Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal

RS-28 (Satan 2)

Russia’s nuclear arsenal has been progressively modernized. According to the IISS:

The Strategic Rocket Force (RVSN) continues to progressively rearm, with a number of regiments continuing to receive new Yars missiles and launchers in 2016. Meanwhile, tests of the heavy Sarmat liquid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) have been postponed several times due to technical difficulties, and these are now expected to resume towards the end of 2017. Ejection tests of the rail-mobile Barguzin ICBM were first carried out in November 2016, but the future of the system has yet to be decided.

Russia has announced that the new RS-28 ballistic missile, commissioned in 2011, will come into service in 2018 as planned. Russia also plans to deploy the RS-28 (Satan 2) ICBM by 2021 as a replacement for the RS-36, which is being phased out in the 2020s.

The armed forces also continue to undergo process modernization, which was begun by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in 2008. Partially because of this modernization, U. S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development Elbridge Colby stated in January 2018 that the U. S. military advantage over Russia is eroding. Russia has invested heavily in military modernization over the past decade and projects that 70 percent of its military equipment will have been modernized by 2020. In March 2017, Russia announced life-extension programs for its Akula-class and Oscar II-class nuclear-powered submarines, which operate in both the Northern and Pacific Fleets. However, problems remain:

The naval shipbuilding industry has suffered from years of neglect and under investment; while the Ukraine crisis and the imposition of sanctions is starting to have an effect. The refurbishment of existing naval vessels is progressing, albeit at a slower, and more expensive, pace than originally envisaged. Although several new frigates, corvettes and submarines have already entered service, delivery of new vessels is behind schedule.

Following years of delays, the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov stealth guided missile frigate was delayed until the end of summer 2018. The second Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate, the Admiral Kasatonov, began sea trials in 2018; however, according to some analysts, tight budgets and an inability to procure parts from Ukrainian industry (importantly, gas turbine engines) make it difficult for Russia to build the three additional Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates as planned. In April, Russia announced that its only air- craft carrier would be out of service until 2021 for modernization and repair. Russia plans to procure eight Lider-class guided missile destroyers for its Northern and Pacific fleets, but procurement has faced consistent delay, and construction will not begin until 2025 at the earliest.

Russia’s naval modernization continues to prioritize submarines, including upgrades to its diesel electric Kilo-class subs. According to one analyst: [R]einvigorating submarine construction has been one of the visible accomplishments of the Russian Navy’s moderniza- tion program for 2011-2020. Russia has built three new SSBNs of the Borei class (Project 955) and recently launched the second SSGN in the Yasen class (Project 885M)-an upgraded version of the well- known Severodvinsk-and it intends to build five more Borei-class SSBNs by 2021 and another four or five SSGNs of the Yasen class by 2023.

Russia also has expressed ambitions to produce a fifth-generation stealth nuclear-powered submarine by 2030 and to arm it with Zircon hypersonic missiles, which have a reported speed of from Mach 5 to Mach 6. Transport remains a nagging problem, and Russia’s Defense Minister has stressed the paucity of transport vessels. In 2017, Russia reportedly needed to purchase civilian cargo vessels and use icebreakers to transport troops and equipment to Syria at the beginning of major operations in support of the Assad regime. Although budget shortfalls have hampered modernization efforts overall, analysts believe that Russia will continue to focus on developing high-end systems such as the S-500 surface-to-air missile system and Su-57 fighter and the T-14 Armata main battle tank. In May, it was reported that Russian testing of the S-500 system struck a target 299 miles away. If true, this is the longest surface-to-air missile test ever conducted, and the S-500’s range could have significant implications for European security when the missile becomes operational.

Russian Strategic Nuclear Threat.

