Downsizing A Mighty Arsenal
By David Hoffman
Second in a series of occasional articles
MOSCOW Russia's strategic forces, the vast phalanx of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles built during the Cold War by the Soviet Union, are suffering a dramatic decline because of arms control treaties, the Soviet breakup, looming obsolescence and Russia's economic depression.
Regardless of whether the United States and Russia move ahead on bilateral arms-control treaties, a decade from now Russia's forces will be less than one-tenth the size they were at the peak of Soviet power, according to estimates prepared in Russia and in the West. Ten years from now, if current economic trends continue, Russia may have a strategic nuclear force just larger than that of China, and somewhat larger than Britain's and France's combined.
This slide has enormous implications for Russia and the West that are only now beginning to emerge. For Russia, the decline has raised painful dilemmas about its place in the world, underscoring yet again the erosion of its superpower status.
At the same time, while the nuclear shield is shrinking, Russian leaders have decided to rely on the deterrent power of the nuclear weapons more than ever -- to compensate for their even weaker and more chaotic conventional forces. President Boris Yeltsin recently signed a new national security doctrine that enshrines this idea. Russia also has dropped its pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.
Some Russian strategists are beginning to look for an exit from the arms-race mentality of the Cold War, a way that would preserve Russia's membership in the nuclear club, perhaps even its Great Power status, but without the enormous drag on its resources. One recent proposal is for Russia simply to abandon the bilateral arms-control process with the United States and go its own way with a small, independent nuclear force.
In Moscow, leading politicians and military experts are also looking, nervously, not at the West, but at Russia's long, sparsely populated southern and eastern borders, toward China and the Islamic world, where they see the real future threats to Russian interests.
In the West, too, the decline of Russia's strategic forces could have serious repercussions, raising questions about the size and posture of U.S. forces. Some see it as a chance for the United States to pursue still-deeper cuts in nuclear weapons, including a new strategic arms agreement, that would keep Washington and Moscow at approximate balance, "locking in" the lower Russian levels with formal treaties. Also, some experts say both sides should remove the still-tense nuclear-alert posture of the Cold War.
But there is also resistance from those who urge caution. For example, in the 1994 nuclear posture review, the Clinton administration decided to create a "hedge" of warheads against the prospect of future uncertainty in Russia and to preserve the existing U.S structure of land-sea-air forces. Some argue that, as the only global superpower, the United States does not need to match the steep Russian decline. And Russia's woes may embolden backers of building a ballistic missile defense system.
Only a decade ago, when the Soviet arsenal hit its peak, the Pentagon warned that a parade of new weapons systems was being deployed, including the SS-18 Satan missile, the supersonic Blackjack bomber, and the giant Typhoon ballistic-missile submarine. The Pentagon's annual "Soviet Military Power" tract declared that "the most striking feature of Soviet military power today is the extraordinary momentum of its offensive strategic nuclear force modernization."
Today, that momentum has stopped. The Typhoons, Satans and Blackjacks are doomed. Russia, the sole heir of the Soviet nuclear forces, still has thousands of warheads. But the mechanical leviathans needed to carry them are deteriorating.
The Russian landscape is littered with stark evidence of this decline. At Russia's Northern and Far Eastern ports, nuclear-powered submarines are piling up in watery junkyards. The largest group of Blackjack bombers is rusting away in Ukraine. Even the core of the Russian strategic deterrent, the missile force, is expected to shrink dramatically in the years ahead, although Russia is trying to deploy a new class of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. But so far, only two rockets have been put on duty, three years behind schedule.
Silent Factories and Shipyards
Moreover, most of the huge factories and shipyards that rolled out the giant Soviet arms buildup in the 1980s have fallen silent. In many cases the experts who built them have simply disappeared.
Like the United States, Russia has a three-legged structure of nuclear forces: a triad of land, sea and air weapons. But Russia's triad may cease to exist over the next decade. Most likely, experts say, the long-range bombers, which have always been the least significant leg of the Russian triad, will become obsolescent, leaving a diminished submarine fleet and land-based rocket forces to carry the nuclear deterrent.
How far and how fast the Russian forces decline depends on whether the now-moribund economy can recover. But independent estimates by authoritative Russian and Western experts show the same outcome in the next 10 to 15 years -- movement toward a drastically reduced nuclear force. The result is being decided today; weapons take decades to design and build but almost none are in the works, and existing programs are starved for money.
According to the estimates, Russia's nuclear forces are shrinking even faster than the START II treaty will require. The treaty, which called for both sides to have between 3,500 and 3,000 warheads, was signed five years ago but has yet to be ratified by the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma.
Even more striking, Russian and Western specialists now estimate that, if the economy remains flat, Russia probably cannot even sustain the level of nuclear weapons envisioned just a year ago for a follow-on treaty, START III. In a meeting at Helsinki last March, Clinton and Yeltsin set the target for this treaty as 2,000 to 2,500 warheads on each side. Both treaties would be implemented by 2007 but warheads would be deactivated by 2003.
More likely, Russian and Western specialists said, Russia will wind up with an arsenal of 1,000 to 1,500 warheads a decade from now. However, it could fall to half that if the economy does not recover. That would put Russia in a league with China, which is estimated to have 400 warheads today -- or roughly equivalent to the total held by Britain, with 260, and France, with 440.
Volkov, the Russian military analyst, recently estimated that even with robust economic growth, Russia will have only 700 warheads a decade from now. Sergei Kortunov, a top Kremlin defense aide, has written that "with a lot of effort" Russia might reach 1,000 warheads by 2015.
By contrast, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, the Soviet Union in 1990 had 10,779 strategic nuclear warheads. (This does not include the estimated 6,000 to 13,000 nonstrategic, smaller nuclear charges Russia also still possesses, which have never been covered by arms control treaties.)
The U.S. strategic forces are relatively modern. The land-based Minuteman missiles, Trident submarines and B-52 bombers are expected to remain in service for a long time. Gen. Eugene Habiger, commander of the U.S. strategic forces, said recently, "I do not see the United States even thinking about having to modernize any of our forces until the year 2020."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company