Duncan Lennox, editor of "Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems," explains the significance of that -- in simpler terms.
"A MIRV in itself simply means a multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle," Lennox says. "Which just means that six warheads -- or whatever there are on the missile -- go to six separate targets on the ground. "
Essentially, the addition of multiple, guidable warheads can make a single missile a much more dangerous weapon than would be the case if the missile had just one.
And by placing multiple warheads on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), nuclear powers can extend that added firepower across the globe.
MIRVs also increase strategic planners' ability to defeat missile-defense systems by overwhelming them, explains RFE/RL Communications Director Don Jensen, who participated in antimissile negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1980s.
"The easiest and most simple way to defeat an ABM system is to simply to send in more warheads than an ABM [antiballistic-missile] system has interceptors," Jensen says. "And that's cheaper than virtually anything else."
MIRV-equipped missiles can also provide an element of trickery.
This is because some of the vehicles carried by the missile would carry nuclear weapons programmed to hit individual targets. But some of these vehicles would also serve as decoys intended purely to attract interceptor missiles. That gives the nuclear-equipped vehicles a greater chance of surviving to reach their target.
Jensen tells how a missile-defense system might be undermined.
"It will read one of the decoys as an actual threat, an actual attack, and the antimissile system may well attack the decoy rather than an actual weapon," Jensen says. "So decoys are a way of tricking and confusing a defender."
The START II arms-reduction treaty, signed by Russia and the United States in 1993, was intended in part to reduce the number of MIRVs by banning their placement on land-based missiles.
However, START II never came into force. Russia withdrew from the treaty in response to the United States' withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002.
The same year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to a new treaty, dubbed the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT). Under that treaty, the two sides agreed to limit their numbers of deployed strategic warheads to 1,700-2,200 each over 10 years.
Had START II come into force, the last of Russia's MIRVs would have been destroyed in December -- and replaced with single-warhead missiles.
But Jane's editor Lennox says that while START II was attempting to address MIRVs, it didn't do so very effectively.
Lennox adds that at any rate the treaty was overtaken by events as the two sides were more concerned with reducing their number of missiles in order to reduce costs.
In the end, the United States, while decommissioning its MIRV-equipped Peacemaker missiles, retained or added MIRV-capability to others.
Lennox says the two sides basically decided eliminating MIRVs "wasn't a sensible way to go."
"The Americans, if you remember, have added warheads to the Minuteman III's. They were going to download them to one each, but they now decided to put one, two, and three in their Minuteman III's to reduce the numbers of missiles that are required," Lennox says. "And it's logical that the Russians would follow in a not totally identical fashion, but in a similar way."
So is Russia's announcement of a new MIRV missile a political statement, or is it merely an example of Russia trying to update its strategic-missile force?
Lennox believes the answer to both of those questions is "yes."
After all, he says, a new missile development by Russia has been expected for some time.
And seeing that much of the country's current fleet of ICBMs is approaching the end of its life, having more multiple warheads means it won't need so many missiles.
A Russian soldier watching Russian armaments leave Georgia in 2006 (epa)
AGREEMENTS ON CONVENTIONAL FORCES IN EUROPE. The CFE treaty is an arms-control agreement originally negotiated between NATO and the Warsaw Pact as a guarantor of European security in Europe in the waning days of the Cold War.
- The original CFE Treaty took 10 years to negotiate, was signed by 30 states ** in November 1990, and came in to force in 1992. Its aim: to reduce stockpiles of conventional armaments between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural mountains.
The blocs limited themselves to:
20,000 artillery pieces
30,000 armored combat vehicles
6,800 combat aircraft
2,000 attack helicopters
- The CFE-1A, a 1992 addendum, has resulted in the withdrawal of more than 700,000 troops from Europe since 2001 and the destruction of 50,000 pieces of military equipment by 1995.
- The CFE-II, negotiated in Istanbul in 1999, reflected the new, post-Soviet landscape by setting arms limits for individual countries, rather than zones. The agreement aided NATO's expansion efforts by allowing signatory states to allow foreign forces on their soil.
- NATO states have not ratified the CFE-II due to concerns over Russia's failure to comply with commitments it made during the negotiations. Under the Istanbul Accords, Russia pledged to set a timetable for closing its remaining military bases in Georgia and to completely withdraw its forces from Moldova.
- The CFE-II will come into force once ratified by all 30 CFE signatories. Thus far only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine have ratified the CFE-II.
- In ratifying the agreement in June 2004, Russia called on the signatories not to delay in ratifying the document. Russia expressed concern that Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, as nonmembers of the treaty, could possibly harbor NATO troops near its western border.
(** Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovak Republic, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.