The Russian Nuclear Arsenal


The Russian Nuclear Arsenal
Pavel Podvig
Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University
November 2005

The history of the Russian nuclear forces begins at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union when Russia, as the legal successor of the nuclear power status, inherited all Soviet nuclear weapons and most of the military and industrial infrastructure that was involved in developing the country’s nuclear arsenal. The subsequent evolution of the Russian nuclear forces was a difficult process of adjusting the size and role of the nuclear arsenal to the requirements of the post-Cold War security environment and to the realities of the new Russian economic and political system, which themselves were affected by developments in the nuclear complex. As a result, the Russian nuclear arsenal that exists today is more a product of this transition process than that of careful consideration and planning. To understand the current status of the Russian strategic nuclear forces we need to examine this transition and the internal and external factors that have shaped it.

The Soviet nuclear arsenal reached its peak in the mid-1980s, shortly before the United States and the Soviet Union began serious disarmament efforts. At the height of its development, the Soviet arsenal was estimated to include about 30,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons were deployed with a variety of delivery systems – land-based ballistic missiles, submarines, and bombers. About 10,000 nuclear warheads were considered part of the strategic force; the rest were deployed with theater forces and tactical units.

Operations of the nuclear forces were supported by extensive military infrastructure, which included early-warning radars, military satellites, nuclear weapon storage sites, as well as a command, control, and communication system that was designed to launch a nuclear strike.

Another important part of the nuclear forces infrastructure was the military-industrial complex that was responsible for the development and large-scale production of nuclear warheads and delivery systems. This complex consisted of several ministries that were handling all aspects of nuclear weapon development – from uranium mining to production of weapon-grade fissile materials and warheads and from scientific research to mass production of missiles and aircraft. The core of the industrial complex included a number of research institutes and design bureaus, which played a key role in weapons development and production.

In the late 1980s, nuclear weapons were deployed across most of the territory of the Soviet Union. In addition, some tactical nuclear warheads were deployed in the Eastern Europe. However, by the time the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991, the military had successfully removed all nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe and were in the process of transferring all tactical nuclear warheads from the Soviet republics to storage sites located on Russian territory. This transfer was completed in spring of 1992.

The situation with strategic nuclear warheads was somewhat different. At the end of 1991, four countries of the former Soviet Union had strategic nuclear weapons on their territories. While most weapons were based in Russia, about 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles (almost a third of all land-based missiles of this kind) and their nuclear warheads turned up in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Ukraine and Kazakhstan also had about 80 strategic bombers deployed on their bases. None of these three countries, however, had the infrastructure that would have allowed them to maintain and operate nuclear weapons independently. In May 1992 they all pledged to remove nuclear warheads from their territories and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear states. Russia was declared the only successor to the nuclear status of the former Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan and Belarus agreed to transfer all nuclear warheads as well as the missiles and aircraft that carried them to Russia. The transfer was completed in April 1994 and November 1996 respectively. Ukraine had returned all nuclear warheads to Russia by June 1996, but claimed ownership of the missiles and aircraft that were on its territory. Most of these have been liquidated, but some were sold to Russia in the late 1990s-early 2000s.

One of the reasons post-Soviet countries managed to resolve the issues related to nuclear warheads and delivery systems relatively quickly was the fact that these issues were covered by the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 (START). The treaty provided a legal framework for the transfer of nuclear warheads to Russia, or for the elimination of those launchers that remained outside of its territory.

Unlike warheads and missiles, non-nuclear military facilities--that supported various aspects of operations of the strategic forces--were not covered by arms control arrangements, so Russia had to negotiate their status individually with its post-Soviet neighbors. Although most of the facilities were still in Russia, five out of nine early-warning radar sites were now located outside of its territory – in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Belarus. A number of strategically important objects were located in Kazakhstan: Baikonur – the primary Soviet space launch and missile testing site, the missile defense proving ground at Sary-Shagan, and the nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk.

Some of these bases or the facilities on them were shut down, but most continued to operate, even though it took Russia more than a decade to negotiate the terms of use with the host countries. Today, Russia continues to use the Baikonur space launch site, most of the early-warning radar systems that were operational in 1991, and the missile-defense testing ground in Kazakhstan. The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site has been closed.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union also resulted in significant changes in the military industry, affecting Russia’s ability to maintain and modernize its strategic forces. The missile production industry was affected the most, since many key research and production facilities were located in Ukraine. Other industries suffered major disruptions in their subcontractor chains. One notable exception was the nuclear weapons production complex, which historically had all its vital research and production facilities located in Russia.

