Russia Has Thousands of Nuclear Weapons (And They Can Kill Billions)

October 26, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaNuclear WeaponsMilitaryNATOArms Control

Russia Has Thousands of Nuclear Weapons (And They Can Kill Billions)

But why is Moscow making them ever deadlier? 

Some of these programs may not survive due to budget pressure, but a high percentage likely will.

Even more significant in terms of how many nuclear weapons Russia is planning to build is the very large number of warheads that will reportedly be carried on each type of its new or modernized strategic missiles. Most notable is the new Sarmat heavy ICBM, which, according to TASS, has a maximum load of “at least 15 warheads.” This was prohibited by the old START Treaty.

The new version of the Soviet legacy SS-N-23, the Sineva, reportedly can carry double the number of warheads for which the SS-N-23 was limited to under the START Treaty—8 vs. 4. Not satisfied with this, Russia went on to develop, test and deploy a second new version of the SS-N-23, the Liner (sometimes translated as Layner), which, according to Russian press reports, can reportedly carry 10 warheads. The new Bulava-30 SLBM was declared to carry six warheads under the START Treaty, but reports are quite common in Russia that it and the new RS-24 Yars ICBM will carry ten warheads. (This would likely require a new smaller and lighter RV). These warhead loads make no sense with any type of arms control.   

Russia has gone in exactly the opposite direction as the U.S., which has downloaded its strategic missiles. It is simply impossible for Russia to deploy uniformly anywhere near these warhead numbers under any arms control regime, which suggests Russia is planning to deploy many nuclear warheads outside of arms control constraints by circumvention, cheating or breakout. The severely degraded New START verification regime regarding mobile ICBMs makes this very feasible.

The large throw-weight of some Russian missiles could permit very large numbers of small nuclear warheads to be carried. For example, in 2010, ITAR-TASS reported the Russian SS-18 heavy ICBM “can deliver up to 36 warheads…” The new Sarmat has more throw-weight than the SS-18.

Russian Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons

The Russian Federation clearly has thousands of non-strategic weapons. These include some missiles with ranges of thousands of kilometers, which, when based on long-range aircraft, surface ships, or submarines can carry out the mission of strategic nuclear weapons as well as the theater nuclear mission.

In 2011, the U.S. Defense Department estimated Russia had between 2,000-4,000 tactical nuclear weapons. The current Nuclear Posture Review number of 2,000 appears to be very low.

Russia claims to have reduced its tactical nuclear weapons inventory by 75% from Cold War levels. Similar or identical claims were made in the review conferences for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for 15 years. This is significant because the P-5 states (the U.S., Russia, China, France and Great Britain) bent over backward to detail their nuclear weapons cuts during the NPT review conferences, yet Russian claims about non-strategic nuclear weapons reductions remained the same. (Since their number of strategic warheads had increased, Russia resorted to an apples and oranges comparison of number of warheads accountable under the START Treaty and the New START Treaty, despite completely different counting rules.)

Alexei Arbatov, a Russian expert and former Vice Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, and others (e. g., Graham Allison) have said that the late Cold War Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal was comprised of 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons. A 75% reduction would mean Russia has retained 5,000+ tactical nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 2014, reported, “Russia, according to conservative estimates, has 5,000 pieces of different classes of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] - from Iskander warheads to torpedo, aerial and artillery warheads!” Dr. Philip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation, has stated that roughly half of Russia’s 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons have been modernized with new sub-kiloton nuclear warheads for air-defense, torpedoes and cruise missiles.

In 2013, Alexei Arbatov indicated that the Russian arsenal of “nonstrategic nuclear assets (medium-range aviation, operational-tactical aircraft and missiles) are classified, but unofficial estimates range from 2,000 to 3,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons, a considerable segment of which can also hit targets in regions adjoining Russia.” “Operationally deployed” is a term associated with the 2002 Moscow arms control treaty. It does not count the entire weapons inventory, but only those weapons actually attached to delivery systems or stored at operational bases. Moreover, Arbatov has never counted Russian non-strategic warheads that he knows violate arms control commitments.

