New Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Forces 2015

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian nuclear weapons have received a lot of attention lately. Russian officials casually throw around direct or thinly veiled nuclear threats (here, here and here). And U.S. defense hawks rail (here and here) about a Russian nuclear buildup.

In reality, rather than building up, Russia is building down but appears to be working to level off the force within the next decade to prevent further unilateral reduction of its strategic nuclear force in the future. For details, see the latest FAS Nuclear Notebook on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web site.

This trend makes it more important for the United States and Russia to reach additional nuclear arms control agreements to reduce strategic nuclear forces. Hard to imagine in the current climate, but remember: even at the height of the Cold War the two sides reached important arms limitation agreements because it was seen then (as it is now) to be in their national security interest.  Continue reading

New START Treaty Count: Russia Dips Below US Again

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian deployed strategic warheads counted by the New START Treaty once again slipped below the U.S. force level, according to the latest fact sheet released by the State Department.

The so-called aggregate numbers show that Russia as of March 1, 2015 deployed 1,582 warheads on 515 strategic launchers.

The U.S. count was 1,597 warheads on 785 launchers.

Back in September 2014, the Russian warhead count for the first time in the treaty’s history moved above the U.S. warhead count. The event caused U.S. defense hawks to say it showed Russia was increasing it nuclear arsenal and blamed the Obama administration. Russian news media gloated Russia had achieved “parity” with the United States for the first time.

Of course, none of that was true. The ups and downs in the aggregate data counts are fluctuations caused by launchers moving in an out of overhaul and new types being deployed while old types are being retired. The fact is that both Russia and the United States are slowly – very slowly – reducing their deployed forces to meet the treaty limits by February 2018.  Continue reading

The INF Crisis: Bad Press and Nuclear Saber Rattling

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian online news paper Vzglaid is carrying a story that wrongly claims that I have said a Russian flight-test of an INF missile would not be a violation of the INF Treaty as long as the missile is not in production or put into service.

That is of course wrong. I have not made such a statement, not least because it would be wrong. On the contrary, a test-launch of an INF missile would indeed be a violation of the INF Treaty, regardless of whether the missile is in production or deployed.

Meanwhile, US defense secretary Ashton Carter appears to confirm that the ground-launched cruise missile Russia allegedly test-launched in violation of the INF Treaty is a nuclear missile and threatens further escalation if it is deployed. Continue reading

Rumors About Nuclear Weapons in Crimea

The news media and private web sites are full of rumors that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to Crimea after it invaded the region earlier this year. Many of these rumors are dubious and overly alarmist and ignore that a nuclear-capable weapon is not the same as a nuclear warhead.

Several U.S. lawmakers who oppose nuclear arms control use the Crimean deployment to argue against further reductions of nuclear weapons. NATO’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, has confirmed that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” are being moved to the Crimean Peninsula, but also acknowledged that NATO doesn’t know if nuclear warheads are actually in place.

Recently Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said that NATO was “transferring aircraft capable of carrying nuclear arms to the Baltic states,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded that Russia has the right to deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on its territory, including in newly annexed Crimea.

Whether intended or not, non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the new East-West crisis.  Continue reading

Polish F-16s In NATO Nuclear Exercise In Italy

By Hans M. Kristensen

NATO is currently conducting a nuclear strike exercise in northern Italy.

The exercise, known as Steadfast Noon 2014, practices employment of U.S. nuclear bombs deployed in Europe and includes aircraft from seven NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and United States.

The timing of the exercise, which is held at the Ghedi Torre Air base in northern Italy, coincides with East-West relations having reached the lowest level in two decades and in danger of deteriorating further.

It is believed to be the first time that Poland has participated with F-16s in a NATO nuclear strike exercise.

Coinciding with the Steadfast Noon exercise, NATO is also conducting a Strike Evaluation (STRIKEVAL) nuclear certification inspection at Ghedi.

A nuclear security exercise was conducted at Ghedi Torre AB in January 2014, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of U.S. nuclear weapons deployment at the base.

Steadfast Noon/STRIKEVAL is the second nuclear weapons strike exercise in Italy in two years, following Steadfast Noon held at Aviano AB in 2013.

Italy hosts 70 of the 180 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.  Continue reading

New START: Russia and the United States Increase Deployed Nuclear Arsenals

By Hans M. Kristensen

Three and a half years after the New START Treaty entered into force in February 2011, many would probably expect that the United States and Russia had decisively reduced their deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, the latest aggregate treaty data shows that the two nuclear superpowers both increased their deployed nuclear forces compared with March 2014 when the previous count was made.

Russia has increased its deployed weapons the most: by 131 warheads on 23 additional launchers. Russia, who went below the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in 2013, is now back above the limit by 93 warheads. And Russia is now counted – get this – as having more strategic warheads deployed than when the treaty first went into force in February 2011!

Before arms control opponents in Congress get their banners out, however, it is important to remind that these changes do not reflect a build-up the Russian nuclear arsenal. The increase results from the deployment of new missiles and fluctuations caused by existing launchers moving in and out of overhaul. Hundreds of Russian missiles will be retired over the next decade. The size of the Russian arsenals will most likely continue to decrease over the next decade.

Nonetheless, the data is disappointing for both nuclear superpowers – almost embarrassing – because it shows that neither has made substantial reductions in its deployed nuclear arsenal since the New START Treaty entered into force in 2011.

