Russia’s Nuclear “Reset”


by Richard Weitz

In their latest annual assessment of Russia’s nuclear forces, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris estimate that the Russian Federation has more than 4,400 nuclear warheads. Of these, they calculate that some 2,430 warheads are assigned to various strategic delivery vehicles (1,490 on 434 ICBMs, and 950 are on strategic submarines and heavy bombers), while an additional 2,000 are tactical warheads for use on non-strategic delivery systems employed by Russian tactical missiles, bombers, warships, and missile defense units. They further believe that Russia has some 5,500 “retired” warheads awaiting dismantlement.

Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) are slowly replacing their land-based ICBM force of Soviet-era missiles with a more modern fleet. The SS-27 Topol-M (which has a single warhead and can be either stationed in a hardened silo launcher or placed on a mobile launching platform) and the RS-24 “Yars” (which has multiple independently targetable warheads and can also be mobile) are replacing three Soviet-era ICBMs, the RS-20V (NATO code named SS-18 “Satan”) , RS-18 UR-100NUTTH (SS-19 “Stiletto”), and RS-12M Topol (SS-25 “Sickle”).

Last year, the SMF equipped its first full regiment with RS-24 Yars ICBMs. The entire Teykovo Missile Division near Saratov in southwestern Russia will have Yars by the end of this year. Two more missile divisions will begin receiving RS-24a in 2012. The 39th Guards Missile Division at Novosibirsk division will acquire the mobile version, while the 28th Guards Missile Division at Kozelsk will obtain a new silo-based version of the Yars.

In his February 20 Rossiiskaya Gazeta article on revitalizing the Russian military,

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin boasts that, “We have secured the reliability and sufficiency of our land-, sea- and air-based components of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces.” He adds that, The share of modern land-based missile systems has grown from 13% to 25% over the last four years.”

That same month, SMF Commander Lt. Gen. Sergei Karakayev said that Russia aimed to raise the proportion of “modern” weaponry in its arsenal from around 30 percent today to 60 percent by 2016 and to 97percent by 2020. By that year, the SMF are supposed to have more than 170 Topol-M (mobile and silo-based) as well as 30 SS-19 and 108 RS-24 ICBMs in nine divisions.

RS-24 Yars Missile Launch. Credit Photo:

What the term “modern” means in these statements and writings is often unclear. It could mean “post-Soviet,” which would exclude the SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25 ICBMs. But the SMF also says that the Topol-M and Yars will account for 80 (not 60) percent of Russia’s ICBM fleet by 2016. The denominator (60 or 80 percent of what) is also not given.

In any case, it is unlikely that Russia’s struggling defense industry will be able to build new ICBMs as fast as the SMF will be forced to retire its old missiles. Many of these are already operating well beyond their original life expectancy. Kristensen and Norris estimate that, by the early 2020s, Russia’s ICBM fleet could decrease to as few as 250 missiles.

Russia is trying to compensate by increasing the number of warheads it places on each land-based ICBM. In December 2011, Karakayev said that Russia would deploy a new silo-launched heavy liquid-fueled missile, with enhanced BMD penetration ability, that could each carry perhaps a dozen warheads. This new 100-ton ICBM would replace the SS-18 (Satan) ICBMs, which carry as many as ten warheads. Although more difficult to maintain and operate, heavy liquid-fueled ICBMs can carry more warheads and penetration aids than their solid-fuel equivalents, which have less throw weight.

This development would be unwelcome from the perspective of strategic stability since Russia would have a strong incentive to launch these heavy missiles in a crisis rather than risk losing such a concentrated target of warheads to a feared U.S. first strike. A more secure posture would be to have one warhead per missile, which reduces the value of attacking first with any ICBM.

Another means Russia is seeking to compensate for the smaller size of its ICBM fleet is to strengthen the other two legs of its strategic nuclear triad. The Russian government has already devoted vast resources to revitalizing the sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent, focusing attention on researching, designing, and developing Russia’s next (fourth) generation Project Mk 955 Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile launching submarines (SSBN) and its new RSM-56 Bulava (NATO code name SS-NX-30) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The Bulava SLBM, developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, represents one of the few major Russian weapons systems developed since the Soviet Union’s collapse. It is probably also the most expensive military research and development program in the history of the Russian Federation. Estimates are that the Borey-Bulava combination has absorbed as much as 40 percent of Russia’s defense budget in recent years. This high spending reflects its priority for the Russian leadership. Former Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov has said that the Bulava-equipped Boreis would constitute “the chief combat nucleus of Russia’s nuclear forces” in the coming decades.

In January 2012, First Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Sukhorukov announced that the Ministry of Defense (MOD) had signed a contract for the production of the Bulava through 2020. The Bulava (Russian: Булава; “mace” in English) is designed to carry 10 maneuverable and independently targeted (MIRVed) nuclear warheads, with a destructive power of some 100-150 kilotons each, a maximum range of some 8,000 kilometers. On paper, the Bulava’s advanced missile defense countermeasures, solid-fuel propellant, small size, light weight, rapid speed, maneuverability, and other capabilities make it a superior deterrent to anything in Russia’s existing SLBM arsenal.

It has only been in the last year that the Bulava has performed sufficiently well in testing that Russian leaders have become sufficiently confident to commit to its near-term deployment. The Bulava completed two successful test launches on December 23, 2011, leading the MOD to announce the formal end of its test launching program. But the Bulava’s terrible test record resulted in its remaining a paper system for many years beyond 2006, its originally scheduled date for entering into service. About half of the missile’s 19 test launches failed, sometimes spectacularly. The repeated setbacks embarrassed the Russian defense industry at a time when the Russian government was trying to reestablish Moscow’s claims to great power status.

