Although the Cold War is over, and now the most prevalent threats to national security are conventional and asymmetric in nature, nuclear weapons will always remain an integral part of international security, in addition to being a political and diplomatic tool.
Aside from the United States, Russia has the most sophisticated nuclear capability and delivery platforms. This article will examine Russian nuclear capabilities, the evolution of nuclear doctrine in Russia, comparing it to other nuclear-capable states, and make predictions as to the role of nuclear weapons in Russia in the near future.
Russia is an officially recognized nuclear weapon state, as identified by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The Russian Federation has several types of warheads and multiple types of delivery systems capable of transporting them. The Russian government “has been a strong supporter of nuclear nonproliferation treaties and regimes, and bilateral arms control treaties and initiatives with the United States have helped reduce the Russian arsenal substantially from its Soviet-era peak of about 40,000 warheads to approximately 4,300 according to a March 2013 estimate.” (Profile for Russia, 2015) Russia has a nuclear triad similar to that of the United States. A nuclear triad refers to the delivery systems of strategic nuclear weapons, typically launched by air, land and sea. In the case of Russia (and the United States), they have and use strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as the three pieces of their nuclear triad.
According to the most recent data exchange in March 2015 as part of the New START treaty, Russia “deploys 1,582 strategic warheads on 515 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. The actual number of deployed Russian warheads is likely higher since the treaty counts one strategic bomber as one operational deployed warhead, even though, for example, the TU-95 MS16 bomber can carry up to sixteen weapons. One open-source estimate from January 2015 put the actual number of operational Russian warheads at 1,900.” (Profile for Russia, 2015) Russia also has 305 ICBMs of five different variants. Collectively, their ICBM fleet could field 1,166 warheads. Three of their Soviet-era variants are being decommissioned, however, including the SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25, with replacements coming into service by 2022. These replacements include the creation of road-mobile ICBM launchers and an ICBM that contains multiple, independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). (Profile for Russia, 2015) ICBMs can be launched quickly: a mission time of 30 minutes or less for an ICBM to be launched from Russia to the United States is realistic. (Nuclear Weapons, 2008)
While strategic rocket forces play the primary strategic role in the nuclear triad, the sea-based platform takes a less obvious, but no less important, role. In January 2015 Russia reported that its active strategic ballistic missile submarine fleet consisted of two Delta III subs in the Pacific Fleet, five Delta IV subs in the Northern Fleet, and one 995 Borey-class sub in the Northern Fleet. The Delta III submarines carry 16 SLBMs, each with three warheads. These subs are also being slowly being phased out in favor of the newer Delta IV-class subs. The Delta IV-class carries 16 SLBMs, each with the capability of carrying four warheads. The newest subs, the Borey-class subs, will have the ability to house sixteen SLBMs, with each SLBM able to carry up to six warheads. (Profile for Russia, 2015) SLBMs can be launched even more quickly: depending on their locations, SLBMs can reach their target in 15 minutes or less. (Nuclear Weapons, 2008)
The last arm of the strategic nuclear triad is air-based assets. In Russia, they have two heavy bombers that are capable of carrying out a nuclear mission: the Tu-95 Bear and the Tu-160 Blackjack. The Bear has two variants, the MS6 and the MS16. It is uncertain as to the number and operational status of their nuclear bomber fleet, as Russia does not declare this information under arms-control agreements. An open-source estimate made in January 2015 estimates that Russia has 55 Tu-95s and 11 Tu-160s. These assets can launch long-range missiles (air-launched cruise missiles, or ALCMs), short-range missiles, and gravity bombs. (Profile for Russia, 2015)
Tactical (non-strategic) nuclear weapons also make up a significant portion of the nuclear arsenal. However, Russia has never disclosed the amount and types of weapons they possess in this category. A March 2014 estimate puts the amount of Russian tactical nuclear weapons at 2,000. Scholars believe that these warheads are stored at facilities scattered about the country and are not mated to delivery systems.
The United States and Russia have the greatest involvement and greatest concern by far for the safekeeping and responsible holding of nuclear weapons. They have also had both the greatest rivalry and, paradoxically, the most cooperation concerning nuclear weapon matters. Through international treaties, international organizations, and several summit conferences, the United States and Russia have slowly cooperated on matters of nuclear security. Both countries have advocated for nuclear non-proliferation and have reduced the number of their strategic nuclear weapons. The other nuclear weapon states as recognized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are the United Kingdom, France and China. Four other states known or believed to have nuclear weapons are India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Both countries, the US and Russia, recognize the seriousness of the prospect of nuclear war, whether between each other or secondarily via some form of proxy war, and have agreed in the past that nuclear war is unacceptable. (Profile for Russia, 2015) And while both countries have always exhibited remarkable restraint in terms of honoring that commitment, the fact remains that both nuclear doctrines for these two countries contain stipulations and conditions upon which either may employ and feel justified to use nuclear weapons.
As one of the most powerful nuclear countries in the world, Russia will always carry an enormous potential problem to American national interests. Russia’s nuclear triad consists of sophisticated and capable delivery systems for all three legs: land, air and sea-based operations. It has a significant number of non-strategic nuclear weapons, as well, which are unaffected by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties made with the United States. Depending on how and where these assets are utilized the Russian Federation may have a nuclear capability even more disconcerting to the international community than its formal triad. To date, Russia has maintained its tradition of being a responsible member of the nuclear club, even if always being ready to verbally remind the global community of its capabilities. What remains to be seen is how might new conflicts and tensions on the global stage – Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, DAESH, Iran – put new dynamics into play between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. As this article shows, Russia is still a force to be reckoned with on the nuclear front. Forgetting that could be extremely hazardous to the global community’s health.