June 07, 2007

Maintaining ballistic parity

Source: ISN Security Watch
Simon Saradzhyan

Russia's new multiple-warhead ballistic missile will end any illusions that the US missile defense system could neutralize Russian nuclear forces.

The Russian military has recently tested a new multiple-warhead ballistic missile, which is slated to become the backbone of the country's strategic nuclear triad as it prepares to phase out its Soviet-era arsenal and respond to the development of a global missile defense by the US.

The missile, designated as the RS-24, was fired on 29 May from a mobile launcher in Plesetsk and traveled across the country to Kamchatka. The maiden flight went without a glitch and the missile's so-called multiple re-entry vehicles landed at the Kura testing range, according to a 29 May statement sent to ISN Security Watch by the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN).

While the 29 May launch was the missile's maiden test flight, it will eventually be commissioned to "strengthen the combat capabilities of the attack grouping of the RVSN to overcome systems of missile defense, and, therefore, strengthen the strategic nuclear forces' deterrence potential," the RVSN statement said.

Massive deployment of RS-24s would prevent the Russian strategic triad from falling behind the US in terms of number of strategic warheads and ensure that Russia maintained some semblance of parity with its counterpart. It would also end any illusions that the US missile defense could neutralize Russian nuclear forces. Furthermore, it will significantly strengthen Russia's hand in strategic arms negotiations with the US, including over the START-1 Treaty.

The RS-24 is essentially a modification of the single-warhead version of post-communist Russia's first indigenous intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), RS-12M2. Therefore, it could require as few as three tests before being deemed operational and commissioned, Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington, DC-based World Security Institute, said during an interview with ISN Security Watch.

The RS-24 was designed by the country's leading developer of ballistic missiles, the Moscow Institute of Heat Engineering. Russian commanders have recently tested a mobile version of the RS-12M2 and have been floating plans to develop a multiple-warhead modification of this missile for years. But, the commanders have been silent on the possibility implementing the modification on a mobile launcher.

The RVSN statement noted that the RS-24 would serve as the backbone of the land component of the country's strategic nuclear triad until the middle of this century as Soviet-era multiple warhead intercontinental missiles of RS-18 and RS-20 are decommissioned. Some of Soviet ICBM's would remain operational for more than 15 years, if warranty service is extended. This means that RS-24 will be commissioned for at least several decades to come.

Meanwhile hundreds of the aging RS-18 and RS-20 missiles, which were designed by the Yuzhnoe design bureau in Ukraine, formerly the backbone of the Soviet nuclear triad, would have to be decommissioned by 2015-2017, according to independent experts' estimates.

Safranchuk believes that the RVSN needs to commission about 40 RS-24s per year to maintain parity with the US compared to the current annual average of only six RS-12M2s a year.

"The fact that Russia's arsenal of missiles is aging so quickly is one reason why Russian military leaders are concerned about even a rudimentary US missile defense system, Kevin Ryan, senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs told ISN Security Watch. "And as their arsenal declines and our defense increases there could come a time, sooner than later, when the two trends could be great enough to affect the strategic balance."

Ryan insisted that the test of the new missile "should not be seen as an escalation of any arms race or altering of a strategic balance."

"It should be seen as a stabilizing of the Russian nuclear deterrent and in that regard could be seen as a positive development," he said.

The RS-24 is to play a lead role in not only compensating for the phasing out of the missiles, but also strengthening Russia's negotiations position on the entire range of US-Russian arms control dialogue, from US plans to deploy a global missile defense to the extension of START-1.

This key strategic arms treaty expires in 2009 . The Kremlin has been trying to convince the Bush administration to extend it.

The treaty sets limits on strategic delivery systems for nuclear warheads and also details verification procedures for the three-page May 2002 Moscow Treaty, which commits the two countries to cut their nuclear warheads. Without START-1, the hands of Russia's strategic commanders would be untied in deciding where RS-24s should patrol.

The Bush administration has so far seen no need to extend START-1 and remains committed to deployment of its global missile defense plan. However, the commissioning of the RS-24, which would be mobile and thus, much more difficult to detect than silo-based ICBMs, may prompt the next US administration to see a need to extend the treaty as it requires the US and Russia to inform each other of zones where their ICBMs are based.

Indeed, the 2008 US presidential elections may determine what the future holds. A Democrat in the White House may see Russia's continuing effort to maintain its strategic arsenal by commissioning the new multi-warhead ICBMs - which the Kremlin says is partly a response to the US' global missile defense plans - as another reason to defer deploying parts of this missile shield in Europe.

Simon Saradzhyan is a security and foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. He is the managing editor of The Moscow Times. He also works as a consultant for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Mr Saradzhyan is the author of several papers on terrorism and security, including most recently "Russia: Grasping Reality of Nuclear Terror," published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in September 2006.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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