Each Project 955 will have a 130-member crew and will carry 16 Bulava SLBMs and six SS-N-15 cruise missiles. The first Project 955 Borey-class SSBN, the Yuri Dolgoruky, is supposed to enter service later this year. It was under construction at the Sevmash shipyard from 1996 to 2008, and has since been undergoing sea trials. The second Project 955 SSBN, the Aleksandr Nevsky, is supposed to enter service by the end of this year. The third Project 955 class submarine, Vladimir Monomakh, is currently under construction and expected to join the fleet next year. It is the first Project 955 submarine designed from the beginning for that class—the Yuri Dolgoruky and the Aleksandr Nevsky incorporated parts from two incomplete Project 971 attack submarines. The remaining vessels are Project 955A rather than Project 955, designed to carry 20 Bulava SLBMs rather than 16 missiles.

The MOD wants to build eight Borei-class SSBNs by 2018, with one new vessel commissioned every year until that date. These new strategic submarines are desperately needed to replace the current fleet of six Delta IVs and three Delta IIIs. (One of the Delta IVs had a fire in December 2011 that likely put it out of commission for at least a few years.) These Soviet-era vessels have been renewed with new SLBMs and other components, but are well past their intended service lives. For example, the Delta-IV-class (Project 667BDRM Delfin) submarines are getting new “Liner” SLBMs, an upgraded version of their R-29RM Sineva missiles that can now carry up to ten of the new Russian nuclear warheads developed for Bulava and RS-24 Yars. These warheads supposedly have enhanced BMD penetration characteristics. Only a few Russian SSBN are available for deployment at any one time; the remaining vessels are either undergoing maintenance, modernization, or in training.

On February 3, 2012, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, declared that the Russia’s SSBNs would resume regular deterrent patrols on or shortly after July 1, when the Yuri Dolgoruky is scheduled to enter into service. This change in deployment posture would mean that at least one Russian strategic submarine would be at-sea at any time. For the past decade, Russian SSBN patrols have occurred intermittently, with lengthy gaps in coverage. Whereas during the Cold War the Soviet Navy would conduct a couple hundred deterrent patrols a year, last year the Russian Navy accomplished only five deterrent patrols.

The renewed strategic patrols suggests that the Russian Navy has enough trained sailors to field ten complete (or almost complete) crews, since the standard Russian (and U.S. Navy) practice is to train one crew while the other is on patrol. Russian submarine crews consist of only long-term professional sailors and technicians; they do not use conscripts given the time needed to train crew members to operate the sophisticated equipment as well as meet the demanding safety requirements of nuclear –armed and nuclear-propelled vessels. The long-term voluntary service together also builds moral and cohesion among crew members.

In addition to its SSBN-SLBM combinations, the Russian Navy also retains a large number of tactical nuclear weapons for possible use on non-strategic delivery systems (e.g., anti-ship torpedoes) against NATO members, several of whose navies have numerical superiority over the Russian combat fleet.

It looks like Russia’s traditionally neglected strategic aviation will now receive greater attention. It was only in August 2007 that Russia’s strategic bombers resumed their regular long-range patrols. These training sorties have involved some 60 turboprop Tu-95 Bear heavy strategic bombers and a dozen swing-wing jet Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack medium-range bombers, accompanied by refueling and other planes, simulating stand-off nuclear strikes with their long-range (2,000-mile) Kh-55 cruise (AS-15 NATO code-name) missiles.

According to current plans, Russia’s strategic aviation modernization program will upgrade the targeting and navigation systems of the existing fleet of Blackjack and Bear strategic bombers, which were designed and produced during the Soviet era, so that they can operate effectively for at least another decade, until New START expires.

In his February 2012 defense reform article, Putin writes that, “We have commissioned a new long-range air-to-surface cruise missile for our strategic bombers.” The MOD signed a research and development contract with the Tupolev Design Bureau in 2009 to develop a new long-range stealth strategic bomber by 2030. According to the commander of the Long-Range Aviation, Major-General Anatoly Zhikharev, a flying prototype of this перспективного авиационного комплекса дальней авиации (PAK DA, or “Advanced Aviation Complex for the Long-Range Aviation”) should be available in 2020. He says the Air Force would like it to have new targeting, navigation, communications, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare systems as well as the capacity to employ many weapons systems and with low radar visibility.

In his February article, Putin also mysteriously writes that, “We have started developing a promising aviation system for the Long-Range Aviation Command.”

What is the purpose of all these weapons? Last month, General Nikolay Makarov, head of the Russian General Staff, told Ekho Moskvy radio station that Russia was prepared to employ nuclear weapons to counter “a threat to the integrity of the Russian Federation.” He insisted that Russia would invest “up to the last kopek” to modernize “our nuclear potential.”   Putin also has said that, since Russia’s non-nuclear forces lag behind those of several potential competitors, Russia would retain a powerful nuclear deterrent until its conventional forces had the same capabilities.

These are not just empty statements. The Russian Armed Forces have resumed conducting large-scale military exercises that rehearse nuclear strikes against NATO targets. For example, the Stability-2008, Zapad 2009, and Vostok 2010 operational-strategic exercises all saw Russian forces using simulated nuclear weapons in a conflict.