Today, there is a debate over whether we should extend the New START Treaty, amend it to eliminate the loopholes, or try to negotiate an expanded agreement. As I detailed in my 2012 monograph, The New START Treaty: Anatomy of a Failed Negotiation, New START contains major loopholes and verification problems that fully negate the supposed limitations. Ironically, the 2002 Moscow Treaty limits, if the warheads are counted in the same way, required a much lower strategic nuclear warhead level that what is possible under New START.
Under New START, Russia can have an unlimited number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons because:
- The New START Treaty, unlike the START Treaty, does not constrain air-launched and surface ship-launched strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.
- The New START Treaty, unlike the START Treaty, does not limit long-range nuclear ship-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). Moreover, Russia is engaged in a major expansion of its force of long-range nuclear-capable SLCMs and, reportedly, may build two Borei-K strategic cruise missile submarines. Borei-K submarines may carry hundreds of nuclear cruise missiles. This is in addition to the planned widespread deployment of the new nuclear-capable cruise missiles and
- The New START Treaty does not include any constraints on tactical or nonstrategic nuclear weapons; it also does not constrain intercontinental-range cruise missiles. Russia is now testing such a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
- The elimination of restrictions on giving the Backfire bomber intercontinental capability allows circumvention of the basic New START Treaty limits. Russia, according to Russian state media, has multiple programs underway to give the Backfire bomber an intercontinental capability.
- Russia says that the New START Treaty does not constrain Putin’s six new nuclear superweapons announced in 2018 and 2019. In reality, four of the six are not constrained. These are the Kinzhal hypersonic aeroballistic missile, the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, the Poseidon nuclear-powered drone submarine and the nuclear-powered cruise missile. At this point, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Russians will claim the other two (the Sarmat heavy ICBM and the Avangard intercontinental hypersonic boost glide vehicle) are not covered by the Treaty, claiming that they are a different type from the ballistic versions.
The loopholes I depicted in 2012 are now mainly actual Russian programs to circumvent the New START Treaty; others are apparent violations.
How Many Strategic Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Deploy Today?
Russia has many more strategic nuclear warheads than the 1,426 warheads it recently reported in its New START Treaty data. In 2019, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris of the Federation of American Scientists estimated that Russia has 2,670 strategic nuclear warheads. Kristensen, in another study, writing with Matt Corda, also estimated that the U.S. has 1,590 deployed strategic warheads. In 2014, Houston Hawkins of the Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote, “Today, estimates are that Russia has about 4,500 strategic weapons in its inventory.” In December 2019, Russian Strategic Missile Force Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev stated “…the nuclear potentials of the sides have [been] reduced more than 66% since the signing of START I.” This is a major departure from the Russian position. At the United Nations in April 2018, First Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N Dmitry Polyanskiy declared that "Russia cut its nuclear arsenal by over 85 percent as compared to its stockpiles at the height of the Cold War." If one uses the late Soviet declared number of over 10,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads for the calculation, the difference between an 85% reduction and a 66% reduction is about 2,000 warheads. It means that Russia then had over 3,300 strategic nuclear warheads, over twice the supposed New START Treaty allowed level of 1,550. These are real warheads, not accountable warheads.
Russian Expansion of its Strategic Nuclear Weapons
There are reports that Russian nuclear weapons expansion is now underway, and it is aimed at extremely high levels of deployed nuclear warheads. In December 2017, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along with modernizing deep underground bunkers, according to Pentagon officials. The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads to circumvent arms treaty limits and support Moscow’s new doctrine of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.”
An excellent 2015 study by James R. Howe concluded that Russia had the potential to deploy 2,664-5,890 nuclear warheads on its planned strategic ballistic missile force. In another analysis published in September 2019, he says Russia will have between “2,976 WHs [warheads], and a maximum of 6,670 WHs” plus over 800 bomber weapons. He notes that “the 2022 [Russian] strategic nuclear force’s (SNFs) warhead (WH) levels will likely significantly exceed New START levels based on planned WH loadings.”
In December 2017, Howe estimated that Russia would have 8,000 nuclear weapons in six years, a mix of high-yield, medium-yield, and low-yield nuclear warheads.
In August 2019, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matter Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter Fanta at the Crane Naval Submarine Warfare Center Symposium on Strategic Nuclear Weapons Modernization and Hypersonics confirmed the Gertz report stating that "The Russians are going to 8,000 plus warheads."
