Overblown: Russia's Empty Nuclear Sabre-Rattling

Current Russian nuclear programs present no cause for undue alarm.

As the Ukraine-Russia crisis deepened and West-Russia relations plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War, Moscow has rattled its nuclear saber. Russian strategic rocket forces have conducted an increased number of exercises, Bear bombers have probed the air defenses of NATO members, and Vladimir Putin has engaged in nuclear chest-thumping.

All this aims at getting attention, and it has done so. Analysts have sounded the alarm in Washington as Russia upgrades or develops plans to upgrade all legs of its strategic triad.

The Pentagon must closely track trends in Russian strategic nuclear forces. Russia is America’s only peer competitor when it comes to nuclear weapons. The size and structure of Russian strategic nuclear forces will affect decisions regarding the size and structure of U.S. strategic nuclear forces.

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One should, however, keep Russian strategic force developments in perspective. That means taking a number of factors into account: the overall strategic balance, the fact that Russian modernization is taking place after a lengthy pause, the difference between Russian and U.S. strategic modernization cycles, and the longer service lives of U.S. strategic weapons systems.

Consider first the balance of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) requires that, by February 2018, the United States and Russia each reduce its strategic forces to no more than 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and strategic bombers and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

According to data exchanged under New START, as of October 1, 2014 the United States had 1,642 deployed strategic warheads, compared to 1,643 for Russia. The number of deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and strategic bombers for the United States was 794, compared to 528 for Russia. There exists a balance in deployed strategic warheads, with the U.S. military holding a substantial numerical advantage in the number of deployed strategic delivery vehicles. That advantage will persist for many years.

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These numbers conceal an additional area of U.S. advantage. The U.S. military has “downloaded” all of its ICBMs and most, if not all, of its SLBMs. As a result, the missiles carry fewer warheads than their maximum loadings.

The Trident D-5 SLBM can carry eight warheads. Under New START, the Trident D-5s carry an average of only four to five warheads. All Minuteman III ICBMs have been downloaded to carry a single warhead, even though two-thirds of them could carry three.

The U.S. military also maintains a large number of non-deployed nuclear warheads in storage. If New START were to break down, the United States could add hundreds of nuclear warheads—well over 1,000—to its strategic ballistic missile force. The Russian strategic ballistic missile force has nowhere near the capacity to match that.

Russia has an array of strategic modernization programs underway. It has launched the first three of what are planned to be eight Borey-class ballistic missile submarines, which carry the new Bulava SLBM. Russia is also deploying the SS-27 Topol-M ICBM and its multiple-warhead variant, the RS-24 Yars, and plans to begin deployment of the RS-26 ICBM in 2016. The Russian Air Force is developing a new strategic bomber, the PAK-DA, to augment or replace its Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear-H aircraft.

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Russia’s strategic modernization programs and strategic activities are indeed far more robust today than they were ten or fifteen years ago. But much of that is playing catch up. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian economy went into freefall. Defense spending crashed, and the Russian military bought little in the way of new strategic weapons in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many missiles, such as the SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs—which today still carry about one-half of Russia’s deployed strategic warheads—have reached and passed their service warranty dates.

The combination of retiring old systems and deploying a limited number of replacements brought the level of Russian strategic forces steadily down from 1991 until 2010. Russian strategic delivery vehicle and accountable warhead numbers fell well below the limits established in the 1991 START I Treaty (which expired in late 2009).

Rising oil prices in the early-mid 2000s boosted the Russian government’s revenues and prompted a rebound in defense spending. Increased funding led to the new missiles and submarines that are coming online now. Growing revenues also allowed Moscow to restart activities that had been on a long hiatus, such as a resumption of global flights by Russian long-range bombers.

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