Testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is not uncommon. The United States tested an LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBM off the coast of California as recently as Feb. 25, its second Minuteman III test that month. Though nuclear testing has largely ended (the exception being North Korea) since the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was adopted in 1996, testing of the delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads continues unabated.
Testing ensures that nuclear-capable missiles continue to work and have not deteriorated with age. It also broadcasts reliability to potential enemies, conveying a country's still-active capability to launch a nuclear strike. Finally, even though countries such as Russia and the United States are restrained by the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, launches help modernize nuclear arsenals. As new missiles and bombs are built, they require tests to see whether they can effectively reach their target.
Deterrence figures prominently in the increase of missile testing as well. Russia's nuclear arsenal not only enshrines the country's position as a great power, it also guarantees security against potential foreign foes. Russian conventional military power is no longer an assurance against NATO's military prowess and China's rapidly modernizing conventional military force. Understandably, Russia's nuclear arsenal continues to be the top priority in its defense spending.
However, Russia is concerned by the possibility that the United States will undermine its nuclear deterrence. The United States is in the midst of an estimated $350 billion nuclear modernization program and is simultaneously pursuing anti-ballistic missile technology. Moscow fears that these efforts have the potential to break the nuclear balance between the countries, reducing its deterrence capabilities. Specifically, an increasingly precise U.S. nuclear arsenal coupled with a reliable anti-ballistic missile network could enable Washington to launch a decapitation strike, which would severely damage Russia's leadership structure and nuclear arsenal in a first strike, while leaving the United States able to intercept and destroy the surviving missiles that Moscow launched in retaliation. A viable nuclear scenario that leaves the United States largely unscathed in a nuclear attack could, in theory, induce Washington toward such an attack. Of course, the world would suffer terrible nuclear fallout, but military doctrine has to engage with worst-case scenarios.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Russia is determinedly modernizing its nuclear weapons program while simultaneously reminding the world of its capability. Last year, the Russians tested eight ICBMs, and earlier in January, Russian officials announced plans to test 16 ICBMs in 2016, 14 of which will be tests of missiles entering service in Russia for the first time. On the testing schedule are the recently introduced Bulava SLBM, which had considerable development problems, and also other land-based ICBMs such as the new SS-X-30 Sarmat. Moscow is counting on these new missiles to ensure its nuclear arsenal survives against the U.S. anti-ballistic missile network.
Russia is also looking to its past to enhance its nuclear survivability, revisiting old Soviet tactics. Moscow is now working to enhance missile mobility by shuttling them by rail. Moreover, it is reviewing the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which would enable Russia to use low Earth orbit to widen the range of its missiles to strike areas not protected by U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems.
Russia certainly benefits from the media's considerable interest in its ICBM tests, since it helps highlight its continued nuclear deterrence capability. But more important, any launch proves that although international treaties have largely curbed the quantity of warheads and missiles, the race to develop and maintain quality nuclear equipment and capabilities continues. It is why Russia and the United States are pursuing modernization programs — to refine their nuclear arsenals and contend with each other's increasingly viable anti-ballistic missile technology.