May 25, 2017
By Pavel Felgenhauer
This week (May 25), the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gathered in Brussels for a special summit. Hopes abounded in Moscow that the summit would not be dominated by Russia and the escalation of East-West tensions and that more attention would be given to fighting Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan and the Middle East (Kommersant, May 25). Addressing a session of the Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu accused the West of refusing to “form a joint front to fight the evil of international terrorism while promoting the idea of a Russian military threat.” But the notion of jointly fighting terrorism is apparently not actually that high of a priority: in fact, Shoigu also called on the Russian people “not to be blind” to the growing menace “of NATO activities on the borders of Russia.” Shoigu interpreted the Russian combat deployment in Syria—originally lauded by Moscow as a campaign to defeat the Islamic State—as primarily an anti-Western move. “A Russian armed force grouping has appeared on the southern flank of NATO, changing the strategic balance of forces in the region,” Shoigu thundered (Mil.ru, May 24).
The Russian defense minister boasted about his country achieving military parity with the North Atlantic Alliance, “though we spend much less on defense.” Russia has been expanding and modernizing its nuclear triad of ground, sea and air strategic nuclear forces. Nine regiments of new land-mobile and silo-based Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) have been deployed. A typical Strategic Rocket Force (RVSN) regiment fields ten ICBMs. According to Shoigu, by 2021 there will be 17 Yars regiments. The Russian Navy has today nine modern constantly deployed nuclear strategic subs, including three of the new Borei-class vessels with new Bulava ballistic missiles. Within the next four years, there will be 13 strategic subs, including 7 Borei-class submarines (Mil.ru, May 24).
During Soviet times, the backbone of Moscow’s strategic nuclear deterrent was formed by the land-based ICBMs of the RVSN. After 1991, the nuclear Navy and the Long Range Air Force (Dalnaya Aviatsiya—DA) became increasingly dysfunctional. Today, the RVSN is seen as the most vulnerable part of the nuclear triad, susceptible to a possible, sudden Prompt Global Strike (PGS) by the United States. According to top Russian generals, the US is rapidly developing PGS capabilities to decapitate Russia (kill President Vladimir Putin and the top brass) and defeat Russia via a swift attack that could effectively decimate the country’s nuclear deterrent (Interfax, April 26). Great effort has been made to revive the Russian nuclear navy and to build additional surface ships and attack submarines to defend the precious strategic nuclear submarines. As the Arctic ice melts and the nuclear subs in the Barents Sea become increasingly exposed to possible preemptive attacks, a sustained effort is underway to build a secure position for the nuclear strategic subs in the Sea of Okhotsk by reinforcing the air and sea defenses of the Kuril Island chain, Sakhalin and Kamchatka.
In Russia, the DA was always considered to be the weakest part of the nuclear triad, inferior to its US counterpart. To launch cruise missiles at targets in the continental US, DA bombers must reach launch positions some 3,000 kilometers from their targets, which is a dangerous endeavor. DA heavy bombers could not be expected to ever reach these preplanned firing positions in the mid-Atlantic, the Pacific or over Arctic Canada without being shot down by Western fighters. The Тu-95МСМ and newer Tu-160s that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union were increasingly mothballed as the stockpiles of essential spare parts became depleted. The technologies to produce the high-performance Cold War–era HK-32 jet engines for the Тu-160s was lost, production lines were dismantled and skilled workers retired or died of old age (see EDM, April 10). Now the situation has changed: Production of HK-32 jet engines has resumed and a new generation of 30–50 new modernized Тu-160М2 bombers is planned and will enter service after 2021 (Militarynews.ru, April 11). According to Shoigu, the Тu-160М2 bombers “will be able to attack enemy targets from stand-off [positions] without being threatened by enemy anti-aircraft capabilities” (Mil.ru, May 24).
DA bombers will be armed with a new, stealthy, super-long-range cruise missile—the Kh-101/Kh-102 (the latter, a nuclear-tipped version)—that has been developed and tested in Syria. The Kh-101/Kh-102 has a range of 5,000–5,500 km, which could possibly be further extended by modifying its engine and increasing fuel capacity. Тu-160 bombers equipped with Kh-101/Kh-102 missiles could fire 2,000–3000 km closer to Russian territory than before; they could be escorted up to the firing position by new long-range fighters, giving them a good chance of surviving their mission.
By 2021, according to Shoigu, Russian strategic and conventional forces must be deployed in all strategic directions (“napravlenya”)—east, south, west and north—ready to deter any “aggression.” More than half of navy ships will be carrying long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. A new stealth jet fighter, the T-50, will be deployed. Russia will also develop a national missile defense system based on the S-500 Prometheus anti-aircraft and anti-missile rocket system. Russia will be ready, according to Shoigu, to defend itself against a US PGS attack. But all this is under threat because of proposed defense spending cuts “that could curtail the expansion of the Russian military,” complained Shoigu. “New spending allocations for 2017 only cover the minimum needs of the defense ministry,” he added (Mil.ru, May 24).
It seems the true enemy of the Russian military comes from within, led by President Putin’s advisor and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, in turn supported by the chiefs of the finance ministry and the central bank. Kudrin announced that this month he will present Putin with an alternative strategic plan for Russia that involves defense spending cuts to generate sustainable economic growth. By de-escalating the present confrontation with the West, Kudrin argues, Russia will be able to again import new technologies, allocate more money and resources on education, medicine and infrastructure, as well as improve the investment climate (TASS, May 2). Evidently, Kudrin and his supporters are among those Shoigu accuses of being “blind” to the NATO threat.
Up to now, Putin seems to have been postponing any decisions, supporting both a continued expansion of the military and containing spending—apparently trying to find some middle path between Shoigu and Kudrin. Eventually, Putin must decide whose advice to take and in what direction Russia goes.