Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons

New low-yield nuclear warheads for cruise missiles on Russia’s submarines?.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Two recent news reports have drawn the attention to Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. Earlier this week, RIA Novosti quoted Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, deputy head of the Russian Navy General Staff, saying that the role of tactical nuclear weapons on submarines “will play a key role in the future,” that their range and precision are gradually increasing, and that Russia “can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles” with high-yield warheads.

This morning an editorial in the New York Times advocated withdrawing the “200 to 300” U.S. tactical nuclear bombs deployed in Europe “to make it much easier to challenge Russia to reduce its stockpile of at least 3,000 short-range weapons.”

Both reports compel – each in their own way – the Obama administration to address the issue of tactical nuclear weapons.

The Russian Inventory

Like the United States, Russia doesn’t say much about the status of its tactical nuclear weapons. The little we have to go by is based on what the Soviet Union used to have and how much Russian officials have said they have cut since then.

Unofficial estimates set the Soviet inventory of tactical nuclear weapons at roughly 15,000 in mid-1991. In response to unilateral cuts announced by the United States in late 1991 and early 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged in 1992 that production of warheads for ground-launched tactical missiles, artillery shells, and mines had stopped and that all such warheads would be eliminated. He also pledged that Russia would dispose of half of all airborne and surface-to-air warheads, as well as one-third of all naval warheads.

In 2004, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “more than 50 percent” of these warhead types have been “liquidated.” And in September 2007, Defense Ministry official Colonel-General Vladimir Verkhovtsev gave a status report of these reductions that appeared to go beyond President Yeltsin’s pledge.

Based on this, Robert Norris and I make the following cautious estimate (to be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in late April) of the current Russian inventory of tactical nuclear weapons:

Estimate from forthcoming Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Based on the number of available nuclear-capable delivery platforms, we estimate that nearly two-thirds of these warheads are in reserve or awaiting dismantlement. The remaining approximately 2,080 warheads are operational for delivery by anti-ballistic missiles, air-defence missiles, tactical aircraft, and naval cruise missiles, depth bombs, and torpedoes. The Navy’s tactical nuclear weapons are not deployed at sea under normal circumstances but stored on land.

The Other Nuclear Powers

The United States retains a small inventory of perhaps 500 active tactical nuclear weapons. This includes an estimated 400 bombs (including 200 in Europe) and 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles (all on land). Others, perhaps 700, are in inactive storage.

France also has 60 tactical-range cruise missiles, including some on its aircraft carrier, although it calls them strategic weapons.

The United Kingdom has completely eliminated its tactical nuclear weapons, although it said until a couple of years ago that some of its strategic Trident missiles had a “sub-strategic” mission.

Information about possible Chinese tactical nuclear weapons is vague and contradictory, but might include some gravity bombs.

India, Pakistan, and Israel have some nuclear weapons that could be considered tactical (gravity bombs for fighter-bombers and, in the case of India and Pakistan, short-range ballistic missiles), but all are normally considered strategic.

Russian Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile Launch
A nuclear-capable SS-N-19 Shipwreck cruise missile is launched from a Kirov-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser. The ship is equipped with 20 launchers for the SS-N-19 missile, which can carry a 500-kiloton warhead. Other tactical nuclear weapon systems include the SS-N-16 anti-submarine rocket, and the SA-N-6 anti-air missile.

Implications and Issues

Whether Vice Admiral Burtsev’s statement is more than boasting remains to be seen, but it is a timely reminder to the Obama administration of the need to develop a plan for how to tackle the tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia’s nuclear posture is now approaching a situation where there are more tactical nuclear weapons in the inventory than strategic weapons. And NATO’s remnant of the Cold War tactical nuclear posture in Europe seems stuck in the mud of nuclear dogma and bureaucratic inaction.

None of these tactical nuclear weapons are limited or monitored by any arms control agreements, and – for all the worries about terrorists stealing nuclear weapons – are the most easy to run away with.

In April, NATO is widely expected to kick off a (long-overdue) review of its Strategic Concept from 1999. It would be a mistake to leave the initiative on what to do with the tactical nuclear weapons to the NATO bureaucrats. The vision must come from the top and President Obama needs to articulate what it is soon.

5 thoughts on “Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons

  1. It is doubtful that Russia or any other nation will ever fully eliminate tactical nuclear weapons. Lately there has been much talk about a “nuclear-free world” from Barack Obama. That’s a great concept, but that’s as far as it goes. There will never be a nuclear-free world: even if the United States foolishly cuts or eliminates its own nuclear weapons, Russia and China will not. Eliminating our own nuclear weapons to show other nations our goodwill would be a fatal mistake (probably literally). Of all the five declared nuclear powers, the United States is the only one not modernizing or expanding its arsenal.

