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Dr. R.H. Rusli
CITI Institute

The End of Russia's Strategic Forces.

Editorial Department

THE ELIT FORCES OF RUSSIA'S STRATEGIC nuclear forces have entered the uncertainty millennium with a broad range of problems involve in financial, technological, diplomatic and organisational. By the middle of year 2000 the future prospects were further clouded by the politicisation of the reform debate, linked to the succession struggle for the post of powerful minister of defense. It seems unlikely that the Kremlin will be able to stabilise the operational capabilities of the force. The question is whether the force will continue to erode in a controlled or haphazard way. Let's take a look on the armed forces


As with all others combat branches of the Russian armed forces, the strategic nuclear forces is the center of defense systems and considered to the most elit force, face the future severely hamstrung by financial problems. This was demonstrated on 27 June when Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye voiska strategicheskogo naznacheniya - RVSN) troops from the base at Sibirskiy were forced to stage a commando raid on the neighbouring electric power company, which threatened to shut off power to the base due to a continuing failure to pay its bills. As in the rest of the armed forces, monthly pay for the missile troops has been meager and erratic.

The RVSN remains the main element of the Russian strategic forces, being responsible for about 90% of the strategic missions even though it possesses only about 60% of the missiles and warheads. Funding for RVSN operations has been meagre, as has the maintenance budget.

Russia currently fields 785 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), of which about 61% are beyond their warranty life. Most Russian liquid-fuelled missiles of the fourth and fifth generation have a warranted life of seven to 10 years in operation and some has been dismantled. At the end of this period they must be removed from their silo and sent back to the plant for remanufacture as the corrosive oxidant can begin to leak, electronics deteriorate, and the warhead has to be serviced. This cannot be done in the silo due to the use of transport-launch containers that envelope the missile.

In the past, missiles have been rebuilt several times, extending their life to 25 years. The problem is that 226 of the missiles - Voevoda (SS-18 'Satan') and Molodets (SS-24 'Scalpel') - were built in Ukraine and so cannot be sent back to their original plant for rebuilding. A limited reserve of missiles can be substituted, but this is a finite resource that will be exhausted. The older UR-100NU (SS-19 'Stiletto'), built at the Khrunichev plant near Moscow, is being rebuilt to extend its useful life until about 2010. The 360 Topol (SS-25 'Sickle') the world most modern mobile ICBMs that make up almost half the force are the newest missiles to enter service. Their manufacturing plant at Votkinsk is still in operation, and there is a reserve of about 50 missiles that can be substituted for time-expired missiles.

Another complicate matters facing the RVSN, is the main manufacturer of inertial-guidance platforms in Khartron, is also in Ukraine. When missiles are left on active alert with the inertial guidance unit fully operating, the system has an expected life of about three years. Since spares on these guidance units are dwindling, the RVSN has to face the choice of removing a significant portion of the missile force from ready alert, or allowing the force to become non-functional due to worn out guidance platforms.

Although figures have not been published, it is assumed that a smaller portion of the current missile force is kept on ready alert than a decade ago, if only to conserve spares. As a result of these trends, the Voevoda force will have to be retired by 2007, when it will become unsupportable. This will drop the total RVSN missile force size to about 600 ICBMs and drop the warhead count from the current 3,540 to about 1,740. This is planned under the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) in any event.

At the moment, the only new and considered to be the most advanced missile entering the force is the newest and most reliable missile the Topol-M (SS-27), an evolved version of the Topol. In view of the current debate over procurement funding priorities, it is not certain that Topol-M production will continue at recent levels - barely 10 missiles a year. As a result, the RVSN ICBM force is likely to shrink regardless of treaty considerations.

The 1997 appointment of Igor Sergeyev, former commander of the RVSN, as defence minister helped to focus attention on the need for RVSN modernisation. Sergeyev is the first RVSN commander to have served as defence minister. He has argued forcefully that it is the strategic nuclear forces that make Russia a great power.

Marshall Sergeyev's procurement priority was the Topol-M ICBM effort, with the aim not only of halting the erosion of the force size but of firming up the defence industries on which the RVSN is so dependent. Priority or not, Topol-M funding has been barely adequate and, to date, only two regiments (20 silo launchers) have been deployed. Tests of a more survivable, but more expensive, road-mobile version were scheduled to begin in July 2000, only to be put off indefinitely due to a lack of funds and the current controversies over future Russian force structure.