The Russian tactical nuclear arsenal is amazingly diverse. According to the 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency report on Russia Military Power, Russian tactical nuclear weapons “…include air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles, and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines. There may also be warheads remaining for surface-to-air and other aerospace defense missile systems.” Additional types of tactical nuclear weapons are reported in the Russian press including nuclear artillery and this was confirmed by Assistant Secretary of Defense James A. Anderson.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review confirmed much of the Russian press reports about the diversity of its non-strategic nuclear weapons and even revealed some types of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons capability not previously reported in open sources.

Russian Hypersonic Missiles

Russian hypersonic missile programs announced by the Russian government or reported in state media include:

  • The KH-32, an already operational near hypersonic nuclear-capable cruise missile (reported maximum speed from Mach 4 to Mach 5), with a range of 1,000-km.
  • The already operational Iskander-M and the improved Iskander-M nuclear capable “aeroballistic” missiles with a reported maximum range of 700 to 1,000-km.
  • A now operational “high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile system” called the Kinzhal, which is capable of “delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000-km.” The Chief of the Russian Aerospace Force (Air Force) called it an “aeroballistic missile.” It is reportedly a derivative of the Iskander-M. In 2018, the Deputy Russian Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said that ten Kinzhals are operational on the Mig-31 fighters and TASS, the main official Russian news agency, reports that an “aeroballistic missile”, obviously the Kinzhal, will be carried by the Su-34 long-range strike fighter. State-run TASS and Sputnik News report that the Backfire bomber will also carry the Kinzhal.
  • A smaller version of the Kinzhal to be carried by the Su-57 fighter aircraft.
  • The Avangard nuclear-armed intercontinental hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which Putin characterizes as "A real technological breakthrough," which he said, "has been successfully tested." TASS says it has a two-megaton warhead. In June 2018, President Putin said it was in serial production. The Russians have said that it will be operational in 2019.
  • The Tsirkon, a powered nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missile, which Putin says has a range of over 1,000-km and a speed of Mach 9. A retired Russian admiral says the range is 2,000-km. It will be operational in a few years, perhaps sooner.

In addition to these hypersonic missile programs, Russia is reportedly developing the KH-MT, which is reported to be a “ram-jet powered hypersonic design apparently intended for internal carriage [on the Tu-95MSM bomber].” There are reports that the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik, one of Putin’s nuclear superweapons, is a hypersonic missile. This is possible but much more difficult to build than a subsonic or a supersonic nuclear-powered cruise missile. In February 2019, President Putin spoke about Russia deploying two types of ground-launched hypersonic missiles within two years.

A Russian press report suggested that Russia may develop an intermediate-range ground-launched missile which combines a new first stage rocket with the Kinzhal maneuvering missile as its second stage.

There may be other Russian hypersonic missile programs under development that have not been reported in open sources.

New START Verification Permits Large Scale Cheating

The New START Treaty permits a reduced number of inspections compared to START. However, no inspection allowed under New START can prove a substantive violation because of the lack of attribution rules. Attribution rules say a missile type counts at a specific number of warheads, and any missile found containing more violates the Treaty.

The almost complete elimination of the START Treaty mobile ICBM verification regime in the New START Treaty results in an inability to verify the number of deployed mobile ICBMs and warheads, and, hence, the total number of deployed ICBMs and deployed warheads.

The almost complete elimination of the telemetry provisions of the START Treaty likely makes our understanding of new Russian missiles characteristics far inferior to what it was under START.

Unless there is a strong push for Russian New START compliance from the Department of Defense, the career bureaucracy in the Department of State has a virtual veto on the public disclosure of New START Treaty violations.

There are many statements by the Commander of the Strategic Missile Force Colonel General Sergei Karakayev that Russia has 400 ICBMs which he says are on “combat alert”  which implies a covert force.

The Russian state media have repeatedly reported that improvements to the Backfire bomber have given it capabilities that have turned it into a heavy bomber under New START. It is not declared as one.