Russia: Sustaining the Strategic Deterrent



Russia insists that it is content with the current pace of the construction of new strategic missiles. But the lack of acceleration in the production rate of the Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile has serious implications.


Russia will continue the pace of production of the Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at six to seven units per year, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced Dec. 7. This announcement is noteworthy not only for the chronically slow output (Topol-M production was once envisioned as exceeding the current rate many times over) but also because Ivanov announced his comfort with the numbers.


Ivanov's statement could foreshadow a new defense doctrine expected in the wake of the March 2008 presidential race. By many accounts, the new doctrine is expected to herald a renewed offensive against the old guard and stubborn holdouts from the Soviet era. Ivanov stated very clearly that "we do not need to produce 30 Topol-Ms annually. Not everything is measured by numbers." This is a stunning statement from a Russian; the Soviet military was absolutely obsessed with numerical parity (along with other, more complex calculations rooted in the concept of parity).

This mindset is well-ingrained in the way many Russians see defense issues. Thus, if Russia cannot ramp up production, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ivanov must show their compatriots that they are adequately defending the motherland. They can do this by -- in a very Soviet way -- changing their definition of reality. If maintaining a semblance (and it is already only a semblance) of parity with the United States is no longer an option, then the Kremlin does not see the need to attempt to maintain that semblance of parity. If Russia could produce more Topol-Ms, it very likely would. This indicates that the ultimate implication of Ivanov's statement is that Russia cannot expand Topol-M production for at least several years. A secondary consideration is the avoidance of an arms race with the United States. Though the Kremlin has spare cash lying around, it does not translate neatly into production capacity -- and in a modern-day arms race Moscow would suffer far worse, far faster than it did against Ronald Reagan's Washington. Nevertheless, Washington is only beginning even to look in Russia's general direction again, and Moscow has some room to move before crossing the line where it would need to worry about provoking an arms race.


The Topol-M is built in a Cold War facility that has seen much higher output. Indeed, the Topol-M (SS-27) is a modification of the Topol missile (SS-25), which was largely produced outside of Russia proper in other corners of the Soviet Union. The principal difference between the Topol and the Topol-M is a series of production-minded alterations made after the collapse of the Soviet Union that tailored the Topol-M to Russia's new geography. It is noteworthy that at a time when money is not a problem for Moscow, a modified version of the Topol -- of which 250 units ultimately were produced -- cannot be produced any faster.

The Soviet strategic nuclear forces were a principal beneficiary of the privileged position the military enjoyed in the Soviet economy. When that military-industrial relationship evaporated with the Soviet Union, defense-related production suffered severely. It could be that six or seven Topol-Ms per year is the highest output the Kremlin thinks can be achieved with guaranteed quality and adequate management of other factors like corruption and inefficiencies. Russia could also be biding its time to field a more heavily modified Topol-M, perhaps with a new maneuverable re-entry vehicle capable of evading an advanced U.S. missile defense, or fitted with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). A modified Topol-M variant, the RS-24 (its Russian designation) was tested May 29 with MIRVs. Without requiring any alteration to the production rate of the missiles themselves, this shift could triple or even quadruple the number of deliverable warheads fielded on new launchers.


Whatever the technical reasons behind it, the production rate Ivanov announced has several significant implications. While Russia is becoming more assertive, its land-based ICBM force is aging rapidly. The vast majority of Russia's land-based deliverable warheads are carried on older SS-18 "Satan" and SS-19 "Stiletto" missiles -- all of which (save a reserve force of about 30 SS-19s) have already undergone sustainment programs to extend their already-surpassed intended service lives. The intended service lives of these legacy land-based missiles will continue to be extended -- likely to an imprudent degree. But ultimately, these ICBMs will continue to be decommissioned faster than they are being replaced. And no matter the precise timetable for their decommissioning, an almost inexorable downward trajectory is beginning to appear. Meanwhile, the center of gravity of Russia's deterrent is moving -- whether by default or by purpose of design -- ever so slowly seaward. (In comparison, the United States has relied more heavily on its submarines as a full-fledged leg of the nuclear triad since the 1960s. They now carry the bulk of deliverable U.S. nuclear warheads.)

It will become even more important for the seriously troubled Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile to succeed (which puts pressure on program managers to speed up a development process that some speculate is suffering already from too much artificial acceleration). The fate of this increasingly important missile thus remains uncertain. It will be another five years before trends -- specifically the pace of decommissioning legacy missiles, the fielding of the MIRVed Topol-M and the fate of the Bulava -- really solidify. But recent developments with the Bulava, combined with Ivanov's announcement about the Topol-M, suggest a vast and inexorable shrinking of the Kremlin's nuclear arsenal that goes beyond the significant post-Cold War decline.


