Russian bombers fly to Venezuela, Nicaragua during strategic forces exercise

Russian bombers fly to Venezuela, Nicaragua during strategic forces exercise

Russian Topol-M missile on display in Moscow
Russian Topol-M missile on display in Moscow

For some reason, the “reset/overcharge” policy of the Obama administration hasn’t induced Russia to take a chill pill on the global strategic forces exercises.

Several sources have reported that on Wednesday 30 October, the Russians conducted a no-notice exercise with their strategic forces, which included the launch of several intercontinental missiles from land and sea.  Russian forces also fired missiles from the S-300 and S-400 air- and missile-defense systems (similar to the U.S. Patriot system), along with short range ballistic missiles (NATO designation SS-26 and SS-21) from the Kapustin Yar test center in southern Russia.

Missiles on the move

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Russia complied with the New START treaty, issuing the proper notification that the ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches would take place.

Claudia Rosett took a walk down memory lane in a Friday post at PJ Media, recalling the mid-1990s and how Russia’s strategic rocket force was languishing then.  That was before Vladimir Putin announced a new build-up in 2007.

It’s worth noting that on 30 October, Russia launched two different types of ICBM (and has a third, newer type deployed in the operational forces, the SS-27, which apparently was not launched on Wednesday).  The U.S. has one type today (the Minuteman III).  Russia launched two different types of SLBM on 30 October; the U.S. has one type (the Trident II).  Russia launched two different types of short range ballistic missiles; the U.S. has one type (the U.S. Army ATACMS), and in fact does not field a missile in the range class of the SS-26 Stone, or “Iskander,” SRBM.

The differences in the two nations’ approaches go beyond that, however.  Russia has progressed meaningfully in developing new missiles of each major type in the last decade, whereas the U.S. has not.  All of the intercontinental missiles launched on 30 October are older-generation weapon systems, designed and fielded between 25 and 50 years ago (although updated since).  In this way, they parallel the U.S. strategic force – and the strategic thinking of both the U.S. and Russia in the first two decades of the INF/START era.

But Russia has now already deployed an even newer ICBM, the SS-29, in the operational forces.   Russia has conducted multiple test launches of a new-generation SLBM, the SS-N-30.  A Russian admiral suggested in 2012 that the SS-N-30, or “Bulava” missile, was operational in the fleet – on new-generation nuclear submarines, the Borei class – although full operational status is reportedly pending the correction of problems with the Bulava missile.

Variables moving in the wrong direction for U.S. security

The argument as to whether this is troubling or not should properly center on the question of missile defense – including the Russians’ emphasis on designing the new missiles to defeat U.S. missile-defense systems.

There are four major variables in the ICBM/SLBM and missile-defense equation:  U.S. missiles, U.S. defenses, Russian missiles, and Russian defenses.

Out of those four variables, there has been significant technological activity in three, over the last 15 years: U.S. defenses, Russian missiles, and Russian defenses (i.e., the deployment of the S-400, a highly capable air- and missile-defense system).  But out of those three variables, there has been a significant doctrinal update in only two:  Russian missiles, which are now being consciously designed to defeat our missile defense systems, and Russian defenses.

This means two things, in particular:  first, that the doctrinal intent of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) program lags global strategic reality.  The doctrinal update we have not made is shifting our emphasis from defending against North Korean-style missiles (“first generation” missiles) – which is what we’ve emphasized in BMD development since early in the Clinton administration – to defending against the most modern Russian or Chinese ICBMs.  Russia designs new missiles with defeating our BMD systems in mind, but we are not improving our BMD systems with defeating new-generation Russian ICBMs in mind.

The other thing it means is that America’s intercontinental missile arsenal, which is not being updated today with either technology or doctrine in mind, is a lagging national-defense capability.  It has remained static while Russia’s defenses have improved.  This does not mean that the S-400 is capable of reliably shooting down Minuteman III or Trident II missiles. (It isn’t.)  It does mean that America is not looking around the next corner to a future in which our current-generation ICBMs can be reliably intercepted.  Russia is looking at the future from both standpoints: the missile and the interceptor.  Russia is moving forward (as is China); we are standing still.

