Upping the Ante: The Implications of Russia’s Pursuit of Precision Conventional Strike Weapons

US-Russia relations and stability in Europe would benefit from increased transparency about conventional long-range precision weapons.

A test launch of Iskander and Tochka-U missiles.
Source: Russian Ministry of Defense

The conventional arms control framework, created with considerable effort and political sacrifice in the waning years of the Cold War, has been largely dismantled. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is effectively dead—rendered, more or less, moot by the 1990 dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Russia’s official “suspension” in 2007. Attempts to fashion a replacement have been abandoned by most parties, first and foremost the United States and Russia. The scope and depth of the 2011 Vienna Document, a confidence- and security-building measure aimed at filling in some of the gaps left by the 2007 suspension of the CFE Treaty, are limited: although it provides for a considerable degree of transparency, it cannot ensure long-term stability and security on the continent. On the other hand, since the majority of NATO states feel reasonably safe, few appear prepared to make a major investment in creating a new framework—an exercise that will require serious concessions and is thus fraught with considerable political costs.

This situation will not last forever, though; in perhaps five to seven years, Europe is likely to see a gradual change in the familiar alignment of conventional forces, as Russia seeks to catch up to the United States’s advanced conventional strike and defense capabilities. A special high-level meeting chaired by President Vladimir Putin was held on November 29, 2013, bringing to public view Russia’s efforts in this area. That meeting was not an indication of a decision to launch a new program to balance the American and NATO capabilities: rather, it revealed an effort that has been pursued for many years and perhaps also suggests that these efforts have achieved sufficient success to now be made public.

While the threat of war in Europe seems improbable, even with a new Russian capability, such a move will likely result in a noticeable increase in political tension. In fact, some members of NATO might insist on strengthening conventional—and maybe even nuclear—deterrence.

This impact of the future Russian capability can be mitigated through a set of arms control tools. It is advisable to begin considering them as soon as possible, since the contours of the security situation in Europe are predictable and thus allow for appropriate preemptive steps, whereas in the past, arms control sought to mend undesirable trends only after they had already developed. At a minimum, it appears desirable to consider expanding the Vienna Document to include new categories of assets, both offensive and defensive, starting with those that have long-range precision-strike capability; it is also logical to include out-of-area assets in this category, such as those deployed in the United States and in Russia beyond the Urals, as well as naval based systems.

The Status Quo and Emerging Trends

NATO’s existing defense strategy is built around “an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities,” according to its Strategic Concept 2010. That formula refers, to a large extent, to the near-monopoly of the United States and its allies in precision-guided, long-range conventional strike capabilities coupled with advanced missile defense assets. This offensive capability, which was successfully used on a number of occasions starting as early as the 1990 Gulf War, has fundamentally changed the global security landscape. It allows overcoming limitations inherent in both the “traditional” conventional forces and nuclear weapons; it does not require large armies, involve large-scale losses of one’s own troops or collateral damage, nor carry the stigma of nuclear weapons. As such, modern conventional forces have helped return “raw” power to interstate relations and built effective and credible deterrence.

In Europe, US and NATO conventional superiority has helped provide a highly credible deterrent to a range of existing and potential threats not limited to Russia. Equally important, it has also allowed a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons in the alliance security policy as reflected in the Strategic Concept, as well as deep reductions in the number of deployed US tactical nuclear weapons.

Two decades of a near-monopoly on modern conventional strike and defense assets have resulted in complacency, however: there exists an implicit assumption that this favorable situation will continue indefinitely. This practical monopoly has also led to stubborn resistance in the United States to any arms control measures that could limit or even merely regulate US conventional power; the latter became particularly evident during ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and subsequent consultations between the United States and Russia on a possible next step in nuclear arms reductions. Rejecting proposed measures to control long-range conventional strike assets and missile defense systems presents a serious potential challenge: when Russia (as well as perhaps China) acquires similar capabilities, they, too, will remain unchecked.

Moscow regards US superiority in this class of weaponry as a potential threat. This perception has been exacerbated by a series of successful limited wars, which, in spite of military success, have also created numerous instabilities in Eurasia and are regarded as a potential direct threat to Russia itself. To counter this threat, Russia’s Military Doctrine, adopted in 2000 and modified in 2010, relies on the option of limited use of nuclear weapons, a strategy explicitly classified as a “temporary fix” until Russia acquires similar conventional capabilities. Emulating the US conventional capability and creating both an implicit and explicit military option, Russia believes, could provide new foreign policy leverage.

