Led Zeppelin Comes to Washington

Russian submarines bearing nuclear cruise missiles are lurking just off the eastern seaboard. But can a pair of unmanned blimps near Baltimore actually protect the U.S. capital from a sneak attack?

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Look. Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane…. It’s a blimp.

Look. Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane…. It’s a blimp.

If you’ve recently found yourself in Baltimore, you may have noticed a pair of large white blimps over the Aberdeen Proving Ground. (Although, at 10,000 feet, you’d have to squint.) The blimps — okay, aerostats — are part of the program known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, and are designed to watch for cruise missiles and drones sent to attack Washington, D.C.

Yes, it all sounds a bit ridiculous. And you’re going to read about a lot of dumb ideas in this column, but giant radar-carrying blimps isn’t anywhere near the top. While JLENS deployment represents a response to cruise missile proliferation in general, it is also further evidence of the decaying relationship between the United States and Russia.

The blimps themselves are kind of cool. They are tethered to a mobile mooring station. Each “orbit” comprises two blimps — one with a radar, the other a fire control system to communicate with missile defenses on the ground. Oh, and they’re 74 meters long and can float up there basically 24/7.

Officially, putting a pair of JLENS blimps seaward from the capital reflects a response to advances in submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs, or “slick-ems”). In practice, this means Russian attack submarines patrolling the East Coast with nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Now, that’s a pretty stupid idea.

In February 2012, the head of the Russian Navy, Vladimir Vysotsky, indicated that starting around June 1 of that year, Russia would “resume constant patrolling of the world’s oceans by strategic nuclear submarines.” Like everyone else, I thought Vysotsky was referring to Russia’s fleet of massive ballistic missile submarines, known as “boomers.” Then a funny thing happened.

In 2012, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence and FOIA’ed by researcher Hans Kristensen, Russia’s fleet conducted only five deterrent patrols. Kristensen concluded it was unlikely that Russia had maintained a constant at-sea presence in 2012 using only its boomers.

Then, in August and November 2012, stories emerged about Russian attack submarines patrolling along the East Coast. The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2012 that two Russian attack submarines were detected off the East Coast. In November, U.S. defense officials told CNN and other media outlets that another Russian submarine had sailed within 300 miles of the East Coast the month before.

The Russian press provided a decoder ring. An August 2013 article published in Moscow’s Russia Beyond the Headlines with the charming title “Russian supersonic missiles behave like wolves” boasted about the psychological impact of a nuclear-armed Russian attack submarine prowling the eastern seaboard.

And, this July, confirmation came from the horse’s mouth: Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was paraphrased stating that Russia’s new Yasen-class attack submarines would help “create a reliable nuclear shield against any threat.” Well, I am not sure which end of the horse Rogozin is, but here’s the point: The Russians are deploying nuclear-armed SLCMs on attack submarines, as well as ballistic missile submarines, as part of their strategic deterrent against the United States. This is a bit unexpected.

There had long been rumors that the Russians would deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles aboard attack submarines. In 2006, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said, “Eight nuclear submarines are at sea on operational patrol or in transfer. Of these, five are strategic submarines and three, multipurpose submarines, but all they have nuclear weapons on board.” In 2009, the New York Times reported that a pair of Russian attack submarines had been spotted off the East Coast. But not many analysts took the idea seriously.

That’s about to change. The evidence is increasingly strong that not only is Moscow routinely sending submarines within an arm’s length of the United States coastline, but that these submarines are deployed with nuclear-armed SLCMs.

Here’s the problem: There is nothing to prohibit the Russians from putting as many nuclear-armed cruise missiles as they’d like aboard submarines and sailing them up and down the East Coast, because there are no arms control agreements that limit the number of Russian SLCMs.

Some people think that the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives — a series of unilateral pledges mostly relating to tactical nuclear weapons by President George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, then Boris Yeltsin in 1992 — might limit SLCM deployments. Not really. The United States and Russia simply committed to withdrawing existing nuclear-armed SLCMs from deployment. But those pledges were a one-time event. The Russians also stopped production of SLCMs and offered to eliminate their stockpile of SLCMs if the United States did the same, but Washington declined. Instead, the United States kept the nuclear-armed Tomahawk in storage, with a small number of U.S. attack submarines practicing its redeployment each year. After many years of planning to replace the nuclear-armed Tomahawk, the Obama administration finally yielded to the Navy and retired the system in 2013. The Russians, on the other hand, seem have made a different decision.

Nor were nuclear-armed SLCMs covered by any of the three strategic arms treaties: START, START II, or New START. The Russians had sought to include all cruise missiles in the original 1991 START treaty, but the United States resisted: U.S. officials could foresee the coming popularity of conventionally armed cruise missiles. Instead, the parties agreed to a politically, though not legally, binding pledge to deploy no more than 880 nuclear-armed cruise missiles and exchange data on deployments each year. This data exchange expired with the START treaty in 2009. As far as I can tell, Washington and Moscow made little or no effort to preserve the data exchange when START expired and was replaced with New START a few months later. This was also pretty dumb. (If you want to view a U.S. submission under the data exchange, one appears in the WikiLeaks materials.)