Arms control process

Arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union historically played a very important role in determining the scope of strategic forces in both countries. Limits that arms control treaties placed on development and deployment of new systems ensured some predictability in the nuclear arms race. In addition to that, arms control negotiations provided a framework for a domestic and international debate on security issues. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the arms control process became even more important. It provided the institutional arrangements that helped Russia and the United States to develop their relationships and to discuss bilateral issues on a regular basis.

The two major arms control issues that shaped the U.S.-Russian relationships in the 1990s were reductions of strategic offensive forces and limits on missile defense development. The first issue was a subject of two strategic arms reduction treaties – START and START II. Missile defense development was limited by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. There were other arms control and disarmament agreements, which dealt with eliminating intermediate-range missiles, conventional force reductions, chemical and biological weapons, and a ban on nuclear tests, but their role was politically less prominent.

START was a treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States, which was signed in July 1991, a few months before the breakup of the Soviet Union. After the breakup, the four former Soviet republics that had strategic nuclear weapons on their territories – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus – signed a Lisbon Protocol in May 1992, in which they accepted disarmament obligations of the Soviet Union. All countries but Russia pledged to eliminate nuclear weapons on their territories.

The treaty called for an almost twofold reduction of the strategic forces from the levels that the United States and the Soviet Union achieved in the late 1980s. At the time of the treaty signing, these countries had more than 2,300 strategic delivery systems and more than 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads on each side. START established limits of 1,600 delivery systems and 6,000 warheads associated with them but used complicated accounting rules, so the actual number of nuclear warheads that the sides were allowed to keep was somewhat higher. There were a number of other limits, which reflected the ideas about strategic stability and nuclear security prevalent at that time. The treaty provided very elaborate procedures for elimination of delivery systems, verification and information exchange.

The START reductions were to be completed in seven years upon the treaty’s implementation, after which time it was to stay in force for eight more years. The breakup of the Soviet Union caused a significant delay in the ratification of the treaty, as it had to be approved by all successor countries. It eventually entered into force in December 1994 and hence the treaty term will expire in 2009.

Even before the START ratification process was completed, Russia and the United States began negotiations on the next stage of nuclear arms reductions. The result of this effort was the START II Treaty, which was signed in January 1993. Unlike its predecessor, START II was a bilateral agreement between Russia and the United States that did not include any other former Soviet states.

The new treaty used the elimination and verification procedures specified in the START I Treaty, but called for steeper reductions in offensive weapons – to 3,000-3,500 nuclear warheads on each side. Among the few specific provisions of the START II Treaty was the complete elimination of land-based ballistic missiles with multiple warheads (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, MIRV), the requirement that would later prove the most controversial. Another controversial provision of the treaty was the timeline for the reductions – all weapons had to be eliminated by January 2003.

There were several reasons that led to the controversy that surrounded the START II Treaty. First, its provisions were structured in a way that allowed the United States to keep most of its missiles intact (although with fewer warheads), which theoretically allowed it to quickly reconstitute its strategic forces. Russia did not have this capability, for it had to liquidate most of its missiles to comply with the treaty provisions. The ban on land-based MIRVed missiles presented another serious challenge. If Russia were to keep its forces at the level of 3,000-3,500 warheads, as specified in the treaty, it would have to produce several hundred new single-warhead missiles to compensate for the elimination of multiple-warhead ones. Even though the treaty allowed ten years to complete all the changes in the strategic forces, a program of this kind was clearly beyond Russia’s economic capabilities. Moreover, given the unstable economic situation of the early 1990s, Russia experienced serious difficulties in dismantling the existing weapons. Hence, the 2003 deadline for reductions looked increasingly unrealistic. While much of the criticism of these specific provisions of the START II Treaty were valid, the real reason they caused such controversy in Russia was the growing sense of frustration over the loss of the strategic balance vis-a-vis the United States, and Russia’s apparent inability to keep its strategic forces at the level that would preserve its status as one of two equal nuclear superpowers.

The concerns over the loss of strategic parity were exacerbated by U.S. missile defense development efforts and discussions that were questioning the viability of one of the key U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements – the ABM Treaty. Signed in 1972, the treaty prohibited the development and deployment of strategic missile defense systems that would have the capability to protect an entire territory of a country. The logic of the ban was to prevent the United States and the Soviet Union from attempting to gain strategic superiority by building a missile defense system. During the Cold War, legal provisions of the treaty were backed up by the capability of the parties to prevent attempts of this kind by threatening to respond with an offensive weapons buildup. But after Russia all but lost this capability in the breakup of the Soviet Union, from its point of view the legal protection offered by the ABM Treaty was the only defense against the U.S. disrupting the strategic balance by building a strategic missile defense system.

