Although China has a much larger nuclear arsenal than the DOD and arms control advocates are prepared to admit, Russia remains the principal nuclear and geopolitical adversary of the US. It is therefore necessary to examine the size and composition of Moscow’s atomic arsenal and the Russian government’s plans for its future.
Like the US, Russia possesses a strategic triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
1) ICBMs: Russia currently possesses ICBMs: 58 SS-18 Satan (10 warheads per missile), 35 SS-19 Stilletto (6 warheads per missile), 171 SS-25 Sickle (single-warhead), 78 SS-27 Stalin (single-warhead), and 42 RS-24 Yars (4 warheads per missile) ICBMs, for a total of 384 ICBMs.
This works out to:
This enables Russia’s ICBMs to deliver a total of 1,207 warheads to the Continental US. Note that over time, as Russia continues to replace older, single-warhead SS-25 and SS-27 missiles with Yars and RS-26 Rubezh multiple-warhead missiles, the number of warheads it can deliver to, and will aim at, the US will only continue to grow.
2) Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs) and their associated Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs): Russia currently possesses fourteen such submarines: 4 of the Delta III (Kalmar) class, 7 of the Delta IV (Delfin) class, 1 of the Project 941 Akula (Typhoon) class, and 2 of the newest Borei class.
Each of these submarines carries 16 SLBMs, except the Typhoon-class boat, which can carry 20 SLBMs but is usually used as a test platform (though it could be armed with SLBMs like a normal submarine if need be).
The fourteen SSBNs of the Russian Navy are:
Name……………………………………Class…………….Fleet…………Year of commissioning
K-129 Orenburg……………………..Delta III………..Northern……1981
K-433 St George the Victorious…Delta III………..Pacific………..1980
K-233 Podolsk………………………..Delta III……….Pacific…………1980
K-44 Ryazan…………………………..Delta III……….Pacific…………1982
K-51 Vyerkhoturye………………….Delta IV……….Northern……..1984
K-84 Yekaterinburg…………………Delta IV……….Northern……..1985
K-64 ……………………………………..Delta IV……….Northern……..1986
K-114 Tula………………………………Delta IV……….Northern……..1987
K-117 Bryansk…………………………Delta IV……….Northern……..1988
K-18 Kareliya………………………….Delta IV……….Northern………1989
K-407 Novomoskovsk……………..Delta IV……….Northern………1990
TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoi…………..Typhoon……..Northern……….1981
K-535 Yuriy Dolgorukiy……………Borei………….Northern………..2013
K-550 Alexander Nevskiy…………Borei…………..Pacific……………2013
K-551 Vladimir Monomakh……….Borei…………..Pacific…………..2014 (expected)
Included in the list is a fifteenth SSBN, the Vladimir Monomakh, which will be commissioned on December 10th, 2014.
The Delta IV class submarine K-64 is the only one in the Russian ballistic submarine fleet which doesn’t have a name. All other boats in the fleet are named after Russian cities, the Kareliya Peninsula, a saint (Saint George), or medieval Ruthenian/Russian princes.
Of the submarines listed, Orenburg, Ryazan, Yekaterinburg, and K-64 are currently in overhaul and (in the case of Yekaterinburg, which suffered a fire in 2013) repairs, which means they are not currently available for operational service.
Nonetheless, ten SSBNs are still available for duty at any given time – and Russian SSBNs can launch their missiles even when moored dockside.
Collectively, the thirteen SSBNs in service, other than the Dmitry Donskoi, can launch 16 SLBMs each; the Dmitry Donskoi can launch 20 such missiles. A single Russian Bulava SLBM can carry 10 warheads; the R-29RMU2 Liner missile can carry 12 warheads.
Assuming that all Russian SSBNs carry the Bulava, and not the Liner, the 13 non-Typhoon-class submarines could collectively launch 208 missiles, and with ten warheads per each missile, deliver 2,080 warheads to the CONUS. The Typhoon class boat, for its part, capable of launching 20 missiles, can deliver 200 additional warheads to the US.
Thus, assuming that all Russian SSBNs are armed with Bulava missiles, they can collectively deliver 2,280 warheads to the CONUS.
