New satellite imagery shows that preparations to deploy Russia’s new RS-28 Sarmat (SS-29) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) are well underway.
However, the imagery also indicates that President Putin’s claims of deployment “in the near future” may be too optimistic. It is potentially possible that one or two missiles could be deployed early, but major construction is still ongoing at many of the silos in the first regiment and has not yet begun at all of them, and the completion of construction at all eventual Sarmat regiments may be over a decade away.
The Sarmat––which was originally scheduled to enter service between 2018 and 2020 and will replace Russia’s aging RS-20V Voevoda (SS-18) ICBM––had been subject to significant manufacturing, production, and testing delays. In January 2022, the “War Bolts” Telegram channel reported that flight tests for Sarmat had been postponed due to problems with the missile’s command module. Following Sarmat’s eventual first test flight on 20 April 2022, Putin announced that the new ICBM would enter combat duty by the end of the year. As of October 2023, however, only one additional Sarmat flight test had reportedly taken place (in February 2023) and, according to US officials, likely ended in failure.
Despite the lack of successful tests, in November 2022 the General Director of the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau––responsible for the design of Sarmat––claimed that the missile had already entered serial production. On 1 September 2023, Roscosmos Chief Yury Borisov announced that Sarmat had “assumed combat alert posture,” although this was likely premature: on 5 October 2023, President Putin noted during his speech at the Valdai Club that some “administrative and bureaucratic procedures” still needed to be carried out before Sarmat could be placed on combat duty, and on 7 October 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defence noted on Telegram that the “final stages” of construction and installation were still underway at the first launch facilities and associated command post.
New satellite imagery indicates construction is well underway at the first regiment of the 62nd Missile Division near Uzhur in south Siberia. It is expected that a total of 46 Sarmat missiles will eventually be deployed with seven regiments (six missiles per regiment, plus one 10-missile regiment) in two divisions at Uzhur and Dombarovsky.
The first missile regiment undergoing its upgrade to Sarmat is the 302nd Missile Regiment and consists of six silos. Major construction continues at the launch control center and its accompanying silo (12C) and three other silos (13C, 15C, and 17C). The two remaining silos (16C and 18C) have only received minor upgrades and will take many months to complete if scheduled for the same comprehensive upgrade as the other silos.
Silos 12C and 17C:
The first two silos to begin their upgrades were Silos 12C (55.1144°, 89.6344°) and 17C (55.0347°, 89.7286°), which began their upgrades in the spring and summer of 2021, respectively. Over the past two years, the perimeters at both sites were removed, reshaped, and expanded with additional layers of fencing. The surface area of both silos has nearly doubled in size: Silo 12C has been expanded from approximately 0.228 square kilometers to 0.427 square kilometers, and the area of Silo 17C has been expanded from approximately 0.082 square kilometers to 0.136 square kilometers.
As of mid-September, construction appeared to be nearly complete inside the inner silo areas at both sites. The launch control center at Silo 12C has been upgraded to a newer LCC design that can also be seen at other Russian ICBM complexes, including the SS-27 Mod 1 “Topol-M” silo field near Tatishchevo, the SS-27 Mod 2 “Yars” silo field near Kozelsk, and the SS-19 Mod 4 “Avangard” silo field near Dombarovsky. In addition, Silo 12C boasts a new gun turret placement and expanded administrative area, although this outer area is not yet complete.
Notably, the immediate area surrounding Silo 17C has been subject to significant wildfire damage in the past. In 2017, a wildfire burned through all three sets of perimeter fencing and damaged the inner road leading to the silo hatch. In May 2021, another wildfire again burned through the three layers of fencing and appeared to damage an administrative building near the hatch.
Silos 13C and 15C:
Silos 13C (55.2008°, 89.7061°) and 17C (55.0822°, 89.8155°) began their upgrades in late-2022, nearly 1.5 years after construction on the first two silos began. As of mid-October 2023, significant construction at both sites was still underway, including underground and inside the silos themselves. Trees have been removed at both sites to make space for the expanded perimeter fences. While the new perimeters at both sites have been marked out, the multiple layers of fencing have not yet been completed. New gun turrets at both sites now appear to be in place.
Silos 16C and 18C:
As of mid-September 2023, full-site construction at Silos 16C (55.0247º, 89.5711º) and 18C (54.9501º, 89.6833º) had not yet begun, although some silo maintenance work has been visible since mid-2021, possibly in preparation for the full-site construction.
It is notable that satellites have managed to capture images of all four silos currently under construction with their hatches open; on more than one occasion, multiple different silos could be seen with their hatches open on the same day, and in some cases hatches have stayed open for days at a time. This suggests that operations to upgrade the silos themselves and preparations to deploy Sarmat ICBMs inside them––as touted by high-ranking Russian officials––are well underway.
• Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, and individual donors.
On October 12th, the Strategic Posture Commission released its long-awaited report on U.S. nuclear policy and strategic stability. The 12-member Commission was hand-picked by Congress in 2022 to conduct a threat assessment, consider alterations to U.S. force posture, and provide recommendations.
In contrast to the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission report is a full-throated embrace of a U.S. nuclear build-up.
It includes recommendations for the United States to prepare to increase its number of deployed warheads, as well as increasing its production of bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, ballistic missile submarines, non-strategic nuclear forces, and warhead production capacity. It also calls for the United States to deploy multiple warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and consider adding road-mobile ICBMs to its arsenal.
The only thing that appears to have prevented the Commission from recommending an immediate increase of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is that the weapons production complex currently does not have the capacity to do so.
The Commission’s embrace of a U.S. nuclear buildup ignores the consequences of a likely arms race with Russia and China (in fact, the Commission doesn’t even consider this or suggest other steps than a buildup to try to address the problem). If the United States responds to the Chinese buildup by increasing its own deployed warheads and launchers, Russia would most likely respond by increasing its deployed warheads and launchers. That would increase the nuclear threat against the United States and its allies. China, who has already decided that it needs more nuclear weapons to stand up to the existing U.S. force level (and those of Russia and India), might well respond to the U.S and Russian increases by increasing its own arsenal even further. That would put the United States back to where it started, feeling insufficient and facing increased nuclear threats.
Framing and context
The Commission’s report is generally framed around the prospect of Russian and Chinese strategic military cooperation against the United States. The Commission cautions against “dismissing the possibility of opportunistic or simultaneous two-peer aggression because it may seem improbable,” and notes that “not addressing it in U.S. strategy and strategic posture, could have the perverse effect of making such aggression more likely.” The Commission does not acknowledge, however, that building up new capabilities to address this highly remote possibility would likely kick the arms race into an even higher gear.
The report acknowledges that Russia and China are in the midst of large-scale modernization programs, and in the case of China, significant increases to its nuclear stockpile. This accords with our own assessments of both countries’ nuclear programs. However, the report’s authors suggest that these changes fundamentally call into question the United States’ assured retaliatory capabilities, and state that “the current U.S. strategic posture will be insufficient to achieve the objectives of U.S. defense strategy in the future….”
The Commission appears to base this conclusion, as well as its nuclear strategy and force structure recommendations, squarely on numerically-focused counterforce thinking: if China increases its posture by fielding more weapons, that automatically means the United States needs more weapons to “[a]ddress the larger number of targets….” However, the survivability of the US ballistic missile submarines should insulate the United States against needing to subscribe to this kind of thinking.
In 2012, a joint DOD/DNI report acknowledged that because of the US submarine force, Russia would not achieve any military advantage against the United States by significantly increasing the size of its deployed nuclear forces. In that 2012 study, both departments concluded that the “Russian Federation…would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. Strategic force structure, particularly the OHIO-class ballistic missile submarines, a number of which are at sea at any given time.” [Emphasis added.] Why would this logic not apply to China as well? Although China’s nuclear arsenal is undoubtedly growing, why would it fundamentally alter the nature of the United States’ assured retaliatory capability while the United States is confident in the survivability of its SSBNs?
In this context, it is worth reiterating the words of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the U.S. Strategic Command Change of Command Ceremony: “We all understand that nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race…deterrence has never been just about the numbers, the weapons, or the platforms.”
Although the report says the Commission “avoided making specific force structure recommendations” in order to “leave specific material solution decisions to the Executive Branch and Congress,” the list of “identified capabilities beyond the existing program of record (POR) that will be needed” leaves little doubt about what the Commission believes those force structure decisions should be.
Strategic posture alterations
The Commission concludes that the United States “must act now to pursue additional measures and programs…beyond the planned modernization of strategic delivery vehicles and warheads may include either or both qualitative and quantitative adjustments in the U.S. strategic posture.”
Specifically, the Commission recommends that the United States should pursue the following modifications to its strategic nuclear force posture “with urgency:” [our context and commentary added below]
- Prepare to upload some or all of the nation’s hedge warheads; [these warheads are currently in storage; increasing deployed warheads above 1,550 is prohibited by the New START treaty (which expires in early-2026) and would likely cause Russia to also increase its deployed warheads.]
- Plan to deploy the Sentinel ICBM in a MIRVed configuration; [the Sentinel appears to be capable of carrying two MIRV but current plan calls for each missile to be deployed with just a single warhead]
- Increase the planned number of deployed Long-Range Standoff Weapons; [the Air Force currently has just over 500 ALCMs and plans to build 1,087 LRSOs (including test-flight missiles), each of which costs approximately $13 million]
- Increase the planned number of B-21 bombers and the tankers an expanded force would require; [the Air Force has said that it plans to purchase at least 100 B-21s]
- Increase the planned production of Columbia SSBNs and their Trident ballistic missile systems, and accelerate development and deployment of D5LE2; [the Navy currently plans to build 12 Columbia-class SSBNs and an increase would not happen until after the 12th SSBN is completed in the 2040s]
- Pursue the feasibility of fielding some portion of the future ICBM force in a road mobile configuration; [historically, any efforts to deploy road-mobile ICBMs in the United States have been unsuccessful]
- Accelerate efforts to develop advanced countermeasures to adversary IAMD; and
- Initiate planning and preparations for a portion of the future bomber fleet to be on continuous alert status, in time for the B-21 Full Operational Capability (FOC) date.” [Bombers currently regularly practice loading nuclear weapons as part of rapid-takeoff exercises. Returning bombers to alert would revert the decision by President H.W. Bush in 1991 to take bombers off alert. In 2021, the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration stated that keeping the bomber fleet on continuous alert would exhaust the force and could not be done indefinitely]
Nonstrategic posture alterations
The Commission appears to want the United States to bolster its non-strategic nuclear forces in Europe, and begin to deploy non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific theater: “Additional U.S. theater nuclear capabilities will be necessary in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific regions to deter adversary nuclear use and offset local conventional superiority. These additional theater capabilities will need to be deployable, survivable, and variable in their available yield options.” Although the Commission does not explicitly recommend fielding either ground-launched theater nuclear capabilities or a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile for the Navy, it seems clear that these capabilities would be part of the Commission’s logic.
The United States used to deploy large numbers of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific region during the Cold War, but those weapons were withdrawn in the early 1990s and later dismantled as U.S. military planning shifted to rely more on advanced conventional weapons for limited theater options. Despite the removal of certain types of theater nuclear weapons after the Cold War, today the President maintains a wide range of nuclear response options designed to deter Russian and Chinese limited nuclear use in both regions––including capabilities with low or variable yields. In addition to ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers operating in both regions, the U.S. Air Force has non-strategic B61 nuclear bombs for dual-capable aircraft that are intended for operations in both regions if it becomes necessary. The Navy now also has a low-yield warhead on its SSBNs––the W76-2––that was fielded specifically to provide the President with more options to deter limited scenarios in those regions. It is unclear why these existing options, as well as several additional capabilities already under development––including the incoming Long-Range Stand-Off Weapon––would be insufficient for maintaining regional deterrence.
