By Hans M. Kristensen
Russian nuclear weapons have received a lot of attention lately. Russian officials casually throw around direct or thinly veiled nuclear threats (here, here and here). And U.S. defense hawks rail (here and here) about a Russian nuclear buildup.
In reality, rather than building up, Russia is building down but appears to be working to level off the force within the next decade to prevent further unilateral reduction of its strategic nuclear force in the future. For details, see the latest FAS Nuclear Notebook on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web site.
This trend makes it more important for the United States and Russia to reach additional nuclear arms control agreements to reduce strategic nuclear forces. Hard to imagine in the current climate, but remember: even at the height of the Cold War the two sides reached important arms limitation agreements because it was seen then (as it is now) to be in their national security interest.
Trends: Launchers and Warheads
There are many uncertainties about the future development of Russian nuclear forces. Other than three aggregate numbers released under the New START Treaty, neither Russia nor the United States publish data on the numbers of Russian nuclear forces.
Russian officials occasionally make statements about the status of individual nuclear launchers and modernization programs, and Russian news articles provide additional background. Moreover, commercial satellite photos make it possible to monitor (to some extent) the status of strategic nuclear forces.
As a result, there is considerable – and growing – uncertainty about the status and trend of Russian nuclear forces. The available information indicates that Russia is continuing to reduce its strategic nuclear launchers well below the limit set by the New START Treaty. Over the next decade, all Soviet-era ICBMs (SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25) will be retired, the navy’s Delta III SSBN and its SS-N-18 missiles will be retired, and some of the Delta IV SSBNs will probably be retired as well.
To replace the Soviet-era launchers, Russia is deploying and developing several versions of the SS-27 ICBM and developing a new “heavy” ICBM. The navy is deploying the Borey-class SSBN with a new missile, the SS-N-32 (Bulava). This transition has been underway since 1997.
Depending on the extent of modernization plans over the next decade and how many missiles Russia can actually produce and deploy, the overall strategic force appears to be leveling off just below 500 launchers (see below), well below the New START Treaty limits of 700 deployed strategic launchers and 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers.
The warhead loading on the strategic launchers is also decreasing mainly because of the retirement of warhead-heavy SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs. But because single-warhead SS-25s are being replaced with MIRVed SS-27s, and because the navy’s new SS-N-32 (Bulava) missile carries more warheads than the SS-N-18 and SS-N-23 missiles it is replacing, the overall warhead loading appears to be leveling off as well (see below).
Not all of these warheads are deployed on launchers at any given time. Weapons are not loaded on bombers under normal circumstances and some SSBNs and ICBMs are down for maintenance or repair. The latest New START Treaty warhead count was 1,582 warheads, which means approximately 1,525 warheads were on SSBNs and ICBMs (excluding the roughly 55 counted bombers that are artificially attributed one weapon each).
Non-strategic nuclear weapons are also described in the Notebook. Their status is even more uncertain than the strategic forces. We estimate there are roughly 2,000 warheads assigned to fighter-bombers, short-range ballistic missiles, naval cruise missiles and anti-submarine weapons, and land-based defense and missile-defense forces. Some of the non-strategic nuclear forces are also being modernized and the United States has accused Russia of developing a new ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the INF Treaty, but overall the size of the non-strategic nuclear forces will likely decreased over the next decade.
Russian Nuclear Strategy: What’s Real?
Underpinning these nuclear forces is Russia’s nuclear strategy, which reportedly is causing concern in NATO. A new study was discussed at the NATO ministerial meeting in February. “What worries us most in this strategy is the modernization of the Russian nuclear forces, the increase in the level of training of those forces and the possible combination between conventional actions and the use of nuclear forces, including possibly in the framework of a hybrid war,” one unnamed NATO official told Reuters.
That sounds like a summary of events over the past decade merged with fear that Putin’s currently military escapades could escalate into something more. The nuclear modernizations have been underway for a long time and the increased training is widely reported but its implications less clear. For all its concern about Russian nuclear strategy, NATO hasn’t said much in public about specific new developments.
A senior NATO official recently said Russia’s Zapad exercise in 2013 was “supposed to be a counter-terrorism exercise but it involved the (simulated) use of nuclear weapons.” In contrast, an earlier private analysis of Zapad-13 said the exercise included “virtually the entire range of conceivable military operations except for nuclear strikes…”
Russian nuclear strategy has been relatively consistent over the past decade. The most recent version, approved by Putin in December 2014, states that Russia “shall reserve for itself the right to employ nuclear weapons in response to the use against it and/or its allies of nuclear and other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with use of conventional weapons when the state’s very existence has been threatened.”
This formulation is almost identical to the mission described in the 2010 version of the doctrine, which stated that Russia “reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.”
Despite many rumors in both 2010 and 2014 that the strategy would incorporate preemptive nuclear strikes, neither document discusses such options (it is unknown what is in the secret versions). On the contrary, the nuclear portion of the strategy doesn’t seem that different from what NATO and the United States say about the role of their nuclear weapons: responding to use of weapons of mass destruction and even significant conventional attacks. The Russian strategy appears to limit the nuclear use in response to conventional attacks to when the “very existence” of Russia is threatened.
Given this defensive and somewhat restrictive nuclear strategy, why do we hear Russian officials throwing around nuclear threats against all sorts of scenarios that do not involve WMD attacks against Russia or threaten the very existence of the country?
For example, why does the Russian Ambassador to Denmark threaten nuclear strikes against Danish warships if they were equipped with radars that form part of the U.S. missile defense system when they would not constitute a WMD attack or threaten the existence of Russia?
Or why does President Putin say he would have considered placing nuclear weapons on alert if NATO had intervened to prevent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula if it were not an WMD attack or threaten the existence of Russia? (Note: Russia already has nuclear weapons on alert, although not in Crimea).
Or why did Russian officials tell U.S. officials that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons if NATO tries to force return of Crimea to Ukrainian control or deploys sizable forces to the Baltic States, if these acts do not involve WMD attacks or threaten the existence of Russia? (Kremlin denied its officials said that).
When officials from a nuclear-armed country make nuclear threats one obviously has to pay attention – especially if made by the president. But these nuclear threats so deviate from Russia’s public nuclear strategy that they are either blustering, or Russia has a very different nuclear strategy than its official documents portray.
Ironically, the more Russian officials throw around nuclear threats, the weaker Russia appears. Whereas NATO and the United States have been reluctant to refer to the role of nuclear weapons in the current crisis (despite what you might hear, the justification for U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe is weaker today than it was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and instead emphasized conventional forces and operations, Russia’s nuclear threats reveal that Russian officials do not believe their conventional forces are capable of defending Russia – even against conventional attack.
That makes it even stranger that Putin is wasting enormous sums of money on maintaining a large nuclear arsenal instead of focusing on modernizing Russia’s conventional forces, as well as using arms control to try to reduce NATO’s nuclear and conventional forces. That would actually improved Russia’s security.
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