    Reply: Whether or not a nuclear-free world will ever be achieved obviously depends on whether one wants to get there, but the statement that the United States is the only declared nuclear weapon states that is not modernizing or expanding its nuclear arsenal is not correct or at least depends on what you mean. First, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom are also reducing their arsenals. Second, the U.S. it is modernizing its missiles and bombers. If by “modernizing” you mean building new nuclear warhead designs not currently in the stockpile, then you’re correct, but the U.S. is currently building new plutonium cores for its W88 (and later other) warheads, and modernizing its W76 warheads as part of a life-extension program that is adding new features. HK

  2. Pls tell me the diff betn Strategic and Tactical Nukes. Isnt it a good thing that Strategic nukes will play a lesser role?
    Also if Russian convert SSBN to SSGN it means russia is very confident of its Subs or afraid that USA is deploying Stealth tools like F22 and JSAM missiles. Either way this is pressure tactic.

  3. Armando, tactical nukes are the ones that would be deployed at the FEBA (forward edge of batle area). The strategic nukes would be the ones deployed in the ICBM silos and the SLBM boomers on all equipped navies.

    The purpose of converting an SLBM to an SSGN was done for the purpose of evading the ballistic missile numbers. Ballistic missiles are defined as leaving and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. Instead of the US boomers carrying 24 SLBM’s, they could carry over 100 cruise missiles.

    If memory serves me right, the US was the firs nuke nation to transform the SSBN into an SSGN.

    Reply: Actually, the Soviet Union converted a Yankee SSBN into a cruise missile platform called Yankee Notch. Unlike the U.S. SSGNs, the Soviet boat carried nuclear cruise missiles. HK

  4. We undoubtedly need more restrictions on Russian Nuclear Weapons. A 50% cut is not enough. Russia is plagued with criminal organizations. Former generals will sell any explosives, small arms, artillery, and communications gear to the highest bidder. What makes you think nuclear devices would be any different? Russia is currently so corrupt that you cannot own a legitimate business without paying protection money to some mafia-like organization. Nuclear weapons in the country need above adequate protection and security. Misha Glenny, a reporter and expert in European affairs, has written extensively on these and more subjects in his book, “McMafia”. I urge everyone to check it out, it’s an eye opener.

  5. Armando,

    Definitions on what constitutes tactical missile vary. I have found this publication to provide useful and clear classification:

    Arms Control Association, U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance, August 2012,

    Tactical, theater, non-strategic and other labels usually refer to short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (which have the potential to fly less than 5,500 km).

    Here is an abstract from the paper:

    Ballistic Missile Basics

    Ballistic missiles are powered by rockets initially but then follow an unpowered, parabolic trajectory toward the target. They are classified by the maximum distance that they can travel, which is a function of how powerful the missile’s engines (rockets) are and the weight of the missile’s warhead. To add more distance to a missile’s range, rockets are stacked on top of each other in a configuration referred to as staging. There are four general classifications of ballistic missiles:

    Short-range ballistic missiles, traveling less than 1,000 kilometers (approximately 620 miles)

    Medium-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 1,000–3,000 kilometers (approximately 620-1,860 miles)

    Intermediate-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 3,000–5,500 kilometers (approximately 1,860-3,410 miles)

    Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), traveling more than 5,500 kilometers (approximately 3,410 miles)

    Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are referred to as “theater” ballistic missiles, whereas ICBMs or long-range ballistic missiles are described as “strategic” ballistic missiles. The now-discarded ABM Treaty prohibited the development of large-scale, nationwide strategic defenses, but permitted development of theater missile defenses, as well as single-site strategic defenses.

    Ballistic missiles have three stages of flight:

    The boost phase begins at launch and lasts until the rocket engines stop firing and pushing the missile away from Earth. Depending on the missile, this stage lasts between three and five minutes. During much of this time, the missile is traveling relatively slowly, although toward the end of this stage an ICBM can reach speeds of more than 24,000 kilometers per hour. Most of this phase takes place in the atmosphere (endoatmospheric).

    The midcourse phase begins after the rockets finish firing and the missile is on a ballistic course toward its target. This is the longest stage of a missile’s flight, lasting up to 20 minutes for ICBMs. During the early part of the midcourse stage, the missile is still ascending toward its apogee, while during the latter part it is descending toward Earth. During this stage the missile’s warhead(s), as well as any decoys, separate from the delivery platform, or “bus.” This phase takes place in space (exoatmospheric).

    The terminal phase begins when the missile’s warhead re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere (endoatmospheric), and it continues until impact or detonation. This stage takes less than a minute for a strategic warhead, which can be traveling at speeds greater than 3,200 kilometers per hour.

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