Even excluding those submarines that currently aren’t in operational service doesn’t reduce the Russian nuclear threat significantly. The 9 remaining Delta class submarines can collectively launch 144 missiles, and with 10 warheads sitting atop each missile, deliver 1,440 warheads to the CONUS – with the Typhoon-class boat delivering another 200.
So even with four submarines currently dockside in overhaul or repairs, the remaining submarines can still deliver 1,640 warheads to the Continental US if each submarine is armed with Bulava missiles – and even more if each submarine is armed with Liner missiles.
It is not clear how many warheads are actually currently deployed on Russian ballistic missile submarines – the New START “data” Russia gives the US State Department contains woefully understated figures and therefore is not credible. Russia undoubtely deploys many, many more warheads on its submarines than it acknowledges in New START “data exchanges.” Given that Russia has a long, proven history of violating arms limitation treaties, including most recently the INF treaty, no one should be surprised. In fact, had Russia’s most recent violations been disclosed before New START was ratified in December 2010, in the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress (the most liberal Congress in US history), the treaty would’ve never been passed.
Note that the Russian Navy has ordered over 100 Bulava and over 100 Liner SLBMs. This will be enough to fully equip each ballistic missile submarine of the Russian Navy and thus to replace the Sinyeva.
Finally, one must note that while the Russian Navy’s SSBNs conducted almost no patrols in the late 1990s and few in the 2000s, the situation is now different; these submarines go on patrol often, flush with funding from the government, primarily from oil and gas revenue.
3) Strategic Bomber Fleet (Dalnaya Aviatsiya – Long-Range Aviation)
This fleet consists of three aircraft types. The oldest is the Tu-95 Bear turboprop. While the oldest models were commissioned in 1956, the ones serving today were built later. Each can carry 6 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and a freefall nuclear bomb. It was a Tu-95 bomb which, in 1961, detonated the Tsar Bomb – the most powerful nuclear warhead in history, with the explosive power of 50 megatons. Currently, the Russian Air Force operates 64 such aircraft which collectively can deliver 702 nuclear warheads right to the Continental US.
They are supplemented by 171 Tu-22M Backfire-C and 16 Tu-160 bomber. While the Tu-22M is often called a theater or continental bomber and was not included in START treaties as a strategic delivery system, it should have been, because its combat radius of 2,400 kms can be dramatically increased with in-flight refueling. That gives it capability to reach the CONUS from Russian bases in the Far East (such as Ukrainka AFB) if refueled in the air (which Russian Air Force does for its aircraft anyway when practicing nuclear strikes on the US, as Russia has repeatedly done in the last few years).
A single Tu-22M can carry 10 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, including 4 on its wings and 6 in its internal weapons bay on a rotary launcher.
The Tu-160 bomber was commissioned in 1987 and can carry the most cruise missiles of any Russian bomber: 12. Thus, a fleet of just 16 Tu-160s can carry 184 nuclear-armed cruise missiles – and deliver them right to the CONUS. Russia is now building up its Tu-160 fleet with stockpiled components.
As for the Tu-95 fleet, it is estimated to be able to deliver between 384 and 702 nuclear weapons to the CONUS.
702 + 184 + 1710 = 2596. This is the number of nuclear warheads that the Russian bomber fleet could potentially deliver to the CONUS (with air refueling for the Tu-22Ms; however, the Russian Air Force does not have nearly enough tankers to provide aerial refueling for 171 Tu-22Ms; barely a few dozen could actually receive air refueling on their way to the US, relegating the Tu-22M to the role of a continental/theater bomber).
Even excluding the Tu-22M fleet, however, the Russian long-range bomber fleet can still deliver 886 nuclear warheads to the CONUS.
Russia’s next-generation bomber, the PAK DA (Prospektivnoy Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Dalnoy Aviatsii – Prospective Aircraft Complex of Long-range Aviation), is under development.
4) Tactical nuclear weapons and their carriers
Russia possesses thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. Just how many exactly it has is unclear. What is known is that they number in the thousands. A very conservative estimate by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris puts the number at 2,000 tactical warheads deployed. Even the anti-nuclear, anti-American Ploughshares Fund estimates Russia’s total nuclear arsenal (strategic and tactical) at 8,000 warheads, the largest in the world (slightly larger than America’s, which consists of 7,300 warheads).
