The Russian military has warned that any ballistic missile headed toward the country will be considered nuclear-armed, and one that warrants nuclear retaliation. The warning comes after reports the U.S. is working to develop long range missiles capable of striking Russia. The U.S. has not developed these weapons in a vacuum, however, and there’s an argument to be made that Russia has only itself to blame.
Senior officers in the Russian military General Staff told Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) there's no way to determine if an incoming ballistic missile is fitted with a nuclear or conventional warhead. As a result, the Russian military would be obliged to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
“Any attacking missile will be perceived as carrying a nuclear warhead. The information about the missile launch will be automatically relayed to the Russian military-political leadership, which will determine the scope of retaliatory action by nuclear forces depending on the evolving situation.”
This essentially means the Russian military is openly warning that the launch of any ballistic missile, nuclear or not, will start a nuclear war.
Ballistic missiles are missiles that use ballistic trajectories and take off like space rockets. The missiles accelerate straight up, deploying their warheads into the upper atmosphere or low earth orbit in the same way rockets deploy satellites. The difference is ballistic missile warheads spend only a brief amount of time in space before blazing down on their targets at speeds of up to Mach 23. Some ballistic missiles have a range of just a few hundred miles, while others, like the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), have ranges of 6,000 miles or more.
Ballistic missiles are fast, and even the longest range ICBMs can hit their targets in less than an hour. That doesn’t give the defenders much time to detect, analyze, track, and then respond to a nuclear attack. Worse, it doesn’t give the political leadership much time to debate a response before the missile hits.
Nuclear powers generally assume that an incoming nuclear weapon is aimed at the target country’s nuclear weapons or political leadership, attempting to knock out their nuclear forces or the people who would authorize their use. As a result, some countries make their nukes hard to target, placing them on difficult-to-locate submarines at sea. Others simply warn that any incoming ballistic missile will be considered a nuclear one, and warn their adversaries to behave accordingly.
The second policy is something that could easily spiral a conventional crisis into a global nuclear war. The Russians are correct that it's impossible to determine if an incoming warhead packs a conventional or nuclear punch. The problem? The U.S., China, and Russia all deploy (or are on the verge of deploying) new ballistic missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads, and in the case of China, some missile units are trained to use either.
Russia's warning has been spurred by new American weapons such as an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) and a conventional Prompt Global Strike hypersonic weapon system. The new policy will make it difficult—if not impossible—to use these new weapons against Russian territory. Under the new policy, an American missile with a conventional warhead could very well escalate a conflict to all-out thermonuclear war.
The new American weapons are in part a response to U.S. claims that Russia broke a key arms control treaty. The Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), which the U.S. and Soviet Union signed in 1987, banned land-based ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges between 310 miles and 3,420 miles. In 2019, the U.S., after determining that Russia had deployed the 9M729 land-based cruise missile in violation of the treaty, decided to penalize Moscow by developing a new IRBM ... one that Russia fears could launch a nuclear weapon against its own soil.
Russia's attempt to secretly develop a cruise missile killed a valuable arms control treaty and compelled the U.S. to develop missiles of its own. The chances of a conventional conflict between the two countries escalating to nuclear warfare is now greater than ever. Moscow, largely through its own strategic incompetence, has introduced a dangerous fast track to nuclear war, making virtually everyone on the planet less safe.
Source: Popular Mechanics.