Monday, September 17, 2007

Russian Bomber Flights: The Real Cost of Missile Defense?

Last week, British fighters flew to intercept eight Russian bombers approaching British air space in what the Times of London called "the biggest aerial confrontation between the two countries since the end of the Cold War." Aerial starring matches like this were standard during the Cold War, but had been relatively unknown since then. In August, Putin resumed the practice of regular patrols over international waters by nuclear-capable Tu-95 bombers, leading to several incidents like this one involving Britain, the United States, Norway, and Canada.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack downplayed the importance of the Russian flights, referring to the bombers as "old aircraft taken out of mothballs" and characterizing this development as "an internal decision...That is a decision for them to take; it's interesting." McCormack implies that the causes of this policy are entirely endogenous to Russia (e.g. Putin's desire to flex military muscle at home or demonstrate his power to the world). It is also possible, however, that the roots of this decision are exogenous to Russia, which is to say, this is a response to the behavior of another state.

The decision to resume bomber flights may be closely related to Putin's fears about missile defense. Putin is concerned with the intrusion of NATO military capability into the Warsaw Pact area (i.e. the planned placement of missile defense interceptors in Poland). NATO expansion eastward is contrary to the deal that was struck between Russia and the United States on German reunification: Russia consented to a unified Germany joining NATO in exchange for a promise that NATO would not expand beyond Germany's eastern border. Thus, even the expansion of a missile defense system of dubious effectiveness is seen as a threat, and if the system were expanded it could
diminish or even eliminate Russia's ability to launch a nuclear strike using ICBMs.

The commander of Russia's Strategic Air Force said in March that he sees bombers as the antidote to American missile defense:

"Missile shield elements, which are located in silos, are very vulnerable and have weak defenses," Lieutenant-General Igor Khvorov said. "Therefore, all aircraft deployed by [Russian] strategic aviation can either apply electronic counter-measures against them or physically destroy them."

The resumption of bomber flights will have minimal implications on Russian military power, but with this decision Putin is publicly flexing a tool that happens to be extremely well suited to counteracting missile defense systems. Other counter-missile defense capabilities have been expanded in strategically significant ways: In May, Russia announced that it would begin equipping its Topol-M missiles with multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads. General Nikolai Solovstov explained to Pravda that this addition would "help penetrate missile defenses more effectively."

At the beginning of the Cold War, Western analysts understood Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as an act of aggression, a prelude to a possible invasion of Western Europe. In retrospect, many historians believe that Stalin had absolutely no intent of launching such an invasion, but was in fact acting defensively, seeking to create a buffer zone against a possibly resurgent Germany. The failure of the West to understand Russian actions as a reaction made those actions appear more aggressive then they actually were, which raised tensions significantly. If we fail to understand the possible connection between the Russian resumption of bomber flights and Putin's fears about missile defense, we run the risk of making the same mistake again, over half a century later.

1 comment:

Jeff Lindemyer said...

A follow-up to this post...

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
September 15, 2007
Pg. 8

Putin Flexes Muscles With Antique Bombers

By Dave Montgomery, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Lumbering Soviet-era strategic bombers are again flying far outside Russian airspace as part of the most vigorous military modernization since the fall of communism more than 15 years ago.

With his country awash in oil-generated prosperity, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin is flexing Russia's muscles in a series of unsettling reminders of the Cold War that raise the question: Just what is the former KGB spy and -- by extension, Russia -- up to?

While U.S. officials and Russian experts generally don't envision a new Cold War, many believe that Putin's recent moves are designed to assert Russia's new vitality, create further distance from the West and re-energize the Kremlin's influence over the vast landscape that it controlled during the Soviet era.

Now approaching his eighth and final year as Russian president, Putin, 54, has seized on every opportunity to project a tough, virile image for himself and his once-chaotic nation, including a much-publicized, shirtless stroll that revealed his muscled physique.

The overall objective, says Eugene Rumer, a Russian expert at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., is to "show the flag" and tell the world: "We're big boys...we are a force in the international arena and we'll position ourselves in our own terms."

Still, to those around during duck-and-cover exercises, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-pounding rants at the United Nations, some of Putin's actions have disturbing parallels to the Cold War, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Among them:

Aerial saber-rattling: Since mid-August, Tu-95 "Bear" strategic bombers have been flying long-range missions close to NATO airspace, prompting British and Norwegian fighters to scramble to intercept and escort them away. Two Tu-95s also flew far into the Pacific, approaching U.S. airspace near Guam.

Putin ordered the patrols on Aug. 17, resuming worldwide flights for the first time in 15 years.

Another arms race? Putin has approved a seven-year, $200 billion rearmament plan to modernize the military after years of decline following the collapse of the Soviet empire, including next-generation aircraft, new intercontinental missiles and a submarine base in the Pacific.

