Moscow sends nuke-armed tactical subs to sea in breach of US-Russian agreement

A US Tomahawk missile fired from a submarine.
US Navy

Publish date: September 20, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia awoke last week to find that it was again engaged – at least in part – in a new Cold War. The message blithely came from the lips of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who - during a visit with President Vladimir Putin to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad - off-handedly remarked that three tactical, or non-strategic, submarines are now at sea with nuclear missiles on board.

Ivanov said these vessels took part in exercises with five strategic submarines, also carrying nuclear warheads, for a total of eight nuclear-armed submarines. The submarines are based both in Russia’s Northern and Pacific fleets.

This announcement – the implications of which have gone largely unnoticed – confirms that the Russian Navy now has more nuclear-armed submarines at sea than it has in more than a decade, Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Bellona Web in a telephone interview.

“In the 90s, Russia would have from one to three submarines with nuclear warheads aboard on patrol at sea,” he said. “Having eight at sea is an opportunity for Ivanov to boast of a return to Soviet military might.”

Ivanov’s statements also represent a direct abrogation of a 1991 agreement between former US President George Bush, Sr., and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to ban non-strategic nuclear weapons aboard naval vessels and to decommission a third of them. The agreement also foresaw the removal of a number of land-based nuclear weapons. Former President Boris Yeltsin extended this agreement when he took office.

Analysts and US Naval intelligence officials told Bellona Web, however, that Russia had never really complied with the agreement in the first place, which has long been an open secret to the US Military. Washington has taken Ivanov’s show of force with a grain of salt, all but ignoring Moscow’s unilateral shredding of the agreement.

Meanwhile, Ivanov also informed Putin in their widely broadcast Kaliningrad meeting that the Delta class submarine K-84 had successfully test fired a Sineva-type ballistic missile from the area of the North Pole, the first such test since in 11 years. The firing took place simultaneously with an identical test from a submarine in the Pacific Fleet, the Russian weekly Novaya Gazeta reported.

What is Moscow trying to say?

In televised remarks, Putin publicly thanked Ivanov and his staff warmly, suggesting to observers that the violation of the 1991 arms agreement was intentional and carried out with the president’s full prior knowledge.

The tests, say military analysts, were a clear salvo from Moscow to the West that Russia is intent on maintaining intercontinental nuclear strike capabilities in the event of a nuclear war.

Moscow’s central message in this fray of nuclear activity and missile tests, said Felgenhauer, was to show a “restoration of Russian might,” and that the country is free to make or break nuclear arms agreements as it sees fit.

“This is an internal and external message that Russia should be taken seriously – that it is a nuclear power and that it is a player.”

A spokesman with the Russian Naval Command in Moscow told Bellona Web that the tests carried that intention. He added that within weeks, Russian military brass would be taking a more robust nuclear stance against the United States by updating their military doctrine to “to meet the US nuclear threat.”

Indeed, Russian and US relations have been deteriorating the recent past, from Putin’s jibes at President George Bush, Jr. at the most recent G-8 summit to diplomatic clashes over Moscow’s involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme, which many western poliicians and experts consider to be Tehran’s push for the bomb.

‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’

But US Naval intelligence officials interviewed by Bellona Web brushed off the notion that Ivanov was doing anything new or threatening. “We have known that patrolling non-strategic subs have carried nuclear weapons for a long time – in many cases they never took the nuclear weapons off” said one official on the condition of anonymity.

“Ivanov is just acknowledging what we already know – it’s coming straight from the horse’s mouth.”

He said he “sincerely doubted” that the United States government would raise any immediate objections to the breach of the 1991 agreement because Russia never really complied with it in the first place.

“It may come up as leverage in certain diplomatic circles, or be used against Moscow if mutual frustrations escalate, but neither the Navy nor the Pentagon are taking these as a serious military threat,” the official said.

Felgenhauer added that the US Department of Defense already has enough on its plate in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea without adding Russia’s breach of the 1991 agreement to the over-boiling stew. A significant number of US non-strategic subs are currently committed to patrolling the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil supply is shipped in tankers. Non, according to the US Navy official, are carrying nuclear weapons.

Felgenhauer speculated that “some one or two US non-strategic subs patrolling other area” are equipped with nuclear warheads, but the US Navy would not confirm this.

The 1991 agreement is deeply flawed in any case, said Felgenhauer. Because of Russia’s lack of compliance in keeping nuclear weapons off non-strategic vessels, the United States has pushed for the Russian Navy to withdraw them from service altogether – something Russia has refused. This points up the central difficulty with the accord:

“The whole thing was just a good faith agreement between two presidents. It was never formal in any way and never provided for any verifications that the agreement’s stipulations were being met,” Felgenhauer said.

Weapons systems snafus leave nukes on subs
According to Felgenhauer, the design of weapons systems aboard Russia’s non-stratgic – as well as strategic – subs make it impossible not to carry nuclear warheads, something that was not taken into consideration by Bush, Sr. and Gorbachev.

“There is a wide array of nuclear weapons systems aboard Russian nuclear submarines, but they are incompatible with carrying non-nuclear weapons because the warhead is an integral part of the weapons control systems,” he said.

When the United States entered into the agreement, it installed Tomahawk missiles that had had their nuclear warheads replaced with less volatile explosives. The Russian equivalent of the Tomahawk missile, the Grenat, is according to Felgenhauer, not as easy to convert as the Tomahawk.

“Retooling the missiles is extremely precarious, as is on- and off-loading them,” he said. Another justification for keeping the nuclear warheads aboard the subs, said Felgenhauer, is so Russian sub crews can keep nimble for nuclear strikes by performing drills with the real thing.

Meanwhile, noted Felgenhauer and the US Naval official, Russia is spending lots of money to keep itself on a hair trigger nuclear attack footing with its nuclear subs, while the US is not.

“It looks like we have the beginning of a one-sided Cold War,” said Felgenhauer.