The RS-28 Sarmat named after the Sarmatians – NATO reporting name SS-X-30 – is a Russian liquid-fueled, MIRV-equipped, superheavy thermonuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile, in development by the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau since 2009. It is intended to replace the old R-36M missile (SS-18 Satan).
Russian modernization programs are reasonably well known, and require only an overview of key trends. These can be summarized as follows.
All three legs of the triad undergo modernization. These programs are driven by the expiration of warranty periods of systems inherited from the Soviet Union (i.e., the intended length of service of the weapon)—even though the warranty or length of service time is regularly extended, this cannot continue indefinitely. The rate of replacement is low and new ballistic missiles, both land- and sea-based, carry fewer warheads than Soviet ones. This means that the arsenal undergoes gradual reduction. The strategic arsenal will probably stabilize by the end of this decade at about 800-1,200 warheads.
It is hardly surprising that Russia chose to deploy a new generation of delivery vehicles instead of restarting production of existing types. Behind this decision is the Soviet tradition of uninterrupted modernization, which, in turn, was determined by the structure of the Soviet design and production complex.44 It should be noted, however, that the majority of new types of strategic weapons were still developed in the Soviet Union.
Technologically and conceptually, current strategic modernization programs represent linear continuation of Soviet programs. In this sense, the emerging Russian strategic nuclear posture is very traditional. SRF will probably account for the bulk of all deployed warheads (around 50-60 percent). The earlier plans to radically change the structure of the triad and shift the emphasis to the Navy, which were developed in 2000 and approved by then-President Vladimir Putin, have been abandoned. Russia has continued the Soviet line toward reduction of vulnerability and maintenance of high degree of readiness for launch—according to the SRF, almost all ICBMs could be launched within 1 minute.
The air-based leg of the triad is gradually shifting to a new tangent, however—to conventional strike capability. Eventually its role in the triad will probably be primarily symbolic, and for all intents and purposes the Russian strategic arsenal will become a dyad.
The pace and the success rate for each leg of the triad are different. Modernization of the land-based, ICBM force began in the 1990s and progresses slowly but surely. Introduction of new types of weapons systems into the sea-based leg has encountered major delays and its future remains uncertain. Modernization of the air leg has been postponed—Russia plans to rely on existing aircraft in the foreseeable future and only weapons for use by strategic bombers are being gradually modernized with an emphasis on conventional assets.
The ICBM force modernization has been both conservative and most successful. It its center is Topol-M, a new ICBM designed in the last years of the Soviet Union. The project was partially revised in the 1990s to adapt to the new industrial base (a large part of relevant enterprises remained outside Russia). In the 2000s, the same ICBM was further redesigned to carry several warheads and was designated RS-24, or Yars. Beginning of deployment was postponed until after the expiration of START I.
The rate of ICBM production is low—less than 10 missiles each year; increase of production is unlikely. After 10 years, only six regiments (60 missiles) of silo-based ICBMs have been deployed and only two regiments (18 missiles) of road-mobile ICBMs. In the meantime, the SRF has been extending service lives of existing types of delivery vehicles—to 31 years for SS-18 and to 23 years for Topol (SS-25) and SS-19.
The low rate of missile production might be surprising, given the impressive Soviet capability to turn out large numbers of new weapons—in the 1980s production of Topol (SS-25) was reportedly at 50 per year. Speaking in late 2007, at the time of relative financial plenty, First Vice-Premier and former Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov sought to make it clear that the government consciously chose “butter” versus “guns.” “We believe,” he stated, “that we do not need 30 Topol-Ms a year. Of course, we would not mind having them, but this would mean that we would need to cut social programs, housing programs, and other things.” He added that the annual deployment of six to seven new missiles is sufficient for the SRF. At the same time, Ivanov emphasized that “military capability, especially nuclear capability, should be sufficient if we want to be at a [safe] level or even merely independent. No one likes the weak, no one listens to them, everyone abuses them, and when we have parity, others talk to us differently.”