The Commission specifically recommends that the United States should “urgently” modify its nuclear posture to “[p]rovide the President a range of militarily effective nuclear response options to deter or counter Russian or Chinese limited nuclear use in theater.” Although current plans already provide the President with such options, the Commission “recommends the following U.S. theater nuclear force posture modifications:
Develop and deploy theater nuclear delivery systems that have some or all of the following attributes: [our context and commentary added below]
- Forward-deployed or deployable in the European and Asia-Pacific theaters [The United States already has dual-capable fighters and B61 bombs earmarked for operations in the Asia-Pacific theaters, backed up by bombers with long-range cruise missiles];
- Survivable against preemptive attack without force generation day-to-day;
- A range of explosive yield options, including low yield [US nuclear forces earmarked for regional options already have a wide range of low-yield options];
- Capable of penetrating advanced IAMD with high confidence [F-35A dual-capable aircraft, the B-21 bomber, and air-launched cruise missiles are already being developed with enhanced penetration capabilities]; and
- Operationally relevant weapon delivery timeline (promptness) [the US recently fielded the W76-2 warhead on SSBNs to provide prompt theater capability in limited scenarios and is developing new prompt conventional missiles].”
Unlike U.S. low-yield theater nuclear weapons, the Commission warns that China’s development of “theater-range low-yield weapons may reduce China’s threshold for using nuclear weapons.” Presumably, the same would be true for the United States threshold if it followed the Commission’s recommendation to increase deployed (or deployable) non-strategic nuclear weapons with low-yield capabilities in the Indo-Pacific theater.
Overall, the Commission suggests that current U.S. nuclear strategy is basically sound, but just needs to be backed up with additional weapons and industrial capacity. However, by not including recommendations to modify presidential nuclear employment guidance –– or even considering such an adjustment, which could reshape U.S. force posture to allow for decreased emphasis on counterforce targeting –– the Commission has limited its own flexibility to recommend any options other than simply adding more weapons.
Three scholars recently proposed a revised nuclear strategy that they concluded would reduce weapons requirements yet still be sufficient to adequately deter Russia and China. The central premise of reducing the counterforce focus is similar to a study that we published in 2009. In contrast, the Commission appears to have assumed an unchanged nuclear strategy and instead focused intensely on weapons and numbers.
The Commission report does not explain how it gets to the specific nuclear arms additions it says are needed. It only provides generic descriptions of nuclear strategy and lists of Chinese and Russian increases. The reason this translates into a recommendation to increase the US nuclear arsenal appears to be that the list of target categories that the Commission believes need to be targeted is very broad: “this means holding at risk key elements of their leadership, the security structure maintaining the leadership in power, their nuclear and conventional forces, and their war supporting industry.”
This numerical focus also ignores years of adjustments made to nuclear planning intended to avoid excessive nuclear force levels and increase flexibility. When asked in 2017 whether the US needed new nuclear capabilities for limited scenarios, then STRATCOM commander General John Hyten responded:
“[W]e actually have very flexible options in our plans. So if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the Secretary of Defense and the President and the entire staff, …I actually have a series of very flexible options from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke that I can advise the President on to give him options on what he would want to do… So I’m very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options… And the reason I was surprised when I got to STRATCOM about the flexibility, is because the last time I executed or was involved in the execution of the nuclear plan was about 20 years ago and there was no flexibility in the plan. It was big, it was huge, it was massively destructive, and that’s all there. We now have conventional responses all the way up to the nuclear responses, and I think that’s a very healthy thing.”
While advocating integrated deterrence and a “whole of government” approach, the Commission nonetheless sets up an artificial dichotomy between conventional and nuclear capabilities: “The objectives of U.S. strategy must include effective deterrence and defeat of simultaneous Russian and Chinese aggression in Europe and Asia using conventional forces. If the United States and its Allies and partners do not field sufficient conventional forces to achieve this objective, U.S. strategy would need to be altered to increase reliance on nuclear weapons to deter or counter opportunistic or collaborative aggression in the other theater.”
The Commission recommends subjugating nuclear arms control to the nuclear build-up: “The Commission recommends that a strategy to address the two-nuclear-peer threat environment be a prerequisite for developing U.S. nuclear arms control limits for the 2027-2035 timeframe. The Commission recommends that once a strategy and its related force requirements are established, the U.S. government determine whether and how nuclear arms control limits continue to enhance U.S. security.”
Put another way, this constitutes a recommendation to participate in an arms race, and then figure out how to control those same arms later.
The Commission report does acknowledge the importance of arms control, and notes that “[t]he ideal scenario for the United States would be a trilateral agreement that could effectively verify and limit all Russian, Chinese, and U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery systems, while retaining sufficient U.S. nuclear forces to meet security objectives and hedge against potential violations of the agreement.” (p.85) However, the prospect of this “ideal scenario” coming true would become increasingly unlikely if the United States significantly built up its nuclear forces as the Commission recommends.
Capacity and budget
The Commission recommends an overhaul and expansion of the nuclear weapons design and production capacity. That includes full funding of all NNSA recapitalization efforts, including pit production plans, even though the Government Accountability Office has warned that the program faces serious challenges and budget uncertainties. The Commission appears to brush aside concerns about the proposed pit production program.
Overall, the report does not seem to acknowledge any limits to defense spending. Amid all of the Commission’s recommendations to increase the number of strategic and tactical nuclear systems, there is almost no mention of cost in the entire report. Fulfilling all of these recommendations would require a significant amount of money, and that money would have to come from somewhere.
For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that developing the SLCM-N alone would cost an estimated $10 billion until 2030, not to mention another $7 billion for other tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The amount of money it would take to field new systems, in addition to addressing other vital concerns such as IAMD, means funding would necessarily be cut from other budget priorities.
The true costs of these systems are not only the significant funds spent to acquire them, but also the fact that prioritizing these systems necessarily means deprioritizing other domestic or foreign policy initiatives that could do more to increase US security.
Implications for U.S. Nuclear Posture
The Strategic Posture Commission report is, in effect, a congressionally-mandated rebuttal to the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which many in Congress have critiqued for not being hawkish enough. The report does not describe in detail its methodology for how it arrives at its force buildup recommendations, and includes several claims and assumptions about nuclear strategy that have been critiqued and called into question by recent scholarship. In some respects, it reads more like an industry report than a Congressionally-mandated study.
While the timing of the report means that it is unlikely to have a significant impact on this year’s budget cycle, it will certainly play a critical role in justifying increases to the nuclear budget for years to come.
From our perspective, the recommendations included in the Commission report are likely to exacerbate the arms race, further constrict the window for engaging with Russia and China on arms control, and redirect funding away from more proximate priorities. At the very least, before embarking on this overambitious wish list the United States must address any outstanding recommendations from the Government Accountability Office to fix its planning and budgeting processes, otherwise it risks overloading the assembly line even more.
In addition, the United States could consider how modified presidential employment guidance might enable a posture that relies on fewer nuclear weapons, and adjust accordingly.
Photos of Russian nuclear “backpacks” or landmines are hard to come by. For illustrative purposes, this is an image of a U.S. Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) in its bag (since retired). The U.S. military possessed nuclear demolition weapons until the 1980s.
Last week, Reuters published a report that said the Wagner group rebellion that sent armed forces hundreds of miles across Russia got near a nuclear weapons storage site: Voronezh-45.
Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, reportedly said that the rebels reached the nuclear base and that their intention was to acquire small Soviet-era nuclear devices in order to “raise the stakes” in their mutiny.
A White House spokesperson said he could not corroborate the report and added that the United States “had no indication at any point that nuclear weapons or materials were at risk” during the Wagner event.
To help improve transparency on this issue, below we review what U.S. and NATO sources have stated recently about Russian nuclear landmines and non-strategic nuclear forces in general (for a more detailed overview of Russian nuclear forces, see our latest Nuclear Notebook).
Western Statements About Russian Nuclear Landmines
Whether or not the Wagner rebels got to or near a Russian nuclear weapons storage site (or what their intensions were), or whether nuclear weapons potentially stored there were at risk, the episode raises the question if Russia still has nuclear “backpacks” or landmines?
The answer appears to be yes – at least in some form. Recent U.S. Intelligence Community reports refer to them repeatedly, including a U.S. State Department report from 2023. But it is unclear what the status of the Russian landmines is: Are they part of the operational forces or leftovers from the Cold War in queue for dismantlement?
Before examining that question, it is useful to first review what U.S. and NATO sources have said about Russian landmines.
Refences to Soviet-era nuclear landmines can be found in many declassified Intelligence reports. One Central Intelligence Agency assessment from 1981 reported that the Soviet Union “may have introduced nuclear landmines” and a Defense Intelligence Agency guide reportedly listed them. But the wording in these reports were “may have” or “possibly have,” indicating a lower level of confidence. When the Soviet Union broke apart, the issue of “loose nukes” became a prominent concern – especially small weapons that could be easily transported. In a speech at the Stimson Center in 1994, for example, then US Defense Secretary William Perry expressed concern about the danger of loose tactical nuclear weapons in Russia, “such as nuclear artillery shells, land mines and others.” In 1997, Alexander Lebed, a former Russian general and advisor who had been fired by President Yeltsin, claimed Russia had lost track of 100 of 250 suitcase nuclear bombs. The U.S. Government and others questioned the claim and Lebed later withdrew his claim.
These were extraordinary claim for which no evidence was provided and Lebed later withdrew his claim. Yet the rumor that Russia has nuclear landmines has continued to percolate in the public debate and studies. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review from February 2018 did not list landmines in its overview of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons. But the following year, one Pentagon official told Congress that the Russian non-strategic nuclear arsenal included “nuclear landmines, and nuclear artillery shells…” NATO appeared to pick up on that in its Annual Report from 2020 that listed both “landmines” and “artillery” (see image below). (It should be noted that neither the U.S. Department of State’s 2022 compliance report nor its 2023 non-strategic nuclear weapons report mentions nuclear artillery.)
References to Russian nuclear landmines have also appeared frequently in the U.S. State Department’s annual reports on arms control compliance. The report from 2020 listed “atomic demolition mines” as part of Russia’s “active” stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons. The 2021 report did not explicitly mention nuclear mines in the active stockpile, and the 2022 report changed the language slightly to the active stockpile “has also continue to include nuclear mines.”
The latest compliance report from 2023 does not include the usual large section on the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives and Russian non-strategic weapons. Instead, that section was moved into a special report on non-strategic nuclear weapons that Congress had requested as part of its approval of the New START treaty. That report, published in February 2023, reiterates that Russia’s “active” non-strategic nuclear stockpile incudes nuclear mines (see image below).
Russian Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in 2018 estimated that Russia had “up to 2,000” non-strategic nuclear weapons (this was close to the estimate we provided the same year). The NPR estimate was a significant reduction from the “3-5 thousand” Russian warheads listed by Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller in a briefing to NATO in 2009. Subsequent estimates published by the U.S. Intelligence Community (see above) indicate that the 2018 NPR number was at the high end of an estimated range of 1,000-2,000 warheads. Plotting these numbers from the much higher estimated inventory at the end of the Cold War shows this reduction of the Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons arsenal:
Interestingly, the U.S. State Department stated in 2022 that the Russian “active stockpile” of 1,000-2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads included “warheads awaiting dismantlement…” This is curious because in the United States, warheads awaiting dismantlement are not considered “active” or part of an “active stockpile.” Rather, “active” warheads are part of the Department of Defense stockpile that includes both active and inactive warheads. “Active” warheads have all components installed; inactive warheads would need to have those components reinstalled first in order to be able to function.
This suggests that some of the Russian non-strategic warheads that are frequently portrayed in the public debate as part of the arsenal may in fact be retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. Although uncertain, nuclear landmines might be part of that inventory (nuclear artillery shells may be another part of the “awaiting dismantlement” inventory).
In addition to the uncertainty about the status of landmines in the Russian arsenal, advocates for modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal have claimed that Russian is expanding its non-strategic nuclear arsenal. Former STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard told Congress in 2020 that “Russia’s overall nuclear stockpile is likely to grow significantly over the next decade – growth driven primarily by a projected increase in Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons.” (Emphasis added.)
The basis for that projection is unknown and uncertain. Russia is certainly modernizing its arsenal and fielding more types of weapons that the U.S. intelligence community claims are dual-capable. But how many of those launchers will actually be assigned nuclear warheads is another question. The latest U.S. State Department report acknowledges a Russian increase but cautions that “by how much is uncertain.”
Warhead projections are partially influenced by the expected growth of delivery platform deployments. But just because the number of dual-capable launchers in a weapons category is increasing doesn’t necessarily therefore mean that the number of warheads assigned to that weapons category is also increasing.