Even if it’s not illegal for Moscow to put nuclear-armed cruise missiles on attack submarines and creep around off the Jersey Shore, it’s still a very nasty thing to do. As I have argued before, the biggest threat to strategic stability is so-called decapitation. If it isn’t possible for the United States or Russia to imagine a successful nuclear attack that destroys the more than 1,000 nuclear warheads each side deploys, it might be tempting to try to “decapitate” the nuclear command-and-control structure by killing the president and a small number of other senior officials. Hey, look, another dumb idea! A nuclear-armed cruise missile, fired from a submarine lurking offshore and flying low to evade radar coverage, is perfect for such a mission. Hence the giant blimps at 10,000 feet with downward-looking radars.

The Russians are equally afraid the United States might target their command-and-control structure in the same way. (You will recall Mathias Rust, who demonstrated precisely how crappy Soviet air defenses were when he piloted himself into Red Square. That was also a dumb thing to do, by the way.) Such fears drove them to create the Perimeter system in the 1970s and 1980s, the monstrosity known in the West as the “Dead Hand.” (For the record, this is the dumbest idea in the entire column. JLENS is way less scary and destabilizing than the Perimeter, which was built to allow the automatic launching of Russia’s nuclear missiles, just in case the premier was killed. As far as I can tell, this system remains in existence.)

It’s not a coincidence that Russia seems to be deploying new SLCMs at the same time it is testing — in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — a new long-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). (Dumb, dumb, dumb.) Russia is also said to have a new air-launched cruise missile. (Only kind of dumb.) What’s more, the Russians are boasting of very large deployments to come: In July, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia “will boost the number of cruise missiles fivefold in the next three years and by 30 times by 2020.” (If you want to try to create an order of battle, I’d suggest starting with Pavel Podvig’s Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog and, for naval issues, 7 Feet Beneath the Keel.)

It is hard to know how many cruise missiles a 30-fold increase would represent or whether such plans are even realistic — but you can guess I think they are pretty dumb. It does, however, seem we have a strategic problem on our hands. The Russians even market a cruise missile, the Club-K, that comes disguised as a shipping container. (The Russians love cruise missiles like the Bruce Dickinson loves cowbell.)

So there’s a good reason Washington’s concerned. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon recently testified before U.S. lawmakers on possible responses to Russia’s new GLCM: new missile defenses, counterforce options, and countervailing options.

It is possible to imagine broadening the response to Russia’s GLCM into a kind of comprehensive response to Russia’s enthusiasm for ground-, air-, and sea-launched cruise missiles. How should the United States deal with a new era of cruise missile proliferation?

First, the United States has tended to underfund cruise missile defense, pouring money instead into efforts to defend against ballistic missiles. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) doesn’t even have cruise missile defense as part of its mission. Placing cruise missile defense efforts into the bumbling hands of the Missile Defense Agency is not my idea of a solution, but policymakers could certainly shift money toward cruise missile defenses under development outside MDA.

Second, the United States and its allies will inevitably look at counterforce options to locate and kill enemy cruise missile launchers. On land, that might mean strengthening the ability to use combat aircraft to hunt for Russian GLCM launchers rolling through the forest. At sea, it means improved anti-submarine warfare capabilities. These missions might benefit from an increased use of drones.

Finally, countervailing forces are comparable systems that offset the advantage of Russian cruise missiles. So, for example, the United States might deploy its own ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, most likely conventionally armed, or perhaps new long-range hypersonic missiles. (America’s allies lack such capabilities.) At sea, the United States already deploys a countervailing system in the form of conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Each of these options might make sense to advocates of deterrence strategy, yet they are essentially unsatisfying. None are as appealing as simply getting rid of nuclear-armed cruise missiles altogether. A really good idea at last! That leaves us with arms control — an admittedly unlikely prospect at the moment. There is a surprising bipartisan agreement that the United States is better off staying within the 1987 INF treaty and pressuring the Russians to comply. I would argue that the same logic applies to the threat from nuclear-armed SLCMs. And I have argued (repeatedly) that, at the same time the State Department seeks to address the new Russian GLCM, it should also pressure the Russians to resume the SLCM data exchanges that occurred under START.

It’s not a huge step, but at the moment I’ll take what I can get. Arms control is part of the solution to the threat posed by Russia’s SLCMs for at least two reasons. First, the United States needs to hold together the NATO alliance against Russian aggression, a task that requires keeping the focus squarely on Moscow. And, second, Vladimir Putin won’t be around forever. His successor might look at Russia’s geopolitical predicament and, like Gorbachev, decide to make nice. Successful data exchanges might be the basis for developing a formal arms control mechanism to limit cruise missile deployments.

The prospect of a future U.S.-Russia arms control agreement might seem slightly preposterous at the moment, an idea that is way up in the sky. Then again, that’s where JLENS is at the moment — floating above Charm City, watching for a cruise missile attack. Which notion is really the more bizarre? Which is dumber? That Moscow and Washington could resume efforts to reduce shared nuclear dangers? Or that the parties should be sending submarines bearing nuclear-armed cruise missiles to lurk off each other’s coasts, while building their own radar-blimps and Doomsday machines?


Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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