Russian military touts its anti-anti-missile system

Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, tells journalists Thursday that Russia has successfully tested a hypersonic weapon capable of penetrating any prospective missile shield.Sergey Ponomarev / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia successfully tested a space vehicle that could lead to weapons capable of penetrating missile defenses, a senior general said Thursday. He insisted the device was not meant to counter U.S. efforts to develop an anti-missile shield.

Analysts said the device may be part of a campaign to bolster Russia’s global clout and burnish President Vladimir Putin’s image ahead of March elections he is expected to win. It could also be an effort to restore prestige to the country’s military, which has suffered near-collapse since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, gave few details about the device tested Wednesday, but said it was a hypersonic vehicle — one that moves at more than five times the speed of sound — that could maneuver in orbit.

A weapon based on the craft could use that maneuverability to dodge missile defense systems, he said.

“The flying vehicle changed both altitude and direction of its flight,” Baluyevsky said at a news conference. “During the experiment conducted yesterday, we have proven that it’s possible to develop weapons that would make any missile defense useless.”

Engine-equipped warhead
The Russian news Web site, citing unnamed General Staff officials, said the vehicle was a warhead with engines that would direct it as it approached a target, rather than going into free fall.

Phil Coyle, a senior adviser to the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said Russia had been working on such a system for years and “it would not be surprising if they finally succeeded.”

Baluyevsky’s statement followed Putin’s claims a day earlier that Russia could build unrivaled new strategic weapons. Putin made the statements during military exercises that were described as the largest in more than 20 years.

ABM Treaty, R.I.P.
Russia’s announcement comes after Washington withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 to develop a missile shield. After fervently protesting the plans, Russia was quiet when the United States abandoned the treaty, though U.S.-Russian relations have soured again lately.

Putin said that the weapons development wasn’t directed against the United States, and Baluyevsky reaffirmed the statement.

“The experiment conducted by us mustn’t be interpreted as a warning to the Americans not to build their missile defense because we designed this thing,” Baluyevsky told The Associated Press. “We have demonstrated our capability, but we have no intention to build this craft tomorrow.”

Reaction from Washington
The United States reacted calmly to the Russian plans.

“If you’re in that business — intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads — you want them to be survivable, and maneuverability is one way to increase their survivability against any potential defenses,” Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said when asked about the statements Putin made Wednesday. “They’ve got to design a missile force that they think is sufficient for deterrence, just like we do.”

The Russian military’s widely reported troubles — including severe funding shortages, low morale, poor conditions for servicemen and the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster of 2000 — have undermined Putin’s push for Russia to reassert itself as a military power. Underscoring that, the exercises were marred this week by two failed missile launches from nuclear submarines.

Political perspective
Alexei Arbatov, an expert on Russian military programs, said that boasting about future weapons was part of the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster Russia’s global clout and Putin’s popularity at home.

“Putin has sought to make an impression on both domestic and global public and show that Russia has some major new projects in its fold,” Arbatov told The Associated Press.

Alexander Pikayev, an independent military analyst, said Putin was catering to the military and nationalists ahead of the March 14 presidential election.

Baluyevsky also said that Russia was developing a new, submarine-based ballistic missile and a new nuclear submarine equipped to carry it that would enter service this decade. And he said the military was developing a new ground-based missile.

Russia had informed the United States about its intention to conduct the experiment and U.S. officials didn’t complain, he said.

Baluyevsky refused to comment on what kind of engine the vehicle had, how long its flight lasted, how exactly it maneuvered and what combat load it may carry in the future. He said that it had been designed by Russian companies, but refused to name them.

As part of the current exercises, the military on Wednesday launched a Molniya-M booster rocket with a Kosmos military satellite and two ballistic missiles — a Topol and an RS-18.

It wasn’t clear which of the rockets carried the new vehicle into orbit.