Russia has announced the successful test of a “new” multi-warhead, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), designed to overcome missile defense systems like the one the U.S. hopes to build in eastern Europe.

A spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Moscow told Reuters that the RS-24 missile was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk cosmodrome about 800 km (500 miles) north of Moscow, and successfully struck a target on the Kamchtaka Peninsula, north of Japan. The missile’s flight followed a path typically used for Russian ICBM tests, allowing Moscow to test the accuracy of its missiles at near-maximum ranges. By comparison, U.S. ICBM test launches are usually staged from Vandenburg AFB, California, flying downrange to the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific.

At this point, we don’t know much about Mr. Putin’s new missile. It’s unclear whether the ICBM tested today is a truly new design, or perhaps another variant of the SS-27, which is already in service and capable of operating from mobile launchers and fixed silos. Russia has decades of experience with both multiple warhead and mobile ICBMs. The single-warhead, road-mobile SS-25 has been operational for more than 20 years, and there have been a number of Russian ICBMS with a MIRV capability (multiple independent reentry vehicles), most notably the SS-24 Scalpel, which carried 10 warheads. Moscow has previously announced plans to put multiple warheads on the aforementioned SS-27 Topol M, part of an overall modernization plan for Russia’s strategic forces.

Various Russian officials–including President Vladimir Putin–are using the ICBM test as “proof” of their ability to overcome missile defenses, including those proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. But that argument is something of a red herring; as we’ve noted in the past, Moscow already has enough weapons to saturate the planned defensive shield, which is aimed at deterring threats from the Middle East, not Russia. Additionally, if the ICBM tested today is truly a new design, it was likely on the drawing board long before the U.S. announced plans for missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Consequently, the new missile–and its capabilities–represent just another ploy for attacking Russia’s favorite bogeyman, ballistic missile defense.

Indeed, Mr. Putin has accused the U.S. of “turning Europe into a powder keg” and stuffing it with new weapons, a reference obviously aimed at the projected BMD deployments. Putin’s comments make a provocative soundbite, but they fail to explain how a handful of defensive missiles and their associated radar will push the continent to the brink of the apocalypse.

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On the other hand, Russia’s continued attacks on the proposed missile shield deflect attention away from other, more sobering realities: First, the rogue nation WMD programs that pose an increasing threat to Europe are based heavily on Russian technology and designs that were exported by Moscow (during the Soviet era), and proliferated by long-time client states like North Korea.

Secondly, Russia’s strategic modernization program is designed to compensate for the veritable collapse of its conventional forces following the Cold War. As the U.S. discovered in the 1950s, it’s cheaper to invest in nuclear arms–and delivery platforms–than massive, conventional forces. Unlike the Soviet era, the Russia of today relies heavily on its arsenal of nuclear warheads and ICBMs for strategic deterrence, even in response to limited conflicts. That position was codified in a 2003 Defense Ministry “White Paper,” which envisioned nuclear strikes emanating from a regional conflict. That sort of thinking–coupled with improvements in Russia’s ICBM force–represent a far greater threat to regional security than the missile shield envisioned for eastern Europe.

But then again, the Russians have always been masters of maskirovka–the art of military deception. By focusing the debate on missile defense (rather than its own nuclear forces and doctrine), Russia can nullify the BMD threat before it poses a serious challenge to their warheads and delivery systems. And, there’s some evidence to suggest that Moscow’s approach may be working. Last week, a Senate panel voted to slash more funding from our BMD programs. That must have been music to Mr. Putin’s ears, and it doubtlessly encouraged him to continue the attack on U.S. missile defense programs. From his perspective, the best missile strategy is a modernized Russian arsenal, against a weakened (or preferably, non-existent) American defense shield.


ADDENDUM: A late AP dispatch from Moscow indicates that the “new” missile is actually a variant of the SS-27 Topol M.

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