There is other evidence of Russian expansion of its nuclear weapons numbers. In 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in an important speech at the Hudson Institute, stated that "…during the past decade, Russia has improved and expanded its production complex, which has the capacity to process thousands of warheads annually." This confirms and goes beyond a 2014 report by Dr. Houston Hawkins, which said that Russia can produce 1,000 nuclear "pits" a year, which translates into the ability to produce 1,000 new nuclear weapons per year. In addition, he said Russia had mothballed the ability to produce 2,500 more. In 2019, James Howe stated that Russia “retains an estimated capability of building 1,000-3,000 plus weapons per year.”
A Russian capability of producing several thousand nuclear weapons a year is many times what is necessary to support an operational force of 8,000 nuclear weapons. It is more like what is necessary to produce the Soviet strategic nuclear force, which peaked at about 45,000 warheads.
The Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are attempting to reduce the capability of the U.S. pit facility (which will not be operational until 2030) to 30 per year, which would result in about a hundred-fold Russian advantage in production capability for new nuclear weapons.
Russian Strategic Nuclear Modernization
The Russian Government has announced over twenty strategic nuclear modernization programs. In December 2018, Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergey Shoigu stated that "The modernity level of the Strategic Nuclear Forces has reached 82%..." While this may be somewhat exaggerated, the more important fact is that Russian Triad modernization will be soon complete, but in reality, it is literally never ending. When a new system is deployed, its follow-on is underway.
Russian strategic nuclear modernization programs include:
- The new road-mobile and silo-based Topol-M Variant 2 (SS-27 Mod 1) single warhead ICBM. It became operational in 1997.
- The new RS-24/Yars/SS-27 Mod 2 derivative with a Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) payload. This system violated the START Treaty because it was MIRVed. It became operational in 2010.
- Improved versions of the Soviet legacy SS-N-23 SLBM called the Sineva and the Liner with many more warheads; both are now operational. The Delta-IV submarine that carries them has been life extended.
- The new six-MIRV warhead Bulava-30 SLBM being deployed on two variants of the new Borei ballistic missile submarine, eight of which are operational or under construction. This year the fourth will become operational.
- Improved versions of the SS-27 Mod 2/RS-24 Yars ICBM and the Bulava-30 SLBM.
- A smaller follow-on ICBM to replace the RS-24 Yars is under development.
- The Avangard hypersonic boost glide vehicle, one of Putin’s nuclear super- weapons. It will become operational this year.
- Modernization of the Blackjack (Tu-160M) and Bear (Tu-95MSM) heavy bombers, which are now armed with: 1) a new stealthy long-range strategic nuclear-armed cruise missile designated the KH-102; and 2) the long-range KH-101 cruise missile. In 2015, President Putin revealed that the Kh-101 “can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.”
- A program to produce at least 50 more of an improved version of the Tu-160M2 bomber. A recent report says the number will be about 50.
- Development of a new stealthy heavy bomber, the Pak DA, which will carry cruise missiles and, reportedly, hypersonic missiles.
- Development and deployment of the new Sarmat heavy ICBM with a mammoth 10 tons of throw-weight, which will reportedly carry 10 heavy or 15 medium nuclear warheads or 3-5 hypersonic gliders with deployment in 2022. This is one of Putin’s superweapons.
- Development of the new Barguzin rail-mobile ICBM which reportedly has been put on hold pending at 2027 production decision.
- Development and deployment of a new “ICBM” called the RS-26 Rubezh, in reality, an intermediate-range missile, reportedly on hold for a 2027 production decision.
- Development of a "fifth-generation" strategic missile submarine, the Husky, carrying ballistic and cruise missiles after 2025. A new liquid fuel SLBM reportedly is under development for it.
- Development of Putin’s superweapon, the Poseidon, a nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, 10,000-km range, very fast, drone submarine capable of operating at a depth of 1,000-meters which the Russian press says carries a 100-megaton bomb and, possibly, a cobalt bomb. Testing of this system is reportedly well underway, and the first submarine that will carry it has just been launched.
- Deployment of the Kinzhal nuclear-capable hypersonic aereoballistic missile, one of Putin’s superweapons.
- Testing of the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, one of Putin’s nuclear superweapons.