Dead in the water

If the funding situation for the RVSN has been poor, it has been catastrophic for the navy. Funding has been so low that missile submarine patrols have become uncommon. Of the 62 strategic-missile submarines in operation in 1990, by 2000 only about 20 are still nominally functional, armed with 348 missiles. The state of the Project 941 Akula-class ('Typhoon') nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines is parlous. At least three are non-functional. Plans to rehabilitate the surviving three have been constantly delayed. The R-39 (SS-N-20 'Sturgeon') missiles on board will be age expired by 2003. This class may disappear over the next few years from neglect and lack of funding.

The Project 667BDRM Delfin ('Delta IV') is in slightly better shape. The lead boat of the class, Verkhoture, was supposed to go back to the Zvezdochka yard in 1993 for a major overhaul. Due to lack of funding it received only a medium-level overhaul seven years behind schedule, which was completed in July this year. These delayed overhauls will lead to a decline in reliability and premature retirement.

The missile situation for these submarines is not much better. The plant in Krasnoyarsk that manufactured the liquid-fuelled R-29RM (SS-N-23 'Skiff') closed in 1996 due to a lack of orders. The other submarine-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) plant at Zlatoust that produced the solid fuel R-39 has also been idle due to a lack of orders.

Modernisation of the submarine force is dead in the water. Although the keel for the first submarine of the new Borey class has already been laid, the programme was halted by the cancellation of the troubled 3M91 Bark (SS-NX-28) missile in 1999. The missile development effort was 73% complete and the conversion of the first Akula-class submarine was 84% complete when this happened, throwing the entire submarine programme into turmoil.

Work has begun on a solid fuel follow-on missile called the Bulava, a co-operative effort between the Moscow Institute of Thermotechnology, which developed the Topol, and the Makeyev bureau in Miass, which has designed most Russian submarine ballistic missiles. The Makeyev design bureau, which has never been fond of solid-fuel propulsion, is pushing a liquid-fuelled alternative, the Sineva, derived from the earlier R-29RM. Either way, it is unlikely that a new submarine will be completed until near the end of the decade, if at all.

Unless funding patterns change it is possible that the submarine missile force could either disappear or shrink to insignificance by the end of the decade.

Air Force factors

The least significant of the three elements of the Russian strategic forces has been the air force's bomber force, the 36th Air Army. The force consists of about 70 bombers, of which about 55 are the Tu-95MS 'Bear-H'. The force has been given a boost over the past year by the recovery of eight Tu-160 'Blackjack' and three Tu-95MS 'Bear-H' bombers from Ukraine, plus 564 air-launched cruise missiles. Funding has been provided to complete three almost-finished Tu-160s at the Kazan plant. This could bring the Tu-160 force up to 16 aircraft by 2001.

Tupolev is currently completing preliminary studies of a stealth bomber. It remains to be seen whether funding will be forthcoming for construction of a prototype, to say nothing of series production. At least two strategic cruise-missile development programmes are currently under way: the stealth Kh-101; and an upgraded version of the Kh-55SM (AS-15), sometimes called Kh-SD. The developer, Raduga in Dubna, has also been pushing for the revival of the old hypersonic cruise-missile programme. The air force may see some revival of its role in strategic force planning, if only because its bombers can be employed in secondary, non-nuclear missions in regional conflicts along Russia's troubled southern frontier.

The decay of the strategic forces' missile systems has also afflicted the strategic command and control (C2) system. Russia has been unable to fill gaps in the ballistic missile early-warning radar network caused by the loss of radar facilities to the independent republics. The new Volga radar being erected in Belarus will help to close the gap caused by the loss of the Latvian radars, but this is only a partial solution. More alarming has been the decline of the space-based network of Oko and Prognoz early-warning satellites. The last of the geo-synchronous Prognoz satellites failed in 1998. No replacement is available. The constellation of Oko satellites has seldom been kept at its full configuration of nine satellites, with four being the norm. One was orbited in 1999. While the Oko and Prognoz space-based early warning satellites may have made up for the gaps in the land-based radar network, the collapse of the Russian defence budget crippled this effort.

In February 1998 the head of the RVSN, Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev, indicated that 71% of the systems in the strategic C2 network were beyond their warranty period. There were plans to deploy a new national C2 system in the early 1990s, codenamed Tsentr (Centre). Tsentr was intended to provide an integrated network for the C2 of conventional and nuclear forces, linked to the RVSN's existing Signal-A network. This has not occurred and, as a result, the older network is fast approaching the point where portions are no longer functional.

Power cut-offs to RVSN bases and command centres, disruption of the cabling to RVSN sites by thieves pilfering the copper wiring and other difficulties led the worried minister of defence to state in 1997 that control over the Russian strategic nuclear forces was on the verge of collapse. While these problems have led to concern in the USA that there might be accidental launches, a more likely scenario is that the system will erode to the point where the Kremlin no longer has any confidence that orders issued to the strategic forces will be received in a timely fashion, effectively decapitating the command structure in the event of a crisis.