The perceived disparity of the START II Treaty and the direction of the U.S. missile defense program only made these problems worse. Even though in the early 1990s the United States was not expressing interest in developing strategic missile defense systems, which would protect all its territory, its program was clearly moving in that direction. In 1994 Russia and the United States undertook an effort to reach an agreement that would preserve the ban on strategic missile defense systems while allowing development of non-strategic ones (which presumably could not disrupt the strategic balance), but the negotiations were moving very slowly.

In 1997, Russia and the United States made an attempt to resolve the issues of strategic arms reductions and missile defense. At the summit in Helsinki that year they agreed to extend the timeline for START II implementation by five years – to the end of 2007. The extension was supposed to give Russia enough time to carry out the reductions and the necessary modernization of its strategic forces. At the same time, the two sides agreed on the terms of a so-called demarcation agreement that was supposed to resolve the missile defense issue. The agreement, signed in September 1997, allowed development of most non-strategic missile defense systems that were under development in the United States.

The compromise that was reached in 1997 proved unsatisfactory. Russia believed that the 1997 demarcation agreement protected the ABM Treaty and demanded that this agreement should be ratified before START II could take effect. With this condition the Russian parliament ratified the START II Treaty in April 2000. However, by this time the United States had all but abandoned attempts to preserve the ABM Treaty in its initial form. Ratification of the demarcation agreement was never considered an option in the United States, which effectively precluded the implementation of START II.

In 2001, when the new U.S. administration made missile defense one of the priorities of its defense policy, tensions arose between Russia and the United States. However, by that time it was clear that even if Russia were to respond to the U.S. missile defense development, none of the steps it could realistically take – keeping its heavy missiles in service or deploying other missiles with multiple warheads – would seriously change the U.S.-Russian strategic balance. Nor was this balance in danger of being undermined by the missile defense systems that were under development – flight tests convincingly demonstrated that capabilities of these systems are quite limited. On the Russian side, practical considerations also played a significant role – the military saw an opportunity to reject the START II treaty, which imposed serious restrictions on the Russian strategic forces.

The political situation after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States made withdrawal from the ABM Treaty politically possible. In December 2001 the United States notified Russia about its intention to withdraw from the treaty. The reaction from Russia was very restrained. The only practical step was to withdraw from the START II treaty in June 2002, when the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was complete. This step, however, was expected and the START II Treaty could not have entered into force anyway.

The START II Treaty was replaced by an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2002. Known as the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty or the Moscow treaty, the agreement calls for reduction of operational nuclear warheads to the level of 1,700-2,200 by the end of 2012. Unlike its START predecessors, the Moscow treaty does not set any limits on delivery systems and requires no transparency or verification. Since the treaty does not require elimination of launchers or warheads, the United States and Russia could easily reconstitute their forces to the level that existed before the reductions. In practice, however, it is unlikely, for the evolution of strategic nuclear forces in both countries will almost certainly bring the number of nuclear warheads to much lower levels than those specified in the treaty.

The Moscow treaty is likely to be the last U.S.-Russian arms control agreement related to strategic forces. It demonstrated that both countries feel confident that their strategic forces provide adequate deterrence to the extent required by the current state of the U.S.-Russian relationships.

Structure of the Russian nuclear forces

The Soviet Union and the United States were the only two countries to built a complete nuclear triad – a strategic force that included land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic submarines with ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers equipped with gravity bombs or air-launched cruise missiles. The original logic behind this composition of the force was that the three legs of the triad would complement each other, taking advantage of their relative strengths and guarding against potential vulnerabilities. For example, the combination of accuracy and high-yield warheads made land-based missiles suitable for attacking hardened targets – missile silos or command posts. Submarines were valued for their survivability, which made them suitable for a retaliatory strike.

In reality, the makeup of U.S. and Soviet triads was determined by a number of factors, only a few of which were related to military capabilities of the weapon systems. For example, the Soviet Union traditionally considered land-based ballistic missiles to be the most important part of its strategic force, largely because the Soviet industry developed significant expertise in missile development and production at the very early stages. In addition, ballistic missiles had a strong advocate in the Strategic Rocket Forces, the service that was created in 1959 to operate them. In contrast, strategic aviation in the Soviet Union was relegated to secondary roles, since it had never enjoyed strong institutional support within the military or a successful development record similar to that of the missile industry.

