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Space buffs have focused their attention lately on galaxy cluster structure and its implications for cosmology, Cygnus X-1, dark matter controversies and observations that suggest a tight link between galaxy formation and the supermassive black holes that lurk at the centre of galaxies. Now all the attention is on the last flight of the Space Shuttle and New Scientist has a fascinating little discussionon Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle that flew only once. New Scientist carried an interview with a former cosmonaut

As the US shuttle faces its last mission, we asked veteran cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, who has spent 359 days on the International Space Station in two missions, what happened to Buran – and how it may have improved on the US design…

The interview is focused on the relative safety merits of the Soviet Space Shuttle launch package, but I couldn’t help but think of the first question and Kotov’s answer to it

New Scientist: After the cold war, why didn’t Russia maintain its shuttle programme?

Oleg Kotov: We had no civilian tasks for Buran and the military ones were no longer needed. It was originally designed as a military system for weapon delivery, maybe even nuclear weapons. The American shuttle also has military uses.

The idea was to drop weapons from orbit?

Yes, absolutely. A shuttle is particularly useful for this because it can change its orbit and trajectory – so an attack from it is almost impossible to protect against. But the need for such military applications ended…

Kotov states here that Buran was purely for military purposes. In his book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous legacy David Hoffman related some of the schemes that were hatched up in the Soviet military-industrial complex for space weapons, partly in response to Reagan’s “Star Wars” or SDI. One envisaged project went by the name of “Skif”. Hoffman writes (page 215)

The goal of Skif, started in 1976, was to carry a laser in space that could shoot down enemy satellites. The original idea was to build nothing less than a space battle station. It would be hoisted into orbit by the Energia, an enormous booster then under development, and perhaps serviced by the Buran, the planned Soviet space shuttle…

Probably this is what Kotov was driving at. The Buran was quickly mothballed, as was “Skif,” but one Soviet response to SDI remains namely the Topol class ICBMs. My understanding is that the first silo based MIRVed RS-24 ICBMs have been recently formally inaugurated into the Strategic Rocket Forces.

The GSN carried the following report this week about Russian military modernisation

Russia plans to acquire eight ballistic-missile submarines as part of a $730 billion armaments upgrade plan extending through 2020, Voice of America reported on Wednesday (see GSN, April 21).

The procurements declared by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which are also expected to include 600 flight assets and S-400 and S-500 air defenses, would boost Moscow’s military holdings of up-to-date armaments to 70 percent of the total stockpile by the end of the effort…

The Russians aren’t the only ones into strategic modernisation as Press and Lieber discuss at Foreign Affairs

But even as the administration cuts the force and talks about a world free of nuclear weapons, it has proposed a major multi-year campaign to replace aging weapons and modernize the U.S. arsenal. The plan calls for a new class of nuclear submarines, new nuclear-capable bomber and fighter aircraft, and updated nuclear bombs, warheads, and missiles. The price tag for this nuclear overhaul is estimated at $185 billion over the coming decade, but the actual cost will no doubt be higher…

For those who think that warhead modernisation has got nothing to do with nuclear strategy, that the debate just simply revolves around stockpile stewardship, I strongly recommend reading Press and Lieber.

I agree with their analysis. I agree with it on a descriptive level, though certainly would disagree with it on the prescriptive level.

All these proposals are welcome since they help ensure that the U.S. nuclear force remains usable — which is the foundation of a credible deterrent…

What they mean is that the US nuclear force should remain usable in contingencies that involve the global projection of US military firepower. To deter a first strike on the US homeland I doubt whether you need anything more than a deliverable Fat Man.

Just an aside; I’d like to see an analysis of strategic modernisation that looks at the issue holistically rather than just focusing on one state. The conclusions reached could be significant ones for those who study global strategic affairs to think about.

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