Russian Nukes Redux

Is energy the nuclear weapon of the 21st century? In recent months, Russia has shown that control of gas supplies to its neighbors can be a potent political tool. But when Vladimir Putin was asked exactly that question last week, he disagreed. "We still have plenty of nuclear rockets too," boasted Putin. "We recently carried out tests on new ballistic-weapon systems, weapons which no other country in the world has." The new Russian systems, he said, "don't care if there is a missile-defense system or not." In other words, for Putin, nukes are the nukes of the 21st century.

Only one country in the world--America--is actually developing a missile defense system. So why, in an era when Russia and the United States enjoy friendly relations, do Russian leaders feel the need to revamp the country's nuclear arsenal, and add a new nuclear warhead designed specifically to penetrate the U.S. defenses? For the Kremlin's part, Putin sees nukes as Russia's membership card to the world's top table. Asked last week whether Russia really belonged in the G8 club of the world's leading industrialized nations, Putin's response was that Russia was a major nuclear power and couldn't be ignored. Putin makes no secret of his wish to see Russia great again--and since it's unlikely to join the ranks of the world's richest countries any time soon, staying in the nuclear game is a key part of that strategy. "Putin picked up on these weapons as a political slogan," says military analyst Pavel Felgenauer. "He is promoting this warhead as proof that we can still do things, still stay in the game." No one is suggesting that Putin intends to nuke Washington. But he does want to ensure he and his successors have that option.

To that end, Russia has been giving its nuclear-weapons arsenal a major face-lift. The new targetable warhead Putin mentioned--a unique system no other country has so far tried to replicate--is specifically designed to counter U.S. anti-missile technology. The warhead is fired into space on a conventional ballistic missile. But instead of falling to earth on a predictable trajectory, it then detaches and maneuvers as it re-enters the atmosphere, like a cruise missile. This maneuverability, analysts say, would confound U.S. missile defenses, which work by plotting an incoming warhead's trajectory and intercepting it as it homes in on a target. Tests last year showed that for the first time, prototype targetable warheads can shift trajectory at Mach 8, making them almost impossible to shoot down. It will take several more years (and a lot more money) before the new warhead goes into production. But Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov promised last December that Russia would have a "new generation" of strategic missiles by the end of the decade.

The idea of a targetable warhead has been around since 1983, when the Soviet Union sought an answer to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative, which envisioned a missile shield mounted on satellites in space. Even though the SDI system was never actually built, Reagan's apparent determination to go through with it rocked the cold-war world. Then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov ordered up the new warheads as Russia's "asymmetric response" to Reagan. By the time the Soviet Union fell, Moscow had sunk more than $20 billion into the project--three times more than the Pentagon actually spent on Star Wars. Indeed, for a while, the United States switched its attention to theater defense systems--ground-based rockets like the Patriot that can intercept small, low flying missiles.

Twenty years later, the threat of rogue states has given new life to the old idea of a missile shield. An influential report drafted by Donald Rumsfeld in 2000, before he became George W. Bush's hawkish secretary of Defense, argued that the United States should urgently develop a system to defend itself against a rogue nuclear attack. September 11 gave that fear wings, and the U.S. government instituted a $100 billion missile-defense program. Five years on, the system is starting to take shape. In November, a U.S. Aegis warship launched a missile that successfully intercepted a dummy incoming rocket off Hawaii. Sixteen similar land-based interceptor rocket stations are scheduled to be deployed in Alaska this year (even though in two of the last three tests last fall, the rockets failed to launch).

Building America's new anti-missile shield has meant unilaterally tearing up the 1972 antiballistic-missile treaty with Russia. That treaty's logic--to preserve the balance of mutually assured destruction between the superpowers--limited Soviet and U.S. anti-missile defense systems to just one station of 100 anti-missile rockets so that neither side would be able to attack the other and expect to survive an answering attack. "Bush argued that cold-war logic shouldn't stand in the way of America's ability to defend itself," says a senior Western military source in Moscow, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "What the Russians had to say about it didn't really matter."

