Thursday, September 6, 2012

Moscow Eyes Major Missile Upgrade

Wired - Robot subs, sea-based missile interceptors and new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Kremlin is promising a major upgrade to its arsenal. And if even some of those promises are met, it could cause a serious shift in the global balance of power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been one of the strongest boosters of an upgraded military, but it’s not going to be easy to keep up with the U.S., and now China. Beijing announced last month it’s building a string of drone bases along its coastline, and is starting to show off the prelude to a proper navy. There are also lingering questions whether Beijing has tested a powerful new ICBM.

“We should make a breakthrough in the modernization of our defense industry, as it was done in the 1930s,” Putin said last week. The president — who is attempted to lead a flock of endangered Siberian cranes to safety this week by hang-glider — regularly makes statements along these lines. But the boosterism also guarantees if the U.S. has a certain kind of weapon or machine, or wants it, then Moscow assures the world that it’s working on it too.

Case in point is Russia’s new drone submarine. On Friday, we learned Russia is developing an unmanned underwater drone built along the lines of a 1980s-era mini-submarine called the Project 865 Piranha.

Only two Piranhas were ever built, but Russia hopes to apply the lessons to a drone sub. “The U.S. Navy is moving along similar lines,” said Anatoly Shlemov, defense contracts chief at the Kremlin-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation. That would be an ostensible reference to the Pentagon’s Actuv unmanned sub hunter, which Darpa hopes will give the Navy the means to quietly follow and track diesel subs for months at a time, and do so relatively cheaply.

More pronounced is Russia’s missile program. This week, Strategic Missile Forces commander Col. Gen. Sergei Karakayev told RIA Novosti a new liquid-fueled ballistic missile will be ready by 2018, replacing Russia’s old solid-fueled R-36M2 Voyevoda missile (or SS-18 Satan, as known by NATO), which dates back to the Cold War. In recent years, Russia has also developed a solid-fueled ICBM called the Topol-M. But a new liquid-fueled missile has one big advantage over both, namely that it may give Moscow — in six years — the means to defeat a NATO missile shield in Europe.

One reason: Liquid-fueled rockets are really heavy, and have the weight and power to lift multiple warheads at once. And when there’s multiple warheads screaming at your defenses — and all it takes is one to slip through for you to lose a city — that’s enough to question the feasibility of an expensive shield in the first place. (Speaking of missile shields, Russia is also looking at building new missile interceptors similar to the U.S.’s ship-based Aegis system.)

Now the likelihood of catching up to par with the U.S. anytime soon is going to be nearly impossible. When Putin talks about modernizing the defense industry, he’s responding to a growing crisis that Russia hasn’t yet been able to manage.