Russia preserved the overall structure of the Soviet strategic forces and tried to maintain all components of the nuclear triad. However, in the new economic and political environment, the services had to compete for the limited resources that Russia was able to spend on its military. For most of the 1990s the military received only minimal funding, which did not allow serious restructuring or modernization of the strategic forces. The development funds allocated to strategic systems went primarily to the development of a new single-warhead land-based missile, known as Topol-M, which was supposed to replace the existing MIRVed missiles under the terms of the START II Treaty. In 1996, an attempt was made to launch construction of a new strategic submarine, but the lack of funds brought the construction to a virtual halt. The situation was made worse by the inability of the military and the industry to define clear priorities at the time of economic and political uncertainty of the 1990s.

In 1998 the Russian government undertook the first attempt to create a detailed development program for the strategic forces that would take into account the capability of the industry as well as Russia’s arms control obligations. The program took into account the START II requirements and called for modest modernization of all three components of the nuclear triad as well as of the early-warning network and the command and control system that supports operations of the strategic forces.

Although these decisions called for uniform development of all components of the strategic forces, the Strategic Rocket Forces quickly emerged as a dominant service. In 1999 it suggested a plan that would combine all strategic forces under its operational command. In addition, the Strategic Rocket Forces would have taken control over most of the development and acquisition budget. These proposals led to a serious conflict within the Russian military, which put the Strategic Rocket Forces in confrontation with other services as well as with advocates of greater role for conventional forces. The conflict was resolved in 2000 in a decision that preserved the formally equal status of all components of the nuclear forces and made plans for their development that did not give clear priority to any service.

Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the subsequent demise of START II, the structure of the Russian strategic forces is no longer determined by arms control constrains (START I ceilings are too high to be of any practical importance, while the Moscow treaty does not really set any limits). As a result, the pace of the strategic modernization is now determined primarily by internal institutional interests of the services and by the ability of the military and the industry to manage development projects and production of weapons systems. Military requirements, as they were understood during the cold war, still play some role in determining the direction of the modernization, but this role appears to be secondary at best.

The Strategic Rocket Forces

At the peak of its development in the early 1990s, the Strategic Rocket Forces included almost 1,400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could carry about 6,600 nuclear warheads. At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, only 735 of these were still operational and under Russia’s control, as shown in Table 1. About 400 older type missiles (SS-11, SS-13, and SS-17) had been deactivated, while others were based outside of the Russian territory: 104 SS-18 missiles were in Kazakhstan; 130 SS-19 and 46 SS-24 missiles were in Ukraine. In addition, 81 road-mobile SS-25 missiles, while formally under Russian control, were based in Belarus.

Table 1. Russia’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles

Designations Basing Warheads per missile 1991 2005 2012 (estimate)
SS-18, R-36M, RS-20 silo 10 204 85 50
SS-19, UR-100NUTTH, RS-18 silo 6 170 129 30
SS-24, RT-23UTTH, RS-22 silo 10 10
SS-24, RT-23UTTH, RS-22 rail-mobile 10 36
SS-25, RT-2PM Topol, RS-12M road-mobile 1 315 294 20
SS-27, RT-2PM2 Topol-M, RS-12M2 silo 1 40 50
SS-27, RT-2PM2 Topol-M, RS-12M2 road-mobile 1 0 50
Total 735 548 200

One of the problems that Russia had to deal with in the 1990s was that the development and production of its most modern ICBMs remained in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Yuzhmash was producing the SS-18 and SS-24 missiles and was involved in the development of the early version of the SS-27 missile. Of the remaining Russian-produced missiles, the SS-19 had not been in production since the mid-1980s, while production of the SS-25 was increasingly difficult because of disrupted links with subcontractors. Hence, Russia had to concentrate its efforts on moving development and production of SS-27 Topol-M missiles to Russian territory and on extending the service lives of the Ukrainian-produced SS-18 missiles. Another missile produced in Ukraine, the SS-24, also went through a service life extension program, but the extension was limited and all these missiles had been completely withdrawn from service by 2005.

Development and production of the SS-27 missile was successfully transferred to Russia, based at the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology and the Votkinsk plant respectively. The first flight test of this missile was conducted in 1994 and in December 1997 the Rocket Forces accepted the first two missiles of this type for service. In the last several years these missiles have been deployed at a rate of four-to-six per year. A road-mobile version of the SS-27 missile has been undergoing tests and is expected to be deployed in 2006.

