assessments

Russia: Sustaining the Strategic Deterrent

5 MINS READDec 11, 2007 | 18:33 GMT
Summary
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.

Politics

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.

Production

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.

Implications

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.

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