The Buzz

Russia's Nuclear Weapons Buildup Is Aimed at Beating U.S. Missile Defenses

Russia is developing a host of new strategic nuclear weapons designed to defeat American missile defenses.

According to the Kremlin, Russia was spurred into action by U.S. President George W. Bush’s December 13, 2001 decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. However, while the Russians are developing a host of new weapons, there will likely be little overall impact on the strategic balance between Moscow and Washington. The real problem is that these developments strain the hard-won arms control regime that played a decisive role in helping bring the Cold War with the Soviet Union to a close. Moreover, as tensions between the United States and Russia continue to increase, the two great powers seem to be drifting into what can only be described as a new Cold War.

“During all these years since the unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons,” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said during a March 1 address to the Federal Assembly. “Let me recall that the United States is creating a global missile defense system primarily for countering strategic arms that follow ballistic trajectories. These weapons form the backbone of our nuclear deterrence forces, just as of other members of the nuclear club.”

Preserving Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent

To counter what the Kremlin sees as the United States’ goal of undermining Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent, Moscow has embarked on a program to develop new weapons capable of defeating any new American ballistic missile defense system. “Russia has developed, and works continuously to perfect, highly effective but modestly priced systems to overcome missile defense. They are installed on all of our intercontinental ballistic missile complexes,” Putin said. “In addition, we have embarked on the development of the next generation of missiles.”

Among those weapons is the formidable Sarmat heavy liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile, which is being developed as a replacement for the massive 210-ton R-36M2 Voevoda, which is appropriately called the SS-18 Satan by NATO. The weapon flies on novel trajectories to thwart any attempt at interception by missile defenses.

“Sarmat will replace the Voevoda system made in the USSR. Its immense power was universally recognized. Our foreign colleagues even gave it a fairly threatening name,” Putin said. “The capabilities of the Sarmat missile are much higher. Weighing over 200 tons, it has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for missile defense systems. The range of the new heavy missile, the number and power of its combat blocs is bigger than Voevoda’s. Sarmat will be equipped with a broad range of powerful nuclear warheads, including hypersonic, and the most modern means of evading missile defense. The high degree of protection of missile launchers and significant energy capabilities the system offers will make it possible to use it in any conditions.”

What makes the Sarmat particularly formidable is the weapons’ ability to fly a trajectory over the South Pole, completely bypassing any current U.S. missile defense system. “It can attack targets both via the North and South poles,” Putin said. “Sarmat is a formidable missile and, owing to its characteristics, is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defense systems.”

While the Sarmat was well known to Western experts, the Putin highlighted a host of non-ballistic missiles—some of which were known and some of which are new—that would bypass American missile defenses. One such weapon is a nuclear-powered cruise missile—a prototype of which the Russians have already tested.

“One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile – a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range,” Putin said. “It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries. It is invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.”

Putin also highlighted the Status-6 intercontinental-range nuclear torpedo, which would be powered by a compact nuclear reactor and carry a massive 100-megaton warhead. “We have developed unmanned submersible vehicles that can move at great depths—I would say extreme depths—intercontinentally, at a speed multiple times higher than the speed of submarines, cutting-edge torpedoes and all kinds of surface vessels, including some of the fastest,” Putin said. “It is really fantastic. They are quiet, highly maneuverable and have hardly any vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit. There is simply nothing in the world capable of withstanding them. Unmanned underwater vehicles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.”