U.S. vs Russia: Struggling for Undersea Nuclear Supremacy

Moscow's missile submarines may soon have the upper hand.

In a previous article, we examined the overall number of strategic nuclear warheads and carriers in the United States and Russia, including their compliance with the New Start Treaty. We also analyzed in detail the abilities of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the arsenals of both countries, and their prospects for development. Here, we will look at both countries’ submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Let us briefly return to the Treaty for the Further Reduction of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) and the second-to-last report on its performance, dated January 1, 2016 (the most recent one contains no data on the number of specific types of strategic carriers), prepared by the U.S. Department of State. According to the report, 236 of 762 deployed strategic carriers are Trident II SLBMs. Furthermore, they carry 1,012 (around 66 percent) of the 1,538 nuclear warheads available in the U.S. arsenal (according to data from April 1, the overall amount of warheads has reduced to 1,481, though it is difficult to tell which carriers caused the change). At the same time, Minuteman III land-based ICBMs carry 441 warheads (around 28.5 percent), while strategic bombers add up to eighty-five carriers with one warhead each (around 5.5 percent).

Thus, ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) constitute the backbone of the U.S. strategic nuclear force.

Now let us find out which percent of Russia’s warheads is carried by SLBMs. First of all, it should be noted that the existing data is somewhat less accurate, since there has been no detailed official report on the number of specific types of carriers and the number of warheads in recent years. Nevertheless, the existing unstructured data allows us to assess the situation accurately enough. According to this information, among 1,735 declared nuclear warheads, around nine hundred are located aboard 299 land-based ICBMs (approximately 52 percent), and around seven hundred of them on 160 SLBMs of various types (approximately 40 percent), while that there are around fifty combat strategic bombers (3 percent). The margin of error, revealing 5 percent of the weapons “missing,” indicates some inaccuracy in the existing information. But it does not change the situation significantly—the majority of Russian strategic forces are located on land-based ICBMs (what is more, the 5 percent error is apparently due to the new land-based ICBMs), while the overall situation is more balanced, with a very large SLBM share.

Now let us move from quantity to quality, and look at the parties’ SSBNs and their armament. We will also analyze the prospects of development of this field of nuclear deterrence forces.


Does the United States Own the “Perfect” Carrier?

The U.S. Navy uses only one type of strategic subsurface missile carrier: Ohio-class nuclear submarines. Currently, there are eighteen submarines of this class in service, though four of them have been redesigned into the carriers of Tomahawk cruise missiles, so they present no interest for us in this analysis. One Ohio missile SSBN is able to carry up to twenty-four Trident II SLBMs, which is a record—for example, Russian nuclear submarines of Project 941 Typhoon (there is one modernized sample redesigned into the carrier of new Bulava SLBMs left in service) and Project 955 Borei carry twenty and sixteen R-30 Bulava SLBMs, respectively, although their displacement significantly exceeds the parameters of their American rival.

Ohio-class submarines were produced between long-ago 1976 and 1997, and nevertheless maintain a very high ability, proving to be highly reliable machines: only one crew member death has ever taken place, and then only due to the violation of safety measures.

As for the Trident II SLBM itself, it has unique characteristics for a solid-fueled missile. Though the missile is not very new (it was put into service in 1990) compared to counterparts such as the Russian solid-fueled R-30 Bulava SLBM, it has a larger throw weight—2,800 kilograms, against 1,150—and a higher range capability, as well as world-beating precision: the circular error probable (CEP) of the warheads is only 90–120 meters, whereas the Bulava’s is 250–350 meters. Such precision allows the Trident II to be equipped with fourteen light W-76 warheads, each with a capacity of one hundred kilotons, since said precision ensures elimination of the opponent’s well-protected pits of land-based ICBMs. Besides, the missile has established yet another record: 134 successful launches in a row (with only four of 156 having been unsuccessful).

Today, an Ohio replacement program, also known as the SSBN(X) program, is being developed in view of the fact that the stock of Ohios in service will gradually start running out in 2027. By 2040, the last nuclear submarine of this type will have seen its expiration date.

According to the latest data available in the Congressional Research Service report dated March 31, 2016, the first SSBN(X) submarine should be laid down in 2021 and built by 2030. A total of twelve new-type submarines will be built, with the overall value of the program estimated at $95.8 billion.