In the U.S. nuclear arsenal, for example, not all dual-capable F-15E and F-16 fighter-bombers are assigned nuclear weapons. And just because the F-35A Block 4 upgrade is intended to facilitate integration of nuclear technology, doesn’t therefore mean that all F-35A will be part of the nuclear posture and assigned nuclear weapons.
Simplistic dual-capable launcher counting as a basis for warhead projections could lead to exaggerated numbers.
So, there is much uncertainty about Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons and how the U.S. Intelligence Community makes projections about them. A first step to reducing that uncertainty is to ask questions.
Additional background: Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
New satellite images show that the construction of a double-fenced security perimeter is underway at a weapons depot near the town of Asipovichy in central Belarus.
The US Central Intelligence Agency reported in late-February 2023 that a senior officer from the Russian Ministry of Defense had inspected a facility in the vicinity of Asipovichy (occasionally also spelled Osipovichi) for a potential upgrade to nuclear weapons storage.
Asipovichy is the deployment area for the dual-capable Iskander (SS-26) launchers that Russia supplied to Belarus in 2022. Interestingly, the weapons depot featured in this article is roughly only 25 kilometers southeast of a vacant military base that, according to the New York Times, could be used to house relocated Wagner Group fighters in Belarus. This does not, however, imply any connection between the Wagner Group and Russian nuclear deployments in Belarus, which would be overseen by the Russian Ministry of Defence’s 12th Main Directorate (also known as the 12th GUMO).
President Vladimir Putin announced in March that Russia plans to complete a nuclear weapons storage site in Belarus by July 1st, 2023, but he later modified the timeline to July 7th-8th, apparently due to delays with preparing the storage facilities.
It is important to emphasize upfront that at this stage, we are not able to make a positive identification that this site is intended for or will definitively be used to store Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. As we discuss in detail below, while the construction timeline and some signatures correlate with a potential nuclear storage site, other signatures do not, and these raise uncertainty about the purpose of the upgrade at the Asipovichy depot. In fact, overall, we are underwhelmed by the lack of visual evidence of the construction and infrastructure that would be expected to support the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. We have also surveyed satellite imagery of numerous other military facilities at locations mentioned in various reports, but we have yet to find visual evidence that conclusively indicates the presence of an active nuclear weapons facility on the territory of Belarus.
Below we survey facilities at various locations in Belarus that have been mentioned in the public debate as potential transit or deployment areas for nuclear-capable forces or even nuclear weapons.
Iskander Missile Launchers
Asipovichy is an important region because it is the location of new nuclear-capable Islander short-range missile launchers that Russia transferred to Belarus in 2022. One Belarusian news report stated the transfer happened in December, but satellite images show what appear to be Iskander launchers at the training site to the west of Asipovichy in August and October 2022 (see images below).
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced in late-April 2023 that Belarusian personnel had completed training in maintenance and use of “special tactical warheads [Russ: “boyepripas”] for the Iskander-M operational tactical missile system” at one of Russia’s Southern Military District ranges in early April.
The Belarusian brigade base for the Iskander launchers is thought to be located in the southern outskirts of Asipovichy, roughly seven miles west of the depot undergoing upgrades. Some five miles to the west of that garrison, there is a training range where Iskander launches have been seen on several occasions (see image below).
Most Russian Iskander bases have extensive support facilities as well as a distinctive missile storage site (see image below). No similar facility has been found near Asipovichy. The Belarusian military probably uses different storage standards and could potentially use the dirt-covered bunkers in the south-west corner of the facility.
A few Russian Iskander bases also do not have the more elaborate missile storage site. That includes the Iskander base in Kaliningrad.
In their public remarks during a meeting in St. Petersburg on 25 June 2022, Presidents Putin and Lukashenko explicitly mentioned nuclear upgrade of Belarusian Su-25 aircraft. A year later, on 14 April 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense published a video of what appeared to be an Su-25 pilot at Lida Air Base explaining the new nuclear role.
An examination of the Lida base area shows no physical indications of upgrades of the kind that are thought would be required to support nuclear weapons deployment. The very latest imagery shows early construction of what appears to be an additional security perimeter around the munitions storage area at the base (see image below). It is too soon to tell, but as in the case of the Asipovichy upgrade, a second fence security perimeter does not necessarily suggest a nuclear weapons upgrade; it could simply be improvement of an existing security infrastructure.
There have also been some speculations that the Baranavichy Air Base further to the south, which is equipped with more modern Su-30SM jets, might be a potential candidate for the nuclear mission. We are not aware of any official statements to that effect and have not seen any observable indications of physical upgrades needed to support nuclear operations there.
As with the Iskander base area upgrades near Asipovichy, we can’t positively exclude the existence of an undetected facility near the western air bases. But so far, we don’t see conclusive physical indications of nuclear weapons related upgrades on or near Lida or Baranavichy. It is also relevant to mention that both bases are very close to NATO territory; Lida is only about 20 miles (35 kilometers) from Lithuania.
On June 16th, Putin announced: “The first nuclear weapons have been delivered to Belarus, but only the first batch. There will be more. By the end of the summer, by the end of this year, we will complete this work.”
Careful monitoring of the 12th GUMO’s transit hub at Sergiev Posad has not yet indicated the shipment of specialized nuclear-related materials, such as fencing, certified loading equipment, vault doors, or environmental control systems. However, on June 27th, a group that monitors the Belarusian railway industry reported that nuclear weapons and related equipment would be delivered to Belarus in two stages, one in June and one in November––echoing Putin’s delivery timeline. The group reported that the shipments would involve three departures planned from Potanino, Lozhok, and Cheboksary stations in Russia, arriving at Prudok station in Belarus––more than 200 kilometers north of the Asipovichy depot. These locations in Russia are hundreds of kilometers away from known nuclear storage sites, and so could either be locations for subcomponents or security equipment rather than the warheads themselves, or they could potentially be an attempt to obfuscate where the warheads would actually be coming from.
Preparation of rail transfer points and storage would require construction of a number of unique security features and support facilities. An examination of satellite images of the Prudok station area in Belarus, however, revealed no observable indication of construction needed to safeguard nuclear weapons (see image below).
It is important to be clear that these satellite images do not prove decisively that the construction at Asipovichy or other known facilities is related to nuclear weapons storage. It could potentially be related to non-nuclear weapon systems, such as air-defense missiles. There are several uncertainties that should be mentioned and carefully considered:
First, the security perimeter has two inner fences, less than the three or four normally seen at Russia nuclear weapons storage sites. This is a significant difference, because the standard of at least three layers of fencing is directly correlated with the ability of the fence disturbance system to detect security threats to the complex. Fewer layers of fencing (and thus less clear space) could cause the microwave detection system to be accidentally triggered by movement inside the complex itself. To avoid that, vegetation has been removed along the new 12-meter wide inner security perimeter. Construction is ongoing and there is so far no visual indication of electronic sensors inside the new perimeter.
In comparison, Russian base- and national-level nuclear weapons storage facilities have extensive security features. The base-level storage facility near Tver approximately 325 kilometers (200 miles) from the Belarusian border has considerably stronger security features around the weapons bunkers (see image below).
Second, there is no bunker visible inside the enclosure, another normal feature of Russian nuclear weapon storage sites. Apart from physical protection, nuclear weapons require climate-controlled storage facilities.
Third, there is no visible segregated housing for the large number of Russian 12th GUMO personnel that would be needed to protect and manage nuclear warheads.
Fourth, the depot is next to a storage site for conventional high explosives. As other researchers have pointed out, it would be highly unusual for conventional and nuclear warheads to be stored within the same perimeter in order to maintain the security of the warheads and to segregate the chain of custody between Russian 12th GUMO personnel and Belarusian army personnel.
These differences could potentially be explained if the Belarusian site is a temporary transit site and not intended for permanent storage, but rather to introduce nuclear weapons in a crisis.
It is also curious that part of the new double-fence construction extends around a group of buildings that were constructed in 2017-2018, long before any statements were made about deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Even if Russia intends to follow through on its planned construction of a storage site in Belarus, it is not guaranteed that any nuclear weapons would actually cross the border in peacetime. Rather, it is possible that Russia’s actions instead constitute the building blocks for a potential future decision on deployment. Moreover, some analysts have suggested that these actions could be deliberately designed to remind the West of Russia’s nuclear-armed status, rather than actually shift Russian force posture.
In total, the facility upgrade at Asipovichy is important to monitor given the CIA report about Russia nuclear-related storage inspections in the area. So far, however, our observations and analyses show no clear observable indicators of construction of the facilities we expect would be needed to support transport and deployment of Russian nuclear weapons into Belarus. As always, we don’t know what we don’t know and it is of course possible that there are other facilities that we are not aware of that would indicate nuclear weapons activities.
Positive identification of this and other potential facilities will have to await additional information. And we look forward to the contribution of other researchers.
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
On 14 April 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence released a short video of a Su-25 pilot explaining his new role in delivering “special [nuclear] munitions” following his training in Russia. The features seen in the video, as well as several other open-source clues, suggest that Lida Air Base––located only 40 kilometers from the Lithuanian border and the only Belarusian Air Force wing equipped with Su-25 aircraft––is the most likely candidate for Belarus’ new “nuclear sharing” mission announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The video shows the pilot standing in a revetment with a Su-25 in the background. The interview takes place at a grassy location with trees in the distance along with several distinct features, including two drop tanks flanking the Su-25 on either side, and objects behind the aircraft. The revetment itself is also somewhat distinct, as the berm wraps around three sides of the hardstand and the size and orientation of the six rectangular tiles across the opening are clearly visible in the video.
Although the pilot is announcing the completion of their training that occured in Russia, the footage was filmed and released by the Belarusian Ministry of Defense. This factor seemed to indicate that the filming location took place in Belarus instead of at the training center in Russia. Additionally, while Su-25s have operated out of other air bases in Belarus throughout the war, including Luninets Air Base, the only Su-25 wing in the Belarusian Air Force is based at Lida.
After analyzing the satellite imagery of other possible candidate hardstands, including those at Luninets and Baravonichi, the video’s signatures appeared to most closely match a specific hardstand found at Lida Air Base. There are multiple revetments on the western side of the base, but the existence and location of a pole on top of one particular sloped berm, as well as the location of the trees in the background, the drop tanks, and the orientation of the tiles on the tarmac all align closely with features from the video footage. While the specific aircraft from the video has yet to be identified (although the individualized camouflage patterns on each Su-25 will help with this process), all of these factors suggest the video was filmed at Lida Air Base.
During and immediately after the Cold War, the Lida area was was home to a missile operating base for the 49th Guards Missile Division, first for the SS-4 MRBM, then the SS-20 IRBM, and finally the SS-25 ICBM before the division disbanded in 1997. The former missile operating base is located only ten kilometers south of the air base, and while some areas appear to still be active (perhaps in a civilian or other military role), others appear to be overgrown.
Currently, Lida is home to the Belarusian Air Force’s 116th Guards Assault Aviation Base, which flies the Su-25 Frogfoot––the type of plane confirmed by both the Belarusian Ministry of Defense and President Putin as being newly re-equipped to deliver tactical nuclear weapons. Lida’s Su-25 aircraft have also reportedly been used to conduct strikes in Ukraine.
Two additional data points suggest that Lida is the most likely candidate: on March 25th, Putin announced in an interview with Rossiya 24 that Belarusian crews would begin training in Russia on April 3rd. Belarusian Telegram channels subsequently identified these crews as being from Lida, with one channel stating that “According to my sources, the entire flight and engineering staff of the Lida air base will undergo retraining in Russia” (h/t Andrey Baklitskiy).
In addition, on April 2nd, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus stated that Russian nuclear weapons will be “moved up close to the Western border of our union state” (the supranational union of Russia and Belarus). Although the ambassador declined to offer a more specific location, Lida Air Base is located closer to NATO territory than any other suitable candidate site––only about 40 kilometers from Lithuania’s southern border and approximately 120 kilometers from Poland’s eastern border. Although this would mean a longer journey to transport the nuclear weapons from Russia (and could also make the weapons more vulnerable to NATO strikes), its proximity to Alliance territory would be a clear nuclear signal to NATO.
