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Russia ups the nuclear ante
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Russia's bold plans to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons is a move seemingly designed to send a message to the international community.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week that Russia would develop a new breed of nuclear weapons that other nuclear powers do not yet have and are unlikely to develop. "We will continue to persist in consistently building up the armed forces, in general, including its nuclear component, and new nuclear missile-systems technologies that other nuclear powers do not and will not possess," Putin told a meeting of Russian generals in Moscow earlier this month. "I want all to have an understanding of this," Putin added.

The new nukes announcement was seen as a response to Washington's own missile defense efforts. Russia has long argued it had the capability to defeat the US's antimissile defense program due to the size of its ballistic missile arsenal. After President George W Bush pulled out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 to pursue a new anti-missile defense program, Russia announced it no longer felt bound by previous agreements that prohibited missiles with multiple warheads. Russia has looked at equipping its new Topol missile with multiple warheads, an option that would reduce the weapon's vulnerability to the US missile defense system, which is designed to attack only one warhead at a time.

It has been also understood that Russia's promised "new nuclear missile-systems technologies" refer to the renovated RS-12M Topol-M, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nicknamed "SS-27" and was first tested in 1994. The Topol-M can be fired from silos or from mobile launchers. It is 75 feet long and has a range of 6,900 miles. The country now has some 40 Topol-M missile systems, with a further five to be added next year.

In its perceived drive to defeat the US antimissile defense program, Russia has also indicated plans to put dozens of previously stored multi-warhead SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles on combat duty. Putin previously stated that Russia has a "significant amount" of SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles that had been stored without fuel that had never previously been deployed - and thus not part of disarmament negotiations. Putin described the SS-19s as "the most powerful missiles in the world with unparalleled capability to overcome any anti-missile defense".

Russians believe that the SS-19 could function for up to 25 more years and gradually replace decommissioned missiles. The fourth generation UR-100N UTTH, also known as the SS-19 Stiletto, is a two-stage, storable liquid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The SS-19 can carry six warheads with a yield of up to one mega-ton each.

When the START-1 treaty was signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1991 - implemented to reduce and limit strategic offensive arms - the Soviet Union had a total of 300 SS-19 missiles stationed in Russia and Ukraine. After the Soviet demise, Ukraine claimed the missiles based on its territory, while all of its 1,300 nuclear warheads were sent to Russia for destruction. According to the START-II treaty, Russia was to dismantle all ground-based ICBMs with multiple warheads. Under the treaty provisions, a total of 105 of the SS-19 missiles can be retained provided they are downloaded to carry only one warhead instead of six.

In May 2002, Putin and Bush signed the so-called Moscow Treaty that requires the two countries to cut the number of warheads on combat duty to between 1,700 and 2,200 a side. It allows both countries to store, rather than dismantle the warheads. It is the scrapping of the START-II strategic arms reduction treaty, however, that has allowed Russia to keep SS-19s on combat duty.

Russia now has three missile armies and 16 divisions that have a total of 735 ICBMs armed with 3,159 nuclear warheads, according to Russian media reports. In October 2003, Putin stated that Russia retains the right to deliver preemptive military strikes.

In February 2004, Russia said it successfully tested a new strategic supersonic system that would allow "deep maneuvering, both in altitude and course" of Russia's long-range missiles and avoid US defenses. Russian officials claimed that the prototype weapon proved it could maneuver so quickly as to make "any missile defense useless".

The technological breakthrough now being touted by Putin is believed to be the ability to have warheads detached from the main delivery missile during the final stage of its descent, then to continue the flight as cruise missiles. Such missiles would be able to evade any existing or planned missile defense shield. Russian military officials claim this new technology was successfully tested in February.

Meanwhile, in September 2004, Russia test-launched Bulava, a newly-developed submarine-mounted intercontinental ballistic missile. Russia is expected to test-fire a mobile version of its Topol-M ballistic missile this year and production of the new weapon could be commissioned in 2005.

Putin's pledges of new nukes come as the latest in a series of Russian warnings that the development of the American missile defense program will not go unchallenged. Moreover, Putin's comments came the same week the Pentagon announced that the first six interceptors had been installed at Fort Greely, Alaska - 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. The US missile defense system is scheduled to be operational by the end of December. The system consists of six rocket interceptors installed in silos in Fort Greely, with 10 more interceptors to be installed in the future. Four more will be based at Vandenburg Air Force Base in central California.

The response from Washington of Russia's new technology was that Russia is entitled to develop new weapons and this does not violate existing treaties. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush and Putin had discussed the issue previously. Asked about Putin's comments, McClellan said: "We are very well aware of their long-standing modernization efforts for their military."

Meanwhile, Russia has so far responded coolly to the deployment of the US missile shield following the announcement that the missile defense system could become operational in Alaska by the end of 2004. Last October, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the new missile defense systems in Alaska posed no threat to Russian security.

The US defense system is designed to deploy a field of interceptors in Alaska and California that would fly into space to meet and destroy a missile. US officials have long acknowledged that the system would not defend against Russian or Chinese technology, but against  countries like Iran or North Korea, which are developing long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction that could be carried by missiles.

There have been warnings stateside that the US missile defense efforts could unleash an arms race with other countries, and that not only Russia, but also China could build up its long-range nuclear forces to face future US ballistic missile defense systems. The Pentagon in its annual assessment of China's military power echoes the view that Beijing considers missile defense a direct threat. The US Defense Department's report last May said Beijing believes that US missile defenses "will challenge the credibility of China's nuclear deterrent and eventually be extended to protect Taiwan".

Russia and China are indeed concerned that their nuclear deterrent would be greatly diminished by a US missile defense system. US officials have responded that missile defenses are only designed to counter missiles launched by Iran or North Korea.

Moscow's new nuke pledges are also understood to be Moscow's way of cementing its position in a variety of international disputes: from a perennial territorial feud with Japan to rapidly emerging disagreements with the West over the future of Ukraine.

However, claims of Russian missiles with an unparalleled capability to overcome any anti-missile defense system could spark some concerns elsewhere as well. For instance, Russia has sold China S-300PMU long-range air-defense missile systems, promoted by Moscow for their reported anti-missile defense capabilities. Hence for Beijing, the Russian announcement of new weapons, capable to make "any missile defense useless", is unlikely to sound reassuring.

It is hardly a coincidence that this week China's official Xinhua news agency stressed the Russian foreign ministry's clarification that plans for a new generation of nuclear weapons will not threaten any particular country and that Russia is not considering enlarging its nuclear arsenal.

Moscow, too, moved to play down its dramatic announcement. Russia's new nuclear missile system is purely defensive and part of the country's program to upgrade its military, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov reiterated. When asked why Russia was trying to improve its nuclear capabilities at a time when North Korea and Iran came under fire over their nuclear ambitions, Fedotov reportedly argued that "it was necessary to improve missile systems in order to avoid any accidents".

Incidentally, last year Russian media speculated that Moscow's best response to a possible nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be a preemptive missile strike against North Korean nuclear launch facilities, carried out by the Russian Pacific Fleet with its cruise missiles. Hence, Russia's new weapons announcement could be addressed to Pyongyang as well.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)



Nov 25, 2004
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