There are other explanations for the low rate of production. One is the breakup of the traditional Soviet networks: many Soviet-era enterprises that contributed to production of components remained outside Russia. It is known that the number of only first-order suppliers for Topol-M is around 200; recreating these networks from scratch is difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and probably outright impossible. Another possible explanation is that Russia sought to reserve some unused production capacity for the new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Bulava.
Nonetheless, the SRF confidently promises that by 2016 about 80 percent of all ICBMs will be new, i.e., deployed in the post-Soviet period. Reduction under New START and perhaps under the next agreement could certainly contribute to that goal, but it nevertheless appears wishful thinking without a significant increase of funding.
Even more remote is the plan to develop a new liquid-fuel multiple independent reentry vehicled (MIRVed) ICBM to replace the Soviet SS-18 (the new ICBM will hardly classify as “heavy” under START I definitions, but its throw-weight will likely be significantly greater than that of Topol-M, probably at the level of SS-19). Development of the new ICBM is supposed to be completed by 2016, but the goal does not appear realistic. More likely, same as talk about the revival of the rail-mobile ICBM, it reflects the wishes of the military rather than definitive plans.
That said, liquid-fuel missiles have, in the eyes of the military, certain advantages that explain why this line of missiles is still alive in Russia unlike in the United States. Traditionally, Soviet liquid fuel has been more efficient than Soviet solid fuel, allowing for greater throw-weight for the same weight of missile. Liquid-fuel missiles have helped Russia retain an impressive strategic arsenal after two decades of financial, economic, and political turmoil: a large number of these systems that had been produced in the Soviet Union remained in “dry storage,” i.e., were kept without fuel. During the post-Soviet period, the military could simply take them from storage, fuel, and deploy. This cannot be done with solid-fuel missiles, whose length of service time period begins at the moment of production.
Recently the SRF was criticized by the government for being insufficiently ambitious. Reportedly, chief of the Government’s Department for the Support of the Military-Industrial Commission, Sergey Khutortsov, declared that the SRF was bogged down in small-scale programs and does not have an ambitious long-term goal around which its future should be built, unlike the Navy or the Air Force. The new liquid-fuel MIRVed ICBM and even the rail-mobile ICBM did not classify as sufficiently ambitious, he said.
The SRF proudly advertizes the defense-penetration properties of its new ICBMs but conveniently fails to mention that this capability was part of a Soviet-era design. In particular, Topol-M features reduced boost phase (about one-third of that of SS-18), which was intended to reduce the effectiveness of space-based interceptors; today this capability is probably less relevant. Topol-M can also carry a maneuverable warhead known as Igla. There is no public authoritative confirmation that Igla is actually being deployed following a very small number of successful tests. Overall, the anti-missile defense capability of new Russian ICBMs should not be overestimated.
Modernization of the sea leg of the triad has encountered major technological and political failures. The initial plan was apparently fairly logical: retain the more modern Delta III and IV submersible submarine ballistic nuclear (SSBNs), and eventually only the latter, with replacement missiles, develop replacement missiles for Typhoon SSBNs, and build new SSBNs to carry the same missiles as Typhoons. This plan quickly fell apart. The replacement for SS-N-20, known as Bark, was canceled after three failed test flights. Although the failures had been attributed to production shortcomings and one Typhoon-class SSBN had been converted for further tests of the Bark, the contract for the new solid-fuel SLBM was nevertheless given to the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), the same that developed Topol and Topol-M ICBMs. Design of the new SSBN had to be radically altered: construction of the first submarine in the new class was put on hold until new designs could be drawn to accommodate a radically different missile. The Typhoon-class SSBN converted for Bark was converted once again to serve as a testing pad for the new missile. This decision, made in the late 1990s, was widely attributed to parochial fights, and in particular to the close relationship between the Director of MITT Yuri Solomonov and the then-Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, previously the Commander of the SRF.
