- Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged during a speech to his country’s elites on Thursday about a wide range of new nuclear-capable missiles that he said can beat the US’s missile defences.
- Putin is correct – the US does not have sufficient ballistic missile defences to stop a Russian attack, nor has it for decades.
- Instead of worrying about defence, the US just builds its own nuclear missiles, which Russia also can’t stop.
Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged during a speech to his country’s elites on Thursday about a wide range of new nuclear-capable missiles that he said can beat the US’s missile defences – and he’s absolutely right about that.
The US does have systems in place to defend against ballistic missile attacks, but has never deployed a system designed to protect the entire US homeland. The Ground-based Midcourse Defence system, with components in California and Alaska, is the closest thing the US has to continental missile defence, but there’s no way it could stand up to a Russian attack.
The system, which has a poor track record and costs billions, relies on hit-to-kill technology, or anti-missiles that the US would fire to slam into incoming nuclear missiles, stopping them in their tracks. It’s extremely difficult to hit a ballistic missile in flight, as they travel at over a dozen times the speed of sound.
The US has succeeded a few times at hitting a mock-up of a ballistic missile, but it’s still a crap shoot that only makes sense against a limited adversary like North Korea. The GMD has 44 missile interceptors as of 2017. Russia has 1,700 deployed nuclear missiles.
Additionally, some of the systems described by Putin on Thursday weren’t even ballistic missiles, but underwater torpedoes and cruise missiles, which the US doesn’t actively do much to defend against.
But the lack of US missile defence against Russia isn’t a mistake. The US tried in the 1980s to create a space-based ballistic missile defence system called “Star Wars.” The effort failed in a practical sense, functioning as a giant money pit that achieved virtually nothing.
But in a political sense, the US making public its attempts to nullify Russia’s nuclear arsenal succeeded. Work on Star Wars played a non-negligible role in getting concessions out of the Soviets during arms control talks in the 1980s.
Why doesn’t the US even try to block Russia’s nukes?
The US and Russia have built nuclear weapons and aimed them at each other since the 1960s, and neither side really has a way of stopping an attack from the other side. Instead, they rely on a doctrine called “mutually assured deterrence.”
Basically, if Russia attacked the US with nuclear missiles, US nuclear missiles would attack right back. The US has early warning satellites watching Russia from space, so if Putin did fire his unstoppable missiles, before they even landed, the US would probably have their own missiles flying back at Moscow.
So on Thursday, when Putin told Russia’s elites that he had built missiles that the US could never stop, he was telling the truth.
But what he didn’t mention is that Russia has been able to nuke the US for decades, and that if Putin went through with it, it would likely be one of the last things he ever did.
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