By Hans M. Kristensen
In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Norris and I take the pulse on Russia’s nuclear arsenal, reviewing its strategic modernization programs and the status of its non-strategic nuclear forces.
Despite what you might read in the news media and on various web sites, the Russian modernization is not a “buildup” but a transition from Soviet-era nuclear weapons to newer and more reliable types on a less-than-one-for-one basis.
As a result, the Russian nuclear arsenal will likely continue to decline over the next decade – with or without a new arms control agreement. But the trend is that the rate of decline is slowing and Russian strategic nuclear forces may be leveling out around 500 launchers with some 2,400 warheads.
Because Russia has several hundred strategic launchers fewer than the United States, the Russian modernization program emphasizes deployment of multiple warheads on ballistic missiles to compensate for the disparity and maintain rough parity in overall warhead numbers. Before 2010, no Russian mobile launcher carried multiple warheads; by 2022, nearly all will.
As a result, Russia currently has more nuclear warheads deployed on its strategic missiles than the United States. But not by many and Russia is expected to meet the limit set by the New START treaty by 2018.
Russia to some extent also uses its non-strategic nuclear weapons to keep up. But non-strategic nuclear forces have unique roles that appear to be intended to compensate for Russia’s inferior conventional forces, which – despite important modernization such as long-range conventional missiles – are predominantly made up of Soviet-era equipment or upgraded Soviet-era equipment.
Russia’s non-strategic nuclear forces are currently the subject of much interest in NATO because of concern that Russian military strategy has been lowering the threshold for when nuclear weapons could potentially be used. Russia has also been increasing operations and exercises with nuclear-capable forces, a trend that can also be seen in NATO and U.S. military posturing.
The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.