Get this: The General commanding Russia Strategic Rocket Forces, Lieutenant General Sergei Karakayev, said in December that the new Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) are needed -- because the existing ones are vulnerable to US missile defenses.
This is apparently the result of all that nice goodwill generated by the Obama administration's "reset" of relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia and the ratification of the New Start Arms Control Treaty. It should come as no surprise: nuclear weapons, along with oil and gas exports, are just about the only thing that still qualifies Russia as a "Great Power."
If Russia's leaders still resent their loss of superpower status and feel they have a strategic need to challenge the US wherever possible, then spending the money to build a new type of nuclear missile aimed at the US makes sense.
On December 23, the Russian navy completed the test firing of their "Bulava" submarine-launched ballistic missile; and the Russian Navy's high command says that it is ready to be entered into service. This missile has an 8000 kilometer range and can carry 8 to 10 nuclear warheads. Though similar to the older land-based "Topol" ICBM, the Bulava went through a long and painful development process and experienced a relatively large number of test failures -- indicating that Russia's once formidable ability to build and deploy powerful missiles such as SLBMs, ICBMs and technologically similar space launch vehicles is nowhere near as well financed as it was during the Soviet era.
In December 2010, Russia's top-of-the-line space launch vehicle, the Proton, failed to put a number of Glonass navigation satellites into orbit. In February 2011, a Rokot launch vehicle, put together from recycled ICBMs, failed. In August 2010, both a Proton and a Soyuz, carrying a Progress cargo capsule to the International Space Station failed; and last month, the launch of another Soyuz rocket , carrying a military communications satellite, ended in disaster.
While not directly related to the space launch vehicle involved, the failure of Russia's Phobos/Grunt Mars probe which crashed back to Earth on January 15, 2012, indicates that Moscow's space industry, which is embedded in their military industrial complex, has serious problems.
This string of failures seems to reveal that the December 16, 2011, announcement by General Karakayev of the Strategic Missile Forces that Russia will build a new heavy ICBM , to replace the older SS-18 missiles aimed at the US, was probably motivated by the need to demonstrate that Russia's missile-building abilities have not been affected by these accidents. Moscow's nuclear missile forces are just about the only major military asset that Russia has left.
Even more significant is that, according to a story published by Russia press agency RIA Novosti, is the admission by General Karakayev that "Russia's solid propellent ICBMs may be unable to penetrate missile defenses." There can only be one missile defense system that the General was talking about ,and that is the Ground Based Missile Defense (GMD) system, based in Alaska and California that provides at least a minimal protection to the US homeland.
Ever since Ronald Reagan gave his famous "Star Wars" speech in March1983, which lead to the rebirth of American missile defense efforts, opponents of the idea that it is not only possible but desirable to build defensive systems that can shoot down incoming nuclear missiles and their warheads have claimed that the technology cannot be developed. Yet now, a senior Russian officer has publicly admitted that America has built a system that can shoot down the solid propellent missiles that Reagan and his team thought were the most dangerous ones in the Soviet inventory. This is a major development: it proves that Ronald Reagan was right not to overestimate Soviet technological capacities.
Of course, as the US GMD system has fewer than 30 operational interceptors, the ability of Russia's missile force with its hundreds of ICBMs and SLBMs to overwhelm the US defense system is obvious. However, if the US were to chose to build a much larger number of interceptors, and to build up a "multilayered" national missile defense system, as has been promised by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Russia would no longer have an unquestioned ability to hit a wide array of US targets with nuclear warheads. The reliability of Russia's missile strike force would be compromised.
If this is the motivation for Russia's announced decision to build a new type of nuclear missile, then Russia's commitment to "reset" its relationship with the US is based on a wildly false premise. After all, if the US does not threaten Russia's territorial integrity, why should Russia worry about America's ability to defend itself ? Or do Russia's leaders still believe that a balance of terror, based on the old doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), is necessary?