Interview by Sergei Balashov and Andrei Zolotov, Jr.
Scientific Director of the All-Russian Experimental Physics Research Institute, Academician Radiy Ilkaev, is widely perceived as Russia’s top nuclear physicist. Having headed the country’s prime nuclear research center for 12 years, before taking on his current role, he has overseen one of the most important periods in the history of the institution, as it underwent major transformations while adjusting to a rapidly changing environment. Ilkaev shared his view with Russia Profile on the purpose of nuclear weapons, the development of Russia’s nuclear industry and the recent geopolitical trends that affect it.
R.P. How relevant are nuclear weapons today? Would it make sense to invest more money in general purpose armed forces instead?
R.I.: Nuclear weapons have always played a key role in the defense of the country. General purpose forces were severely weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union, so the role of nuclear technology has increased disproportionately since that time. The Soviet army numbered around 7 million, but now it is down to about a million. These are incommensurable numbers, when compared to those of NATO members and other strong developing nations. If we want to ensure that nobody ever attacks us and never tests our general purpose forces, which have a limited capacity, then it is essential for us to have weapons of deterrence. Like any strong state, we must have weapons with which we can lead a regular local or regional war, but there can be no full defense without nuclear weapons. Having scientists, experts and the state care about nuclear weapons is a priority of the highest magnitude.
R.P. How would you rate the current state of Russia’s nuclear forces?
R.I.: I can clearly say that the nuclear forces of the Russian Federation are wholly preserved and are in absolute order. I believe that there is no question as to their battle preparedness and combat efficiency. The state efficiently, successfully, and skillfully provides all the necessary support. The country’s highest-ranking officials fully realize the key role that nuclear weapons play in the military effectiveness of the country. You can say that this is a common public viewpoint: today, any person understands that the country’s defenses would not be whole without nuclear weapons.
R.P. Are nuclear payloads being modernized?
R.I.: Today, everything necessary is being done to strengthen their security and reliability, and to improve their use in accordance with the plans approved by the state, the government, the Ministry of Defense, and the Russian Atomic Agency. This is not a stagnant complex, but rather one that is evolving and living a very dynamic life. New missile systems are also appearing, such as the Topol, which has been successfully added to our arsenal.
R.P. What tendencies can you note in the area of ammunition development?
R.I.: The most important factors for nuclear ammunition are security, reliability, and accuracy. I would especially point out accuracy. If you increase this characteristic twofold, then the effectiveness of your weapon increases to the third degree, in this case eight times over. This allows us to make more intellectual, cleverer ammunition. The implementation of the latest technological achievements allows us to make the tested payload more effective and more formidable.
R.P. According to some reports, the United States is developing a lightweight nuclear weapon, suitable for use in the field. Does Russia have any similar developments?
R.I.: Questions about whether or not to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons are in the hands of the highest authorities, that is, those of the commander in chief. In my personal opinion, the relevance of this decision is determined by some rather specific circumstances. Our military may develop a need for a tactical payload of a certain magnitude, in the course of an analysis and review of the country’s capabilities in certain aspects of warfare. If there is such a situation, then the required nuclear weapon will be developed in the shortest time possible. We have such an opportunity because we have retained all necessary personnel and technology, and a number of the technologies have been advanced significantly. We are prepared to respond to any challenge and to develop weapons that will ensure our military advantage in any conflict.
R.P. By what means were you able to preserve the staffing potential in such difficult times for the country?
R.I.: Of course, the situation was very grave, but we always told our specialists that these were temporary difficulties. As professionals and patriots, we had to continue the work under the circumstances at hand. On the other hand, we utilized all mechanisms of support for the scientists, including international cooperation, contracts, and a sufficiently large difference in wages. For key professionals, we tried to maintain an acceptable salary level, which took a lot of effort. The result has been positive—we have not actually lost any meaningful specialists, and we preserved the technologies, which are passed down hand to hand. In the early nineties, we had a much reduced influx of young people, which was in part caused by the fact that society and the state did not fully understand the role of the work that we were conducting. But those days are over, and we have long ago switched from the process of survival to the process of sustainable development.
