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Russia Beefs up Nuclear Triad, Testing Capability

12:28 PM, Jun 11, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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In last week's print edition of TWS, I wrote

The lifespan of nuclear weapons, even relatively simple ones, cannot be extended indefinitely. Despite the gnashing of teeth from the Oval Office, a new nuclear weapon will have to be designed and ultimately fielded in the near future. If testing is off the table​—as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have insisted—then the Reliable Replacement Warhead is the best technical solution for ensuring nuclear weapon viability. It is, admittedly, not the best political solution. Disarmament advocates like the Federation of American Scientists and the Ploughshares Fund came out swinging when the Reliable Replacement Warhead was introduced in 2005. Fears of a second Cold War echoed down Washington’s long political corridors, and Congress ultimately killed funding of the warhead before it could be implemented. Lawmakers should have taken a closer look—Russia and China are already up to their necks in nuclear research and development, building new delivery systems as well as toying with new warhead designs. Washington’s right to experiment with new nuclear designs is not proscribed by treaty; objections to nuclear modernization are domestic. 

U.S. aversion to modernizing the arsenal does make some political sense given the economic downturn and general public disdain for nuclear weapons, but those political calculations must be balanced with the fact that neglecting the warhead inventory is fundamentally unsound national security policy. President Obama and Secretary Gates have both acknowledged that nuclear weapons will be a core component of our defense strategy for decades. As such, it is critical that our nukes are properly maintained -- both for public safety and national security purposes. 

Our adversaries understand this as well, and as I noted in last week's issue, are aggressively beefing up their nuclear capabilities

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has approved an initiative to improve the testing capacity for the nation's nuclear arsenal, Interfax reported yesterday (see GSN, May 28).

At a meeting yesterday with Putin, atomic energy chief Sergei Kiriyenko said enhancement of the nuclear test program would ensure that Russia's strategic deterrent would remain viable without breaching the nation's adherence to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (see GSN, May 6). The stockpile could be maintained for four to five decades through use of supercomputers and other systems, he indicated.

"I have closely studied it (the program). The document has been signed," Putin said (Interfax, June 11).

Meanwhile, Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers conducted a longest-ever patrol flight of 23 hours, breaking the previous record of 21 hours, the Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday.

"This mission was the second maximum range flight ever conducted by this type of aircraft. A Tu-160 carried out a similar mission last year and stayed in the air for 21 hours," Russian air force spokesman Lt. Col. Vladimir Drik said yesterday, according to RIA Novosti.

The bombers flew over the Arctic and Pacific oceans and back into Russian territory, finally setting down in the Volga region.

Russia still trails behind the United States when it comes to the capabilities of our delivery systems and weapons, but the fact remains that they are a nuclear powerhouse that is wholly aligned against western interests. That means America's commitment to maintaining a strong, credible nuclear deterrent must be absolute. Now that our START partner has indicated that it will work on new warhead designs, Congress should look very carefully at resuming funding on the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

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