Russia possesses the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons among the nuclear powers (when short-range nuclear weapons are included). It is one of the few nations with the capability to destroy many targets in the U. S. homeland and in U. S.-allied nations and to threaten and prevent free access to the commons by other nations. Russia has both intercontinental-range and short-range ballistic missiles and a varied nuclear weapons arsenal that can be delivered by sea, land, and air. It also is investing significant resources in modernizing its arsenal and maintaining the skills of its workforce, and nuclear triad modernization will remain a top priority under the new State Armaments Program. However, an aging nuclear workforce could hamper modernization: “[A]lthough Russia’s strategic-defence enterprises appear to have preserved some of their expertise, problems remain, for ex- ample, in transferring the necessary skill sets and experience to the younger generation of engineers.”

Russia is currently relying on its nuclear arsenal to ensure its invincibility against any enemy, intimidate European powers, and deter counters to its predatory behavior in its “near abroad,” primarily in Ukraine but also concerning the Baltic States. This arsenal serves as a protective umbrella under which Russia can modernize its conventional forces at a deliberate pace. While its nuclear deterrent protects it from a large-scale attack, Russia also needs a modern and flexible military to fight local wars such as those against Georgia in 2008 and the ongoing war against Ukraine that began in 2014. Under Russian military doctrine, the use of nuclear weapons in conventional local and regional wars is seen as de-escalatory because it would cause an enemy to concede defeat. In May 2017, for example, a Russian parliamentarian threatened that nuclear weapons might be used if the U. S. or NATO were to move to retake Crimea or defend eastern Ukraine.

General Scaparrotti discussed the risks presented by Russia’s possible use of tactical nu- clear weapons in his March 23, 2017, EUCOM posture statement: “Most concerning. is Moscow’s substantial inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the EUCOM AOR [Area of Responsibility] and its troubling doctrine that calls on the potential use of these weapons to escalate its way out of a failing conflict.”

Particularly worrisome are Moscow’s plans for rail-based nuclear-armed missiles, which are very difficult to detect. The missiles are scheduled to begin testing in 2019 and to be- come operational in 2020. Russia reportedly plans to deploy five regiments with a total of 30 railroad ICBMs: six missiles per regiment. The Defense Ministry states that the new armed forces structure is being created with the goal of increased flexibility, mobility, and readiness for combat in limited-scale conflicts. Strategic Rocket Forces are the first line of defense (and offense) against Russia’s great-power counterparts.

Russia has two strategies for nuclear deterrence. The first is based on a threat of massive launch-on-warning and retaliatory strikes to deter a nuclear attack; the second is based on a threat of limited demonstration and “de-escalation” nuclear strikes to deter or terminate a large-scale conventional war. Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons is based partly on their small cost relative to conventional weapons, especially in terms of their effect, and on Russia’s inability to attract sufficient numbers of high-quality servicemembers. Thus, Russia sees its nuclear weapons as a way to offset the lower quantity and quality of its convention- al forces.

Moscow has repeatedly threatened U. S. allies in Europe with nuclear deployments and even preemptive nuclear strikes. The Russians justify their aggressive behavior by pointing to deployments of U. S. missile defense systems in Europe even though these systems are not scaled or postured to mitigate Russia’s advantage in ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons to any significant degree.

Russia continues to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the testing, production, and possession of intermediate-range missiles. In early 2017, Russia fully deployed the SSC-X-8 Cruise Missile in violation of the INF treaty. One battalion with the cruise missile remains at a missile test site in southern Russia, and another battalion with the missile deployed to an operational base in December 2016. U. S. officials acknowledge that the banned cruise missiles are no longer in the testing phase and now consider them to be fully operational. In March 2017, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman and U. S. Air Force General Paul Selva testified that Russia’s cruise missile deployment “violates the spirit and intent of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty” and “presents a risk to most of our facilities in Europe.” In December 2017, the U. S. announced new diplomatic, military, and economic measures “intended to induce the Russian Federation to return to compliance and to deny it any military advantage should it persist in its violation.”

Summary: The sizable Russian nuclear arsenal remains the only threat to the existence of the U. S. homeland emanating from Europe and Eurasia. While the potential for use of this arsenal remains low, the fact that Russia continues to threaten Europe with nuclear attack demonstrates that it will continue to play a central strategic role in shaping both Moscow’s military and political thinking and its level of aggressive behavior beyond its borders.

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