Russia focuses on upgrading its nuclear arsenals

MOSCOW (AP) — Modernization of Russia's strategic nuclear forces is a top priority for the government, a senior Cabinet official said Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that upgrading ground, sea and air components of the nation's strategic forces is costly but necessary.

"It's expensive, it's very expensive, but there is no other way," Ivanov told lawmakers in the lower house of parliament. "We will develop and modernize our strategic deterrent forces."

The Kremlin has welcomed Washington's stated intention to intensify arms control talks to negotiate a successor to the pivotal 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expires in December. But at the same time, Russian officials continue to emphasize the need for modernization of Russian nuclear forces.

Ivanov said last fall that the government budgeted 1.3 trillion rubles ($36 billion) for weapons purchases this year. The exact figures for spending on each category of weapons, including nuclear forces, were not released.

The military's modernization efforts have gone slowly, despite Kremlin pledges to revive the nation's power and global prestige during what had been eight years of economic growth. The Russian military's weaknesses, such as shortages of precision weapons and modern communications, were spotlighted during its August war with Georgia.

Ivanov told lawmakers Wednesday that other priorities for the military include upgrading the nation's satellite network, modernizing the military's information networks and procuring "smart" weapons.

He said the most important program for the air force is the development of a next-generation fighter jet. Officials said that the new jet is to make a maiden flight this year.

The navy should focus on smaller ships, no bigger than frigates or corvettes, Ivanov said. The statement apparently indicated that authorities have ditched the plans for building new aircraft carriers that they discussed before the current financial crisis set in, draining government coffers.

Ivanov said the spending on new weapons planned for this year will not be cut, despite the financial crisis. He pledged that the government will help provide loans to Russian defense enterprises which have suffered from a severe money crunch.

Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russian Technologies state holding company that includes top arms manufacturers, pushed for more support from the state. He warned that about one-third of enterprises in the holding are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Even before the crisis, officials said defense industries were in desperate condition because of old equipment and aging personnel.

Chemezov said Wednesday that about 80 percent of equipment in Russia's weapons plants is outdated and the average age of their workers is over 50.

"We are nearing an end of safety and survivability margin for the military-industrial complex," Chemezov told lawmakers.

Experts said that a steady decline of Russian arms industries has swelled production costs and eroded quality, jeopardizing government hopes to boost arms sales. Last year, Algeria returned 15 MiG-29 fighter jets it bought from Russia, complaining of their poor quality.

Some experts said that substandard parts were also the main reason behind a series of test failures of Russia's prospective Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile.

The missile, intended to equip Russia's nuclear submarines, has failed in five out of 10 of its test launches, making its deployment prospects uncertain. A new test is tentatively scheduled for March, Russian news reports said.

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