MITT planned to make the new SLBM, code-named Bulava, an example of a new approach to development of missiles—relatively fast, relatively cheap, with fewer test flights, and large-scale use of computer simulation. The new missile was supposed to become a major departure from Soviet traditions of SLBM design and be much lighter and smaller than Soviet solid-fuel SLBMs. The plan failed utterly—to date, seven out of 12 test flights have failed, and those by rather relaxed official criteria; the majority of non-governmental experts classify only one or two tests as successful.
By the end of 2009 the government and the Ministry of Defense lost patience. Solomonov had to resign from the position of the head of MITT and a special commission was established to investigate the cause of failures concluded that the missile’s design was faulty. Resumption of tests was initially scheduled for early summer 2010, but then was postponed until late fall. Solomonov, however, continues to insist that failures were caused by substandard components supplied by the industry, which no longer can maintain high quality.
In the meantime, the new SSBN program continued in spite of delays with the missile. The first submarine in the new class, Yuri Dolgoruki, has been commissioned, two more are being built, and the keel of the fourth was laid in January 2010. It was also decided to retain one more Typhoon SSBN and convert it for Bulava. Eventually this might mean that, given the low production capability, Russia will have serious problems producing the necessary number of SLBMs to equip all submarines (16 per each new Borey-class SSBN and 20 per each Typhoon; future Borey SSBNs are expected to carry 20 missiles each).
The sorry state of modernization of the Navy increasingly causes displeasure of the top echelons of the government—last year First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov revealed that the Navy consumes 40 percent of the total defense budget, more than the SRF, Air Force, and Space Forces combined, and that the bulk of that spending goes to the nuclear submarine force. Implicit in the tone of his remarks was recognition that the yield from that investment remains unsatisfactory.
In the meantime, the sea leg of the Russian triad consists of Delta III and IV SSBNs. These submarines were given an overhaul to extend their service lives. The Makeev design bureau, which had lost the contract for a new SLBM, produced a modernized version of SS-N-23. In the coming decade, Delta IIIs will be probably phased out and only slightly newer Delta IVs will remain in service. Thus, early completion of the Bulava program remains a must—without it, Russia risks losing the sea leg completely by the end of this or the beginning of the next decade.
It might be interesting to contemplate the Russian strategic triad without the naval component. Proposals to phase out SSBNs were quite popular in the late 1990s-early 2000s, when investment into modernization of that leg was still minimal. In that case, Russia might seek much deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals than otherwise likely and the mission of strategic deterrence would be supported by the SRF while de-escalation would still be entrusted to the Air Force. In the end, transition from a triad to a dyad might be a good choice, but it appears unlikely for political reasons and also because too much money has already been spent on Bulava—it is difficult to imagine a political or military leader who would be willing to accept responsibility for the failure.
The Air Force never played a major role in the Soviet nuclear posture; its share in the strategic arsenal was limited to about 5 percent of deployed warheads. This choice is easy to explain by the traditional drawbacks of Soviet aircraft-building (especially in engines and navigational equipment) as well as the long distances heavy bombers had to cover to reach the United States, meaning a very long gap between decision to launch and delivery as well as very limited payload. The situation began to change somewhat in the 1980s after the Soviet Union succeeded in development of long-range air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Posture plans drawn in the late 1980s foresaw some (albeit still limited) increase in the share of warheads carried on heavy bombers.
In the post-Soviet time, the Air Force remained at the back burner during the larger part of the 1990s until Ukraine agreed to sell some heavy bombers to Russia instead of eliminating them under START I. This allowed increasing the number of heavy bombers to a level that had at least some military sense. In the 2000s, the Air Force became the leading asset to support the new mission, that of de-escalation.