In the late 1990s and the first half of the new millennium, work on modern conventional assets in Russia was slow, plagued by chronic underfunding and the generally poor state of the defense industry. The pace of these efforts has since accelerated, especially following the 2008 war with Georgia, which, despite a Russian victory, was regarded by many both inside and outside of Russia as an indicator of Moscow’s poor wartime capabilities. While it has become customary to dismiss the prospect of Russian fielding modern conventional weapons—in the 1990s, for example, there was a ten to twenty year gap between Russian capabilities and that of the United States—such an attitude is no longer justified.

A review of relevant Russian programs reveals that, with regard to conventional cruise missiles, both air- and sea-launched, as well as precision-guided gravity bombs, Moscow has reduced the gap to perhaps as few as five to seven years; where the missile defense capability is concerned, the gap has narrowed from about ten years to perhaps no more than five. The same is true for space-based assets (see, for instance, the prowess of Russia’s global navigation satellite system, GLONASS): there the gap has been reduced from approximately fifteen years to five or less. With regard to prompt global strike (PGS) capability, Russia today is probably only a few years behind the United States and, given the state of its missile industry, could feasibly acquire an operational PGS capability at about the same time as the United States.

Of course, success of these efforts depends on the ability of the Russian government to adequately fund and properly organize the research and development and production processes (a major uncertainty given an anticipated drop in revenues from oil and gas exports). Yet, progress, especially since the 2008 war with Georgia, begs for close attention and an assessment of its impact on international—and especially European—security.

One feature of the emerging Russian conventional capability that deserves particular scrutiny is Moscow’s emphasis on intermediate-range strike assets; short- and intermediate-range systems appear to attract somewhat more attention than in the United States, since the majority of potential targets are in Eurasia, i.e., much closer to Russia than to the United States. In this regard, proposals to abrogate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which reappear with considerable regularity (in 2000, 2005-07, and, most recently, in 2012-13), deserve close attention: they reflect the desire of the Russian military to acquire a conventionally armed analogue to the SS-20 ballistic missile, which was banned by that treaty and which could give Moscow a prompt strike capability with a Eurasian reach.

The impact of the Russian modern conventional capability is likely to be multifaceted and asymmetric. The most direct and visible consequences will likely be seen in Russia’s policy in the Middle East, South Asia, and other areas south of its borders. There, the ability to credibly threaten limited, targeted use of force from a distance will give it major leverage to advance its interests, support friends and clients (even acquire new ones), and generally have a much greater impact on the development of events in Eurasia.

Consequences for Europe will be probably less visible or dramatic, but nonetheless significant. On the one hand, Moscow’s present concerns about US conventional strike capability will be somewhat alleviated, which could have a moderating effect on its national security policy. It appears possible that Russia might become more open to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and perhaps even agree to put its tactical nuclear arsenal on the negotiating table.

On the other hand, the credibility of NATO’s conventional deterrence is bound to decline. In the absence of the currently existing asymmetries (“usable” precision-guided conventional assets vs. “unusable” nuclear weapons and “outdated” conventional forces), Russia will acquire many of the capabilities similar to what NATO has, including the capability to credibly threaten limited use of force. While practical implications of that capability will be modest (i.e., Russia is unlikely to openly threaten members of NATO), some Central/East European members of the alliance will nonetheless perceive it as a threat and request a stronger NATO deterrent.

Baltic states, which regard existing Russian conventional forces as a direct threat, will likely perceive the new Russian capability as an even greater one. Other new members of NATO might feel threatened by an expanded range of Russian conventional forces as well. They are likely to regard Russian advanced defense assets as a sign of NATO’s diminished ability to hold at risk vital military and political targets in Russian territory. One cannot rule out that, under conditions of military symmetry, these members of the alliance might urge greater reliance on nuclear weapons to counter the perceived Russian conventional threat and perhaps even an increase in the number of American nuclear assets assigned to defense of NATO.

