The Russian Federation is widely believed to possess around 3,000 to 6,000 tactical nuclear warheads; that number is significantly down from its Soviet predecessor, which owned at least 13,000 and as many as 22,000 tactical warheads by the end of the Cold War in 1991.
But Russia continues to have the most tactical nuclear warheads in the world, and there are no signs that this will change anytime soon.
First, the basics. Part of the difficulty in quantifying nuclear weapons stockpiles is that there is no technical, widely-accepted definition of terms like “tactical” and “strategic” warheads. Rather, these terms are rough approximations of what the weapon is supposed to do. A strategic warhead is regarded as a nuclear weapon used against enemy infrastructure—cities, command centers, industrial hubs, etc.—for strategic purposes. By contrast, Tactical warheads are used on the battlefield as part of an ongoing military engagement. There is no hard dividing line between these two categories, a situation further problematized by inconsistent standards between different countries and the inherent secrecy surrounding these weapons.
Still, the West has been able to gather somewhat reliable data concerning the rough makeup of Russia’s tactical nuclear forces. The biggest owner of Russia’s tactical nukes is likely the Navy. Its weapons include the submarine and ship-launched variants of Russia’s Kalibr cruise missiles, which are operable across a wide range of Russian vessels including the new Yasen nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines and the recent Admiral Gorshkov class frigates. Then there is the Air Force, which notably includes the Tu-22M3 and Tu-22M3M modernized maritime bombers. Russia’s nuclear-capable, hypersonic air-launched Kh-47M2 Kinzhal represents a particularly stark threat as a tactical nuclear weapon that’s exceedingly difficult to intercept in most circumstances. Though the Su-57 is rumored to have some limited nuclear weapons capability, it is the upcoming PAK-DA bomber that’s expected to represent the coming generation of Russian air-launched nuclear missile capabilities. Meanwhile, Russia’s ground forces are modernizing with the nuclear-capable Iskander-M missile systems. By no means an exhaustive overview, this brief list nonetheless shows that nuclear warheads are both widely proliferated across Russia’s armed forces as well as a source of constant further investment.
Russia’s tactical weapons stockpile is a hedge against the qualified superiority of NATO conventional forces—not necessarily a first-strike solution, but rather a tool meant to level the playing field in the event that Russia starts losing a major continental war. Depending on how such a conflict—unlikely as it currently is—were to unfold, Russia’s tactical warheads could also figure prominently into a Eurasian armed conflict with China. As costly and increasingly difficult as it is for Russia to store and maintain its aging Soviet inheritance of tactical warheads, it’s still much more efficient and cost-effective than trying—and likely failing, given the practical limits of Russian military spending—to match NATO’s conventional superiority. Tactical nuclear warheads are, and will likely remain, Russia’s most effective means of securing its vast frontiers and expansive security interests.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.