During his September 27 call-in television program, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again invoked one of his favorite themes. Specifically, he stressed that under his leadership Russia is developing new hypersonic, high-precision missiles that can change their course and altitude unlike any other missiles belonging to any other state in the world. These missiles are also invulnerable to other missiles, so no anti-missile defense system, e.g. the one that America is building, could take them out and undermine Russia’s deterrent.
Naturally this kind of rhetoric is meant to appeal to the patriotic sentiments of the population and the armed forces. This helps explain why Putin has frequently chosen to talk about such weapons to both national and military audiences. But this time he apparently was referring specifically to the successful tests of the long-awaited Bulava nuclear missile, known also as the R-30 ballistic sea-launched nuclear missile.
The missile was successfully tested by being launched from a Dmitry Donskoi class submarine in the Pacific Fleet against a target in Kamchatka. Following those tests, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that Russian submarines would start deploying operational versions of the Bulava in 2007. The Bulava is a solid propellant sea-launched missile that can carry up to 10 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVS). It is highly compatible with Russia’s new Topol-M (SS-27) land based nuclear missile, which is also MIRV capable. And its introduction comports with plans to modernize Russia’s Akula (Shark) class submarine (Project 941) and the new Borey class missile-carrying submarines (Project 955) that are to be armed with 12 Bulava missiles by 2010.
These new systems reveal Russia’s plans for its navy and for its nuclear arsenal. Putin and Ivanov have announced that the Bulava’s development reflects the recovery of the defense industry and its capability to produce for both domestic and foreign markets. They are also supposed to be counters to America’s plans for a missile defense system and to demonstrate the continuing robustness and improvement of Russia’s nuclear missile and command-and-control capability.
Thus the Bulava serves several purposes. First, it and the Topol ensure the continuity and robustness of Russia’s nuclear deterrents and second-strike capability against a U.S. and/or Chinese attack. (The fact that the test took place in the Pacific might be a hint here as well.) Second, it demonstrates that the nuclear fleet is, to a large degree, moving out to sea and that Russia will retain its capability for MIRVing missiles because that is the only way it can afford a robust nuclear capability, especially a second-strike capability. Third, the navy will not be oriented to global power projection, as the former Navy commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov wanted. Following his disgrace and forced retirement, Putin and Admiral Vladimir Masorin, the new CINC of the Navy, have also made clear a preference for a navy that will confine itself to defense of those waters crucial to Russia. The Black Sea and Baltic Fleets will be conventionally armed fleets to defend those waterways against foreign attack or terrorist threats. The Northern and Pacific Fleets will be nuclear fleets, largely made up of nuclear-powered and nuclear-missile submarines and more submarines to protect those missile-carrying ones from foreign threats. Thus they will provide combat stability to the fleet. They will also be the main repository of Russia’s second-strike capability and thus defend against any threats to Russia’s nuclear strike capability. The Caspian Flotilla will dominate that Sea and be provided with modern conventional forces to assert Russian dominance and capability either to protect or threaten energy platforms there against foreign intrusion or terrorist threats.
Essentially Putin and Ivanov are seeking to modernize the Russian armed forces as a whole, but to assign the Navy fewer resources than it wants. The plans calls for building up land forces first and now air forces to meet what they and the military consider to be the main threat, either terrorism or a large-scale U.S. or NATO attack like that launched against Kosovo or Iraq in 1991. The steady but slow modernization of the Bulava and the Akula and Borey Class submarines are centerpieces of this effort to keep naval costs down while retaining an adequate deterrent and great-power bragging rights. But it is also clear that there are those in the navy who oppose confining modernization to those forces. It is very likely that this argument is not yet over.
(Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti, President.ru, September 27; Interfax-AVN, September 28)