to have crashed in the Mediterranean Sea, the Interfax news service cited a source in the Russian Navy suggesting that the launch may have been a meteorological experiment….

I have long argued that we should be very, very worried about Russian fears about what I call “command performance.”  This doesn’t make me feel any better.

I continue to believe that the major threat to US-Russian strategic stability is a deep and profound Russian worry that they are vulnerable to a decapitating first strike against their leadership, a point I have made in blog posts, testimony before the House Armed Services Committee and the occasional column for Foreign Policy:

We may be wrong about what frightens the Russians. In recent years, American officials have been driven bonkers by Russia’s refusal to accept their assurances that missile defense interceptors in deployed in Europe won’t threaten Russia’s deterrent. The United States shows PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide to demonstrate the physical impossibility that these interceptors could hit a Russian ICBM. The Russians remain unmollified. Frustrated U.S. officials claim the Russians either don’t understand or don’t want to.

There is another possibility, of course, which is that the Russians are not being frank about their concerns with the United States. It is not too hard to imagine, for example, that the Russian General Staff would have little interest in providing an itemized list of vulnerabilities to the United States. Yet if the Russians don’t wish to tell us what ails them, perhaps we can divine it. There is the notion of revealed preference — the notion that observable acts may reveal preferences of which an actor is not even consciously aware.

Here are two candidates: In September 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that the Russians had expressed concern that U.S. missile defense interceptors in Europe “could be fitted with nuclear weapons and become an offensive weapon like a Pershing and a weapon for which they would have virtually no warning time.” (The United States and Soviet Union prohibited such missiles under the 1987 INF Treaty.) He said it was hard to believe, but that the Russians apparently meant it. A senior official later told me he didn’t expect to hear that in an unclassified setting. I’ve never heard it again. Second, in the context of the New START negotiations, the Russians insisted on a ban on converting ICBM silos to house missile defense interceptors and vice-versa. This nearly killed the treaty, by the way.

It is a funny sort of paranoid fantasy, the notion that the United States might place nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors and use them to decapitate the Russian leadership in Moscow. But I suspect this is the rub. The simplest explanation for Russia’s overwhelming concern with missile defense is that the General Staff fears that Russia is much, much more vulnerable to an attack against the country’s command-and-control infrastructure — what used to be called decapitation — than we realize.  Part of this is a fear missile defense interceptors could be armed as offensive missiles, part of it is that missile defenses could mop up a disorganized Russian retaliation.  Most of it, however, is probably sheer terror at the persistent technological advantage held by the United States in light of Russian vulnerabilities.

This is what makes our failure to extend arms control beyond mere reductions so dangerous. The Russians are, I suspect, convinced that they cannot count on being able to command their forces following an attack  They believe they are dangerously, provocatively vulnerable. And, as a result, they make strange, dangerous, and seemingly irrational decisions. Which brings us to Perimeter.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Perimeter? It’s better known as the Dead Hand – a large automated system the Soviets began constructing sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s that could launch strategic forces in the event that the leadership was destroyed. Although it is commonly portrayed as a Doomsday Machine, journalist Nick Thompson — Paul Nitze’s grandson by the way — has explained that Soviet leaders thought Perimeter might be stabilizing. “Perimeter also bought the Soviets time,” Thompson wrote. “If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait.” It has a certain sort of logic, if you are a paranoid septuagenarian Soviet apparatchik. It is also a nuclear nightmare waiting to happen.

The current Russian leadership is populated by the direct descendants of the people who propsed, built, and operated the Dead Hand and nearly took the world to nuclear war in 1983 over a NATO command post exercise. (The current chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces started his career as a platoon leader with the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany in the 1970s.) Perhaps they don’t come to nice luncheons at Washington think tanks. If they do, they certainly don’t detail Russia’s command vulnerabilities over Chicken Kiev. But they exist and arms control is about managing their fears.

Of course, finding a way to address the Russian fear that their command system would not survive an attack is extraordinarily difficult. It is far more sensitive than anything we’ve managed to negotiate in an arms control treaty. In an era when U.S. and Russian negotiators cannot so much as raise the issue of missile defenses without triggering a hostile reaction from a healthy section of the U.S. Congress, what chance to do we have to discuss command vulnerability? Congressional opponents of New START screamed about preambular language in the treaty noting the relationship between offensive and defensive forces. They depicted the ban on placing missile defense interceptors in ICBM silos as a furious assault on U.S. missile defense programs, nay, our American way of life. And now we are going to discuss nuclear weapons, missile defenses, and conventional strike in terms of the holiest of holies: command and control? You’d have a better chance of getting a strip club recommendation from the Pope. (I have at least one suggestion, but it’s pretty modest.) Yet, this is the spot we’re in — with perhaps one more round of reductions remaining before we and the Russians are left alone, with our failure to fundamentally change the most dangerous dynamic of the Cold War.

I know, it’s an uncomfortable idea.  But just think about it for bit.