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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Split on Command Merger




Russia's top military commanders remain divided over whether to create a joint command for its nuclear forces as a committee of generals readies its report to President Boris Yeltsin on the issue, officials and experts say.


The merger is the pet idea of Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and would expand the power of the Strategic Rocket Forces - which he used to head. But the navy and the air force don't want to lose control of their nuclear weapons to the new command.


"At the navy command, we still have a lot of questions about feasibility of such a command," a senior naval officer said in a telephone interview this week.


The officer, who asked not to be named, said his superiors at the navy's central command do not "fully" agree with the idea of a joint command.


Sergeyev and Yeltsin say a combined command would strengthen Russia's nuclear deterrent at a time when conventional forces and readiness have deteriorated due to lack of money.


Sergeyev has repeatedly argued that a joint command would boost the efficiency of strategic nuclear forces as well as allow cuts in administrative costs, which may be even more important for a country struggling to fund its nuclear arsenal, one of the few attributes of a great power still left to Russia.


A special Defense Ministry commission is to report to Yeltsin between May 15 and May 30, an officer with the Russian air force's central command said in a phone interview earlier this week.


A source close to the commission said in a phone interview on May 5 that it has already "come very close to the conclusion" that Sergeyev's idea should be approved.


The proposal would unite the Strategic Rocket Forces, the air force, navy and the Defense Ministry's 12th Main Directorate under a joint command. The 12th Main Directorate oversees procurement, maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Russia has some 7,000 strategic warheads.


Sergeyev's plan has encountered serious, although not public, opposition in the General Staff, which presently coordinates Russia's strategic nuclear forces in the navy, air force and Strategic Rocket Forces. There is also opposition in the navy and air force, which operate atomic submarines and strategic bombers carrying nuclear missiles, according to Ivan Sofranchuk of the Moscow-based Center for Policy Studies.


It was this opposition that prompted Yeltsin late last year to order Sergeyev to set up a commission rather than approve his idea immediately, Sofranchuk said in a phone interview earlier this week.


Opponents of the plan argue that it would make it difficult to coordinate operations with conventional forces. The navy's argument is that rearranging the command structure would make it difficult to coordinate operations of the missile subs under the nuclear command with the navy's other vessels.


Yury Lebedev of the Moscow-based RAU Corp. research institute said that the combined command would most clash with the general staff, which is in overall charge of the armed forces.


To avoid that, such a command should be set up within the General Staff, said Sofranchuk of the Center for Policy Studies said.


Sergeyev, who headed these forces before being named defense minister in 1997, "wants to have as much money spent on his force as possible out of the military budget," Sofranchuk said. "The interests of the Motherland do not really count here."