Challenges for the “nuclear sharing” mission
At the time of publication, it remained highly unclear whether Russia actually intends to deploy nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory, or whether it is developing the infrastructure needed to potentially deploy them in the future. It is clear, however, that such a deployment would likely come with logistical challenges.
President Putin’s March 25th announcement noted that Russia would begin training Belarusian nuclear delivery crews on April 3rd and “on July 1, we [will finish] the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus.” Judging by the April 14th video released by the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, the Belarusian crews completed their training within this short period. This is an extraordinarily fast turnaround for completing the certification process; by contrast, nuclear certification for US/NATO nuclear weapon systems can take months, or even years. And as expert Bill Moon pointed out during a recent roundtable discussion, specialized equipment for warhead transportation and handling would also need to undergo intensive certification processes, which can take months.
Additionally, other Russian nuclear storage sites have taken years to upgrade. Usually, permanent nuclear storage sites in Russia have multi-layered fencing around both the perimeter as well as the storage bunkers themselves inside the complex, which can take months to install. Even a temporary site would still require extensive security infrastructure. Moreover, personnel from the 12th GUMO––the department within Russia’s Ministry of Defence that is responsible for maintaining and transporting Russia’s nuclear arsenal––would also necessarily be deployed to Belarus to staff the storage site (regardless of whether nuclear weapons were present or not) and would need a segregated living space. Bill Moon, who has decades of experience working alongside the 12th GUMO, estimates that this could be a contingent of approximately 100 personnel, including warhead maintainers, guards, and armed response forces. Constructing these kinds of facilities could also take many months to build up, revitalize, and maintain. Although it may be possible to complete construction by Putin’s July 1st deadline, a storage facility would not be ready to actually receive warheads until all of the specialized equipment and personnel were in place.
In order to meet this schedule, as Bill Moon highlighted during the recent roundtable discussion, personnel from the 12th GUMO would have to already be preparing and securing the warhead transportation route, as well as the rail spur used to transfer the warheads from trains to specialized trucks. Lida Air Base has an enclosed rail spur on-site that could potentially be used for this, although it could also require additional security infrastructure. Overall, such a deployment would be quite a difficult task: not only would deploying warheads to Lida Air Base be a very long distance for the warheads and associated equipment to travel, but both the Russian and Belarusian rail networks have experienced significant disruptions due to the war in Ukraine, from both anti-war activists and Ukrainian strikes.
Notably, in May 2022 a Russian anarcho-communist activist group announced that they had sabotaged the rail tracks leading out of the 12th GUMO’s main transit hub at Sergiev Posad in an act of protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This site would be used to stage and transport specialized storage and warhead handling equipment, such as fencing, vault doors, and environmental control systems––as well as crews––from Russia to Belarus. In particular, the activist group claimed to have used standardized construction tools to unscrew the nuts connecting the rail joints together, thus allowing them to lift and move the rail tracks.
The group specifically noted that they wanted to conduct a type of sabotage that was “less visible so the train wouldn’t have time to slow down to a stop.” Given the relative ease with which this attack was conducted, the relative invisibility of the sabotage, and the distance that the warheads and equipment would need to travel to reach Lida or another destination inside Belarus, it is clear that the 12th GUMO’s task of securing the rail lines would be important, yet extremely difficult to accomplish.
Given all of these complexities, if Putin does indeed intend to transfer warheads to Belarus, it is highly unlikely that such a deployment would take place until at least after Putin’s July 1st construction deadline, and it could also be coupled with yet another high-level nuclear signal.
- “United States nuclear weapons, 2023,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 2023.
- “Russian nuclear weapons, 2022,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 2022.
- Status of World Nuclear Forces, Federation of American Scientists
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
In early-February 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) had informed Congress that China now has more launchers for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) than the United States. The report is the latest in a serious of revelations over the past four years about China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the deepening strategic competition between the world’s nuclear weapon states. It is important to monitor China’s developments to understand what it means for Chinese nuclear strategy and intensions, but it is also important to avoid overreactions and exaggerations.
First, a reminder about what the STRATCOM letter says and does not say. It does not say that China has more ICBMs or warheads on them than the United States, or that the United States is at an overall disadvantage. The letter has three findings (in that order):
- The number of ICBMs in the active inventory of China has not exceeded the number of ICBMs in the active inventory of the United States.
- The number of nuclear warheads equipped on such missiles of China has not exceeded the number of nuclear warheads equipped on such missiles of the United States.
- The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States.
It is already well-known that China is building several hundred new missile silos. We documented many of them (see here, here and here), as did other analysts (here and here). It was expected that sooner or later some of them would be completed and bring China’s total number of ICBM launchers (silo and road-mobile) above the number of US ICBM launchers. That is what STRATCOM says has now happened.
STRATCOM ICBM Counting
The number of Chinese ICBM launchers included in the STRATCOM report to Congress was counted at a cut-off date of October 2022. It is unclear precisely how STRATCOM counts the Chinese silos, but the number appears to include hundreds of silos that were not yet operational with missiles at the time. So, at what point in its construction process did STRATCOM include a silo as part of the count? Does it have to be completely finished with everything ready except a loaded missile?
We have examined satellite photos of every single silo under construction in the three new large missile silo fields (Hami, Julin, and Yumen). It is impossible to determine with certainty from a satellite photo if a silo is completely finished, much less whether it is loaded with a missile. However, the available images indicate it is possible that most of the silos at Hami might have been complete by October 2022, that many of the silos at the Yumen field were still under construction, and that none of the silos at the Julin (Ordos) fields had been completed at the time of STRATCOM’s cutoff date (see image below).
The number of Chinese ICBM launchers reported by the Pentagon over the past three years has increased significantly from 100 launchers at the end of 2020, to 300 launchers at the end of 2021, to now more than 450 launchers as of October 2022. That is an increase of 350 launchers in only three years.
To exceed the number of US ICBM launchers as most recently reported by STRATCOM, China would have to have more than 450 launchers (mobile and silo) – the US Air Force has 400 silos with missiles and another 50 empty silos that could be loaded as well if necessary. Without counting the new silos under construction, we estimate that China has approximately 140 operational ICBM launchers with as many missiles. To get to 300 launchers with as many missiles, as the 2022 China Military Power Report (CMPR) estimated, the Pentagon would have to include about 160 launchers from the new silo fields – half of all the silos – as not only finished but with missiles loaded in them. We have not yet seen a missile loading – training or otherwise – on any of the satellite photos. To reach 450 launchers as of October 2022, STRATCOM would have to count nearly all the silos in the three new missile silo fields (see graph below).
The point at which a silo is loaded with a missile depends not only on the silo itself but also on the operational status of support facilities, command and control systems, and security perimeters. Construction of that infrastructure is still ongoing at all the three missile silo fields.
It is also possible that the number of launchers and missiles in the Pentagon estimate is less directly linked. The number could potentially refer to the number of missiles for operational launchers plus missiles produced for launchers that have been more or less completed but not yet loaded with missiles.
All of that to underscore that there is considerable uncertainty about the operational status of the Chinese ICBM force.
However – in time for the Congressional debate on the FY2024 defense budget – some appear to be using the STRATCOM letter to suggest the United States also needs to increase its nuclear arsenal.
Comparing The Full Arsenals
The rapid increase of the Chinese ICBM force is important and unprecedented. Yet, it is also crucial to keep things in perspective. In his response to the STRATCOM letter, Rep. Mike Rogers – the new conservative chairman of the House Armed Services Committee – claimed that China is “rapidly approaching parity with the United States” in nuclear forces. That is not accurate.
Even if China ends up with more ICBMs than the United States and increases its nuclear stockpile to 1,500 warheads by 2035, as projected by the Pentagon, that does not give China parity. The United States has 800 launchers for strategic nuclear weapons and a stockpile of 3,700 warheads (see graph below).
The worst-case projection about China’s nuclear expansion assumes that it will fill everything with missiles with multiple warheads. In reality, it is unknown how many of the new silos will be filled with missiles, how many warheads each missile will carry, and how many warheads China can actually produce over the next decade.
The nuclear arsenals do not exist in a vacuum but are linked to the overall military capabilities and the policies and strategies of the owners.
The Political Dimension
STRATCOM initially informed Congress about its assessment that the number of Chinese ICBM launchers exceeded that of the United States back in November 2022. But the letter was classified, so four conservative members of the Senate and House armed services committees reminded STRATCOM that it was required to also release an unclassified version. They then used the unclassified letter to argue for more nuclear weapons stating (see screen shot of Committee web page below):
“We have no time to waste in adjusting our nuclear force posture to deter both Russia and China. This will have to mean higher numbers and new capabilities.” (Emphasis added.)
Although defense contractors probably would be happy about that response, it is less clear why ‘higher numbers’ are necessary for US nuclear strategy. Increasing US nuclear weapons could in fact end up worsening the problem by causing China and Russia to increase their arsenals even further. And as we have already seen, that would likely cause a heightened demand for more US nuclear weapons.
We have seen this playbook before during the Cold War nuclear arms race. Only this time, it’s not just between the United States and the Soviet Union, but with Russia and a growing China.
Even before China will reach the force levels projected by the Pentagon, the last remaining arms control treaty with Russia – the New START Treaty – will expire in February 2026. Without a follow-on agreement, Russia could potentially double the number of warheads it deploys on its strategic launchers.
Even if the defense hawks in Congress have their way, the United States does not seem to be in a position to compete in a nuclear arms race with both Russia and China. The modernization program is already overwhelmed with little room for expansion, and the warhead production capacity will not be able to produce large numbers of additional nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.
What the Chinese nuclear buildup means for Chinese nuclear policy and how the United States should respond to it (as well as to Russia) is much more complicated and important to address than a rush to get more nuclear weapons. It would be more constructive for the United States to focus on engaging with Russia and China on nuclear risk reduction and arms control rather than engage in a build-up of its nuclear forces.
On January 31st, the State Department issued its annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the New START Treaty, with a notable––yet unsurprising––conclusion:
“Based on the information available as of December 31, 2022, the United States cannot certify the Russian Federation to be in compliance with the terms of the New START Treaty.”
This finding was not unexpected. In August 2022, in response to a US treaty notification expressing an intent to conduct an inspection, Russia invoked an infrequently used treaty clause “temporarily exempting” all of its facilities from inspection. At the time, Russia attempted to justify its actions by citing “incomplete” work regarding Covid-19 inspection protocols and perceived “unilateral advantages” created by US sanctions; however, the State Department’s report assesses that this is “false:”
“Contrary to Russia’s claim that Russian inspectors cannot travel to the United States to conduct inspections, Russian inspectors can in fact travel to the United States via commercial flights or authorized inspection airplanes. There are no impediments arising from U.S. sanctions that would prevent Russia’s full exercise of its inspection rights under the Treaty. The United States has been extremely clear with the Russian Federation on this point.”
Instead, the report suggests that the primary reason for suspending inspections “centered on Russian grievances regarding U.S. and other countries’ measures imposed on Russia in response to its unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
Echoing the findings of the report, on February 1st, Cara Abercrombie, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for defense policy and arms control for the White House National Security Council, stated in a briefing at the Arms Control Association that the United States had done everything in its power to remove pandemic- and sanctions-related limitations for Russian inspectors, and that “[t]here are absolutely no barriers, as far as we’re concerned, to facilitating Russian inspections.”
Nonetheless, Russia has still not rescinded its exemption and also indefinitely postponed a scheduled meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in November. In a similar vein, this is believed to be tied to US support for Ukraine, as indicated by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who said that arms control “has been held hostage by the U.S. line of inflicting strategic defeat on Russia,” and that Russia was “ready for such a scenario” if New START expired without a replacement.
These two actions, according to the United States, constitute a state of “noncompliance” with specific clauses of New START. It is crucial to note, however, the distinction between findings of “noncompliance” (serious, yet informal assessments, often with a clear path to reestablishing compliance), “violation” (requiring a formal determination), and “material breach” (where a violation rises to the level of contravening the object or purpose of the treaty).
It is also important to note that the United States’ findings of Russian noncompliance are not related to the actual number of deployed Russian warheads and launchers. While the report notes that the lack of inspections means that “the United States has less confidence in the accuracy of Russia’s declarations,” the report is careful to note that “While this is a serious concern, it is not a determination of noncompliance.” The report also assesses that “Russia was likely under the New START warhead limit at the end of 2022” and that Russia’s noncompliance does not threaten the national security interests of the United States.
