Strategic Priorities & the Breakdown of Law and Order in Russia

January 7, 1999

Comment: #220

Discussion Thread:  #s 216, 218, 219


[1] Walter Pincus, "Naval Chief Backs Cut In Force of Trident Subs: 14 Would Suffice, Admiral Tells Senate," Washington Post, January 7, 1999; Page A23

[2] Sharon LaFraniere, "A Hotbed of Crime in Cold Siberia: In Gang-Run Coal Land, Authorities Take Cover," Washington Post, January 7, 1999; Page A16.

In Reference #1, Walter Pincus reports that Adm J. L. Johnson, the Chief of Naval Operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would like to reduce the number of Trident Submarines from 18 to 14 in order to spend money on higher priority programs. This is not unreasonable given the fact the Cold War is over and Russia's forces are shrinking and their material conditions are deteriorating in parallel with the social and economic collapse now spreading rapidly across that country. There was a period last year, Pincus also reports, that the Russian navy was unable to keep any ballistic missile submarines on alert at sea for a period of time last year.

Adm Johnson cannot reduce his Trident force, because Congress has banned unilateral further force reductions until the Russian Duma ratifies the START II arms reduction plan. But the Duma is tied up trying to save its tenuous experiment with democracy, its economic problems, the political succession question, and the myriad of other problems threatening to split the country into a chaotic mess of competing ethnic and criminal power centers. Clearly, arms control is moving into a new era.

Before the hearing, Senator Warner, the new chairman, gave us a hint of things to come. Pinkus reports that Warner said it might be time to shift priorities and divert money from strategic offense to strategic defense. Defense against what? No doubt, Warner was making an oblique reference to the vision of a growing missile threat to the US homeland from countries like North Korea and Iran.

As we saw in Comment #216, strategic defense of the US homeland against terrorists or rogue states has more to do with interdicting a "poor man's nuc" than intercepting a limited ballistic missile attack. Moreover, as we saw in Reference #1 to Comment #216], the likelihood of developing an effective missile defense system is remote, to say the least.

In Reference #2 to this message, we see yet another warning indicator of the threat posed by the breakdown of law and order in Russia. Sharon LaFraniere describes how organized crime is taking over coal mining operations. While this story has nothing to do with nuclear diversion per se, it is not hard to imagine how similar criminal organizations would be well enough organized and motivated to diversify into the lucrative business of smuggling plutonium or enriched uranium to rogue nations, terrorists, or perhaps set up their own operation to increase their control in Russia.

I agree with Senator Warner that it is time to shift priorities in the strategic mission area. Rather than shift priorities to missile defense systems will not work against threats that do not exist, wouldn't it nice if Congress focused its attention and priorities on meaningful responses to strategic threats that do exist.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Global and Strategic