The SS-27 Topol-M missile will eventually replace the SS-25 Topol road-mobile missile, although in smaller numbers. SS-25 missiles, which were deployed in 1988-1992, are now reaching the end of their operational lives. They have been withdrawn from service in the last few years and this process will be complete in 2010-2012.

One of the reasons the SS-24 and SS-25 are being decommissioned is that they are solid-propellant missiles, which require a complex and costly replacement of propellant to extend their service lives. A life-extension procedure for liquid-fuel missiles is much simpler and usually requires only periodic testing of the aging missiles. Russia has been conducting flight tests of this kind and now considers it safe to keep the liquid-fuel SS-18 and SS-19 missiles in service for about 25 years or even longer.

Even with this life extension program, Russia will have to remove most of its SS-19 and SS-18 missiles from service in the near future. The SS-19/UR-100NUTTH missiles that are currently in service were deployed in 1979-1984 and will have to be decommissioned by the end of the decade. However, some missiles of this type may stay – Russia has about 30 SS-19 missiles that it purchased from Ukraine in the early 2000s. If deployed, these missiles could probably stay in service for 20-25 years.

With the new production of Topol-M and various life-extension programs under way, Russia could maintain its land-based ICBM force at the level of 150-200 missiles-- which would carry about 800 warheads--by 2012, as summarized in Table 1. It could also keep about 50 newer SS-18 heavy missiles, and up to 30 SS-19 missiles. These silo-based multiple-warhead missiles would account for most of the warheads and could stay in service until 2015-2020. In addition to these, Russia is planning to have about 100 single-warhead SS-27 Topol-M missiles, which will be deployed in silos as well as on road-mobile launchers. Most of the SS-25 Topol missiles will have been decommissioned by 2010-2012.

Theoretically, in addition to the missiles described here, Russia could deploy one more missile as part of its land-based force. The Bulava missile is currently being developed as a sea-launched multiple-warhead missile. It shares some components with SS-27 Topol-M and can be deployed in silos on land. It is unlikely, however, that Russia will ever need a new silo-based multiple-warhead missile.

These plans reflect the consensus about the role and structure of the land-based missile force that emerged from the discussions of the last decade. They also allow to reconcile the development and modernization plans with the existing production capability of the industry. Another important consideration for Russia is that this structure of the strategic force, which preserves multiple-warhead missiles and heavy missiles in particular, provides it with a certain degree of protection should the United States decide to pursue a large-scale missile defense program. However, a massive buildup in response to a program like that is highly unlikely, partly because it would require significant additional resources, but mostly because the projected missile force would preserve its retaliatory potential even in the presence of a missile defense. We also should not expect dramatic reductions in the number of missiles or warheads. Most missiles will probably not be removed from silos until the end of their service lives, although it is possible that some will be deactivated earlier.

Strategic fleet

Strategic nuclear-powered submarines constituted an important part of the Soviet strategic forces. As shown in Table 2, at the time of its breakup the Soviet Union had 49 modern ballistic-missile submarines, which carried more than 700 missiles and about 2,600 warheads. Strategic submarines were assigned to the Northern Fleet, which was based at the Kola Peninsula, and to the Pacific Fleet, based in the Far East region and at the Kamchatka Peninsula. The breakup of the Soviet Union did not affect the strategic fleet directly, for all ballistic missile submarines were based in Russia.

Table 2. Russian strategic submarines and sea-launched ballistic missiles

Submarines Missiles per submarine Warheads per missile 1991 2005 2012 (estimate)
Delta I, Project 667B 12 SS-N-8, R-29, RSM-40 1 18
Delta II, Project 667BD 16 SS-N-8, R-29, RSM-40 1 4
Delta III, Project 667BDR 16 SS-N-18, R-29R, RSM-50 3 14 6
Delta IV, Project 667BDRM 16 SS-N-23, R-29RM, RSM-54 4 7 6 6
Typhoon, Project 941 20 SS-N-20, R-39, RSM-52 10 6
Borey, Project 955 12 SS-NX-30, Bulava, RSM-56 (?) 2
Total 49 12 8

The task of maintaining nuclear submarines and the infrastructure that supported their operations presented Russia with a serious challenge. By the early 1990s Russia had a large number of ballistic missile and attack nuclear submarines that had reached the end of their operational lives and were awaiting dismantlement. However, the infrastructure that existed at that time was not sufficient to support the massive dismantlement effort that was required for elimination of all submarines. In addition to that, the dismantlement procedures included extensive operations with radioactive materials, which created a risk of radioactive contamination of the areas around submarine bases. Most of these problems have been solved with the help of the international community, but as of 2005, the elimination of old nuclear submarines has not been completed yet – about 120 submarines have been eliminated, while about 80 are awaiting dismantlement.

