The Buzz

Russia's Nuclear Weapons: Everything You Always Wanted To Know (But Were Afraid To Ask)

During this time, the Soviets and the Americans constructed nuclear forces that mirrored each other in important ways. Both relied on a mixture of ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and bombers to ensure the survivability of their deterrent and to maintain the ability to deliver a massive retaliatory strike no matter how bad the first wave of nuclear exchanges. To this day, only Russia and the United States maintain this “triad” of delivery systems. There were differences, however, that reflected geography and tradition: the Soviet Union, a massive land empire spanning two continents, commanded plenty of real estate and therefore buried most of its deterrent in silos. The United States, a maritime superpower, put most of its megatonnage underwater on submarines. The Soviet long-range bomber force never progressed beyond propeller-driven aircraft that had only enough range for one-way suicide missions, while the Americans developed the workhorse B-52 bomber and its stealth follow-on, the B-2.

Because of the Cold War standoff in Europe, East and West also developed a large arsenal of battlefield nuclear weapons. By the late 1960s, the United States and the USSR had tens of thousands of strategic and tactical weapons. Even more worrisome, each side fielded highly destabilizing INF, or intermediate-range nuclear forces, in the 1970s and 1980s. These weapons could reach all European NATO capitals from Soviet territory, and conversely, could reach Moscow from NATO bases, in a matter of minutes, cutting decision times for national leaders from minutes to literally seconds. This entire class of weapons (that is, with flight ranges more than 500 km but less than 5500 km, was banned by Soviet-American agreement in the INF Treaty of 1987.)

The jewel in the Soviet nuclear crown was the Strategic Rocket Forces, a separate branch of the armed forces dedicated solely to ICBMs. The United States, by contrast, divided the strategic mission between the Navy and the Air Force. (Although the Americans created a Strategic Command in 1992, the day to day operation of U.S. long-range forces still resides with the USN and USAF.) The Russian Strategic Rocket Forces still enjoy this privileged position, both in prestige and resources. Like the other Russian branches, they even have their own patron saint: St. Barbara, the patroness of people who, for want of a better description, work with things that explode. (Tellingly, the officially atheist Soviets established the SRF on St. Barbara’s Day—December 17—in 1959.)

The Russian nuclear arsenal in 2014 is much like its American counterpart: a kind of Mini-Me of its Cold War incarnation. It is a far smaller inventory than the huge Soviet force of the 1980s, but it is more than capable of destroying the United States, Europe, and the Northern Hemisphere. The Russian Federation officially claims to have 1400 nuclear warheads associated with 473 deployed strategic launchers of various types, although other estimates place that number somewhere between 1500 and 1700 warheads. The Americans, for their part, have 1,585 warheads deployed on 778 launchers. Each side actually has thousands more weapons, some nondeployed, others awaiting dismantling. (For a full, down-to-the-warhead accounting of the Russian arsenal, there is no better source than scholar Pavel Podvig’s website, from which these numbers are taken.)

In every respect, the current Russian deterrent is structured like its Soviet predecessor. ICBMs, launched either from silos or mobile launchers, remain the most reliable weapons and the mainstay of the Russian nuclear force. The Russian submarine force, almost moribund since the Soviet collapse and crippled yet again by a disaster in 2000 aboard the Russian submarine Kursk, has recovered somewhat, and Russian nuclear-missile-carrying submarines are now engaging in more patrols closer to the United States since 2009. Only the Russian bomber force remains mired in its Soviet-era decrepitude, in part because Russian jet design has been the poor stepchild of Russian military research and development efforts. Although Russia’s bomber pilots are flying more hours and trying to return to their Cold War games along North American and European airspace, Russian bombers remain little more than a small adjunct to the submarine and land-based threats.

At the strategic level, the difference between the U.S. and Russian arsenals is small, and both sides have committed to the cap of 1550 warheads mandated by the New START Treaty of 2010. But strategic nuclear reductions are, in a sense, the easy task, especially because New START uses simplified counting rules—treating bombers, for example, as one launcher with one weapon—that suggest that neither side really cares very much about the great bugaboo of 1970s-era arms control, “strategic superiority.” (Arms-control expert Hans Kristensen summarized New START’s rules more succinctly: “Totally nuts.”)