The high stakes of failure: worst-case force projections after New START’s expiry
Both the US and Russia have meticulously planned their respective nuclear modernization programs based on the assumption that neither country will exceed the force levels currently dictated by New START. Without a deal after 2026, that assumption immediately disappears; both sides would likely default to mutual distrust amid fewer verifiable data points, and our discourse would be dominated by worst case thinking about how both countries’ arsenals would grow in the future.
For an example of this kind of thinking, look no further than the new Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who argued in response to the State Department’s findings of Russian noncompliance that “The Joint Staff needs to assume Russia has or will be breaching New START caps.” As previously mentioned, the State Department report explicitly states that they have only found Russia to be noncompliant on facilitating inspections and BCC meetings, not on deployed warheads and launchers.
It is clear that the longer that these compliance issues persist, the more they will ultimately hinder US-Russia negotiations over a follow-on treaty, which is necessary in order to continue the bilateral strategic arms control regime beyond New START’s expiry in February 2026. As Amb. Steve Pifer, non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted during the ACA webinar, “We have three years until New START expires. That seems like a lot of time, but it’s not a long of time if you’re going to try to do something ambitious.”
To that end, both sides should be clear-eyed about the stakes, and more specifically, about what happens if they fail to secure a new deal limiting strategic offensive arms.
The United States has a significant upload capacity on its strategic nuclear forces, where it can bring extra warheads out of storage and add them to the deployed missiles and bombers. Although all 400 deployed US ICBMs currently only carry a single warhead, about half of them use the Mk21A reentry vehicle that is capable of carrying up to three warheads each. Moreover, the United States has an additional 50 “warm” ICBM silos which could be reloaded with missiles if necessary. With these potential additions in mind, the US ICBM force could potentially more than double from 400 to 950 warheads.
In the absence of treaty limitations, the United States could also upload each of its deployed Trident SLBMs with a full complement of eight warheads, rather than the current average of four to five. Factoring in the small numbers of submarines that are assumed to be out for maintenance at any given time, then the United States could approximately double the number of warheads deployed on its SLBMs, to roughly 1,920. The United States could potentially also reactivate the four launch tubes on each submarine that it deactivated to meet the New START limit, thus adding 56 missiles with 448 warheads to the fleet. However, this possibility is not reflected in the table because it is unlikely that the United States would choose to reconstitute the additional four launch tubes on each submarine given their imminent replacement with the next-generation Columbia-class.
Either of these actions would likely take months to complete, particularly given the complexities involved with uploading additional warheads on ICBMs. Moreover, ballistic missile submarines would have to return to port on a rotating schedule in order to be uploaded with additional warheads. However, deploying additional warheads to US bomber bases could be done very quickly, and the United States could potentially upload nearly 700 cruise missiles and bombs on its B-52 and B-2 bombers.
Russia also has a significant upload capacity, especially for its ICBMs. Several of Russia’s existing ICBMs are thought to have been downloaded to a smaller number of warheads than their maximum capacities, in order to meet the New START force limits. As a result, without the limits imposed by New START, Russia’s ICBM force could potentially increase from approximately 834 warheads to roughly 1,197 warheads.
Warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles onboard some of Russia’s SSBNs are also thought to have been reduced to a lower number to meet New START limits. Without these limitations, the number of deployed warheads could potentially be increased from an estimated 640 to approximately 832 (also with a small number of SSBNs assumed to be out for maintenance). As in the US case, Russian bombers could be loaded relatively quickly with hundreds of nuclear weapons. The number is highly uncertain but assuming approximately 50 bombers are operational, the number of warheads could potentially be increased to nearly 600.
Combined, if both countries uploaded their delivery systems to accommodate the maximum number of possible warheads, both sets of arsenals would approximately double in size. The United States would have more deployable strategic warheads but Russia would still have a larger total arsenal of operational nuclear weapons, given its sizable stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear warheads which are not treaty-accountable.
Moreover, there are expected consequences beyond the offensive strategic nuclear forces that New START regulates. If the verification regime and data exchanges elapse, both countries are likely to enhance their intelligence capabilities to make up for the uncertainty regarding the other side’s nuclear forces. Both countries are also likely to invest more into what they perceive will increase their overall military capabilities, such as conventional missile forces, nonstrategic nuclear forces, and missile defense.
These moves could trigger reactions in other nuclear-armed states, some of whom might also decide to increase their nuclear forces and the role they play in their military strategies. In particular, it is becoming increasingly clear that China appears to no longer be satisfied with just a couple hundred nuclear weapons to ensure its security, and in a shift from longstanding doctrine, may now be looking to size its own nuclear force closer to the size of the US and Russian deployed nuclear forces.
Some US former defense officials have suggested that the United States needs to increase its deployed nuclear force to compensate for the increased nuclear arsenal that China is already building and an alleged increase in Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons––either by negotiating a higher treaty limit with Russia or withdrawing from the New START treaty.
But doing so would not solve the problem and could put the United States on a path where it would in fact face even greater numbers of Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons in the future. A higher treaty warhead limit would obviously increase – not reduce – the number of Russian warheads aimed at the United States; and pulling out of New START would likely cause Russia to deploy even more weapons. Moreover, a significant increase in the size of US and Russian deployed nuclear forces could cause China to increase its arsenal even further. Such developments could subsequently have ripple effects for India, Pakistan, and elsewhere – developments that would undermine, rather than improve, US and international security.
Uploading more warheads is not necessary to maintain deterrence
It is important to note that even if such worst-case scenarios were to occur, in the past the Department of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence have assessed that even a significant Russian increase of deployed nuclear warheads would not have a deleterious effect on US deterrence capabilities. A 2012 joint study assessed:
“[E]ven if significantly above the New START Treaty limits, [Russia’s deployment of additional nuclear warheads] would have little to no effect on the U.S. assured second-strike capabilities that underwrite our strategic deterrence posture. The Russian Federation, therefore, would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. strategic force structure, particularly the OHIO-class ballistic missile submarines, a number of which are at sea at any given time.”
Although the political situation has dramatically changed over the past decade since the study was published, this particular deterrence dynamic has not. The United States’ second-strike capabilities remain as secure today––even among Russia’s noncompliance and China’s nuclear buildup––as they did a decade ago. As a result, it seems clear that although uploading additional warheads onto US systems may seem like a politically strong response, it would not offer the United States any additional advantage that it does not already possess, and would likely trigger developments that would not be in its national security interest.
- “The Long View: Strategic Arms Control After the New START Treaty,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2022.
- “United States nuclear weapons, 2023,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 2023.
- “Russian nuclear weapons, 2022,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 2022.
- Status of World Nuclear Forces, Federation of American Scientists
On 27 October 2022, the Biden administration finally released an unclassified version of its long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The classified NPR was released to Congress in March 2022, but its publication was substantially delayed––likely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Compared with previous NPRs, the tone and content come closest to the Obama administration’s NPR from 2010. However, it contains significant adjustments because of the developments in Russia and China. (See also our global overview of nuclear arsenals)
Despite the challenges presented by Russia and China, the NPR correctly resists efforts by defense hawks and nuclear lobbyists to add nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal and delay the retirement of older types. Instead, the NPR seeks to respond with adjustments in the existing force posture and increase integration of conventional and nuclear planning.
Although Joe Biden during his presidential election campaign spoke strongly in favor of adopting no-first-use and sole-purpose policies, the NPR explicitly rejects both for now.
From an arms control and risk reduction perspective, the NPR is a disappointment. Previous efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals and the role that nuclear weapons play have been subdued by renewed strategic competition abroad and opposition from defense hawks at home.
Even so, the NPR concludes it may still be possible to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in scenarios where nuclear use may not be credible.
Unlike previous NPRs, the 2022 version is embedded into the National Defense Strategy document alongside the Missile Defense Review.
Below is our summary and analysis of the major portions of the NPR:
The Nuclear Adversaries
The NPR identifies four potential adversaries for U.S. nuclear weapons planning: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Of these, Russia and China are obviously the focus because of Russia’s large arsenal and aggressive behavior and because of China’s rapidly increasing arsenal. The NPR projects that “[b]y the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” This echoes previous statements from high-ranking US military leaders, including the former and incoming Commanders of US Strategic Command although the NPR appears less “the sky is falling.”
China: Given that the National Defense Strategy is largely focused on China, it is unsurprising that the NPR declares China to be “the overall pacing challenge for U.S. defense planning and a growing factor in evaluating our nuclear deterrent.”
Echoing the findings of the previous year’s China Military Power Report, the NPR suggests that “[t]he PRC likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade.” According to the NPR, China’s more diverse nuclear arsenal “could provide the PRC with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against U.S. Allies and partners in the region.”
Russia: The NPR presents harsh language about Russia, in particular surrounding its behavior around the invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to the Trump administration’s NPR, the assumptions surrounding a potential low-yield “escalate-to-deescalate” policy have been toned down; instead the NPR simply states that Russia is diversifying its arsenal and that it views its nuclear weapons as “a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against [its] neighbors.”
The review’s estimate of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons –– “up to 2,000 –– matches those of previous military statements. In 2021, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Russia “probably possesses 1,000 to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads.” The State Department said in April 2022 that the estimate includes retired weapons awaiting dismantlement. The subtle language differences reflect a variance in estimates between the different US military departments and agencies.
The NPR also suggests that “Russia is pursuing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the U.S. homeland or Allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New START.” Given that both sides appear to agree that Russia’s new Sarmat ICBM and Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle fit smoothly into the treaty, this statement is likely referring to Russia’s development of its Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, its Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, and its Status-6 Poseidon nuclear torpedo.
It appears that Russia and the United States are at odds over whether these three systems are treaty-accountable weapons. In 2019, then-Under Secretary Andrea Thompson noted during congressional testimony that all three “meet the US criteria for what constitutes a “new kind of strategic offensive arms’ for purposes of New START.” However, Russian officials had previously sent a notice to the United States stating that they “find it inappropriate to characterize new weapons being developed by Russia that do not use ballistic trajectories of flight moving to a target as ‘potential new kinds of Russian strategic offensive arms.’ The arms presented by the President of the Russian Federation on March 1, 2018, have nothing to do with the strategic offensive arms categories covered by the Treaty.”
North Korea: In recent years, North Korea has been overshadowed by China and Russia in the U.S. defense debate. Nonetheless this NPR describes North Korea as a target for U.S. nuclear weapons planning. The NPR bluntly states: “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”
Iran: The NPR also describes Iran even though it does not have nuclear weapons. Interestingly, although Iran is not in compliance with its NPT obligations and therefore does not qualify for the U.S. negative security assurances, the NPR declares that the United States “relies on non-nuclear overmatch to deter regional aggression by Iran as long as Iran does not possess nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear Declaratory Policy
The NPR reaffirms long-standing U.S. policy about the role of nuclear weapons but with slightly modified language. The role is: 1) Deter strategic attacks, 2) Assure allies and partners, and 3) Achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.
The NPR reiterates the language from the 2010 NPR that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons “is to deter nuclear attacks” and only in “extreme circumstances.” The strategy seeks to “maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment” and, if employment of nuclear weapons is necessary, “seek to end conflict at the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its Allies and partners.”
Deterring “strategic” attacks is a different formulation than the “deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attack” language in the 2018 NPR, but the new NPR makes it clear that “strategic” also accounts for existing and emerging non-nuclear attacks: “nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks.”
Indeed, the NPR makes clear that U.S. nuclear weapons can be used against the full spectrum of threats: “While the United States maintains a very high bar for the employment of nuclear weapons, our nuclear posture is intended to complicate an adversary’s entire decision calculus, including whether to instigate a crisis, initiate armed conflict, conduct strategic attacks using non-nuclear capabilities, or escalate to the use of nuclear weapons on any scale.”
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden spoke repeatedly in favor of a no-first-use and sole-purpose policy for U.S. nuclear weapons. But the NPR explicitly rejects both under current conditions. The public version of the NPR doesn’t explain why a no-first-use policy against nuclear attack is not possible, but it appears to trim somewhat the 2018 NPR language about an enhanced role of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear strategic attacks. And the stated goal is still “moving toward a sole purpose declaration” when possible in consultation with Allies and partners.
