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Russia Tests Missile That Could Evade U.S. Defense

Times Staff Writer

After two days of high-profile military exercises, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Wednesday that Russia had successfully tested a new strategic missile system, a development that analysts said could allow nuclear warheads to avoid U.S. defenses.

Putin, who is seeking reelection next month, did not identify the system, which he said would allow “deep maneuvering” of Russia’s long-range missiles.

Russian and U.S. military analysts said his cryptic description could mean that Russia has developed a “maneuverable reentry vehicle” -- a technology under development for decades that could provide a rudimentary guidance system for intercontinental missiles and render them difficult or impossible to destroy.

“Not a single country in the world has such a weapons system at the moment,” Putin said, adding that the new “powerful means of warfare” would be deployed with the Strategic Rocket Forces “in the near future.”

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The Cold War ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but Putin’s announcement at the conclusion of Russia’s biggest nuclear exercise in 20 years is a signal that Russia is prepared to commit billions of dollars to continue an arms race with the U.S.

“This illustrates that the U.S. and Russia both continue to develop ever more modern and deadly ballistic missile systems, and the Cold War continues, despite the friendly words from Putin and despite the so-called arms-reduction treaty which they agreed to last year,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn., an arms control advocacy group in Washington.

The Pentagon downplayed the announcement, saying that regardless of any successful test of new missile guidance technology, Russia has long had the capability to defeat the $30.2-billion antimissile defense program to be deployed in the U.S. this year, if only through the size of its ballistic missile inventory.

But former Assistant Defense Secretary Phil Coyle, now a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said that if the Russians had developed a maneuverable warhead, “I think it would be very alarming to the Pentagon, because this would represent a kind of threat against which no missile defense system would be effective.”

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Putin’s announcement followed a frustrating day during which an RSM-54 ballistic missile, launched from a submarine in the Barents Sea, suddenly veered off course 98 seconds after launch and self-destructed.

There were widespread reports a day earlier that submarine crews had tried and failed to launch two RSM-54s while Putin was aboard a nearby submarine, in a widely televised preelection demonstration of his role as commander of the armed forces.

Russian naval officials said the earlier launches were not failures, but were intended all along as simulations.

Several successful launches buttressed Putin’s announcement of the new system. The military ended the exercise with the launch of a Topol RS-12M missile from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, an RS-18 missile from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and a military satellite.

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Russian officials refused to define the new system tested during the launches, except to say it was a supersonic missile capable of “deep maneuvering, both in altitude and course.”

Analysts said Russia has looked at equipping its state-of-the-art Topol missile with multiple warheads, an option that would greatly reduce the weapon’s vulnerability to the U.S. missile defense system, which is designed to attack one warhead at a time.

Not long after President Bush pulled out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue the new defense program -- now under preliminary construction in Alaska -- Russian military leaders announced they no longer felt bound by previous agreements that prohibited missiles with multiple warheads.

But several Russian military analysts said Moscow probably had tested a long-range missile with guidance capability -- the equivalent of a space cruise missile.

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“The president is talking about an intercontinental missile which is capable of aerodynamic maneuvering in space or in the atmosphere, meaning ... a hybrid between a ballistic missile and a cruise missile,” said Alexei G. Arbatov, former deputy chief of the parliament’s defense committee and now a security specialist at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Alexander Golts, defense analyst for the journal Yezhenedelny, said Putin probably has in mind a missile that could change its trajectory once separated from its rocket.

Current ballistic missiles are fired through the upper atmosphere and follow a fixed and predictable trajectory back down. The U.S. defense system is designed to deploy a field of interceptors in Alaska and California that would fly into space to meet and destroy such a missile.

“But if they had maneuvering reentry vehicles and were able to veer around the sky as they came down, that would be especially daunting for a missile defense system,” Coyle said.

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Putin’s announcement may have been intended to toughen Russia’s image for a domestic audience, because as Coyle said, “Even without the development Putin has just announced, the Russians already know they can overwhelm our missile defense system as soon as it’s built.”

U.S. officials have long acknowledged that the system would not defend against Russian or Chinese technology.

“The threat is really the countries like North Korea that are developing long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction that could be carried by the missiles. This is the primary threat that this missile system is designed to deal with,” said a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Putin declined to characterize the testing as a return to the arms race. “I can say that the perfection of the kinds of weapons we have and the development of the new weapons systems are not aimed against the United States,” he said.

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But Putin noted that U.S. officials “have themselves been actively developing their weapons.”

“We were told that these actions were not directed against the Russian Federation, and ... it’s true that the level and character of our relations confirms what our American partners told us,” Putin said.

At the same time, he said, “we reserve the right to modernize our armed forces in the interest of ensuring the security of our own country.”

Times staff writers Esther Schrader in Washington and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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