Tests Show Both Strengths and Weaknesses
In February, Russia concluded what it touted as its most extensive military exercises in two decades, revealing both the current weaknesses and the remaining strengths of Russia’s missile arsenal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin personally witnessed the low and high points. On Feb. 17, Putin watched as a Russian submarine reportedly failed to properly launch two ballistic missiles, although some Russian officials later contended that they were only supposed to be simulations. Another submarine ballistic missile launch went awry the next day. Also on Feb. 18, however, Putin was able to announce the successful launch of a strategic ballistic missile carrying what he described as a “new weapons system.”
Russia possesses “combat-ready armed forces, and this includes the nuclear forces,” Putin said in an English-language transcript supplied by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In his statement, Putin emphasized that the recent exercises cleared the way for adding to the Russian arsenal “new hypersound-speed, high-precision…weapons systems that can hit targets at intercontinental distance and can adjust their altitude and course as they travel.” He implied that such weapons would be ideal for penetrating potential missile defense systems.
Neither Putin nor other top Kremlin officials have shed further light on what the new weapons system is. Most speculation centers on the development of a warhead for a long-range missile that can maneuver after separating from its booster instead of following a ballistic trajectory through space and back to Earth. A warhead that could alter its trajectory would present a much harder target for a missile defense system to hit than a warhead that followed a predictable path.
Why Russia would need to develop such a sophisticated warhead remains unclear because it currently deploys more than 4,600 strategic warheads on more than 1,000 land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles that could simply overwhelm any missile defense system comprised of a lesser number of interceptors.
Although he contended that Russian arms modernization plans were “not in any way directed at the United States,” Putin also said, “[A]s other countries increase the number and quality of their arms and military potential, then Russia will also need to ensure it has new-generation arms and technology.” Washington is currently seeking to deploy the initial elements of a rudimentary multilayered missile defense system this fall and is also exploring new nuclear-weapon designs for new missions, such as destroying deeply buried enemy bunkers.
Still, the earlier submarine missile launch failures detracted from Putin’s upbeat theme. While Russian military officials and press reports went back and forth on whether the tests actually fizzled, Putin confirmed that everything did not go as planned. “Of course, there were pluses and minuses during the course of these exercises,” the president stated.
Putin further pointedly admitted that Russia’s military budget remains pinched. He dismissed the prospect of Russia trying to match U.S. missile defense work, saying, “We think that the time has not come to invest big money in such a project yet. We do not have this money to spare.”
Yet, he indicated that Russia would be keeping an eye on the U.S. effort. “We shall see how work moves ahead in other countries,” Putin said.
Putin is currently campaigning for re-election in March and has been running, in part, on a record of restoring Moscow’s military strength after its dramatic collapse following the end of the Cold War. His re-election is viewed by almost all observers as a certainty.