Russia is developing a host of new strategic nuclear weapons designed to defeat American missile defenses.
According to the Kremlin, Russia was spurred into action by U.S. President George W. Bush’s December 13, 2001 decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. However, while the Russians are developing a host of new weapons, there will likely be little overall impact on the strategic balance between Moscow and Washington. The real problem is that these developments strain the hard-won arms control regime that played a decisive role in helping bring the Cold War with the Soviet Union to a close. Moreover, as tensions between the United States and Russia continue to increase, the two great powers seem to be drifting into what can only be described as a new Cold War.
“During all these years since the unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons,” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said during a March 1 address to the Federal Assembly. “Let me recall that the United States is creating a global missile defense system primarily for countering strategic arms that follow ballistic trajectories. These weapons form the backbone of our nuclear deterrence forces, just as of other members of the nuclear club.”
Preserving Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent
To counter what the Kremlin sees as the United States’ goal of undermining Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent, Moscow has embarked on a program to develop new weapons capable of defeating any new American ballistic missile defense system. “Russia has developed, and works continuously to perfect, highly effective but modestly priced systems to overcome missile defense. They are installed on all of our intercontinental ballistic missile complexes,” Putin said. “In addition, we have embarked on the development of the next generation of missiles.”
Among those weapons is the formidable Sarmat heavy liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile, which is being developed as a replacement for the massive 210-ton R-36M2 Voevoda, which is appropriately called the SS-18 Satan by NATO. The weapon flies on novel trajectories to thwart any attempt at interception by missile defenses.
“Sarmat will replace the Voevoda system made in the USSR. Its immense power was universally recognized. Our foreign colleagues even gave it a fairly threatening name,” Putin said. “The capabilities of the Sarmat missile are much higher. Weighing over 200 tons, it has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for missile defense systems. The range of the new heavy missile, the number and power of its combat blocs is bigger than Voevoda’s. Sarmat will be equipped with a broad range of powerful nuclear warheads, including hypersonic, and the most modern means of evading missile defense. The high degree of protection of missile launchers and significant energy capabilities the system offers will make it possible to use it in any conditions.”
What makes the Sarmat particularly formidable is the weapons’ ability to fly a trajectory over the South Pole, completely bypassing any current U.S. missile defense system. “It can attack targets both via the North and South poles,” Putin said. “Sarmat is a formidable missile and, owing to its characteristics, is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defense systems.”
While the Sarmat was well known to Western experts, the Putin highlighted a host of non-ballistic missiles—some of which were known and some of which are new—that would bypass American missile defenses. One such weapon is a nuclear-powered cruise missile—a prototype of which the Russians have already tested.
“One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile – a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range,” Putin said. “It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries. It is invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.”
Putin also highlighted the Status-6 intercontinental-range nuclear torpedo, which would be powered by a compact nuclear reactor and carry a massive 100-megaton warhead. “We have developed unmanned submersible vehicles that can move at great depths—I would say extreme depths—intercontinentally, at a speed multiple times higher than the speed of submarines, cutting-edge torpedoes and all kinds of surface vessels, including some of the fastest,” Putin said. “It is really fantastic. They are quiet, highly maneuverable and have hardly any vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit. There is simply nothing in the world capable of withstanding them. Unmanned underwater vehicles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.”
Putin also pointed to a heretofore-unknown hypersonic dual-capable nuclear and conventional air launched cruise missile called the Dagger (or Kinzhal in Russian) which Russia recently tested. Indeed, Putin said that the weapon is already starting to enter service with the Russian military. “Its tests have been successfully completed, and, moreover, on December 1 of last year, these systems began their trial service at the airfields of the Southern Military District,” Putin said. “The unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes. The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, 10 times faster than the speed of sound, can also maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory, which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers. We called this system Kinzhal.”
Meanwhile, Putin also mentioned that Russia has successfully tested a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which could also be used to carry a nuclear payload to intercontinental ranges. “A real technological breakthrough is the development of a strategic missile system with fundamentally new combat equipment – a gliding wing unit, which has also been successfully tested,” Putin said. “Let me assure you that we have all this and it is working well. Moreover, Russian industrial enterprises have embarked on the development of another new type of strategic weapon. We called it the Avangard.”
Is Putin Bluffing?
Experts on the Russian military said that Putin is not exaggerating about Russia’s new weapons. Nor is the existence of most of these weapons a huge surprise. “It's a few new developments. I guess we knew about most of them, but not all,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, told The National Interest. “This is the first time I've heard about the nuclear powered cruise missile—or the Kinzhal system. Sarmat seems larger than we thought, although I would be skeptical about Putin's numbers—200 tons missile and all that.”
Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that the Russia concepts are not viable—indeed most of these weapons are likely the real deal. “They apparently tested all that Putin showed, so it is all feasible,” Podvig said “Whether these things would make sense is another matter. I don't think any of these are really necessary if we are talking about countering missile defense.”
Michael Kofman, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses specializing in Russian military affairs, agreed that all of the weapons that Putin bragged about are feasible and are real programs. “Most of this is reality, it’s just a question of near or distant reality,” Kofman said.
Near Term Strategic Implications
Overall, there would not be immediate strategic implications for the United States in the short term. Indeed, there are no existing American countermeasures to defeat Russia’s existing nuclear arsenal. “Insofar as there is no current or anticipated missile-defense counter to anything already in Russia's strategic arsenal, no, nothing changes,” Joshua H. Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The National Interest.
Podvig agreed with Pollack’s assessment—the overarching strategic balance would remain more or less stable. “It won't change the balance in the sense that it will not drive quantitative increase in the number of missiles or warheads,” Podvig said. “But these systems will definitely complicate the situation and will make it more accident-prone.”
Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at MIT, said that one of the reasons the United States had abandoned nuclear-powered cruise missile development was the sheer risk due to accidents. “Seems like the [Russian] tests crashed,” Narang said. “And we tried it in the Cold War (Project Pluto), but it’s an unshielded small nuclear reactor on a cruise missile— it’s nuts.”
Longer Term Implications
There will, however, be longer-term implications as the new Russian weapons are fielded, particularly the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the hypersonic cruise missile. The new weapons could do severe damage to the current nuclear arms control regime.
“The interesting point, for me, is that the deployment of certain of these new systems would fall outside of New START limits, which were narrowly drawn to limit ballistic missiles (and nuclear-capable strategic bombers),” Pollack said. “The U.S. even went on the record unilaterally asserting that boost-glide weapons fall outside of the definition of ‘ballistic missile.’ If it is not extended, New START will expire in a couple of years as it is. If we are to have strategic arms reductions after that, it will become important to negotiate a treaty that captures any new delivery modes that the Russians have successfully put into practice. But it is not clear to me that the Republican Party has any interest in any type of arms control anymore; they have developed a preference for arms-racing, and no treaty can get through the Senate without at least some GOP support.”