Russian failures spark talk of new weapons

Thursday, February 19, 2004

MOSCOW -- After two failed missile launches during highly publicized military maneuvers, President Vladimir Putin announced plans Wednesday to deploy a new generation of strategic weapons and said Moscow may build new missile defenses.

Some analysts said the new weapons may be warheads that zigzag on their way to a target, an idea that dates to the Soviet era. Putin did not say exactly what they were.

Putin spoke after watching Wednesday's launch of a military satellite from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia, which was part of a massive exercise of the nation's strategic forces described as the largest in more than 20 years.

"The experiments conducted during these maneuvers ... have proven that state-of-the art technical complexes will enter service with the Russian Strategic Missile Forces in the near future," Putin said in remarks broadcast by Russian television stations.

The new weapons will be "capable of hitting targets continents away at hypersonic speed, with high precision and the ability of broad maneuver both in terms of altitude and direction of their flight," he said.

Putin spoke after two embarrassing missile launch failures Tuesday and Wednesday. A missile launch from the Novomoskovsk nuclear submarine set for Tuesday didn't take place, though the navy later claimed that it had never planned the test.

On Wednesday, the navy sent another Northern Fleet nuclear submarine to the Barents Sea to repeat the launch -- only to fail again.

The missile launched from the Karelia submarine started drifting from its flight path 98 seconds after launch and self-destructed automatically, Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said.

Retired Adm. Vladimir Chernavin, the former Soviet navy chief, said that until the cause of the failed launch is found, "it's hard to talk about full combat readiness of the navy's strategic nuclear forces," the Interfax-Military News Agency reported.

State television kept mum about the failures. Putin didn't directly mention them, though he did acknowledge some shortcomings in the exercises.

"We have not had such exercises for almost 20 years," Putin said. "Naturally, in the course of such exercises there are minuses and pluses ... and those minuses will be detected and clearly we'll be drawing conclusions. It is only for the better."

The military exercises were widely seen as part of campaign efforts to play up Putin's image as a leader determined to restore Russia's military power and global clout ahead of the March 14 presidential election. He is expected to win easily.

In his comments, Putin focused on the new weapons, which he said would be unrivaled in the world. He said they would ensure Russia's safety for years to come.

Putin said that Russia was continuing research in missile defense systems and may build a new missile shield. Russia now has a missile defense system protecting Moscow that was designed in the 1970s and modernized in the 1990s.

Some military analysts said his statement could indicate the revival of Soviet designs for nuclear warheads that zigzag on their final approach to a target, confusing missile defenses.

Such behavior would make a missile hard to intercept and destroy.

"On the other hand, its accuracy leaves much to be desired, making it unfit for dealing precision strikes," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military analyst.

He said that the research on zigzagging warheads began in the 1980s in response to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program.

Putin said the new weapon systems wouldn't be directed against the United States, which has backed out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and is developing a missile defense system of its own.

"Modern Russia has no imperial ambitions or hegemonist strivings," he said.

Alexander Pikayev, a Moscow-based expert in Russian nuclear forces, said that the military had experimented with a maneuvering warhead during a missile launch several years ago, but voiced doubt about Russia's ability to deploy such weapons any time soon.

Putin could also have been referring to a ballistic missile system being developed for submarines, said Ivan Safranchuk, the head of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think-tank. Little is known about the system, called Bulava.

In Plesetsk on Wednesday, Putin watched the successful launch of a Molniya-M booster rocket, which carried a Kosmos military satellite into orbit.

Later in the day, the military successfully test-fired a Topol ballistic missile from Plesetsk and an RS-18 ballistic missile from the Baikonur cosmodrome which Russia leases from Kazakhstan. The two are reliable weapons systems dating from the Soviet era.

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