Arms control and force changes

After nearly a decade of delay, START II was finally ratified by the Duma on 14 April 2000. This treaty aims to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both sides to 3,000 warheads each. Dismantlement of the Russian missiles will be delayed due to a lack of funds to carry out the demilitarisation.

The USA and Russia have agreed on the desirability of codifying a reduction to a level of 1,500 warheads under a future START III agreement. However, agreement on the treaty has become embroiled in the controversy over the US decision to proceed with a National Missile Defence (NMD) system. The Kremlin has repeatedly stated that it is unwilling to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the Duma has made it clear that it believes that US deployment will doom any future arms-control treaty. Despite US assurances to the contrary, the Russians view NMD as an attempt to counter the Russian deterrent force.

The problem is that the Russian strategic forces are in such an emaciated condition that they are likely to decline below START II levels whether a new treaty is signed or not. Presidential candidate George W Bush has suggested that, should he be elected, the USA would begin to de-emphasise bilateral arms control treaties with Russia in favour of a new strategic posture that would not be based on Cold War paradigms. These issues are likely to be at the centre of Russian-US relations for several years.

To further complicate matters, there has been an intense debate within the Russian military over the future configuration of Russian strategic nuclear forces. This debate has been going on since 1998, when Sergeyev proposed the creation of a unified command structure for the nuclear forces called the Joint Supreme Command of the Strategic Deterrence Forces (OGSSS). This plan was challenged by General Anatoly Vasil'evich Kvashin of the General Staff, as it was traditionally the prerogative of the General Staff to manage the nuclear forces.

As part of a study on future Russian defence plans prepared by the General Staff in April 2000, Kvashin proposed cutting the RVSN from its current force structure of 19 divisions down to only four by 2003 and to only two by 2016, and merging the RVSN with the air force. In terms of force levels, he proposed a minimal deterrent force, cutting the number of ICBMs to 500 by 2006 and to only 100­150 by the end of the decade. He has argued that prioritising procurement funding for the RVSN should end in favour of more money for conventional forces.

By his calculation, 80% of recent procurement funding has gone to the strategic forces, and Kvashin has proposed to fund the construction of only two Topol-M missiles per year. Other sources disagreed, including General Colonel Sitnov, head of weapons development, who stated that 28% was going to strategic forces, and 50% to the ground forces and other tactical formations. Sitnov was relieved of command in the August 2000 shake-up of the defence ministry's management.

Kvashin has argued that it is pointless modernising the strategic missile forces since, when START III is ratified in a few years, they will have to be dismantled anyway. In contrast, the ground forces are suffering from obvious shortages of equipment, shown by the war in Chechnya.

This debate emerged in the public spotlight in July 2000, when the proposals reached the Security Council. Defence Minister Sergeyev dubbed the proposal "a crime against Russia and simply madness", and angrily suggested that such an action would occur "without him" in command. Sergeyev argued that such a plan of reform came at precisely the wrong time, since it would remove any leverage that Russia might have in debates with the USA over future arms control issues. The defence minister was particularly unhappy about the whole affair, as it had been prepared without his input, even though the General Staff is nominally under his authority.

Sergeyev has argued that such a proposal would demote Russia from the ranks of the great powers to the ranks of minor regional powers. The intense debate in the Russian press about the issue led to a Duma resolution on 22 July urging President Vladimir Putin not to permit a unilateral reduction in the Russian missile force nor a disbandment of the RVSN. Putin was forced to intercede and, at an impromptu meeting in Sochi on 16 July with Sergeyev and Kvashin, he suggested that they come up with plans for a less radical reform of the RVSN until broader arms control issues are resolved. A Security Council meeting in mid-August, which was supposed to settle the matter, papered over the issue.

The debate was not just about the future of the RVSN. Sergeyev is near retirement as defence minister and has been promoting the current RVSN chief, Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev, as his successor. This has not gone down well with the Ground Forces, who have traditionally dominated the post and who feel that they have been given short shrift in recent years. There is some resentment that the army has not received more funding for new equipment and spares to make up for attrition in Chechnya. Kvashin is at the centre of the 'Chechen generals' and clearly has ambitions for the defence minister's post.

Russia's strategic nuclear forces are likely to decline over the next decade in size and efficiency due to the industrial problems associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's harsh economic decline. Although the Ministry of Defence has asserted that strategic programmes will receive top priority of all procurement programmes, it has never received even the minimum acceptable level of funding in recent years.

Starved of funds, and entangled in the contradictions between the superpower pretensions of Russian nationalists and the painful realities of Russia's faltering economy, the strategic nuclear forces will decay in an uncontrolled, unpredictable fashion.

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