In that context the NPR reiterates previous “negative security assurances” that the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
“For all other states” the NPR warns, “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring attacks that have strategic effect against the United States or its Allies and partners.” That potentially includes Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.
Interestingly, the NPR states that “hedging against an uncertain future” is no longer a stated (formal) role of nuclear weapons. Hedging has been part of a strategy to be able to react to changes in the threat environment, for example by deploying more weapons or modifying capabilities. The change does not mean that the United States is no longer hedging, but that hedging is part of managing the arsenal, rather than acting as a role for nuclear weapons within US military strategy writ large.
The NPR reaffirms, consistent with the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy, that U.S. use of nuclear weapons must comply with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and that it is U.S. policy “not to purposely threaten civilian populations or objects, and the United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or objects in violation of LOAC.” That means that U.S. nuclear forces cannot attack cities per se (unless they contain military targets).
Nuclear Force Structure
The NPR reaffirms a commitment to the modernization of its nuclear forces, nuclear command and control and communication systems (NC3), and production and support infrastructure. This is essentially the same nuclear modernization program that has been supported by the previous two administrations.
But there are some differences. The NPR also identifies “current and planned nuclear capabilities that are no longer required to meet our deterrence needs.” This includes retiring the B83-1 megaton gravity bomb and cancelling the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). These decisions were expected and survived opposition from defense hawks and nuclear lobbyists.
Although the NPR has decided to move forward with retirement of the B83-1 bomb due to increasing limitations on its capabilities and rising maintenance costs, the NPR appears to hint at a replacement weapon “for improved defeat” of hard and deeply buried targets. The new weapon is not identified.
The NPR concludes that “SLCM-N was no longer necessary given the deterrence contribution of the W76-2, uncertainty regarding whether SLCM-N on its own would provide leverage to negotiate arms control limits on Russia’s NSNW, and the estimated cost of SLCM-N in light of other nuclear modernization programs and defense priorities.” This language is more subtle than the administration’s recent statement rebutting Congress’ attempt to fund the SLCM-N, which states:
“The Administration strongly opposes continued funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N) and its associated warhead. The President’s Nuclear PostureReview concluded that the SLCM-N, which would not be delivered before the 2030s, is unnecessary and potentially detrimental to other priorities. […] Further investment in developing SLCM-N would divert resources and focus from higher modernization priorities for the U.S. nuclear enterprise and infrastructure, which is already stretched to capacity after decades of deferred investments. It would also impose operational challenges on the Navy.
In justifying the cancelation of the SLCM-N, the NPR spells out the existing and future capabilities that adequately enable regional deterrence of Russia and China. This includes the W76-2 (the low-yield warhead for the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile proposed and deployed under the Trump administration), globally-deployed strategic bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, and dual-capable fighter aircraft such as as the F-35A equipped with the new B61-12 nuclear bomb.
The NPR concludes that the W76-2 “currently provides an important means to deter limited nuclear use.” However, the review leaves the door open for its possible removal from the force structure in the future: “Its deterrence value will be re-evaluated as the F-35A and LRSO are fielded, and in light of the security environment and plausible deterrence scenarios we could face in the future.”
The review also notes that “[t]he United States will work with Allies concerned to ensure that the transition to modern DCA [dual-capable aircraft] and the B61-12 bomb is executed efficiently and with minimal disruption to readiness.” The release of the NPR coincides with the surprise revelation that the United States has sped up the deployment of the B61-12 in Europe. Previously scheduled for spring 2023, the first B61-12 gravity bombs will now be delivered in December 2022, likely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear belligerency. Given that the Biden administration has previously taken care to emphasize that its modernization program and nuclear exercises are scheduled years in advance and are not responses to Russia’s actions, it is odd that the administration would choose to rush the new bombs into Europe at this time.
The NPR appears to link the non-strategic nuclear posture in Europe more explicitly to recent Russian aggression. “Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has taken steps to ensure a modern, ready, and credible NATO nuclear deterrent.” While that is true, some of those steps were already underway before 2014 and would have happened even if Russia had not invaded Ukraine. This includes extensive modernizations at the bases and of the weapons and adding the United Kingdom to the nuclear storage upgrades. But the NPR also states that “Further steps are needed to fully adapt these forces to current and emerging security conditions,” including to “enhance the readiness, survivability and effectiveness of the DCA mission across the conflict spectrum, including through enhanced exercises…”
In the Pacific region, the NPR continues and enhances extended deterrence with U.S. capabilities and deepened consultation with Allies and partners. The role of Australia appears to be increasing. An overall goal is to “better synchronize the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of deterrence” and to “leverage Ally and partner non-nuclear capabilities that can support the nuclear nuclear deterrence mission.” The last part sounds similar to the so-called SNOWCAT mission in NATO where Allies support the nuclear strike mission with non-nuclear capabilities.
Although the integration of nuclear and conventional capabilities into strategic deterrence planning has been underway for years, the NPR seeks to deepen it further. It “underscores the linkage between the conventional and nuclear elements of collective deterrence and defense” and adopts “an integrated deterrence approach that works to leverage nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to tailor deterrence under specific circumstances.”
This is not only intended to make deterrence more flexible and less nuclear focused when possible, but it also continues the strategy outlined in the 2010 NPR and 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by relying more on new conventional capabilities.
According to the NPR, “Non-nuclear capabilities may be able to complement nuclear forces in strategic deterrence plans and operations in ways that are suited to their attributes and consistent with policy on how they are employed.” Although further integration will take time, the NPR describes “how the Joint Force can combine nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities in complementary ways that leverage the unique attributes of a multi-domain set of forces to enable a range of deterrence options backstopped by a credible nuclear deterrent.” An important part of this integration is to “better synchronize nuclear and non-nuclear planning, exercises, and operations.”
Beyond force structure issues, this effort also appears to be a way to “raise the nuclear threshold” by reducing reliance on nuclear weapons but still endure in regional scenarios where an adversary escalates to limited nuclear use. In contrast, the 2018 NPR sought low-yield non-strategic “nuclear supplements” for such a scenario, and specifically named a Russian so-called “escalate-to-deescalate” scenario as a potentially possibility for nuclear use.
Moreover, conventional integration can also serve to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear strategic attacks, and could therefore pave the way for a sole-purpose policy in the future (see also An Integrated Approach to Deterrence Posture by Adam Mount and Pranay Vaddi).
Finally, increasing conventional capabilities in deterrence planning also allows for deeper and better integration of Allies and partners without having to rely on more controversial nuclear arrangements.
A significant challenge of deeper nuclear-conventional integration in strategic deterrence is to ensure that it doesn’t blur the line between nuclear and conventional war and inadvertently increase nuclear signaling during conventional operations.
Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The NPR correctly concludes that deterrence alone will not reduce nuclear dangers and reaffirms the U.S. commitment to arms control, risk reduction, and nonproliferation. It does so by stating that the United States will pursue “a comprehensive and balanced approach” that places “renewed emphasis on arms control, non-proliferation, and risk reduction to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races, and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally.”
The Biden administration’s review contains significantly more positive language on arms control than can be found in the Trump administration’s NPR. The NPR concludes that “mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy.”
In that vein, the review states a willingness to “expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START,” as well as an expansive recommitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty” (CTBT), and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). However, the authors take a negative view of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), stating that the United States does not “consider the TPNW to be an effective tool to resolve the underlying security conflicts that lead states to retain or seek nuclear weapons.”
Although the NPR states that “major changes” in the role of U.S. nuclear weapons against Russia and China will require verifiable reductions and constraints on their nuclear forces, it also concludes that there “is some opportunity to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategies for [China] and Russia in circumstances where the threat of a nuclear response may not be credible and where suitable non-nuclear options may exist or may be developed.” The NPR does not identify what those scenarios are.
Many of the activities described in the NPR are already well underway. Now that the NPR has been completed and published, the Pentagon will produce an NPR implementation plan that identifies specific decisions to be carried out.
Flowing from the reviews that were done in preparation of the NPR, the White House will move forward with an update to the nuclear weapons employment guidance. This guidance will potentially include changes to the strike plans and the assumptions and the assumptions and requirements that underpin them.
The Biden administration must use this opportunity to scrutinize more closely the simulations and analysis that U.S. Strategic Command is using to set nuclear force structure requirements.
Additional analysis can be found on our FAS Nuclear Posture Review Resource Page.
For an overview of global modernization programs, see our annual contribution to the SIPRI Yearbook and our Status of World Nuclear Forces webpage. Individual country profiles are available in various editions of the FAS Nuclear Notebook, which is published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and is freely available to the public.
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
Shortly after Russian military forces invaded Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin said that he had ordered Russian nuclear forces on high combat alert – apparently to deter the United States from getting directly involved, and the United States condemned the statement as “unacceptable” nuclear saber rattling but refused to respond in kind, the two vehemently opposed countries did something amazing: They exchanged factual information about the status of their strategic nuclear forces as required under the New START Treaty.
Yesterday, the US State Department published the unclassified bits of that data exchange. It shows that both countries were below the limits set by the treaty for deployed strategic nuclear forces: 1,550 warheads attributed to 700 deployed long-range ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.
At a time when direct contacts are being curtailed, antagonism runs high, and trust completely lost, it is nothing short of amazing that Russia and the United States continue to abide by the New START treaty and exchange classified information as if nothing had happened.
The reason is clear. Despite their differences, they both have a keen interest in keeping the other country’s long-range nuclear forces in check.
Both the United States and Russia have far more nuclear warheads in their total military stockpiles than what they deploy on their launchers under New START. If the treaty fell away, each side could dramatically and quickly increase the number of nuclear warheads ready to launch on short notice. The US has close to 2,000 strategic warheads in storage, Russia about half that many. Such an increase would be extraordinarily destabilizing and dangerous, especially with a full-scale war raging in Europe and Russia buckling under the strain of unprecedented sanctions.
What the Data Shows
The latest set of data shows that as of March 1, 2022, the United States and Russia both were in compliance with their obligations under the New START treaty not to operate more than 800 total strategic launchers, no more than 700 deployed strategic launchers, and no more than 1,550 warheads attributed to those deployed launchers.
Combined the two countries possessed a total of 1,561 accountable strategic missiles and heavy bombers, of which 1,212 launchers were deployed with 2,989 attributable warheads. That is a slight increase in the number of deployed launchers and warheads compared with six months ago (note: the combined warhead number is actually about 100 too high because each deployed bomber is counted as one weapon even though neither country’s bombers carry weapons under normal circumstances).
Compared with September 2021, the data shows the two countries combined increased the total number of strategic launchers by 19, increased combined deployed strategic launchers by 20, and increased the combined deployed strategic warheads by 142. Of these numbers, only the “19” is real; the other changes reflect natural fluctuations as launchers move in and out of maintenance or are being upgraded.
In terms of the total effect of the treaty, the data shows the two countries since February 2011 combined have cut 428 strategic launchers from their arsenals, reduced deployed strategic launchers by 191, and reduced the number of deployed strategic warheads by 348. However, it is important to remind that this warhead reduction is but a fraction (just over 4 percent) of the estimated 8,185 warheads that remain in the two countries combined nuclear weapons stockpiles (just over 3 percent if counting their total combined inventories of 11,405 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).
The United States
The data shows the United States possessing 800 strategic launchers, exactly the maximum number allowed by the treaty, of which 686 are deployed with 1,515 warheads attributed to them. This is an increase of 21 deployed strategic launchers and 126 deployed strategic warheads over the past 6 months. The increase is probably partly due to the 13th SSBN – the USS Wyoming (SSBN-742) – having completed its reactor refueling overhaul. The 1,515 deployed warheads is the highest number the United States has deployed since September 2015. The total inventory of strategic launchers has not declined since 2017.
The aggregate data does not reveal how many warheads are attributed to the three legs of the triad. The full unclassified data set will be released later this summer. But if one assumes the number of deployed bombers and deployed ICBMs are the same as in the September 2021 data, then the SSBNs carry 1,068 warheads on roughly 220 deployed Trident II SLBMs. That is an increase of 123 warheads on the SSBN force compared with September, or an average of 4-5 warheads per deployed missile. Overall, this accounts for roughly 70 percent of all the 1,515 warheads attributed to the deployed strategic launchers (nearly 73 percent if excluding the “fake” 45 bomber weapons included in the official count).
