With Russia and the United States increasingly engaged in a new “cold war” of sorts, maintaining nuclear parity has become a vital strategic priority for Moscow. But despite regular reports by Russian military leaders of successes in building and deploying new nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, actual progress on this front faces serious difficulties.
For evidence of this situation, one needs to look no further than developments surrounding the RS-26 Rubezh solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Tests of this missile began in 2011, and by 2015, the authorities announced they had carried out four successful launches. The commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, General Sergei Karakayev, hastened to declare that serial production of these missiles would start at the beginning of 2016 (Kommersant, March 26, 2015; TASS, April 15, 2015). Experts noted the unusual rush with this rocket. Usually many more test launches are required before starting serial production and deploying a missile on combat duty. But in the case of the RS-26, even before the start of serial production, an unnamed source from the General Staff told the TASS news agency that the first new missiles would be stationed with the 29th Missile Division, near Irkutsk. With deployments looming, Moscow consented to special US inspections at the Votkinsk plant. Under the bilateral New Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (New START), such a demonstration must necessarily take place before the beginning of mass production (Svpressa.ru, September 23, 2015).
Russian officials have excitedly discussed the extraordinary tactical and technical qualities of the missile. In particular, Russian leaders claimed that through the use of modern materials, the weight of the RS-26 is almost a third less than the weight of the Yars RS-24 missile—80 tons versus 120 tons, respectively. Each RS-26 will reportedly carry four 300-kiloton nuclear warheads. Additionally, the Rubezh ICBM will use extremely efficient fuel. As a result, the RS-26 allegedly boasts a quick and short start—the boost phase is less than five minutes. Russian official sources stated that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) radars in Europe will have no time to fix the start of the missiles. Additionally, the warheads will be able to repeatedly change direction and altitude, making them difficult to intercept by US ballistic missile defenses. Finally, authorities stressed the ICBM’s modern command-and-control systems (Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, March 6, 2016).
Immediately after Russia carried out its first tests, some US experts began to suspect that the RS-26 violates the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits Russia and the United States from possessing ground-launched missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers (National Interest, February 11, 2014). Specifically, the RS-26 was twice tested at a distance of about 2000 km—launched from Kapustin Yar (Astrakhan region), targeting a test field at Sary-Shagan (Kazakhstan).
Many Russian experts reject those complaints, however. Even assuming that Moscow could remove one stage and turn the RS-26 into a medium-range missile, this would not give Russia any advantage. By introducing the Rubezh as an ICBM, Russia is forced to count all these missiles toward the limits it has accepted under the START Treaty. But if some portion of these ICBMs are transformed into medium-range missiles—whether for the sake of superiority in the Western or Eastern theaters—the Kremlin would nevertheless be abandoning its attempt to achieve quantitative parity with the US when it comes to true intercontinental strategic delivery vehicles. Since Russia is carrying out strategic deterrence primarily against the US, such a decision would indicate a fundamental change in Moscow’s strategic concept. The local superiority of Russia in regional theaters can be easily offset by US superiority in the number of sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. However, some experts, such as former chief of the 4th Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense, the prominent Russian expert Vladimir Dvorkin, believes this would nevertheless be a good trade. If Moscow gives up on trying to maintain quantitative parity in ICBMs, “the Kremlin [could] came to understand that Russia’s military security is not related to the quantitative nuclear balance with the United States—a virtual balance would be enough” Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozrenie August 16, 2013).
Either way, the serial production of the RS-26 could seriously change the Russian-US balance of power in nuclear forces. However, last year, Russian military leaders unexpectedly stopped talking about the Rubezh. Any mention of the RS-26 has disappeared from all official statements. Notably, General Karakayev said nothing about it last December, during his traditional interview devoted to the Day of the Strategic Rocket Forces (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 16, 2016). Without any explanation, Moscow postponed the demonstration of the new missile to US inspectors from 2015 to 2016. But this exhibition has still not been conducted to date.
Some experts believe that by temporarily suspending the production and deployment of the RS-26, Moscow wants to “close the question” of a possible violation of the INF Treaty. Well-known researcher Pavel Podvig mentioned that under START, as long as one side has not made 20 launches and has not yet begun serial production, the missile has the status of a “prototype” and technically does not “exist” (Russianforces.org, July 18).
However, there is another explanation. Potentially, with limited financial resources, Moscow is unable to disperse sufficient funds to the defense ministry to implement several concurrent nuclear missile projects simultaneously. Difficulties have already been noted regarding the development of a “heavy” ICBM—the RS-28 Sarmat, capable of carrying up to 16 warheads at a distance of up to 17,000 km. This missile would replace the R-36 Voevoda, which has reached the end of its service life. Today, R-36 missiles are armed with 460 warheads—approximately one-third of Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal. General Karakayev has said that the rocket should be removed from combat duty by 2022. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov promised the first deliveries of the Sarmat for 2018–2019. But missile tests initially planned for 2016 have been constantly delayed. It is difficult to imagine the authorities will be able to meet the original work schedule on the missile and begin its mass production by next year (Gazeta.ru, July 3, 2017; Krasnaya Zvezda, December 16, 2016).
Prospects for the implementation of another ambitious project—the Barguzin rail-based ballistic missile—are even more uncertain. The Barguzin was originally expected to be produced by 2018. However, in December 2015, a source in the defense industry informed TASS that “due to the difficult financial situation and consequent budget constraints” deploying the Barguzin was postponed until at least 2020. The total cost of the Barguzin is not limited to development and production; more money will also be necessary to build new infrastructure for each missile. It is significant that Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, when answering a question, last summer, about the future of the Sarmat and Barguzin, suddenly announced that they will be built if they are included in the next State Armament Program, which has not yet been adopted (Newsru.com, July 3). Thus, the rigid bureaucratic battle between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defense continues.