Russia Vows To Develop
New Tactical Nuclear Weapons
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia vowed on Thursday to develop tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons but defense experts said the announcement was political rather than military muscle-flexing.
President Boris Yeltsin gathered his advisory Security Council for a meeting so secret even the Strategic Rocket Forces chief left the room. Afterwards, the council head said Yeltsin had signed three documents, including one on tactical arms. "Our nuclear forces were and remain a key element in the country's strategy for ensuring national security and military power," Yeltsin said. "Everyone here, including the president, risks his head if something leaks from here."
RIA news agency quoted Security Council Secretary Vladimir Putin as saying the signed presidential decrees "covered the development of the nuclear weapons complex and a concept for developing and using non-strategic nuclear weapons."
No mention was made of NATO and its recent eastward enlargement towards economically weakened Russia. But Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has said Moscow will have to reshape its own doctrine and review its nuclear and conventional forces.
Putin specifically ruled out any link between the council meeting and the alliance's bombing of Yugoslavia, a campaign Moscow has consistently condemned.
Yet the implicit link was there, and defense experts soon pounced on it. They noted Russia was keen to respond to NATO's action as well as an alliance summit at which members agreed a strategic concept and to leave the door open for newcomers. "Don't take it seriously," said a Russian arms expert of the tactical announcement. "It's a game, so the West gets upset."
The difference between tactical and strategic weapons concerns how far they can be fired and the punch they pack. Tactical weapons are short range. Strategic ones are long range.
Defense experts say Russia's army has about 10,000-12,000 tactical nuclear weapons, but they are largely in storage. The Russian rationale has been to keep them for perceived threats from the south and east rather than from the West. "A bit of ambiguity maybe does no harm, from their point of view, at this particular point," said a Western military expert.
Another crucial distinction is tactical weapons are not covered by formal arms control agreements. "It's a hell of a gap in the multi-lateral disarmament game," said the Western specialist. "It falls neatly between two arms control regimes (strategic and conventional)."
The United States would like to include tactical weapons in any START 3 arms accord but so far START 2, which covers cuts in strategic weapons, has not been ratified by Russia.
Back in the mid-1980s, Russia concentrated on developing a new strategic missile -- the Topol-M, known to NATO as the SS-27. Years on, this is weapon is just being deployed. "If they want to develop (tactical weapons), then they will have to start from scratch," said the Russian specialist. "That will take 15 years at a minimum and a huge amount of resources. I'm convinced this is no more than whistling in the wind."
The Security Council said in a statement the president's decrees supported the nuclear defense industry and its workers. Putin, who also heads domestic intelligence, said Russia was looking to develop treaty-compliant, computer-simulated atomic tests, because Moscow lagged behind other nuclear powers.