As the Obama administration prepares to launch a new round of strategic nuclear missile cuts, Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are undergoing a major modernization, according to U.S. officials.
Russia’s military announced last month that as part of the nuclear buildup, Moscow later this year will deploy the first of its new intercontinental ballistic missiles called the Yars-M.
Details of the missile are being kept secret, but it has been described as a fifth-generation strategic nuclear system that Russian officials say will be able to penetrate U.S. missile defenses using a new type of fuel that requires a shorter burn time for booster engines.
The solid-fueled, road-mobile ICBM was tested a year ago, and it is said to have an increased payload capacity for a warhead weighing up to 1.5 tons. The range is 6,835 miles. Like earlier mobile missiles known as SS-29s and SS-27s, the new ICBM is expected to have up to 10 multiple, independently targetable warheads.
Retired Russian strategic forces commander Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin has said the Yars-M “is one of the military technological measures that the Russian military-political leadership has devised in response to the development of a global missile-defense system by the Americans.”
Last year, a Russian official explained the new missile’s fuel and anti-missile defense capabilities in an interview with Moskovski Komsomolets. The strategic nuclear weapons specialist said the high-tech fuel “allows for the reduction of the working time of the engines during the boost phase of flight, when it [the missile] is most vulnerable to detection by defensive means.”
“As a result, we achieve the most complex part of the rocket boost so fast that the enemy does not have time to calculate its trajectory and, therefore, cannot destroy it,” the official said. “That is, we can say that our ability to overcome missile defense will be significantly increased.”
Russia also announced last month that it has launched a new research-and-development program for a modernized rail-mobile ICBM. Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov told RIA Novosti April 23 that work on this rail-based missile is in the early stages and could be deployed by 2020.
Russia, during the Soviet era, was the first to deploy a rail-mobile nuclear missile system known as the SS-24.
The rail-based missile is being developed by Russia’s Moscow Institute of Thermal, which also is building the new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as existing land-based Topol ICBMs.
The rail-mobile ICBMs were prohibited under earlier versions of the U.S.-Russia START treaties. However, the 2010 New START treaty did not prohibit rail-mobile basing of missiles, and Moscow is taking advantage of the omission.
In addition to the new strategic missiles, Russia is building a new strategic bomber that is expected to be deployed by 2020.
By comparison, President Obama is expected to announced soon that he will seek a new round of talks with Russia aimed at cutting U.S. nuclear forces even further than the 1,550 deployed warheads under the 2020 New START treaty.
The cuts are expected to be justified under a Pentagon strategic review that was completed months ago but withheld from release. That report is expected to suggest that U.S. warhead levels could be cut to as few as 1,000, causing critics to say the administration is undermining U.S. deterrence and the ability to extend the nuclear umbrella to European and Asian allies.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, said in a recent speech that the administration is short between $1 billion and $1.6 billion that was promised in 2010 for nuclear modernization.
Among nuclear programs in trouble are a new strategic submarine, life extension programs for B-61, W-76 and W-88 nuclear warheads and a long-range standoff nuclear cruise missile. A needed plutonium facility in New Mexico was also canceled, Mr. Rogers said.
The Pentagon also postponed a test launch of a Minuteman III ICBM last month over concerns that it might be misconstrued as an attack on North Korea, which threatened nuclear missile attacks on the United States.
“I find this deeply concerning, given the sorry state of the nuclear modernization commitments made during the last round,” Mr. Rogers said of plans for additional nuclear cuts.
The Pentagon also has signaled a further lack of resolve toward its nuclear modernization program by ordering an environmental impact study of shutting down an entire land-based nuclear-missile wing.
“New START doesn’t require shutting down a missile wing, and I have heard no explanation for this requested study,” Mr. Rogers said.
N. Korea provocation alert
U.S. intelligence agencies are stepping up monitoring North Korean’s military and missile activities now that the annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises have ended.
The increased surveillance comes amid new worries that North Korea will conduct some type of military provocation during the visit to the United States next week by South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Mrs. Park arrives Monday on her first visit as president.
Officials tell Inside the Ring there are continuing signs that North Korea is moving some of its mobile missiles and could possibly conduct a test launch of the new intermediate-range Musudan missile, with an expected range of about 2,500 miles — enough to hit targets at the U.S. island of Guam.
Also, intelligence imagery revealed some type of activity at North Korea’s nuclear testing facility that could be an indication of a fourth underground nuclear blast. “It could just be maintenance” on the site in the northeastern part of the country, one official said.
A key worry is that the North Koreans, who engaged in a new round of saber-rattling last month and then appeared to calm down, are now ready to take some type of action that would upset the Park visit.
The new South Korea president is said to be ready to engage North Korea in talks, if Pyongyang dials back its hostile rhetoric and threats.
U.S. officials said there are subtle signs that China recently pressed North Korea’s government not to conduct a military provocation, like the Musudan test.
Chinese envoy Wu Dawei, considered a hard-line, pro-North Korea official, recently met State Department officials. Sources familiar with the talks said Mr. Wu did not present the same Chinese policy line toward North Korea as he has in the past.
China deploys DF-21D
Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn revealed last month that China has deployed its new mobile DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in prepared remarks that the unique aircraft carrier-killing ballistic missile is now fielded opposite Taiwan among 1,200 ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S. ally.
Describing China’s nuclear forces, Gen. Flynn said the Chinese military is “augmenting the over 1,200 conventional short-range ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan with a limited, but growing number, of conventionally armed, medium-range ballistic missiles, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.”
It was the first time a senior official confirmed that the missile is deployed.
China’s Gen. Chen Bingde said in July 2011 that the DF-21D was “still in the research stage.”
The DF-21D is part of what the Pentagon calls the Chinese military’s anti-access and area-denial weapons, along with anti-satellite missiles and lasers, submarines and missile defenses.
The weapons prompted the new military concept called Air Sea Battle that seeks to better coordinate Navy and Air Force systems in Asia to deter and, if needed, defeat China in a future conflict.