The Buzz

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

Putin also pointed to a heretofore-unknown hypersonic dual-capable nuclear and conventional air launched cruise missile called the Dagger (or Kinzhal in Russian) which Russia recently tested. Indeed, Putin said that the weapon is already starting to enter service with the Russian military. “Its tests have been successfully completed, and, moreover, on December 1 of last year, these systems began their trial service at the airfields of the Southern Military District,” Putin said. “The unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes. The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, 10 times faster than the speed of sound, can also maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory, which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers. We called this system Kinzhal.”

Meanwhile, Putin also mentioned that Russia has successfully tested a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which could also be used to carry a nuclear payload to intercontinental ranges. “A real technological breakthrough is the development of a strategic missile system with fundamentally new combat equipment – a gliding wing unit, which has also been successfully tested,” Putin said. “Let me assure you that we have all this and it is working well. Moreover, Russian industrial enterprises have embarked on the development of another new type of strategic weapon. We called it the Avangard.”

Is Putin Bluffing?

Experts on the Russian military said that Putin is not exaggerating about Russia’s new weapons. Nor is the existence of most of these weapons a huge surprise.  “It's a few new developments. I guess we knew about most of them, but not all,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, told The National Interest. “This is the first time I've heard about the nuclear powered cruise missile—or the Kinzhal system. Sarmat seems larger than we thought, although I would be skeptical about Putin's numbers—200 tons missile and all that.”

Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that the Russia concepts are not viable—indeed most of these weapons are likely the real deal. “They apparently tested all that Putin showed, so it is all feasible,” Podvig said “Whether these things would make sense is another matter. I don't think any of these are really necessary if we are talking about countering missile defense.”

Michael Kofman, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses specializing in Russian military affairs, agreed that all of the weapons that Putin bragged about are feasible and are real programs. “Most of this is reality, it’s just a question of near or distant reality,” Kofman said.

Near Term Strategic Implications

Overall, there would not be immediate strategic implications for the United States in the short term. Indeed, there are no existing American countermeasures to defeat Russia’s existing nuclear arsenal. “Insofar as there is no current or anticipated missile-defense counter to anything already in Russia's strategic arsenal, no, nothing changes,” Joshua H. Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The National Interest.

Podvig agreed with Pollack’s assessment—the overarching strategic balance would remain more or less stable. “It won't change the balance in the sense that it will not drive quantitative increase in the number of missiles or warheads,” Podvig said. “But these systems will definitely complicate the situation and will make it more accident-prone.”

Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at MIT, said that one of the reasons the United States had abandoned nuclear-powered cruise missile development was the sheer risk due to accidents. “Seems like the [Russian] tests crashed,” Narang said. “And we tried it in the Cold War (Project Pluto), but it’s an unshielded small nuclear reactor on a cruise missile— it’s nuts.”

Longer Term Implications

There will, however, be longer-term implications as the new Russian weapons are fielded, particularly the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the hypersonic cruise missile. The new weapons could do severe damage to the current nuclear arms control regime.

“The interesting point, for me, is that the deployment of certain of these new systems would fall outside of New START limits, which were narrowly drawn to limit ballistic missiles (and nuclear-capable strategic bombers),” Pollack said. “The U.S. even went on the record unilaterally asserting that boost-glide weapons fall outside of the definition of ‘ballistic missile.’ If it is not extended, New START will expire in a couple of years as it is. If we are to have strategic arms reductions after that, it will become important to negotiate a treaty that captures any new delivery modes that the Russians have successfully put into practice. But it is not clear to me that the Republican Party has any interest in any type of arms control anymore; they have developed a preference for arms-racing, and no treaty can get through the Senate without at least some GOP support.”

In Kofman’s view, the threat is not as severe as one might expect despite Putin’s strongly worded speech. “Only the cruise missile poses a danger to the nuclear force balance down the line because it is a strategic system uncovered by arms control,” Kofman said. “However, the systems in question are incredibly expensive to be deployed in large quantities and some require unique platforms for delivery, so they are 3rd strike revenge weapons—for example the nuclear powered torpedo is a boutique capability.”