Russia Flexes Its Nuclear Muscles

Moscow's modernization moves might derail the Obama administration's goal of a less nuclear world.

Two decades after the Cold War removed the Damocles' sword of mutually-assured destruction in a sea of nuclear fire from over our heads, and, in the words of George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, "made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete", the Russian decision to update, modernize and upgrade its nuclear forces is seen as a worrisome harbinger of a new era of strategic competition between Moscow and Washington. But Russian president Vladimir Putin is simply carrying out a 2012 election promise: "We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak. We will, under no circumstances, surrender our strategic deterrent capability. Indeed, we will strengthen it." Russia has signed a series of arms-control treaties with the United States that place strict limits on both the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, but both Moscow and Washington contend that arms limitations accords do not prohibit the replacement of ageing devices and the modernization of systems.

Many Americans hoped, however, that over time Russia would allow its nuclear force to atrophy, and indeed, in the economic collapse that followed the implosion of the Soviet Union, a post-Soviet Russia appeared unable to maintain its nuclear establishment. Indeed, one of the rationales behind American aid to assist Russia in securing its stockpiles of weapons and to retain some semblance of its nuclear establishment (the Nunn-Lugar program) was the fear that a sudden collapse of Russia's ability to wind down its Soviet nuclear inheritance would cause Russia to proliferate weapons, materials and personnel to other aspiring nuclear states. Since 1991, Russia has indeed destroyed large numbers of strategic nuclear (as well as chemical and biological) weapons as well as their delivery systems. However, even having accepted Cooperative Threat Reduction assistance for nearly twenty years to secure its arsenal and to destroy old weapons and obsolete systems, the Kremlin decided to embark on the next generation of weapons and delivery systems that will preserve a credible Russian nuclear deterrent for the 21st century. Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear policy, characterizes the Russian approach as striking a balance between "disarmament and modernization." Indeed, the Russian government is moving beyond simple "life-extension" or technical modifications of older existing systems—the SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the SS-N-18 and SS-N-23 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in favor of developing new missiles, warheads and delivery systems. Lieutenant General Sergei Karakayev, the commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, has stressed that by 2021, nearly the entire Russian strategic nuclear force will have been modernized.

Last month, the Russian government unveiled spending plans that would double the amount allocated for the country's strategic nuclear forces, to reach 46 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) by 2016. That announcement was followed by a "snap check" of the country's nuclear deterrent, held at the end of October, in which both land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles were fired and Russian air and missile defense systems were tested at the Kapustin Yar proving grounds. This nuclear exercise was designed to remind the United States (as well as other powers) that Russia is no paper tiger, at least when it comes to its deterrent capabilities.

If announced plans are executed in full, what would Russia's nuclear force look like by the end of the decade?

Russia has been developing a new class of "boomers" (nuclear-powered submarines which carry ballistic missiles)—the so-called Borei-class (Project 955). The Yuri Dolgoruky, the first of this design, began its sea trials at the end of 2008, formally entered service at the beginning of this year, and will begin full-time patrols at the start of 2014. The second and third subs in this class, the Alexander Nevsky and the Vladimir Monomakh, are currently in their testing phase. By the 2020s, Russia expects to have eight of these new subs in service and deployed.

Project 955 vessels are expected to carry the new SLBM RSM-56 Bulava (Mace), a new design with a series of countermeasures (including deploying decoys and being able to execute evasive maneuvers) and shielding capabilities that are all designed to defeat missile defense systems or mitigate the damage they might inflict. The Bulava is also designed to carry up to ten hypersonic warheads each capable of independent, individual guidance.