Russia: Maintaining a Unique Military Position

TU-160 Blackjack Launching Cruise Missile


In 2006, Russian strategic aviation conducted more than 100 training sorties over the old Cold War battleground of the Northern Atlantic, Northern Pacific and Arctic oceans, Russian air force Commander-in-Chief Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov announced. While the sorties are neither especially impressive nor particularly concerning to Washington, they are a reminder of Russia's unique military position, especially vis-a-vis the United States.


Russian air force Commander-in-Chief Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov said Jan. 4 that Russian planes flew more than 100 strategic bomber patrols over Russia's eastern, western and northern periphery in 2006. Mikhailov said the sorties indicate a new level of combat readiness for Russia's long-range strategic air force.

The aviation exercises are in line with a general Russian military resurgence that has been under way for some time. Building a new Russian military from the shambles of the Red Army is a massive and daunting task. But key forces -- strategic nuclear forces, aviation and elite ground units -- are being reconstituted. The current pace is admittedly slow, but it is steady. The selective rehabilitation of Russia's military capabilities is coupled with the Kremlin's increasing control over the strategic energy and mining sectors and the political landscape. With major elections coming in December 2007 and March 2008, the Kremlin wishes to consolidate as much power as possible to ensure the perpetuation of its current policies. Thus, Russian military rhetoric has become more for domestic consumption, intended to show the Russian people what Moscow has done to rebuild its strategic position in the world.

However, the strategic aviation patrols in the old Cold War style are also a reminder that Russia holds a unique position of military power vis-a-vis the United States. Though the Soviet Union is no more, its achievements in military technology -- especially those just coming online when the Berlin Wall came down -- remain in the hands of the Russian armed forces today. There is no clearer example of this than the Tupolev Tu-160 bomber (designated "Blackjack" by NATO).

Besides the United States and Russia, no other nation possesses such a strategic strike platform -- and none appears likely to have one in the near future. Similar in appearance to the U.S. B-1B, the Tu-160 is some 30 feet longer and has a maximum wingspan more than 40 feet greater. It is some 125,000 pounds heavier than the B-1B, and each engine kicks in 55,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner -- 25,000 pounds more than the B-1B. Capable of traveling at Mach 2.05, the Blackjack is nearly twice as fast as the B-1B. This is not to say that the Tu-160 is a superior plane in all respects; its cruise speed is slower, its ordnance load about 10,000 pounds less and its avionics and navigation capabilities are not as evolved, but these are minor distinctions in the context of the world's air forces.

The Tu-160 can, without refueling, deliver ordnance halfway around the world from Russian territory. Moreover, it can launch a dozen Kh-55 cruise missiles (designated AS-15 by NATO) with an additional range of roughly 1,800 miles and a circular error probable (a measure of accuracy) of about 80 feet. Tu-160 airframes have been slowly receiving upgraded systems and the capability to carry additional types of ordnance since the summer of 2006. While Russian pilots still do not receive stellar amounts of flying time -- and flying time is an important measure of an air force's true skill level -- select squadrons like the Tu-160s of the 121st Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment stationed at Engels Air Force Base near Saratov are now getting a disproportionate increase in training in order to correct this deficiency.

As Russia rebuilds its military, it is taking advantage of the significant stepping stone of legacy Soviet platforms like the Tu-160. While this by no means translates into a Russian ability to penetrate U.S. airspace and hit strategic targets, Moscow and Washington alone can quickly strike at targets around the world on short notice. Moscow still officially considers the United States and NATO its top defense priority. Though nuclear strategists keep a close eye on Russia, the United States and NATO do not see Moscow as a top threat. The withdrawal of U.S. P-3 Orions from Iceland is only a small indication of this. Though the West has not forgotten Russia's military -- especially its strategic nuclear forces -- the time could come when an unexpected Tu-160 strike in defense of Russian interests in some remote locale reminds the world that, while down, the Russian war machine is definitely not out.


Russia: Future Naval Prospects


Russia has commissioned its first surface warship designed from the ground up since the fall of the Soviet Union. It will not be the last.


The Russian navy in November commissioned the first surface warship designed from the ground up since the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite the announcement of the prospective deployment of a battle group to the Mediterranean and talk of building the world's second-largest fleet of aircraft carriers, Russian maritime development has a long way to go. The navy has suffered and struggled even more than the country's other military services since 1991 -- and suffered the tragic loss in 2000 of the Kursk SSGN, the pride of Russia's Northern Fleet.