It turns out, though, that the Russians do have something to say. "I'm not saying this [system] is our response to missile defense," said Putin last week--apparently meaning exactly the opposite. Essentially, Putin's answer has been the same as Andropov's to Reagan a generation before. "They took the old system out of the locker and shook the dust off it," says Arbatov.

The United States, for its part, doesn't seem too worried: Washington "does not perceive Russia's nuclear modernization activities as threatening," says State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, and added that what Russia is doing is consistent with existing treaties. Washington can afford to be relaxed because Putin's talk of nukes probably has more to do with boosting the reputation of his beleaguered military at home than making preparations for war with the United States.

Putin likes to cast himself as a defender of Russia. He has boosted funding for the military by 15 percent to more than $24 billion in 2006. But that's just a drop in the ocean. The Army, argues analyst Alexander Golts, is still geared to fighting a world war, rather than local separatist conflicts that are Russia's biggest threat. Transforming the military into a smaller, more professional fighting force would mean spending more money--and taking on more vested interests--than Putin's ready for. Easier, then, to announce a terrifying new secret weapon than to tackle the more serious problems of Russia's creaky military. "Our Duma deputies were delighted as children when Putin made the announcement of our new system," says Arbatov. "And our generals, too."

What makes Putin's boasts a little hollow, however, is that a new warhead alone isn't enough to create a new-generation nuclear arsenal. Russia almost certainly has the know-how--given time and money--to make a targetable warhead system work. But its delivery systems, both rockets and submarines, are rapidly aging. Of Russia's six Typhoon-class strategic nuclear missile subs (featured in Tom Clancy's cold-war classic "The Hunt for Red October"), only one, the Dmitry Donskoi, is actually refitted and serviceable. And a further seven Delta-4 class subs, a newer class built in the late 1980s, will also reach the end of their service life by the end of the decade. Just two replacement subs are planned thus far. Russia's missiles are degrading fast, too. In 10 years, analysts say, Russia's heavy SS-18 and SS-19 strategic rockets will be too old for use, and are being replaced by new Topol M's at a rate of only seven a year. In sum, says Arbatov, Russia is likely to have just 500 warheads in a decade, to America's 2,000 state-of-the-art nukes.

But while Russia's new warheads may be more about posturing than substance, they're a symptom of something much more worrisome--a wider breakdown in the cold war's systems of controlling weapons of mass destruction. The ABM Treaty is now history, but the more important Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 could go the same way. The treaty, signed by almost all of the world's nations, was designed to control the spread of nuclear weaponry beyond a small club--the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China. India, Pakistan and presumably Israel have already broken the treaty and developed nukes of their own, and North Korea boasts that it has (though no one is quite sure). Last week, Russian intelligence warned that Iran may have enriched enough uranium to make a simple nuclear bomb--even though it still lacks an effective delivery system. "Disarmament has fallen apart," says Arbatov. "This has very bad consequences for proliferation."

Some Westerners have taken solace that Russia's nuclear scientists are gainfully employed, rather than seeking freelance work from terrorists. Indeed, Putin has vowed to revive Russia's military industrial complex, consolidating 60 companies under an umbrella organization, Rosvooruzheniye, controlled by Viktor Ivanov, deputy chief of the presidential administration. Under the new management, the company has landed some lucrative deals, including a $1 billion contract to supply Iran with antiaircraft defense systems signed last December.

Financially, however, the firm faces an uphill struggle. Salaries are still puny and unlikely to tempt back specialists who emigrated in the 1990s, says Felgenhauer, "and that's a major problem in an industry where most of the best experts are pushing 60." And, complains Col. Gen. Anatolii Sitnov, former head of the Defense Ministry's armaments department, quality standards are lax and many of the systems produced "inferior." Russia's new warheads may sound fearsome, but the real threat to world security is likely to come from upstart nuclear powers like Iran. Before too long, both cold-war rivals may have to retarget their warheads at new and less familiar enemies.

Join the Discussion