A violation of the 1987 INF treaty?

The other troubling aspect of Russian missile development is the nature of the new-generation RS-26 ballistic missile, which is yet another, different missile from any of the ones listed above.  Russian sources call it an ICBM, but given its small size (and other factors), U.S. intelligence believes the Russians are covertly developing an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), in violation of the INF treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987.  As with their other newer-generation missiles, the Russians have designed the missile system to defeat missile defenses.

Keep in mind that Russia has a history of shady missile development and treaty violations.  The former-Soviet SS-20 IRBM, for example, deployed in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, was based on an ICBM design (the SS-16), and capable of functioning as an ICBM with the addition of a third-stage booster (or the use of a lighter warhead).  But the SS-20’s nominal 5,000km (3,100 statute mile) range as an IRBM kept it just under the 5,500km (3400 miles) cut-off for limitation by the SALT II treaty.  This wasn’t the U.S.’s or NATO’s principal objection to the SS-20’s presence in Europe, but it is emblematic of the Russian pattern of designating missile systems to put them outside of treaty controls.

A new Russian IRBM would violate the INF treaty, which banned them all for the U.S. and Russia.  So the Russians are calling the RS-26 an ICBM.  Like the SS-20, the RS-26 is based on an ICBM design, that of the SS-25.  But it has been test-launched only to shorter ranges, and in other ways fits the profile of the SS-20’s development in the 1960s and 1970s.

It can be argued, of course, that Russia perceives a need for IRBMs because of the neighborhood she lives in, which includes nuclear-missile-armed China, India, and Pakistan.  But that’s where the title of this post comes into play.  In a strategic sense, we need harbor no illusions about which nation Russia’s exertions are directed at.

Nice hemisphere you got there

Just before the big missile exercise on 30 October, the Russian air force deployed a pair of Tu-160 Blackjack bombers to Central America.  On 28 October, the bombers took off from central Russia and flew to Venezuela, the first such deployment since 2008.  From there, on 31 October, they proceeded to Nicaragua, making the first stop ever for Russian strategic bombers (or any other Russian combat aircraft) in that nation.

Tu-160 Blackjacks are equipped with the AS-15 Kent (or Kh-55) air-launched cruise missile, which is similar to the U.S. Air Force’s AGM-86 ALCM.  The AS-15’s range, in the version most likely to be used, is 2,500km (1,550 miles).  The Blackjacks on this deployment may or may not have carried AS-15 missiles; I consider it extremely unlikely that they carried missiles with nuclear warheads, at any rate, although the AS-15 is nuclear-capable.

Threat range of the AS-15 from Central American air space (Google map, author annotations)
Threat range of the AS-15 from Central American air space (Google map, author annotations)

But these bombers represent the “third leg” of the nuclear-strategic “triad,” the other two legs being ground-based ICBMs and sea-based SLBMs.  Where Russia chose to deploy them during a highly publicized strategic forces exercise was to Central America.

The message could hardly be more pointed.  The bombers could have ranged more of the United States with AS-15s if they had flown north, on their usual profiles in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, or the Arctic.  Certainly, they could have held more of the U.S. at risk if they had gone to Cuba.  But in an unprecedented move, Moscow sent them to Central America, where they could range only some of Florida and – once near Nicaragua – the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Why?  To emphasize, during a strategic forces drill, that Russia has allies in Central America: places to land and launch strategic bombers.  Places, unlike Cuba, that the United States can’t just reach out and smack.  Venezuela and Nicaragua are both outside the intercept range of U.S. Air Force fighters – and the AS-15 missile can be launched at U.S. targets from well outside our fighters’ intercept range as well.

Add this message to the one sent in February 2013, when Russian strategic bombers (Tu-95 Bears, on that occasion) flew a profile against Guam in the Pacific.  The Russians demonstrated a capability then to approach Guam outside the intercept range of the U.S. Air Force in Northeast Asia.  Bear aircraft armed with AS-15s could get within strike range of Guam but remain outside the intercept range of our fighters.  Blackjacks launching from Central America could get within strike range of the American South, but remain outside the intercept range of our fighters there, too.

Russia is doing a lot of talking lately, if anybody is listening.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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