However, the exact number of tactical nuclear weapons Russia has remains unknown, due to the fact that Russia refuses to disclose this number, and the Obama administration is assisting in Russia’s nuclear opacity.
Russian tactical nuclear weapons can be carried by a wide range of delivery systems, including:
- Artillery pieces;
- Su-24, Su-25, Su-27/30/33/35 Flanker, and Su-34 Fullback tactical strike aircraft;
- Tu-22M continental bombers;
- Surface ships (in the form of nuclear depth charges and nuclear torpedoes);
- Submarines (in the form of nuclear depth charges, torpedoes, and cruise missiles, including the recently-deployed Kalibr missile – Russia’s 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines carry such weapons today, as do Russia’s 8 cruise missile submarines);
- Short-range missiles such as earlier Iskander (SS-26 Stone) variants; and
- Russia’s new, illegal, intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles such as the Iskander-M, Iskander-K, and R-500. Some of Russia’s Iskander missiles are reportedly deployed in the Kaliningradskaya Oblast north of Poland, from which they can threaten any target within a 500 km radius.
Russia has developed, tested, and deployed these missiles in blatant violation of the INF Treaty, which prohibits Moscow and Washington from even testing, let alone deploying, any ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5500 kilometers, or even testing any ground-launched missiles inside that range. Therefore, the 2013 test of the Rubezh ICBM at a range of 2,000 km – i.e. within INF Treaty range – was also a clear violation of the treaty.
Although Russia’s blatant violations of the treaty have been known to the Obama administration since at least 2010, the administration nonetheless withheld that information from the Senate so as to win ratification of the one-sided New START treaty, which obligated only the US (not Russia) to cut its nuclear arsenal, while allowing Russia to build up its arsenal – which it has been doing ever since New START’s ratification.
While the US held a significant nuclear arsenal advantage over Russia at the time the treaty was signed, this is no longer true. The US now barely enjoys parity with Russia in strategic nuclear weapons.
Returning to the subject of tactical nuclear arms, these – except those carried by submarines, surface ships, and Tu-22M bombers – cannot be delivered to the US, but can be used against America’s allies in Europe and Asia. Russia has threatened to do so on numerous occassions, which is why US allies in Europe, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, have repeatedly stressed the need for the US nuclear umbrella and for the continued deployment of American tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
Russia has always steadfastly refused to discuss any limits on its tactical nuclear weapons, knowing that it is absolutely not in its interest to throw away the significant advantage it has over the West in this field. Russia’s leaders, unlike those of the West, are not foolish enough to do so, and will not disarm Russia unilaterally – unlike the West’s leaders.
Finally, it should be noted that the Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft, like Tu-95 and Tu-160 intercontinental bombers, can launch the Kh-55 and Kh-102 nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which have a range between 2,500 and 3,000 kms.
Russia has regained nuclear parity with the US in all categories of strategic nuclear weapons, and holds a huge lead over the US and its allies in tactical nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
Not only is this a huge threat in and of itself, but Russia has proven itself to be quite aggressive – and quite willing to use its nuclear weapons if it senses weakness on the West’s part. It reserves the right, in its nuclear doctrine, to use atomic weapons first even if the enemy doesn’t have nuclear weapons; it has threatened to use them against the US and its allies on at least 15 separate occassions since 2007; and its bombers have repeatedly practices nuclear strikes on the US and European nations (including neutral ones such as Sweden and Finland) since 2012.
Russia has made it clear it considers the US and NATO as enemies against whom its nuclear weapons are intended. In June 2012, after conducting simulated nuclear strikes on the US, the Russian Air Force was asked what it was doing in the Northwest, and replied it was “practicing attacking the enemy.” This September, while NATO leaders were gathered in Wales, Russian nuclear-armed bombers were again simulating strikes against the US – then practiced similar attacks against Britain.
Thus, Russia constitutes by far the gravest threat to US, allied, and world security, by virtue of its nuclear arsenal alone. Countering that threat should be, and appears to be emerging as, the DOD’s #1 priority. Comprehensive modernization of the US nuclear arsenal is the only way the Russian nuclear threat can be staved off and for decades to come.