Russia's defense minister on Wednesday laid out an ambitious plan for building new intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and possibly aircraft carriers, and set the goal of exceeding the Soviet army in combat readiness.
Sergei Ivanov's statements appeared aimed at raising his profile at home ahead of next year's election in which he is widely seen as a potential contender to succeed President Vladimir Putin. But they also seemed to reflect a growing chill in Russian-US relations and the Kremlin's concern about US missile defense plans.
Ivanov told parliament that the military would get 17 new ballistic missiles this year -- a drastic increase over the average of four deployed annually in recent years. The purchases are part of a weapons modernization program for this year to 2015 worth about 5 trillion rubles (US$190 billion).
The plan envisages the deployment of 34 new silo-based Topol-M missiles and control units, as well as another 50 such missiles mounted on mobile launchers by 2015 -- Russia so far has deployed more than 40 silo-based Topol-Ms.
Putin and other officials have described the Topol-M as a bulwark of Russia's nuclear might for years to come, and said it can penetrate any prospective missile defenses. Last week, Putin dismissed US claims that missile defense sites it hopes to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic were intended to counter threats from Iran, and said Russia would respond by developing more efficient weapons systems.
In 2002, Putin and US President George W. Bush signed a treaty obliging both sides to cut their strategic nuclear weapons by about two-thirds by 2012, down to 1,700 to 2,200 missiles. But Russian-US ties have worsened steadily since then over disagreements on Iraq and other global crises, and US concerns about an increasingly authoritarian streak in Russia's domestic policy.
"The Russian leadership believes that a nuclear parity with the United States is vitally important because it allows it to conduct an equal dialogue on other issues," said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst.
A rising tide of oil revenues has enabled Russia to boost defense spending following a squeeze in the 1990s.
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