The future of the Russian fleet is unclear, though more changes are in store after President Vladimir Putin consolidates power in March 2008. A new military doctrine is expected, and the decision to delay its release until after the election -- when his rock-solid footing is even more consolidated -- suggests that Putin is aiming for some serious reforms, despite the objections of the old guard. Aside from the plethora of larger defense issues, the Russian navy always has been a lower priority for the Kremlin. Part of this is the result of Russia's geopolitical nature; it has the longest land borders in the world and has always required a large conscripted army to even attempt to defend them -- making the country a land power. The navy, therefore, always has played a secondary role. Even when Russia was able to devote significant resources to its navy, as in Soviet times, each fleet was geographically isolated from the next (i.e., the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea, the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Sea Flotilla and the Pacific Fleet).

Project 20380 Class Stereguschyy

The Nov. 14 commissioning of the Steregushchiy -- the lead ship of the Project 20380 class -- raises some interesting prospects for the future development of the Russian fleet. Though occasionally touted as incorporating stealth or low-observability features, the design is fairly conventional (including its SS-N-25 anti-ship missiles, which so closely resemble the design of the U.S. Harpoon that they are known as "harpoonskis"). In other words, the Steregushchiy, whose price has more than doubled since its conception, probably is more contemporary to the last generation of small surface warships than to the next. However, there is a more impressive aspect of the Project 20380 and the other major warship projects under way: their small scale. Variously dubbed a corvette and a frigate (in some ways riding the fence in terms of dimensions and displacement), the Steregushchiy is only one of four frigate- and corvette-class designs currently under construction -- the largest of which is expected to displace only about 4,500 tons.

This represents a significant departure from Soviet naval architecture. The embodiment of that legacy is the 24,000-ton battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and the equally enormous Typhoon ballistic missile submarine. These are massive, ambitious and expensive platforms. The current portfolio of surface combatant construction, however, is far more conservative, both in design and scale. Russia's military industrial complex was once the primary beneficiary of the Soviet economy. With that structure gone, the country has not quite figured out how to adapt its defense industry to capitalist (or, perhaps in this case, faux-capitalist) constraints and standards. Today, in addition to the cost overruns more developed Western countries suffer in their own naval construction, Moscow also is plagued by corruption, incompetence and shoddy workmanship. It recently was revealed that work on the Admiral Gorshkov, which the Russians have been refitting and modernizing for the Indian navy for years -- a project that is significantly over budget and behind schedule -- has been hampered by a lack of blueprints and technical drawings.

The Kremlin has begun to fire people for such incompetence and corruption. It also has begun reorganizing entire sectors of the defense industry under unified aegises, such as the United Aircraft Building Corp. and the United Shipbuilding Corp. To what extent these efforts will succeed remains to be seen. (Even on the most optimistic trajectory, they have only just begun.) After what promises to be another round of defense reforms after March 2008, it still will be another three or four years before any reforms are truly felt. Meanwhile, the commissioning of follow-on ships and submarines of new classes (of which the lead ships and boats now are being launched) is scheduled to begin at about the same time the prospective reforms kick in -- around 2011. Whether these schedules can be kept -- indeed, whether oil prices can sustain them -- and the effectiveness of these reforms is still unclear.

Meanwhile, the quality of these ships is another open question. Russia's shipyards were not just quiet for a decade -- they spiraled into decay. Though some major surface combatants have been refitted and returned to the sea, this is an interim measure. Russia needs to build a new fleet and has begun to do so in a way that outwardly appears consistent with the thinking of many second-tier Western navies -- by building cost-efficient, flexible frigates and corvettes. And cranking out new ships (of modest, but passable quality) is almost certainly of far more significance for the Kremlin right now than making more advanced ships of impeccable workmanship (which has never been Russia's forte). Russia will never dominate the world's oceans with such designs. In fact, attempting to do so -- by backing up such claims as "building the world's second-largest carrier fleet" with fiscal investments -- would not be a particularly fruitful pursuit for Moscow. However, the trajectory of Russia's potential naval rebirth suggests that Moscow has begun to understand both its limitations and its need for naval power.


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

To limit clutter in the comments section, I kindly ask all participants of this blog to please keep comments coherent and strictly relevant to the featured topic of discussion. Moreover, please realize that when there are several anonymous visitors posting comments simultaneously, it becomes very confusing (not to mention extremely annoying) trying to figure out who is who and who said what.Therefore, if you are here to engage in conversation, make an observation, express an idea or simply attack me, I ask you to at least use a moniker to identify yourself. Moreover, please appreciate the fact that I have put an enormous amount of information into this blog. In my opinion, most of my blog commentaries and articles, some going back ten-plus years, are in varying degrees relevant to this day and will remain so for a long time to come. Articles in this blog can therefore be revisited by longtime readers and new comers alike. I therefore ask the reader to treat this blog as a depository of important information relating to Eurasian geopolitics, Russian-Armenian relations and humanity's historic fight against the evils of Globalism and Westernization.

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