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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Russian Nuclear Ambitions Exceed Reality
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Wade Boese

Top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, boasted several times last year that Russia’s future nuclear arsenal will be unrivaled. Russia’s recent nuclear activities suggest this is more of a long-term goal rather than a short-term possibility.

To be sure, Russia conducted its first flight test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and reportedly a second successful test of a new warhead. Still, Moscow’s new weapons may be years from deployment, and Russia is retiring aging missiles faster than it is deploying new ones because of limited budgets. This downward trend also coincides with U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreements.

Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces released a Nov. 30 statement touting that all of its 2005 missile flight tests had been successful. All but two of Russia's 2005 experiments, however, involved Soviet-era delivery systems. Such tests have been needed because Russia has extended the service of some missiles, such as the 10-warhead SS-18, beyond original deployment plans in order to preserve some parity with U.S. strategic force levels.

The two tests breaking new ground occurred Sept. 27 and Dec. 21. They involved the launch of a Bulava missile, or RSM-56, by a modified Soviet-era Typhoon submarine. Moscow has not publicized the solid-fuel missile’s payload, but general speculation is that it can carry up to 10 warheads.

When the Bulava will finish testing and be ready for service is also unknown. Two new Project 955 Borey-class submarines are undergoing construction to be outfitted with the missiles, but the operational date for the first vessel was recently postponed by one year to 2007.

Meanwhile, Russia, as part of its 1991 START reporting obligations, revealed in July that it removed 20 SLBMs and their 200 nuclear warheads from service during the previous six months. Data for the rest of 2005 has not yet been publicly released.

Moscow also noted that it eliminated 26 ICBM launchers with some 150 warheads over the first six months of last year. A Department of State official told Arms Control Today Dec. 13 that Russia continued reductions through the end of the year, including scrapping its last rail-based SS-24 systems. Together, the ICBM and SLBM reductions left Russia with approximately 4,350 deployed warheads by START’s terms.

Along with the United States, Russia is bound by the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) to lower its strategic arsenal to 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic warheads by the end of 2012. Russia’s force levels are widely projected eventually to drop below the bottom limit.

Still, Russia is slowly fielding some new ICBMs. Since 1997, Moscow has deployed some 40 silo-based SS-27 Topol-Ms. The Kremlin also completed flight-testing of a road-mobile version of this missile at the end of 2004, and deployments of it might begin this year.

Although the SS-27 is envisioned as the mainstay of Moscow’s future strategic forces, Russian production has remained modest, at roughly a half dozen per year. No indications exist that Russia plans to ramp up production.

Russian officials have mentioned the possibility of adding warheads to the single-warhead SS-27 to maintain a higher number of deployed warheads in light of the new missile’s slow production rate. But START limits the SS-27 to a single warhead because it is a variant of the single-warhead SS-25. Moscow’s options if it decides to arm the SS-27 with more warheads, therefore, are to modify the SS-27 so it is a different type of missile than the SS-25 or wait until START expires in December 2009.

More ambiguity surrounds Russia’s exploration of what Russian and Western media have identified as a “maneuverable warhead” but what could also be a re-entry vehicle. A re-entry vehicle shrouds a warhead to enable it to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere.

Putin last September said that Russia was developing “new strategic high-precision systems” that can alter “course and height.” The purpose behind such capabilities is to make a warhead a more elusive target for anti-missile systems, such as those the United States is pursuing, a point Russian officials repeatedly emphasize.

The system reportedly has been flight-tested in early 2004 and this past November. The Washington Times implied Nov. 21 that U.S. officials confirmed that the latest test involved a vehicle that “can change course and range.” Russian officials have not specified when the system might become operational.

Although Russia is actively exploring ways to enhance its arsenal, Moscow has also expressed interest in negotiating lower strategic arms limits with the United States.

But Bush administration officials, who have expressed no anxiety about Russia’s strategic nuclear developments, have dismissed the prospect of negotiating additional limits. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)