- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that upgrading Russia’s nuclear forces was the top priority in an ambitious military modernization plan that he pledged to pursue despite the nation’s financial problems.

Russia must upgrade its arsenals and combat readiness to fend off threats posed by NATO’s expansion, international terrorism and local conflicts, Medvedev said at a meeting with the military’s top brass.

“All that requires a modernization of our armed forces,” Medvedev said. “We now have all the necessary conditions for that despite the current financial difficulties.”

Russia’s windfall oil wealth over the last decade allowed the Kremlin to nearly quadruple its defense spending and start upgrading aging arsenals. The financial crisis has raised doubts about the government’s ability to meet the military modernization goals, but the government has pledged that weapons orders won’t be cut.

Military officials have said the government budgeted 1.5 trillion rubles ($43 billion) for weapons purchases this year, about 25 percent of it to be spent on upgrading the nation’s aging, Soviet-era nuclear force.

“Let me mention the top priorities. The main one is a qualitative increase in the troops readiness, primarily of strategic nuclear forces. They must guarantee the fulfillment of all tasks of ensuring Russia’s security,” Medvedev said.

The military has said it will use the money to put more than 10 new intercontinental ballistic missiles on duty by year’s end _ a much faster pace of deployment than in previous years. It also intends to complete tests of the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile and put it into service by the year’s end.

Russian leaders have boasted of the submarine-launched missile’s capability to penetrate missile defenses and have described it as the core of the military’s future nuclear arsenal. But the Bulava has failed in five of its 10 test launches. Some experts blamed the failures on manufacturing flaws.

Medvedev encouraged the military Tuesday to focus more on new weapons purchases than repairs of the existing arsenals, saying that new orders were essential for keeping the nation’s military industries afloat during the financial crisis.

Military modernization efforts have gone slowly, despite Kremlin pledges to revive the nation’s power and global prestige. The military’s weaknesses, such as shortages of precision weapons and modern communications, were spotlighted during Russia’s war with Georgia in August.

“That conflict has revealed our flaws,” Medvedev said, adding that “problems linked with supply of certain weapons and means of communication require a quick action.”

He also said the military must increase the pace of combat training. “We mustn’t save money on that,” he said.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia and six other ex-Soviet nations which are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization will hold the first exercise of their newly created joint rapid reaction force in Kazakhstan in September.

Medvedev said the new force must have the most modern weapons. “We must be able to use them to tackle the most difficult problems, such as terrorism, and fend off potential military threats,” he said, adding that it will give Russia a chance to “test some modern technologies.”

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