Compared with February 2011, the United States has reduced its total inventory of strategic launchers by 324, deployed launchers by 196, and deployed strategic warheads by 285. While important, the warhead reduction represents only a small fraction (about 8 percent) of the estimated 3,708 warheads that remain in the U.S. stockpile (just over 5 percent if counting total inventory of 5,428 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).
The Russian Federation
The New START data shows Russia with an inventory of 761 strategic launchers, of which 526 are deployed with 1,474 warheads attributed to them. Compared with six months ago, this is a decrease of 1 deployed launcher and an increase of 16 deployed strategic warheads. The change reflects fluctuations caused by launcher maintenance and upgrade work to new systems.
Compared with February 2011, Russia has cut its total inventory of strategic launchers by 104, increased deployed launchers by 5, and decreased deployed strategic warheads by 63. This modest warhead reduction represents less than 2 percent of the estimated 4,477 warheads that remain in Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile (roughly 1 percent if counting the total inventory of 5,977 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).
The Russian New START reductions since 2011 are smaller than the US reductions because Russia had fewer strategic forces than the United States when the treaty entered into force.
That disparity remains today. Despite frequent claims by hardliners that Russia is ahead of the United States, the New START data shows that Russia has 160 deployed strategic launchers fewer than the United States, a significant gap that exceeds the number of missiles in an entire US Air Force ICBM wing. Despite its nuclear modernization program, Russia has so far not sought to reduce this gap by deploying more strategic launchers. Instead, the Russian launcher deficit has been increasing by about one-third since its lowest point in February 2018.
Instead of closing the launcher gap, the Russian military appears to try to compensate by increasing the number of warheads that can be carried on the newer missiles (SS-27 Mod 2, Yars, and SS-N-32, Bulava) that are replacing older types (SS-25, Topol, SS-N-18, Vysota, and SS-N-23, Sineva). Thanks to the New START treaty limit, many of these warheads are not deployed on the missiles under normal circumstance but are stored and could potentially be uploaded onto the launchers in a crisis. The United States also has such an upload capability for its larger inventory of launchers and therefore is not at a strategic disadvantage.
Two of Russia’s new strategic nuclear weapons (SS-19 Mod 4, Avangard, and SS-29, Sarmat) are covered by New START if formally incorporated. Other types (the Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo, and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered ground-launched cruise missile) are not yet deployed and appear to be planned in relatively small numbers. They do not appear capable of upsetting the strategic balance in the foreseeable future. The treaty includes provisions for including new weapon types, if the two sides agree.
The sanctions in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely slow Russia’s nuclear modernization in the next decade.
Inspections and Notifications
In addition to the aggregate data described above, the New START treaty also allows for up to 18 on-site inspections per year and notifications of launcher movements and activities. Up until April 2020, a total of 328 on-site inspections were conducted. Because of COVID-19, there have been no inspections since. The two countries have continued to exchange large numbers of notifications: a total of 23,559 as of March 31, 2022.
The continued complaince by the United States and Russia to the New START treaty and its data exchanges are extraordinary given the demise of treaties, agreements, and deep animosity and almost complete loss of trust. The treaty’s interactions between the two countries and the caps and predictability it provides on strategic offensive nuclear forces have never been more important since New START was negotiated more than a decade ago.
But the clock is running out. Although New START was extended in February 2021 for an additional five years, the treaty will expire in February 2026. Strategic stability talks between Russia and the United States have been disrupted by the war in Ukraine and seem unlikely to resume in the foreseeable future.
If New START is not followed by a new treaty by the time it expires in 2026, there will no limits on US and Russian nuclear forces for the first time the 1970s.
Moreover, political polarization makes it highly uncertain if the US Congress would approve a new treaty.
Short of a formal treaty, the two sides potentially could make an executive agreement and pledge to continue to abide by the New START limits even after the treaty officially expires.
The silver lining is that both countries have a strong interest in continuing to maintain limits on the other side’s strategic offensive nuclear forces. That is why it is important that hardliners are not allowed to misuse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s nuclear buildup to undermine New START and increase nuclear forces.
- Status of World Nuclear Forces
- Russian nuclear forces, 2022
- United States nuclear forces, 2021 [2022 version forthcoming]
This publication was made possible by generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
The first public release of New START aggregate numbers since the United States and Russia in February extended the agreement for five years shows the treaty continues to limit the two nuclear powers strategic offensive nuclear forces.
Continued adherence to the New START limits is one of the few positive signs in the otherwise frosty relations between the two countries.
The ten years of aggregate data published so far looks like this:
The latest set of this data shows the situation as of March 1, 2021. As of that date, the two countries possessed a combined total of 1,567 accountable strategic missiles and heavy bombers, of which 1,168 launchers were deployed with 2,813 warheads. That is a slight decrease in the number of deployed launchers and warheads compared with six months ago (note: the combined warhead number is actually about 100 too high because each deployed bomber is counted as one weapon even though neither country’s bombers carry weapons under normal circumstances).
Compared with September 2020, the data shows the two countries combined increased the total number of strategic launchers by 3, decreased combined deployed strategic launchers by 17, and decreased the combined deployed strategic warheads by 91. Of these numbers, only the “3” is real; the other changes reflect natural fluctuations as launchers move in and out of maintenance or are being upgraded.
In terms of the total effect of the treaty, the data shows the two countries since February 2011 combined have cut 422 strategic launchers from their arsenals, reduced deployed strategic launchers by 235, and reduced the number of deployed strategic warheads by 524. However, it is important to remind that this warhead reduction is but a fraction (just over 6 percent) of the estimated 8,297 warheads that remain in the two countries combined nuclear weapons stockpiles (just over 4 percent if counting their total combined inventories of 11,807 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).
The United States
The data shows the United States currently possessing 800 strategic launchers, exactly the maxim number allowed by the treaty, of which 651 are deployed with 1,357 warheads attributed to them. This is a decrease of 24 deployed strategic launchers and 100 deployed strategic warheads over the past 6 months. These are not actual decreases but reflect normal fluctuations caused by launchers moving in and out of maintenance. The United States has not reduced its total inventory of strategic launchers since 2017.
The aggregate data does not reveal how many warheads are attributed to the three legs of the triad. The full unclassified data set will be released later. But if one assumes the number of deployed bombers and deployed ICBMs are the same as in the September 2020 data, then the SSBNs carry 909 warheads on 200 deployed Trident II SLBMs. That is a decrease of 100 warheads on the SSBN force compared with September, or an average of 4-5 warheads per deployed missile. Overall, this accounts for 67 percent of all the 1,357 warheads attributed to the deployed strategic launchers (nearly 70 percent if excluding the “fake” 50 bomber weapons included in the official count).
Compared with February 2011, the United States has reduced its inventory of strategic launchers by 324, deployed launchers by 231, and deployed strategic warheads by 443. While important, the warhead reduction represents only a small fraction (about 12 percent) of the 3,800 warheads that remain in the U.S. stockpile (less than 8 percent if counting total inventory of 5,800 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) warheads).
The Russian Federation
The New START data shows Russia with an inventory of 767 strategic launchers, of which 517 are deployed with 1,456 warheads attributed to them. Compared with six months ago, this is an increase of 7 deployed launchers and 9 deployed strategic warheads. The change reflects fluctuations caused by launcher maintenance and upgrade work to new systems.
Compared with February 2011, Russia has cut its inventory of strategic launchers by 98, deployed launchers by 4, and deployed strategic warheads by 81. This modest warhead reduction represents less than 2 percent of the estimated 4,497 warheads that remain in Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile (only 1.3 percent if counting the total inventory of 6,257 stockpiled and retired (but yet to be dismantled) Russian warheads).
Compared with 2011, the Russian reductions accomplished under New START are smaller than the U.S. reductions because Russia had fewer strategic forces than the United States when the treaty entered into force in 2011.
Build-up, What Build-up?
With frequent claims by U.S. officials that Russia is increasing its nuclear arsenal, which may be happening in some categories, it is interesting that despite a significant modernization program, the New START data shows this increase is not happening in the size of Russia’s accountable strategic nuclear forces. (The number of strategic-range nuclear forces outside New START is minuscule.)
On the contrary, the New START data shows that Russia has 134 deployed strategic launchers less than the United States, a significant gap roughly equal to the number of missiles in an entire US Air Force ICBM wing. It is significant that Russia despite its modernization programs so far has not sought to reduce this gap by deploying more strategic launchers. Instead, the Russian launcher deficit has been increasing by nearly one-third since its lowest point in February 2018.
Instead, the Russian military appears to try to compensate for the launcher disparity by increasing the number of warheads that can be carried on the newer missiles (SS-27 Mod 2, Yars, and SS-N-32, Bulava) that are replacing older types (SS-25, Topol, and SS-N-18, Vysota). Thanks to the New START treaty limit, many of these warheads are not deployed on the missiles under normal circumstance but are stored and could potentially be uploaded onto the launchers in a crisis. The United States also has such an upload capability for its larger inventory of launchers and therefore is not at a strategic disadvantage.
Two of Russia’s new strategic nuclear weapons (SS-19 Mod 4, Avangard, and SS-29, Sarmat) are covered by New START if formally incorporated. Other types (Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo, and Burevestnik nuclear-powered ground-launched cruise missile) are not yet deployed and appear to be planned in relatively small numbers. They do not appear capable of upsetting the strategic balance in the foreseeable future. The treaty includes provisions for including new weapon types, if the two sides agree.
Inspections and Notifications
In addition to the New START data, the U.S. State Department has also updated the overview of part of its treaty verification activities. The data shows that the two sides since February 2011 have carried out 328 on-site inspections of each other’s strategic nuclear forces and exchanged 21,727 notifications of launcher movements and activities. Nearly 860 of those notifications were exchanged since September 2020.
Importantly, due to the Coronavirus outbreak, there have been no on-site inspections conducted since April 1, 2020. Instead, notification exchanges and National Technical Means of verification have provided adequate verification. Nonetheless, on-site inspection can hopefully be resumed soon.
This inspection and notification regime and record are crucial parts of the treaty and increasingly important for U.S.-Russian strategic relations as other treaties and agreements have been scuttled.
Although the New START treaty has been extended for five years and it appears to be working, that is no reason to be complacent. The United States and Russia should undertake detailed and ongoing negotiations about what a follow-on treaty will look like, so they are ready well before the five-year extension runs out. The incompetent and brinkmanship negotiation style of the Trump administration fully demonstrated the risks and perils of waiting to the last minute. The Biden administration can and should do better.
This publication was made possible by generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
The US Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) has published a new version of its widely referenced Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report.
The agency normally puts out an updated version of the report every four years. The previous version dates from 2017.
The 2021 report (dated 2020) provides information on developments in many countries but is clearly focused on China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Especially the North Korean data is updated because of the significant developments since 2017.
The most interesting new information in the updated report is probably that the new Chinese JL-3 sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is capable of carrying multiple warheads.
Overall, however, the new report may be equally interesting because of what it does not include. There are a number of cases where the report is scaled back compared with previous versions. And throughout the report, much of the data clearly hasn’t been updated since 2018. In some places it is even inconsistent and self-contradicting.
The most significant data reduction is in the cruise missile section where the report no longer lists countries other than Russia, China, and Iran. This is a significant change from previous reports that listed a wide range of other countries, including India and Pakistan and many others that have important cruise missile programs in development. The omission is curious because the report in all ballistic missile categories includes other countries.
Other examples of reduced data include the overview of ballistic missile launches, which for some reason does not show data for 2019 and 2020. Nor is it clear from the table which countries are included.
Also, in some descriptions of missile program developments the report appears to be out of date and not update on recent developments. This includes the Russian SS-X-28 (RS-26 Rubezh) shorter-range ICBM, which the report portrays as an active program but only presents data for 2018. Likewise, the report does not mention the two additional boats being added to the Chinese SSBN fleet. Moreover, the new section with air-launched ballistic missiles only includes Russia but leaves out Chinese developments and only appears to include data up through early 2018.
