June 23, 2008

Russia’s nuclear interest revived

Source: AirforceTimes

By Michael Hoffman - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Jun 23, 2008 10:49:37 EDT

The Russian nuclear threat crumbled not long after the Berlin Wall fell.

But almost two decades later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is warning that the Russian military is reinvesting in its nuclear mission — at the same time the U.S. Air Force has allowed its nuclear standards to slip.

“For a whole bunch of reasons, demographics and everything else, it seems clear that the Russians are focused ... on strengthening their nuclear capabilities,” Gates told reporters as he flew June 9 from Langley Air Force Base, Va., to Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

Gates described a Russian military with a renewed commitment to building up its nuclear enterprise rather than focusing solely on strengthening the conventionally armed Russian army.

“To the extent that they rely more and more on their nuclear capabilities as opposed to what historically has been a huge conventional military capability it seems to me that it underscores the importance of our sustaining a valid nuclear deterrent,” he said.

The urgency of Gates’ message — preparing to meet any Russian threat — was underscored by the purpose of his trip: reassuring airmen at three Air Force bases after firing the chief of staff and service secretary due to declining nuclear standards and two embarrassing nuclear mishaps.

A February flight of a Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber — capable of carrying nuclear air-launch cruise missiles — over the aircraft carrier Nimitz was reminiscent of the Cold War, when Russian nuclear bombers commonly flew near U.S. borders and buzzed U.S. warships.

But until recently, those flyovers had all but stopped.

Between August and December 2007, Russia’s strategic bombers conducted more than 20 flights and test-fired 217 air-launch missiles during long-range exercises over the North Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans and the Black Sea — a significant increase over previous years, according to a report in the May/June Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In addition to bolstering the strategic bomber portion of its nuclear triad, Russia is also making serious investments in its intercontinental ballistic missile force and nuclear submarine fleet.

A nuclear-capable Russian naval task force, led by its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed into the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean last winter for the first time in 15 years. The two-month cruise included test firings of cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Last Christmas, former Russian President Vladimir Putin described successful ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic-missile flight tests as “holiday fireworks.”

The head of Russia’s Strategic Missile Command told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency that he plans to double the number of test launches of ICBMs per year after 2009 or 2010, which could bring the number to 22, according to the bulletin report.

Russia’s military engineers, who are trying to develop an advanced nuclear warhead and ballistic missile system, could benefit from the increased launches, although it’s unclear how far they’ve come, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Retired Gen. Chuck Horner, a former NORAD commander, said Russia’s recent nuclear buildup should concern U.S. officials but added that he doesn’t think it poses a significant strategic threat.

Instead, Horner said, the flexing of Russian nuclear muscle is one way Putin can re-exert the onetime superpower’s military might.

“Nuclear forces were the ultimate status symbol emblematic of superpower rank,” said Robert Norris, an associate with National Research Defense Council’s nuclear program. “I think we’re witnessing a Russia that has decided to emphasize a greater role in the world with its newfound oil and natural gas money.”

Norris said the Russians also have been motivated by the U.S. push to establish an anti-ballistic missile program, especially in Eastern Europe.

As Russia continues to develop its nuclear arsenal — and concerns about nuclear weapons and proliferation in Pakistan, India, Iran and North Korea continue to occupy diplomats around the world — the U.S.’s own problems managing its nuclear force detract from its credibility on the issue.

“It undermines our message, when our message is clear that any country has to take extra efforts to ensure they are safe and secure,” Norris said.

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