Welcome to Russian Nuclear Weapons 101

A blast from the Soviet past? You decide. 
 

Americans don’t think very much about nuclear weapons, and they certainly don’t think very often about their own arsenal, at least until something goes wrong with it, like the recent scandals involving the U.S. ICBM force. The Obama administration completed a nuclear posture review in 2010, a document that supposedly lays out the purpose and future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Like previous U.S. reviews conducted in 1994 and 2002, it sank without a trace. The fact of the matter is that nuclear weapons and their mission simply do not matter much to post–Cold War American leaders.

Nuclear weapons, however, certainly matter to the Russians. Nuclear arms have always been the source of superpower status for both Soviet and Russian leaders. This is especially true today: the Soviet collapse left the Russian Federation a country bereft of the usual indicators of a great power, including conventional military force or the ability to project it. Little wonder that Moscow still relies on its nuclear arsenal as one of the last vestiges of its right to be considered more than merely—in President Obama’s dismissive words—a “regional power.” (Or in the caustic words of Senator John McCain: “A gas station masquerading as a country.”)

Today, nuclear weapons have retained not only their pride of place but an actual role in Russian military planning. Unlike the Americans, who see little use for nuclear weapons in the absence of the Soviet threat, the Russians—wisely or not—continue to think about nuclear arms as though they are useful in military conflicts, even the smallest. Some of this might only be the bluster of officers who have never overcome their Soviet training, but some of it is also clearly based on the Russian General Staff’s understanding of Russia’s military weakness against far superior adversaries, including the United States and NATO.

Before considering the future of the Russian nuclear arsenal and its role in Russian defense policy, a quick review of the development of Russia’s nuclear forces might be helpful.

Once freed from Stalinist orthodoxy, Soviet thinkers, like their Western colleagues, wrestled throughout the Cold War with the implications of nuclear weapons. Early on, Soviet theorists decided that while nuclear warheads were a remarkable development, it was not only their appearance but the ability to deliver them rapidly over long distances—that is, the development of ICBMs—that overall constituted a “revolution in military affairs.” (This phrase was later adopted and almost completely misunderstood by American strategists in thinking about the role of technology in warfare, but the Soviets pioneered the term.)

The Soviets rejected—at least in public—any notion that the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons defeated traditional aims of strategy. They held firmly to the assertion that nuclear war, as awful as it would be, would nonetheless be a war with a political character like any other, with a winner and a loser. Later evidence revealed that this idea was prevalent mostly among the Soviet military; Soviet civilians were far less sanguine about nuclear war and far less willing than their generals and marshals to court it. (There are undeniable and unsettling parallels here with American civil-military relations on nuclear issues.)

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.

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