Nader Elhefnawy has a B.A. in International Relations from Florida International University, where he is currently pursuing graduate studies and teaching.
In June 1999, Russia staged an exercise which posited a NATO attack on Kaliningrad. Russian forces proved incapable of defending the enclave with conventional arms, and a faltering Russian defense was rescued by counterattacks with nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles against targets in Poland and the United States. 1 The Russians coined a new term for the type of operation undertaken by the strategic bombers involved in that exercise, de-escalation.
De-escalation involves the use of a limited nuclear attack to demonstrate Russia’s seriousness about a certain type of action on the pan of an enemy (defined as large-scale aggression against Russia or its allies), and to raise the cost of attack for the aggressor. The idea underlying it is not to break its ability to fight by destroying its military capability, but to make the other side blink, and terminate its assault, thus de-escalating the crisis.
As risky as such a course of action is, the widespread belief is that such threats are more credible than the saber-rattling which accompanied earlier Russian protests over NATO expansion, NATO’s military intervention in the Balkans and American policy towards Iraq. For instance, might the United States be so quick to launch air strikes against Iraq if an implicit threat of limited nuclear attack hung over its aircraft carriers, or airfields? Might Saudi Arabia or Bahrain permit the launching of air strikes from its territory under such circumstances?
While one may hope that such questions will remain solely the stuff of technothrillers, the Russian military has since repeated the exercise. Perhaps in connection with those exercises, Russia has also repeatedly tested Western air defenses, beginning with several incidents in which Russian bombers approached Icelandic, Norwegian and Alaskan airspace. To date, Russian deescalation exercises have focused on the launch of stand-off missiles from bombers, but bombers are not the only weapons platform for Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Russia still possesses land- and sea-based weapons, and while these are in storage, the informal 1991 agreement that keeps Russia from deploying these (as opposed to air-launched weapons) is non-binding. Consequently, should Russian policymakers continue to believe that deploying tactical nuclear weapons will offset a perceived threat from the West, Russian submarines may share the deescalation mission with Russia’s air force.
Russia’s Post-Cold War Submarine Force: An Overview
Russia’s navy has traditionally been a submarine navy, like the navy of the other great twentieth century land power which challenged the principal sea power of its day, Germany. While the Soviet Union built up superpower-sized blue-water surface and naval air capabilities during the Cold War, the Russian navy usually had more submarines than surface ships, and today considers its nuclear-powered, missile-firing attack submarines its first line naval force. Consequently, while Russia has been relatively quick to abandon its aircraft carrier construction program, it has continued to invest heavily in its submarine program, pressing ahead with the development of its fourth-generation submarines.
Nonetheless, Russia’s naval power has shrunk greatly in the past ten years, surface and submarine units being slashed by about eighty percent. Much of it was outdated equipment that would have had to be sloughed off as a necessary part of creating the kind of leaner, meaner fleet that would allow it to remain significant as a naval power, but advanced ships and submarines are also being lost to a lack of maintenance. The result is that the Russian submarine force had shrunk from 323 submarines in 1991 to 73 in 2000, and has been projected to come down to 53 in 2010. Despite the high- profile, large-scale exercises the navy has routinely staged since the mid-1990s, and the priority that the submarine force has been accorded generally, aging equipment, shortages of manpower and funds, and the inadequacy of the existing basing and supporting facilities cast further doubts on the combat-readiness of those units that remain operational.
The missions that the Russian Navy has been assigned are to protect the country’s coastline and exclusive economic zone; to protect Russian access to the sea, and Russian shipping; and to resolve conflicts on the sea in Russia’s favor. In order for the Russian Navy to fulfill these missions, it would require twice as many units as it now has, even assuming that they are equal in training and technological sophistication to western boats, which is not the case. 2 Instead, the Russian Navy is spread so thin that it is even outmatched in the Baltic Sea by Sweden, and in the Black Sea by the Turkish Navy.
Nor is this fact likely to change any time soon, since to paraphrase naval analyst Joshua Handler, Russia simply will not be able to build and operate a superpower-caliber navy on a Third World country’s economic base. In practical terms, the Russian submarine fleet may be preserved as an institutional, industrial and technological core around which the country may rebuild its fleet in better times, as a coastal defense force, as a component in its strategic nuclear deterrent, and perhaps in the belief that an outnumbered, rusting navy is better than no navy at all. Nevertheless, a militarily effective Russian navy would be even better, and Russia’s naval planners have looked to tactical nuclear weapons as a way of improving Russia’s seaborne military capability.
