Global Risk

Details of Russia’s nuclear modernization are inconsistent with warnings of vast nuclear expansion

03.11.24 | 5 min read | Text by Eliana Johns & Mackenzie Knight

While many are rightly concerned about Russia’s development and fielding of new nuclear-capable systems, a few key points about Russia’s nuclear modernization provide critical context into Moscow’s threat perceptions and strategic priorities and suggest that fears of a substantial Russian nuclear increase or change in the strategic environment might be overblown.

First, Russia’s nuclear force modernization is driven mainly by the need to replace older Soviet-era systems that are aging out. Just like every nuclear-armed state, the goal of Russia’s modernization campaign is to ensure that its forces are ready to operate in today’s environment and to support existing deterrence and strategic requirements. The initiation of these modernization programs does not necessarily depend on the adoption of a new nuclear strategy and posture but simply on when the systems were first fielded decades ago. The percentage of newer Russian nuclear systems compared to Soviet-era systems has long been an important public metric for Putin, who announced last month that 95% of Russian strategic systems had been modernized. 

Second, Russia sees U.S. missile defense capabilities as a real future risk. Because of this, we see Russia developing certain capabilities that are specifically designed to challenge U.S. missile defenses. For instance, Russia reportedly plans to replace its silo-based Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by 2030 with a new “Yars-M” ICBM variant that is under development. Compared to the single-warhead Topol-M ICBM, the Yars-M system will apparently carry multiple warheads with individual propulsion systems in a parallel staging configuration, which would theoretically allow for greater survivability against missile defenses given that warhead separation would take place at an earlier stage in flight. It would also potentially allow Russia to field more warheads compared with the Topol-M system. 

Additionally, we also see Russia developing hypersonic missiles that are designed to evade U.S. missile defense systems. Russia deployed upgraded SS-19 Mod 4s with its new Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) and is also rumored to be developing new HGVs that can be fitted atop modified ICBMs. Russia is also developing a new Kh-95 hypersonic air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) and has frequently touted the “hypersonic” nature of the Kinzhal long-range, air-launched ballistic missile that can be launched from specially modified MiG-31Ks. These developments, however, are not a strategic game-changer. A ‘hypersonic’ weapon broadly means anything that travels above Mach 5, which already includes existing ICBMs. While hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles are more difficult to intercept, the United States is already developing new missile defense interceptors specifically designed to counter these capabilities, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has also proven that ‘hypersonic’ missiles such as the Kinzhal are capable of being shot down in a real-world scenario.

Notably, many of Russia’s modernization programs have also been facing serious setbacks. From the Sarmat ICBM to the Burevestnik intercontinental-range nuclear-powered, ground-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile to the Poseidon nuclear-powered, long-range, nuclear-armed torpedo to the modernized Tu-160M bombers, many different systems are undergoing modernization programs simultaneously. On top of additional sanctions, supply chain deficiencies, and technical challenges, the concurrent development and modernization of several systems is causing significant delays to planned deployment schedules. 

Russia’s modernization plans seem focused on maintaining parity with the United States and cultivating prestige, especially in the midst of its lack of success in Ukraine. Indeed, some of Russia’s new nuclear systems under development appear to mirror new U.S. systems, but their development is lagging in comparison. For example, while the United States’ new strategic bomber under development–the B-21 Raider–has completed two confirmed test flights and entered low-rate initial production, Russia’s PAK DA bomber, also taking on a flying wing design, has been marred by delays. A full prototype has yet to be completed, despite research and development starting several years before the Raider. 

The threat from Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal also appears to have been overblown. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2021 Worldwide Threat Assessment and the State Department’s 2023 New START implementation report stated that Russia likely possesses 1,000-2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, though the State Department estimate included retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. In 2022, some officials warned that Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal could double by 2030. Despite these warnings, our team has observed no evidence of such an increase and have instead lowered our estimate to approximately 1,558 nonstrategic nuclear warheads. There is little authoritative public information available to support the rumors of a massive Russian increase of tactical nuclear weapons.

Despite all these developments, Russia’s current and planned force structure does not fundamentally ‘rock the boat.’ Russia’s nuclear modernization won’t change the fact that Russia still has fewer strategic launchers than the United States. Russia may be modernizing and developing new nuclear-capable systems, but it is not significantly building up its nuclear forces: Russia is replacing Soviet-era missiles with newer types on a less-than-one-for-one basis, we do not observe an increase in the number of warheads assigned for delivery by tactical forces, and we don’t see any changes in force posture on the ground. Russia’s claimed deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is likely meant to primarily discourage the United States and NATO from further intervention in the war in Ukraine. Because of the existing presence of Russian dual-capable forces and nuclear weapons storage in the Kaliningrad region, the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus does not change the strategic environment and likely reflects a contingency plan rather than a permanent deployment.

Despite Putin’s nuclear threats during the war in Ukraine, and despite alarmist reports to the contrary, there has been no significant change in Russia’s nuclear strategy, which has largely remained relatively consistent for decades. Russia has frequently used nuclear threats in the past to try to affect geopolitics, including in regard to NATO expansion, western aid to Ukraine, and the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe in 2008; however, there is no public indication that these signals necessarily portend a lowering of Russia’s nuclear threshold.

None of this is to say that Russian nuclear modernization and development is not a problem or cause for concern; Russia’s modernization of its nuclear forces, in addition to threats of nuclear action against other nations, creates ambiguity and concern surrounding Russia’s long-term intentions. Overinflation of the threat, however, will lead to miscalculation, calls for unnecessary increases to the U.S. nuclear force structure, and resistance to much-needed arms control efforts. We must be wary of letting worst-case scenario thinking push us into a dangerous arms race and unstable security situation, particularly when global tensions are so high and the United States is already planning to spend over $1 trillion on nuclear weapons programs over the next 30 years.

This research was carried out with generous contributions from the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, and individual donors.