Nuclear-capable aircraft (heavy bombers Tu-160 and Tu-95MS as well as medium Tu-22M3) have remained at the back burner of modernization efforts: existing heavy bombers are expected to last until at least the end of this decade, so there is no rush, in contrast to the ICBM and SLBM forces, which must be replaced as a matter of urgency. Instead, Russia has concentrated on upgrading the electronics and avionics of these aircraft; some heavy bombers designed to carry ALCMs are being converted to carry gravity bombs.
Modernization of nuclear weapons has been very limited. Russia is working on a new-generation (reportedly supersonic) ALCM, Kh-101, and its conventional version, Kh-102. Work on that program has been exceedingly slow—it began in the 1990s and the last mention of it is in 2000. After that, mentions of that program ceased until recently, when it surfaced only once and almost by accident. Obviously, the program is highly classified, but work continues, which is hardly surprising because at the moment the only long-range nuclear asset is a hopelessly outdated Kh-55. There is also a plan to give high precision capability to gravity bombs using the emerging Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS).
Eventually aircraft have to be replaced, of course. Among the existing types, the Tu-22Ms will probably be phased out completely. Some suggest that Su-34 could take up its roles, but it is unclear whether a decision has been made yet, which probably indicates that Russian military does not foresee many nuclear missions at Su-34 ranges.
Long-range plans of the Air Force are built around a brand new bomber, which will reportedly fall somewhere between Tu-22M3 and heavy bombers in range and load and is expected to be cheaper than the heavy bombers. Its main missions are reported to be in Eurasia and perhaps also the northern part of Africa. One wonders whether the new aircraft will actually fall under the traditional START I definition of a heavy bomber. The beginning of test flights is scheduled for 2015-16 and production could begin around 2020. These dates are certainly subject to revision, which is hardly surprising given the tradition of delays of all modernization programs: in fact, first reports about the new bomber appeared more than 10 years ago, but the Ministry of Defense concluded a formal contract with Tupolev design bureau for a new aircraft only in August 2009.
Information about modernization of the air leg of the strategic triad is scarce, but is the information available leads to three conclusions. First, the Air Force is likely to lose a role in strategic deterrence, even though formally and for arms control purposes it will remain part of strategic arsenal. Second, the Air Force will maintain and perhaps even enhance a nuclear role at the theater level. This role will not require large capability and the number of long-range aircraft will remain relatively small. Third, long-range aircraft will increasingly support conventional long-range missions. In this, Russia follows the trends of the U.S. Air Force with about 15-20 years lag.
Nuclear weapons retain a high profile in Russian national security strategy and will keep it in the foreseeable future. Contrary to official statements, there is no reason to believe that Russia could agree to a very significant reduction, much less elimination, of its nuclear arsenal. Instead, 10 years ago nuclear weapons were given additional roles—those of deterring and deescalating limited (“regional”) conventional wars. They are likely to keep that role as well, at least during the coming decade.
At the same time, Russian leadership clearly understands the limited utility of nuclear weapons and seeks to enhance conventional capability. In this sense, Russia is moving in some of the same directions as the United States—it seeks to develop missile defense and precision-guided long-range conventional assets. According to long-term plans, eventually these efforts should allow Russia to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. These programs encounter multiple delays, however, and progress much slower than anticipated. Russia will hardly succeed before the end of the coming decade and might never completely close the gap with the United States and NATO. In that case, reliance on nuclear weapons will continue indefinitely.
Certain similarities notwithstanding, differences between the United States and Russia will continue—Moscow is likely to continue seeing U.S. Global Strike and missile defense plans as a potential threat. There exists an important asymmetry: While the United States emphasizes strategic capability (intercontinental-range conventional assets and ability to intercept strategic missiles), Russia seeks intermediate-range capability and will continue to view American programs from the perspective of strategic balance.
Overall, the relationship will remain uneasy, but manageable. The key condition for a stable relationship is predictability—first and foremost careful management of American capabilities that can affect Russian strategic deterrence. This is not impossible, but might be difficult to achieve due to the dynamic of domestic politics in the two countries.