The new Russian military capability and subsequent calls for NATO reliance on nuclear weapons to counter it could have a divisive effect on the alliance. Fault lines, which were visible several years ago during the discussion of tactical nuclear weapons (mitigated by the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review), could reappear. This time, it might be more difficult to mend them, since continued NATO conventional superiority—both offensive and defensive assets—which had helped shift emphasis from nuclear to alternative defense options, will no longer be as overwhelming. Because the US-Russian strategic nuclear balance will continue to be based on solid mutual deterrence, the credibility of US commitment to the defense of Europe might once again be called into question, as occurred in the 1980s.

The existing arms control regime developed during the last years of the Cold War was not designed to address these emerging military assets. For example, the only category of new weapon systems that is indirectly covered by the CFE regime is aircraft, including those capable of carrying precision-guided bombs. Conventional cruise missiles on strategic bombers, short-range land-based missiles, and a broad variety of sea-launched cruise missiles remained outside the scope of that regime; if the INF Treaty is abrogated, conventionally armed intermediate-range missiles will also be outside any limitations. The more futuristic systems, such as hypersonic vehicles, certainly will remain unchecked.
To remedy the negative impact of advanced conventional strike and defense technologies on both European security as a whole and on NATO, one will need a new set of arms control tools that could help enhance predictability and mitigate both Russia’s and NATO’s existing and increased threat perceptions.

The characteristics of the assets in question, especially their long ranges, mobility, and possibility of use on short notice, make the traditional territorial limitations on conventional forces inapplicable or, at best, only partially applicable:

  • Under some scenarios, even limited use of long-range precision-guided conventional weapons can have significant political and security implications; hence simple numerical limits used by the CFE cannot have the same effect (100 tanks do not make much difference, but 100 delivery vehicles with precision-guided weapons might). Moreover, precise accounting of items following New START rules cannot be used either: the physical dimensions of the items in question are small (making intrusive verification difficult) and coincide with the dimensions of weapons that do not have precision guidance;
  • Many assets in question have long ranges (in particular air- and sea-launched cruise missiles) or can be quickly moved from one region to another (from Siberia to the European part of Russia or from the United States to Europe, for example) using aircraft, ships, or submarines. As a result, the zone approach used in the CFE Treaty will have very limited application; even Europe as a whole (from the Atlantic to the Urals) will not encompass all relevant items. Worse still, naval weapons (including submarine-launched cruise missiles) are not subject to the CFE and there is no mechanism for including them into a CFE-type regime (in fact, mobility was one of the US arguments to exempt naval weapons from the scope of the treaty).
  • Defense assets (whether air or missile defense) are not subject to any limitations. Moreover, there is little chance that the United States or NATO will be prepared to accept such limits. Yet, these assets, if used in conjunction with offensive conventional weapons, can be seen as a factor that enhances military capability, both for deterrence and as a political lever. Baltic states might be especially sensitive to a combination of offensive and defensive assets on the Russian side.

The Path Ahead

One possible way forward might be to build a new system of arms control measures around the principles of the Vienna Document, namely, to emphasize transparency and notifications about movement of weapon systems; these measures could help enhance predictability of the overall security landscape. The provisions of this document will require expansion to new areas and systems, including notifications about movement of relevant weapons systems on both sides, their general characteristics, an estimate of time it might take to move them to Europe or its vicinity (and hence determine the timing for advance notifications); a set of confidence-building measures, including an obligation to refrain from large-scale movement; notifications about military exercises that involve relocation and/or concentration of these weapons, etc. Similar measures could be applied to defensive systems. While numerical limits are not advisable, it might make sense to consider exchange of technical data and notifications (maybe even some loose limits) on the concentration of these assets in particular areas, inclusion of these systems into notifications about large-scale military exercises, etc.

As noted above, it would be best to begin considering these and other arms control measures now—before Russia acquires a modern conventional capability and adversely affects the security situation in Europe and relations within NATO. The lack of applicable approaches and rules from past arms control negotiations will make devising a new toolbox a challenging and lengthy process. Without doubt, preemptive arms control is politically challenging—the domestic political process in the United States is bound to become a major obstacle to such an exercise. Consequently, it might be best for the expert community to start considering options, both within NATO (especially in Europe) and with Russia, in the form of track-two dialogue. Options developed (or at least discussed) within that format could, at a later stage, be used by policy makers and negotiators when the time is ripe for action.

Nikolai N. Sokov is a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. The information and ideas in this article were first presented at the “Future of Arms Control” conference in Berlin in September.

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