Whether these omissions reflect changes in classification rules, chaos is the Intelligence Community under the Trump administration, or simply oversight is unknown.
Below follows highlights of some of the main nuclear issues in the new report.
Russian Nuclear Forces
Information about Russian ballistic and cruise missile programs dominate the report, but less so than in previous versions. NASIC says Russia currently has approximately 1,400 nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs and SLBMs, a reduction from the “over 1,500” reported in 2017. The new number is well known from the release of New START data and is very close to the 1,420 warheads we estimated in our Russian Nuclear Notebook last year.
NASIC repeats the projection from 2017, that “the number of missiles in the Russian ICBM force will continue to decrease because of arms control agreements, aging missiles, and resource constraints….”
The statement that “Russia retains over 1,000 nuclear warheads on ICBMs” is curious, however, because would imply the SLBM force is loaded with fewer warheads than normally assumed. The warhead loading attributed to the SS-N-32 (Bulava) is 6, the number declared by Russia under the START treaty, and less than the 10 warheads that is often claimed by unofficial sources.
The new version describes continued development of the SS-28 (RS-26 (Rubezh) shorter-range ICBM suspected by some to actually be an IRBM. But the report only lists development activities up through 2018 and nothing since. The system is widely thought to have been mothballed due to budget constraints.
The cruise missile section attributes nuclear capability – or possible nuclear capability – to most of the Russian missiles listed. Six systems are positively identified as nuclear, including the Kh-102, which was not listed in the 2017 report. Two of the nuclear systems are dual-capable, including the 9M729 (SSC-8) missile the US said violated the now-abandoned INF treaty, while 3 missiles are listed as “Conventional, Nuclear Possible.” That includes the 9M728 (R-500) cruise missile (SSC-7) launched by the Iskander system, the 3M-14 (Kalibr) cruise missile (SS-N-30), and the 3M-55 (Yakhont, P-800) cruise missile (SS-N-26).
The designation of “nuclear possible” for the SS-N-30 (3M-14, often called the Kalibr even though Kalibr is strictly speaking the name of the launcher system) is curious because the Russian government has clearly stated that the missile is nuclear-capable.
Chinese Nuclear Forces
The biggest news in the China section of the NASIC report is that the new JL-3 SLBM that will arm the next-generation Type 096 SSBN will be capable of delivering “multiple” warheads and have a range of more than 10,000 kilometers. That is a significant increase in capability compared with the JL-2 SLBM currently deployed on the Jin-class SSBNs and is likely part of the reason for the projection that China’s nuclear stockpile might double over the next decade.
Despite this increased range, however, a Type 096 operating from the current SSBN base in the South China Sea would not be able to strike targets in the continental United States. To be able to reach targets in the continental United States, an SSBN would have to launch its missile from the Bohai Sea. That would bring almost one-third of the continental United States within range. To target Washington, DC, however, a Type 096 SSBN would still have to deploy deep into the Pacific.
The new DF-41 (CSS-20) has lost its “-X-“ designation (CSS-X-20), which indicates that NASIC considers the missile has finished development is now being deployed. A total of 16+ launchers are listed, probably based on the number attending the 2019 parade in Beijing and the number seen operating in the Jilantai training area.
The number of DF-31A and DF-31AG launchers is very low, 15+ and 16+ respectively, which is strange given the number of bases observed with the launchers. Of course, “+” can mean anything and we estimate the number of launchers is probably twice that number. Also interesting is that the DF-31AG is listed as “UNK” (unknown) for warheads per missile. The DF-31A is listed with one warhead, which suggests that the AG version potentially could have a different payload. Nowhere else is the AG payload listed as different or even multiple warheads.
The NASIC report projection for the increase in Chinese nuclear ICBM warheads that can reach the United States is inconsistent and self-contradicting. In one section (p. 3) the report predicts “the number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States potentially expanding to well over 200 within the next 5 years.” But in another section (p. 27), the report states that the “number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to well over 100 in the next 5 years.” The projection of “well over 100” was also listed in the 2017 report, and the “well over 200” projection matches the projection made in the DOD annual report on Chinese military developments. So the authors of the NASIC might simply have forgotten to update the text.
On Chinese shorter-range ballistic missiles, the NASIC report only mentions DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2) as nuclear, but not the CSS-5 Mod 6 version. The Mod 6 version (potentially called DF-21E) was first mentioned in the 2016 DOD report on Chinese military developments and has been included since.
Newer missiles finally get designations: The dual-capable DF-26 is called the CSS-18, and the conventional (possibly) DF-17 is called the CSS-22. NASIC continues to list the DF-26 range as less (3,000+ km) than the annual DOD China report (4,000 km).
An in case anyone was tempted, no, none of China’s cruise missiles are listed as nuclear-capable.
Pakistani Nuclear Forces
The report provides no new information about Pakistani nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. As with several other sections in the report, the information does not appear to have been updated much beyond 2018, if at all. As such, status information should be read with caution.
The Shaheen-III MRBM is still not deployed, nor is the Ababeel MRBM that NASIC describes as a “MIRV version.” It has only been flight-tested once.
The tactical nuclear-capable NASR is listed with a range of 60 km, the same as in 2017, even though the Pakistani government has since claimed the range has been extended to 70 km.
Because the new NASIC report no longer includes data on Pakistan’s cruise missiles, neither the Babur nor the RAAD programs are described. Nor is any information provided about the efforts by the Pakistani navy to develop a submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile.
Indian Nuclear Forces
Similar to other sections of the report, the data on Indian programs are tainted by the fact that some information does not appear to have been updated since 2018, and that the cruise missile section does not include India at all.
According to the report, Agni II and Agni III MRBMs are still deployed in very low numbers, fewer than 10 launchers, the same number reported in 2017. That number implies only a single brigade of each missile. But, again, it is not clear this information has actually been updated.
Nor are the Agni IV or the Agni V listed as deployed yet.
North Korean Forces
The North Korean sections are main interesting because of the inclusion of data on several systems test-launched since the previous report in 2017. This contrasts several other data set in the report, which do not appear to have been updated past 2018. But since the North Korean long-range tests occurred in 2017, this may explain why they are included.
NASIC provides official (unclassified) range estimates for these missiles:
The Hwasong-12 IRBM range has been increased from 3,000+ km in 2017 to 4,500+ km in the new report.
On the ICBMs, the Taepo Dong 2 no longer has a range estimate. The Hwasong-13 and Hwasong-14 range estimates have been raised from the generic 5,500+ km in the 2017 report to 12,000 km and 10,000+ km, respectively, in the new report, and the new Hwasong-15 has been added with a range estimate of 12,000+ km. The warhead loading estimates for the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 are “unknown” and none of the ICBMs are listed as deployed.
On submarine-launched missiles, the NASIC report lists two: the Puguksong-1 and Pukguksong-3. Both have range estimates of 1,000+ km and the warhead estimate for the Pukguksong-3 is unknown (“UNK”). Neither is deployed. The new Pukguksong-4 paraded in October 2020 is not listed, not is the newest Pukguksong-5 displayed in early 2021 mentioned.
Additional background information:
The US Air Force is working to expand the number of strategic bomber bases that can store nuclear weapons from two today to five by the 2030s.
The plan will also significantly expand the number of bomber bases that store nuclear cruise missiles from one base today to all five bombers bases by the 2030s.
The expansion is the result of a decision to replace the non-nuclear B-1B bombers at Ellsworth AFB and Dyess AFB with the nuclear B-21 over the next decade-and-a-half and to reinstate nuclear weapons storage capability at Barksdale AFB as well.
The expansion is not expected to increase the total number of nuclear weapons assigned to the bomber force, but to broaden the infrastructure to “accommodate mission growth,” Air Force Global Strike Command Commander General Timothy Ray told Congress last year.
Nuclear Bomber Base Expansion
The Air Force announced in May 2018 that the B-21 would replace the B-1B and B-2A bombers and be deployed at Ellsworth AFB, Dyess AFB, and Whiteman AFB. The commander of the strategic bomber force later explained in a video address to the B-1B bases that “the B-21 will bring significant changes to each location, to include the reintroduction of nuclear mission requirements.”
Since the B-1B was replaced in the nuclear war plan by the B-2A in 1997 and all B-1B bombers were denuclearized in 2011, the effect of the B-21 bomber program is that nuclear bomber operations will increase from the three bases today to five bases in the future (see map):
The Air Force previously planned for the B-21 to replace the B-2A no later than 2032 and the B-1Bs no later than 2036, though those dates may have shifted some since.
The effect of the integration of the B-21 is that bases with nuclear stealth bombers will increase from one today (Whiteman AFB) to three in the future.
The modernization plan also appears to significantly expand the location of nuclear cruise missiles from one base today (Minot AFB) to all five bomber bases by the late-2030s. The LRSO is scheduled to begin entering the arsenal in 2030 (see table):
Nuclear Storage Facilities
A key element of the base upgrades to operate the B-21 involves the construction of a new nuclear weapons storage facility at each base: a Weapons Generation Facility (WGF). The new facility is different than the Weapons Storage Areas (WSAs) that that the Air Force built during the Cold War because it will integrate maintenance and storage mission sets into the same facility. The WGF will have a footprint of roughly 35 acres and include an approximately 52,000-square-foot (4,860 square meters) building as well as a 17,600 square-foot munitions maintenance building. The Air Force says the WGF will be “unique to the B-21 mission” and designed to provide a “safer and more secure location for the storage of Air Force nuclear munitions.”
An WGF is also under construction at F.E. Warren AFB for storage of ICBM warheads.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement recently posted by the Air Force shows the planned location of the nuclear weapons storage facility at Dyess and Ellsworth air force bases. At Dyess AFB, the intension is to build facility at the northern end of the base near the current munitions depot (see map below):
At Ellsworth AFB, the Air Force has identified two preferred locations: one at the northern end near the munitions depot, and one at the southern end near the aircraft alert apron (see map below):
Although Barksdale AFB is not scheduled to receive the B-21, preparations are underway to reinstate the capability to store nuclear weapons at the base. The capability was lost when the Air Force last decade consolidated operational nuclear ALCM storage at Minot AFB. Once completed, the new WGF will enable the base to store nuclear LRSO cruise missiles for delivery by the B-52s.
Nuclear Bomber Force Increase
The B-21 bomber program is expected to increase the overall size of the US strategic bomber force. The Air Force currently operates about 158 bombers (62 B-1B, 20 B-2A, and 76 B-52H) and has long said it plans to procure at least 100 B-21 bombers. That number now appears [https://www.airforcemag.com/article/strategy-policy-9/] to be at least 145, which will increase the overall bomber force by 62 bombers to about 220. There are currently nine bomber squadrons, a number the Air Force wants to increase to 14 (each base has more than one squadron).
During an interview with reporters in April, the head of AFGSC, General Timothy Ray, reportedly said the 220 number was a “minimum, not a ceiling” and added: “We as the Air Force now believe it’s over 220.” Whether Congress will agree to pay for that many B-21s remains to be seen.
The fielding of large numbers of nuclear-capable B-21 bombers has implications for the future development of the US nuclear arsenal. Under the New START treaty, the United States has declared it will deploy no more than 60 nuclear bombers. Although the treaty will lapse in 2026 (after a five-year maximum extension), it serves as the baseline for long-term nuclear force structure planning.
Unless the Air Force limits the number of nuclear-equipped B-21 bombers to the number of B-2As operated today, the number of nuclear bombers would begin to exceed the 60 deployed nuclear bomber pledge by 2028 (assuming an annual production of nine aircraft and two-year delay in deployment of the first nuclear unit). By 2035, the number of deployed nuclear bombers could have doubled compared with today (see graph below):
It is difficult to imagine a military justification for such an increase in the number of nuclear bombers – even without New START. One would hope that the number of nuclear B-21s will be limited to well below the total number. Although the New START treaty would have expired before this becomes a a legal issue, it would already now send the wrong message to other nuclear-armed states about US long-term intensions, deepen suspicion and “Great Power Competition,” and could complicate future arms control talks.
In the short term, the incoming Biden administration should commit the United States to not increase the number of nuclear bombers beyond those planned under the New START treaty, and it should urge Russia to make a similar declaration about the size of its nuclear bomber force.
This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.