Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 3

On December 25, Christmas Day, the Russian military test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles – one from land and the other from the sea. The Tula, a Delta-4 nuclear submarine, launched the RSM-54 Sineva from the Barents Sea. The Sineva is a modification of the Soviet-made RSM-54, known in the West as Skiff SS-N-23, and can carry four warheads. The Sineva SS-N-23 has been produced in Krasnoyarsk since 2004 to replace the older SS-N-23 modification. Four Russian Delta-4 subs in recent years have been repaired, modernized, and refitted with Sineva SS-N-23s, while two more are in line for refitting and modernization. The subs may be in service until 2030. The previous test-launch of a modified SS-N-23 was on December 17 by the same Tula sub. The navy declared both launches a full success (RIA-Novosti, December 17, 25).

The land-based RS-24 ICBM was test-fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk rocket range in Arkhangelsk oblast, north of Moscow. This was the second launch (the first was on May 29) of the new RS-24, which does not seem to have a Western nickname. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that the RS-24 is a modified Topol-M (SS-27) ICBM, carrying three warheads instead of one. The Strategic Rocket Forces, known in Russia as RVSN, claimed the RS-24 launch a full success. The RS-24 reportedly will form the backbone of the RVSN until 2050, replacing hundreds of aging Soviet-made SS-19 Stiletto and the SS-18 Satan multi-warhead ICBMs (RIA-Novosti, December 25).

On Christmas Day, the Russian military also successfully launched a Proton-M rocket with three GLONASS positioning satellites from Kazakhstan. During a televised meeting with Serdyukov at his country residence in Novo-Ogarevo, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the successes: “Concerning the rocket launches I must say they are a pleasing and beautiful holiday fireworks, backed up by the hard work of military and civilian specialists. Commend them all. This is a serious step on the way of strengthening Russian defense capabilities” (RIA-Novosti, December 26).

Russia inherited hundreds of ICBMs and thousands of nuclear warheads from the USSR in 1991, but now these assets are rusting away and being scrapped. Today Russia has six Delta-4 and six Delta-3 nuclear strategic subs in service. All Delta-3 subs are old, and the production of their SS-N-18 missiles has been terminated. The Delta-3 subs will be out of service by 2014 if not earlier. New Borei-class strategic nuclear subs are being built, but the process has been slow and the Bulava-M (SS-NX-30) sea-based ICBM designed for this class of subs has failed in a number of test-launches (see EDM, July 25, 2007). Russia may be left with only six Delta-4 subs carrying 384 warheads.

By 2015, all land-based SS-25 and SS-18 ICBMs will be retired. A number of SS-19 ICBMs will still serve into the 2020s, but with no new production, their number will dwindle. There are plans to have some 100 new SS-27 ICBMs deployed by 2015, but up to now, these missiles had only one warhead (see EDM, February 14, 2007). By 2015, Russia may have only 500 to 1,000 warheads deployed on sea- and land-based ICBMs.

The Kremlin needs to retain a sizable nuclear arsenal in order to continue to play the role of a world power. Putin’s delight at the successful missile tests is understandable. Plans have been announced to make the GLONASS positioning system operational over Russian territory this year and globally in 2009. This will allow the Russian military to begin to develop and deploy an array of nuclear and conventional precision-guided weapons, as currently it cannot use the relatively cheap GPS-targeting system, as the United States is Moscow’s main potential adversary. But GLONASS satellites are notoriously unstable. Concerns have been expressed in Russia that the GLONASS system will not be as reliable and precise as GPS anytime soon, despite official optimism (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 26).

Russia is awash with petrodollars, but the Russian defense industry is struggling to produce new weapons or to keep old Soviet ones operational. Last August Putin ordered the resumption of regular combat duty patrols by Russian strategic bombers that were stopped in 1992 as the Cold War ended (see EDM, September 12, 2007). According to official START arms limitation treaty data, Russia has 14 Tu-160 and 64 Tu-95 bombers, but not all of them can fly, and the resumed patrolling has put increased strain on the old bomber force. There was an announcement in October 2007 that serial production of Tu-160 supersonic Black Jack bombers would resume in Kazan to replace vintage Tu-95 Bears, designed in the 1950s. But Russian industry has depleted its stockpiles of spares to fix the Tu-160 jet NK-321 engines or to make new ones. All Tu-160s may be permanently grounded in two or three months, their engines worn out by regular patrols and no spares available (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, December 21).

Russian rocket specialists have questioned the success reports of recent ICBM test launches. Apparently, warheads seriously deviated off target and this was covered up (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, September 7). After the Christmas Day launches military spokesmen were again using vague language, reporting that the warheads had “arrived” at the Kura test ground in Kamchatka, instead of announcing that they actually hit their targets (RIA-Novosti, Vesti.ru, December 25). Putin called the Christmas Day multiple rocket launches “holiday fireworks,” but perhaps they were no more than propaganda pyrotechnics. If Russia is progressively losing its former ability to be a military superpower, it can at least pretend to be one.