The meager performance is risky in the run-up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in April 2015 where the United States and Russia – together with China, Britain, and France – must demonstrate their progress toward nuclear disarmament to ensure the support of the other countries that have signed the NPT in strengthening the non-proliferation treaty regime.  Continue reading

Russia Declared In Violation Of INF Treaty: New Cruise Missile May Be Deploying

A GLCM is launched from an Iskander-K launcher at Kapustin Yar in 2007.
A Russian GLCM is launched from an Iskander-K launcher at Kapustin Yar in 2007.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States yesterday publicly accused Russia of violating the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The accusation was made in the State Department’s 2014 Compliance Report, which states:

“The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”

The Russian violation of the INF is, if true, a very serious matter and Russia must immediately restore its compliance with the Treaty in a transparent and verifiable manner.

Rumors about a violation have swirled around Washington (and elsewhere) for a long time. Apparently, the GLCM was first launched in 2007 (see image to the left), so why the long wait?

The official accusation it is likely to stir up calls for the United States to abandon the INF Treaty and other arms control efforts. Doing so would be a serious mistake that would undercut benefits from existing and possible future agreements. Instead the United States should continue to adhere to the treaty, work with the international community to restore Russian compliance, and pursue additional measures to reduce nuclear dangers worldwide.  Continue reading

Nuclear Exercises Amidst Ukrainian Crisis: Time For Cooler Heads

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A Russian Tu-95MS long-range bomber drops an AS-15 Kent nuclear-capable cruise missiles from its bomb bay on May 8th. Six AS-15s were dropped from the bomb bay that day as part of a Russian nuclear strike exercise.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Less than a week after Russia carried out a nuclear strike exercise, the United States has begun its own annual nuclear strike exercise.

The exercises conducted by the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states come in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, as NATO and Russia appear to slide back down into a tit-for-tat posturing not seen since the Cold War.

Military posturing in Russia and NATO threaten to worsen the crisis and return Europe to an “us-and-them” adversarial relationship.

One good thing: the crisis so far has demonstrated the uselessness of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.  Continue reading

Russian ICBM Force Modernization: Arms Control Please!

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Click image for larger version.

By Hans M. Kristensen

In our Nuclear Notebook on Russian nuclear forces from March this year, Robert S. Norris and I described the significant upgrade that’s underway in Russia’s force of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Over the next decade, all Soviet-era ICBMs will be retired and replaced with a smaller force consisting of mainly five variants of one missile: the SS-27.

After more than a decade-and-a-half of introduction, the number of SS-27s now makes up a third of the ICBM force. By 2016, SS-27s will make up more than half of the force, and by 2024 all the Soviet-era ICBMs will be gone.

The new force will be smaller and carry fewer nuclear warheads than the old, but a greater portion of the remaining warheads will be on missiles carried on mobile launchers.

The big unknowns are just how many SS-27s Russia plans to produce and deploy, and how many new (RS-26 and Sarmat “heavy”) ICBMs will be introduced. Without the new systems or increased production of the old, Russia’s ICBM force would probably level out just below 250 missiles by 2024. In comparison, the U.S. Air Force plans to retain 400 ICBMs.

This disparity and the existence of a large U.S. reserve of extra warheads that can be “uploaded” onto deployed missiles to increase the arsenal if necessary drive top-heavy ICBM planning in the Russian military which seeks to maximize the number of warheads on each missile to compensate for the disparity and keep some degree of overall parity with the United States.

This dilemma suggests the importance of reaching a new agreement to reduce the number deployed strategic warheads and missiles. A reduction of “up to one-third” of the current force, as recently endorsed by the new U.S. nuclear employment strategy, would be a win for both Russia and the United States. It would allow both countries to trim excess nuclear capacity and save billions of dollars in the process.  Continue reading

Nuclear Modernization Briefings at the NPT Conference in New York

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Last week I was in New York to brief two panels at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (phew).

The first panel was on “Current Status of Rebuilding and Modernizing the United States Warheads and Nuclear Weapons Complex,” an NGO side event organized on May 1st by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). While describing the U.S. programs, I got permission from the organizers to cover the modernization programs of all the nuclear-armed states. Quite a mouthful but it puts the U.S. efforts better in context and shows that nuclear weapon modernization is global challenge for the NPT.

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The second panel was on “The Future of the B61: Perspectives From the United States and Europe.” This GNO side event was organized by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation on May 2nd. In my briefing I focused on providing factual information about the status and details of the B61 life-extension program, which more than a simple life-extension will produce the first guided, standoff nuclear bomb in the U.S. inventory, and significantly enhance NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe.

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The two NGO side events were two of dozens organized by NGOs, in addition to the more official side events organized by governments and international organizations.

The 2014 PREPCOM is also the event where the United States last week disclosed that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile has only shrunk by 309 warheads since 2009, far less than what many people had anticipated given Barack Obama’s speeches about “dramatic” and “bold” reductions and promises to “put an end to Cold War thinking.”

Yet in disclosing the size and history of its nuclear weapons stockpile and how many nuclear warheads have been dismantled each year, the United States has done something that no other nuclear-armed state has ever done, but all of them should do. Without such transparency, modernizations create mistrust, rumors, exaggerations, and worst-case planning that fuel larger-than-necessary defense spending and undermine everyone’s security.

For the 185 non-nuclear weapon states that have signed on to the NPT and renounced nuclear weapons in return of the promise made by the five nuclear-weapons states party to the treaty (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at early date and to nuclear disarmament,” endless modernization of the nuclear forces by those same five nuclear weapons-states obviously calls into question their intension to fulfill the promise they made 45 years ago. Some of the nuclear modernizations underway are officially described as intended to operate into the 2080s – further into the future than the NPT and the nuclear era have lasted so far.

Download two briefings listed above: briefing 1 | briefing 2

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.