R.P. When did the turning point occur?
R.I.: The situation varied in different sectors at different times. Before Perestroika, we accepted 185 young professionals a year, and over the past six years we have accepted 250 annually. In the early 1990s, it became clear that unless we take action, sooner or later, the future of the institute will be challenged. We adopted a work program with the younger generation, entered into contracts with more than 15 universities around the country, and created departments in the Sarov Physics and Technology University. All of this has allowed us to reverse this situation. The aging of the Institute was halted. Now, about 30 percent of our employees are younger than 33 years old—this is a good, normal situation, and we are maintaining it.
R.P. What is the average salary at the institute today?
R.I.: It varies greatly—one for scientists, another one for workers. Despite the fact that 2007 was a difficult year, we managed to raise the average salary by 18 percent, and this year we want to raise it by no less than 31 percent. We are watching how the country and the region are developing. We have the opportunity to attract young professionals, but it is already evident that unless we solve the housing problem for them, then we will have difficulties. We have an affordable housing program which last year concluded the construction of three residential buildings. The price of housing is constantly growing, so we need to maintain a high level of compensation, so that the youth have an opportunity to participate in this program.
R.P. Recently, more countries are declaring their nuclear status. Will it be hard to maintain the regiment of nuclear non-proliferation?
R.I.: When we say that there are new countries with nuclear weapons, we must understand that the nuclear potential of these states is very low. Moreover, they most likely have very primitive devices, which cannot pose a threat to our country. We must understand very clearly that this matter is not a military one but rather political, and when a country announces that it is in possession of nuclear weapons, the intention can be understood as “do not touch me—I am a nuclear power.”
R.P. In what areas do you maintain international cooperation?
R.I.: We have scientific relations with virtually all nuclear laboratories worldwide. We are collaborating with three nuclear laboratories in the United States—Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sunday [Sandia?]. We have close ties with the commissary for nuclear energy, and its military branch, which is responsible for nuclear weapons in France. We have a scientific connection with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics and with our counterparts from Great Britain. Together with the Americans, we are holding joint experiments in high density and particle energy physics, insofar as they do not deal with secret information and address topics on which we openly publish in scientific journals. Without this strong scientific foundation, we cannot keep the very high level of all the scientific and technical issues of Russia’s nuclear arsenal maintenance. Our overseas colleagues are world leaders in many areas. They have the most powerful computers and the most powerful nuclear facilities, so, of course, we are very interested in maintaining relations and seeing how they address these challenges. I believe that for a scientist to work in isolation is both unacceptable and impossible.
R.P. Are any of your developments used for peaceful purposes?
R.I.: From the very outset, we created several civilian units. Several hundred of our employees work for Gazprom. One of our shops makes drills for drilling wells and for retrieving oil from hard to access wells. We have a small diamond processing factory, and now we have begun to create a technology park within five kilometers of Sarov—the only Military Industrial Complex technology park in the country. Presently, there are already 15 companies operating there. We believe that the technology park should enable us to commercialize civilian technology. After some time and with some goodwill, we will achieve a breakthrough that is critical for all the “closed cities.”
R.P. Will the “closed” status of Sarov be revisited?
R.I.: This will be determined by the development of our state. If issues surrounding security, protection of materials, and protection of technologies are resolved, then sooner or later, access to the residential part of the city will be increasingly easy and liberal, which is essential for the city’s development. Anything that must be protected will always be protected very strictly, with the use of the most modern scientific and technological means available.
R.P. What are the prospects for the country’s nuclear forces for the next 20 years?
R.I.: Nuclear weapons, both now and in 20 years, will play a vital role. We have all the advanced technologies, so it is meaningless to abandon this very powerful deterrent. If you start to shift to non-nuclear precision weapons, you have to calculate what borders we have and in how many different directions we need to deter possible aggressors—this brings exorbitant expenses. In my opinion, strategic nuclear weapons are the best kind of protection for Russia.