The new arsenal also includes what Russia describes as the world's most powerful non-nuclear air-delivered explosive, reputedly four times as powerful as a U.S. bomb nicknamed "the mother of all bombs." Russians calls theirs "the dad of all bombs."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited the "uncertain paths" of Russia and China and the two countries' "sophisticated military modernization programs" in urging Congress to adopt President Bush's $463.1 billion defense budget.

Tough talk: Pulling back from the pro-Washington policies of Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, Putin this year harshly criticized the United States for overstepping its borders "in every way" and said the expansion of NATO reduces "the level of mutual trust."

Denouncing U.S. intentions to base missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe, Putin has signaled Russia's intent to increase spying abroad and to pull out of a conventional forces treaty in Europe. The Kremlin has also threatened to deploy missiles closer to Europe unless Washington abandons the missile-defense sites.

Putin sprung another surprise this week by naming Viktor Zubkov, an obscure financial regulator, as prime minister following a shakeup of the government. The selection fueled speculation that Putin, who is barred from a third consecutive term, will run for presidency again in 2012 after four years away from office.

Fort Worth's role

The rebirth of tensions between the United States and Russia may foster flashbacks in thousands of cities and neighboring installations that were part of the nation's far-flung strategic defense system during the Cold War.

In Fort Worth, air crews at Carswell Air Force Base on the city's west side remained on 24-hour alert, constantly awaiting the order that would send them skyward toward the Soviet Union in B-36 or B-52 bombers. The last B-52 left in 1992, and Carswell closed before reopening as Naval Air Station Fort Worth, but Carswell's role in the Cold War remains etched in U.S. military history.

"They were absolutely in the thick of it," recalled retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher S. Adams, who has lived in Fort Worth for 15 years. Although Adams was never based at Carswell, he served as chief of staff of the Strategic Air Command and flew numerous sorties from other bases in B-36s, B-52s and EC-135s. He also has written six books, including Inside the Cold War: A Cold Warrior's Reflection.

The EC-135s, he recalled, served as an aerial communication link that was permanently airborne to launch a retaliatory missile attack in case a Soviet strike wiped out ground communications. The two sides came to the edge of nuclear confrontation in 1962 with the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

"We were really on the brink of war until Khrushchev blinked," said Adams, referring to the Kremlin leader's decision to withdraw the missiles.

The Tu-95s that Putin has permanently assigned to patrol against unspecified threats against Russia are themselves lingering reminders of the Cold War.

Powered by four turboprop engines driving huge propellers on swept wings, the Bears first entered service in 1956 and are comparable in size, shape and tenure to America's venerable jet-engine powered B-52, which also dates to the mid-50s. A Russian hydrogen bomb that produced the largest man-made explosion in history was dropped by a Tu-95.

The bombers dispatched by Putin are armed with missiles but not nuclear weapons, according to Russian officials. The latest TU-95s possess upgraded electronics and have a range of more than 8,000 miles -- more than enough to reach the United States -- but military analysts mostly dismiss them as a significant threat to this country.

"It would not have the capability to penetrate any air space that we would not want it to penetrate," said retired Gen. John T. "Jack" Chain, who commanded the Strategic Air Command from 1986 until 1991. "When it was born, it had awesome capability, but the world has changed since then."

The Russians have also insisted that they will not violate U.S. and NATO airspace, but British and Norwegian jets intercepted Russian military aircraft Friday after they breached NATO airspace near the U.K. and Finland, allied defense officials said.

Finland's prime minister demanded an explanation from Moscow. Russia said it has set up a commission to investigate the Finnish claims, but an official insisted the aircraft had flown over neutral territory, The Associated Press reported.

Low-key response

Bush administration officials have taken a low-key approach to the flights, saying that Russia has a right to conduct the patrols in international airspace, and downplaying comparisons to the Cold War. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, said in a statement to McClatchy Newspapers that the long-range Russian missions serve "to remind us that the international security environment is complex, dynamic and uncertain."

Putin is able to finance his country's military modernization through the oil production that has boosted the Russian economy by an average of 26 percent each year since 1999, reversing years of economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet state. Russia is now spending about $32 billion on its military but the expenditure is less than three percent of its gross domestic product and is only a fraction of the more than $400 billion spent by the United States.

Most military analysts say that the Russian military, while improving, hasn't fully recovered from the post-Soviet decline and is still inferior to the U.S. military.

Lockheed Martin's F-22 is superior to anything in the Russian fighter fleet and just over half of its 200 bombers are "in useable condition," says Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst with the Teal Group of Fairfax, Va. But he adds: "They've got just enough of a strategic force to make a nuisance of themselves."

This article contains material from The Associated Press.

Dave Montgomery was the Moscow bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers from 1998 to 2002.