Russia announced today that it had tested a short-range interceptor missile for the Moscow anti-ballistic missile system in what appeared to be a symbolic warning to the United States not to go ahead with a national missile defense system under consideration.
Col. Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, told the Interfax news agency that the Tuesday launch at the Sary-Shagan testing ground in neighboring Kazakhstan was the first of its kind since 1993.
Russia has been warning in recent weeks that if the United States goes ahead with a national missile defense system, Russia will take countermeasures. Today's announcement seemed to be a bit of muscle flexing.
Russian officials recently released a list of actions they might take in response to a U.S. decision to deploy a missile defense system. Some of the measures, if undertaken, would reverse commitments made in arms control treaties in recent years, such as the ban on multiple-warhead missiles. But it is not known whether cash-strapped Russia can afford to carry out its threats.
The test missile was not identified, but it is among those installed in the Moscow anti-ballistic missile system of radars and missiles built around the capital in the Soviet era. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty allowed two such systems, and a subsequent protocol limited it to one.
The Moscow anti-ballistic missile system, known as A-135, includes the full complement of 100 interceptor missiles permitted by the treaty. The system has a dual defense against ballistic missiles, according to Air Force Magazine.
If the radars spot incoming missiles, Russia could launch up to 36 longer-range SH-11 Gorgon missiles. Should any missiles penetrate this layer, the system also has 64 short-range SH-08 Gazelle missiles, which are quick-reaction, high-acceleration interceptors.
Yakovlev said the tests confirmed the combat readiness of the missile and that the Strategic Rocket Forces would extend its service life to 12 1/2 years, which suggests that the test involved missiles that have been deployed for some time.
Originally, the interceptors around Moscow were armed with low-yield nuclear warheads. The missiles were not intended to hit incoming missiles but rather to explode near them. However, news reports in the last year have said that Russia removed the nuclear warheads from the interceptors around the capital.
The test-firing capped a string of recent warnings to the United States that Russia will oppose any major changes in the ABM treaty, which Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed earlier to discuss. The Russians have been ratcheting up a rhetorical campaign against major changes to the document in anticipation of a U.S. decision on whether to proceed with a missile defense system.
On Tuesday, the same day as the missile test, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivered a letter from Yeltsin to Clinton at a ceremony in Oslo. According to a Kremlin statement, Yeltsin called for "faithful adherence" to the treaty, and said that would be the best way to counter missile threats from other countries. The United States is considering building a missile defense system in response to perceived threats from North Korea, Iran or Iraq.
The Clinton administration has said it will make a decision next June on whether to build such a system, which initially would be based in Alaska and North Dakota.
Some Russian policy experts say they could envision limited changes in the ABM treaty in exchange for sharp cuts in strategic offensive arsenals. But the Russian military has taken a harder line. In a television interview last week, Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, chief of the military's Central Research Institute and one of Russia's top strategists, said the threats from North Korea, Iran or Iraq are "grossly exaggerated."
Speaking of the "inviolability" of the ABM treaty, Dvorkin said, "If that stone is removed, the whole system of treaties will collapse."
"The ruins will be as follows," he added. "START I will be dead, all mutual exchanges of information will be ended, hundreds of verification missions that both sides carry out on a reciprocal basis will be discontinued."
"We won't know the state of the U.S. strategic forces and they won't know what we are doing," he added. "This will upset the balance of nuclear forces."
Specifically, Russia has threatened to prolong the life of multiple-warhead missiles outlawed by START II, and change the new single-warhead Topol-M missile to a multiple-warhead delivery vehicle. (The START II treaty signed in 1993 has never been ratified by the Russian parliament.) Dvorkin also said Russia would use "modern means of penetrating anti-missile defense and these are measures that we can afford." One such measure reportedly is deployment of dummy warheads on the new Topol-M missile.