Russia's Once Mighty Nuclear
Arsenal Falling Apart
MOSCOW (AP) - At the height of Russia's financial meltdown, the minister named to save the economy outlined an overriding priority: build a new generation of nuclear missiles.
The warning from First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov that Russia could lose its nuclear capability produced rare unanimity among the country's bitterly divided political factions. Communists, nationalists and liberals alike agree that Russia must stake everything on its nuclear forces if it wants any claim to be a world power and have any kind of credible military.
Yet, the huge arsenal of rockets, planes and submarines that once terrified the world is falling apart and there is no money to maintain it or build large numbers of replacements.
``The only thing for which Russia is respected in the world and which makes us worthy partners ... is our strategic rocket forces,'' said Alexander Lebed, a former general and a leading presidential candidate.
Russia's nuclear arsenal of 6,000 warheads could soon shrink to just a few hundred, analysts say. Early-warning radar and satellites vital to protect against pre-emptive attacks and prevent premature missile launchings are also falling apart, they add.
``By the year 2010, the number of Russia's nuclear warheads will fall 10-fold to 600 to 800,'' predicted Alexander Pikayev, a top expert in arms control with Moscow's branch of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
Russia could be eclipsed as a nuclear power by China, which once lagged far behind Moscow, he said.
Analysts paint a gloomy picture of Russia's crumbling nuclear triad:
- The navy's nuclear missile submarines are in the worst state. During the Soviet-era, dozens of submarines were on patrol, lurking under the waves with batteries of nuclear missiles ready for instant firing. Scores of submarines have been decommissioned and no more than three are thought to be on patrol at any one time now. Even the working boats rarely leave harbor.
And if a nuclear war starts, the submarines wouldn't be able to sail out immediately because they don't have food supplies on board.
- The air force's mainstay Bear bombers are more than 40 years old. Pilots only get a few hours flying time each year, far below the level at which they can operate effectively, analysts said. Lebed said the air force has only 20 modern nuclear bombers.
- The land-based rocket forces, always the strongest part of the Soviet nuclear triad, are in better shape. But many of the most powerful missiles are well past their operational lifetime, officials admit.
``The strategic nuclear forces' command systems are also expiring, and that may result in loss of control over them,'' Lebed wrote in a Jan. 21 article in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
It would cost $3 billion a year to maintain existing missiles, according to Roman Popkovich, head of the defense committee of the Duma, the lower chamber of parliament. Russia's full budget for 1999 is $25 billion, and officials concede much of the money exists only on paper.
With the economy in a nose dive and conventional forces collapsing, Russia's military has become increasingly dependent on its still massive Soviet-era nuclear forces.
Whatever money the government can scrape together for the military is being funneled into nuclear forces, but analysts say it's too little, too late.
The navy designed a new nuclear missile submarine - the Yuri Dolgoruky - but only one is under construction. ``It's really difficult to say how many nuclear submarines Russia will have on duty by 2010 - two, four, five or seven,'' said Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading analyst.
The air force does not have any plans for a new long-range nuclear bomber or cruise missiles, analysts said.
The land forces alone have a new weapon - the Topol-M - a single-warhead missile, 10 of which were deployed for the first time in January.
But even if Russia meets its goal of building between 35 and 40 Topol-Ms a year, analysts say the nuclear forces will still drop drastically. Some officials advocate building multi-warhead missiles, but this would break the proposed START-2 agreement with the United States.
The Communist-dominated Duma repeatedly has refused to ratify the treaty, which was approved by the U.S. Senate in 1996 and would reduce each side's nuclear arsenals to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads by 2007.
Government officials say Moscow must accept START-2 and seek a START-3 treaty to cut both sides to about 1,500 nuclear warheads as the only way to give Russia some kind of parity.
Such drastic cuts are ``dozens of times more important for our country than for the United States,'' said Popkovich, warning that Russia cannot afford any kind of arms race with Washington.