Intelligence Brief: Russia Sends Missile Signal to U.S. and China
On May 29, a prototype of Russia's new Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (I.C.B.M.), the RS-24, was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk launch site in northwestern Russia. The missile landed on target 5,470 kilometers (3,400 miles) away on the Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. The launch was not merely a test of yet another piece of military hardware; it also served as a message from Russia to the United States. The moves and counter-moves by the two powers have become less and less coherent as 2008 draws near because each side is looking past that year's election cycle in order to forge some kind of a coherent foreign and military policy directed at the other.
For Russia, the launch comes at a time when the country is attempting to reestablish itself as a strategic leader in the global military balance of power. Earlier, President Vladimir Putin was witness to a failed submarine launch of a new generation ballistic missile. Russia's chief concern is to prevent its missile and ballistic forces from being perceived as outdated by the rest of the world. Since a first-strike nuclear capability is enshrined in the new Russian defense policy in case of an attack on Russian territory, its forces must be capable of functioning at the highest level of competency.
The May 29 launch, therefore, proves that the Russian military can and will field state-of-the-art weaponry in order to secure its place among top-tier countries like the United States. In the words of Putin, the I.C.B.M. test was "aimed at maintaining the balance of forces in the world."
Competency is critical in today's review of Russia's military strength since the Kremlin's conventional forces are still in the midst of a long and painful process of transition to a more modern force. While two wars in Chechnya have delivered a plethora of tactical lessons to the Russian military, such lessons cannot be applied fully to a force whose technology is still more than a decade behind the leading powers such as the United States. Furthermore, while state-of-the-art military hardware can be exported to potential customers, Russia lacks such weaponry for its own million-strong military force. The May 29 launch issued a potent message to the United States that Russia's strategic missile forces -- the backbone of Soviet defenses during the Cold War -- still matter.
Separately, the test delivered a strong message to China, albeit in a much more muted form. Hidden behind the veil of Moscow-Beijing cooperation is an intense competition for primacy between a once and future superpower. China's recent successful launch of an anti-satellite weapon has shocked military establishments around the world, with some signaling a new type of space race emerging between a dominant space power, Russia, and its potential challenger, China. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Russia Wary of China's Anti-Satellite Capabilities"]
The RS-24 missile can reach any part of China with relative ease, acting both as a first- and second-strike capable weapon. While an open military conflict between Russia and China may have ended in 1968, the two states are still competing against each other when it comes to high-tech weaponry. To Moscow, the notion of an economically powerful China with a military in a better state of preparedness than Russia's is inconceivable.
All of these factors demonstrate that the arms race that Putin implied in this week's conversations about U.S. intentions is actually a three-way race between the United States, Russia and China.
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