The Return of Tactical Nuclear Weapons to Sea
For several years the Russian Navy has requested permission to deploy tactical nuclear weapons aboard its surface ships and submarines again, and may have already received it. The nuclear weapons that are supposed to have been moved into Kaliningrad in January 2001 were specifically being moved to a naval storage depot. Norwegian television reported in April 2001 that the KURSK had been carrying tactical nuclear missiles . While the Russian government denied this report as well, Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgengauer claims that this would almost certainly have been the case, as the submarine had been headed to the Mediterranean for exercises.
Moreover, Russian naval bombers have staged tests of the air defenses around American carriers in much the same way that the Air Force’s strategic bombers approached Icelandic airspace in June 1999. In October and November 1999, a pair of Sukhoi-34s buzzed American aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan. While explicit references have not been made to them in such a context in the available literature, this suggests that the Russian Navy is also grappling with the issue of de-escalation operations.
It also suggests that warships may be targets for de-escalation operations, and evaluated from a military and political standpoint, they may in fact be more attractive than targets on land. A ship may be more vulnerable from a military standpoint than a target on land, and an attack on it would be easier to deny. If plausible deniability is seen as a virtue in a de-escalation operation, and it may be since the purpose is to send a signal without provoking retaliation, then sinking a ship would be preferable to an attack on a national homeland. Sinking a ship would be cost-effective, a way of maximizing the effect of a small nuclear explosion. Additionally, because de-escalation does not require that the weapons involved be directed at targets in the particular region where the crisis is being played out, Russia may attack the American targets closest to hand, and these could be naval vessels.
This being the rationale, a submarine would be superior to a bomber in conducting such an attack, and not only because Russia no longer has enough bombers to overwhelm modem warships with massed missile attacks. A submarine not only carries a heavier weapons load than a bomber, but is also capable of sneaking closer to its target than any existing Russian bomber in order to launch its weapons, whether nuclear-armed torpedoes or missiles. (In fact, the maritime environment may be one where de-escalation missions can be conducted even with conventional weapons, as by sinking a warship with conventionally-armed missiles and torpedoes.) That combination of superior stealth and payload would also make Russian submarines superior to aircraft at executing de-escalation missions with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles against land targets.
All told, Russia still had thirty-eight nuclear-powered submarines in 2000, all of which were capable of firing cruise missiles. Because of Russia’s lengthy littoral, giving it coasts along the Arctic, Baltic and Black Seas, and the Pacific Ocean, most of the areas where it operates are well within the range of its twenty-two diesel-powered submarines as well. This gives Russia a total force of some sixty nuclear attack and diesel submarines, and even assuming the fleet’s projected deterioration, two-thirds of it will remain in 2010.
Consequently, while Russia’s submarine force may not be adequate to challenge even regional competitors like Turkey, it is strong enough in numbers for the sort of mission described here. De-escalation operations are also Jess demanding from the point of view of training than sustained submarine combat against an enemy’s surface or submarine forces. Just as the Russian air force may only be able to effectively defend Russia against large-scale aggression through de-escalation, the assignment of the de-escalation mission to Russia’s submarine force may, unfortunately, be the only way in which that branch of its military can defend the country’s maritime interests.
What is truly surprising and disconcerting about this is not that these ideas are new, but that they are old. Weapons of mass destruction like nuclear weapons are asymmetrical weapons, most commonly used by the weak to offset the greater power of the strong, which is how Russia views its security situation. De-escalation appears to be a revival of the Russian doctrine of selectively employing nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
Rather than representing innovation, de-escalation represents a reversion to habits of thought and action that were supposed to have ended in 1991 , after which, to quote George Kennan, open war between Russia and the West was supposed to have become improbable and unforeseeable. The reality is that Western relations with Russia have been far more bumpy than most Americans realize, and even if such a conflict is unforeseeable, the danger of an accident or miscalculation is considerable.
Relations between NA TO and Russia have admittedly improved in recent months, but the fundamental problem of Russia’s anxiety about the West, the reason Russia perceives a need to deploy its tactical nuclear weapons, remains. Consequently, improving American relations with Russia (to ensure that war does remain improbable and unforeseeable) and more generally countering the proliferation of tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons, must remain priorities for the United States even after the end of the war on terror.
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