The difficult situation with decommissioning as well as general lack of funds in the military had a serious negative impact on the fleet modernization program. Most submarine overhaul programs were brought to a halt. The main missile development program – modernization of the SS-N-20/R-39 missile, also known as Bark – encountered serious difficulties (all three flight tests of the missile ended in failure). This missile was being developed to replace old missiles on Typhoon submarines as well as for deployment on strategic submarines of a new type (known as Borey). In 1996 Russia launched construction of the first submarine of this type, but it proceeded extremely slowly. The future of Delta IV submarines was also in doubt, since their SS-N-23/R-29RM missiles were approaching end of their operational lives and there were no new missiles to replace them.

In 1998, the government drastically revised the strategic fleet modernization plans. It cancelled the SS-N-20 modernization, replacing it with a new missile development program. The contract for the new missile, known as Bulava, was given to the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, which was the primary contractor for the Topol-M land-based missile. Bulava was presented as a universal missile that could be deployed on land as well as on submarines. Another change in the fleet development plans introduced in 1998 involved resumed production of SS-N-23/R-29RM missile (or, rather, of its slightly modified version, known as Sineva). These missiles were to be deployed on Delta IV submarines during their overhaul.

These decisions resulted in several changes in the composition of the strategic fleet. Cancellation of the SS-N-20 program forced early retirement of Typhoon submarines. As of 2005 the only submarine of this class that is operational is the lead ship, Dmitry Donskoy, which was converted to a test bed for Bulava missiles.

The Bulava missile performed its successful flight test in September 2005 and may be ready for deployment some time in 2008. Missiles of this type will be deployed on two Borey submarines that are currently under construction – one launched in 1996, the other in March 2004.

In 2005, the Russian strategic fleet consisted of six Delta III and six Delta IV submarines. Not all of them are operational, though – missiles deployed on Delta III submarines are probably well beyond their original service lives. Only one submarine of this type seems to have operational missiles on board. Out of six Delta IV submarines only one has been equipped with new R-29RM Sineva missiles. Other submarines of this type are either in overhaul or have old missiles on board.

The difficulties experienced by the fleet led to a dramatic fall in the number of patrols performed by strategic submarines. While the Soviet fleet performed up to a hundred patrols in the mid-1980s, the Russian fleet has been able to perform no more than one or two in the recent years (and sometimes none at all, as in 2002). This, of course, reflects the changes in the U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War, but at the same time indicates that Russia is experiencing problems with keeping its strategic fleet operational.

According to the current development plans, Delta IV submarines will be refitted with R-29RM Sineva missiles. In addition to these, in 2007-2010 the fleet will receive at least two Borey submarines that are currently under construction. These submarines will carry Bulava missiles. It is possible that the fleet will receive one or two more submarines of this type or will refit one or two Typhoon submarines with Bulava missiles, but this is unlikely to happen before the end of the decade. Taking into account that Delta IIIs will be decommissioned by that time, Russia will have no more than eight ballistic missile submarines. Given that the Borey submarines will carry 12 Bulava ballistic missiles (there is no data on how many warheads this missile will have), we can estimate that the eight strategic submarines will have about 120 sea-launch ballistic missiles and about 500 nuclear warheads.

Strategic aviation

Strategic aviation was traditionally the least developed leg of the Soviet nuclear triad. Strategic bombers did not figure prominently in Soviet nuclear war plans and were relegated to supporting roles. Nevertheless, the strategic aviation was receiving its share of resources and by the time of its breakup the Soviet Union had a moderate strategic bomber force that included 23 modern supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and 88 Tu-95MS Bear turboprop bombers that carried nuclear air-launched cruise missiles (the force also included about 60 older Tu-95 bombers that were decommissioned in the early 1990s). The composition of the Soviet strategic air force is presented in Table 3. It should be noted that some of the aircraft listed in the table was deployed on bases outside of Russia – 19 Tu-160 and 25 Tu-95MS bombers in Ukraine and some Tu-95MS bombers – in Kazakhstan. Most of them were returned to Russia (in exchange for a payment in the case of Ukraine).

Table 3. Russian strategic bombers with air-launched cruise missiles

Bombers Cruise missiles 1991 2005 2012 (estimate)
Tu-95MS Bear H 6 or 16 88 64 64
Tu-160 Blackjack 12 23 14 15
Total 111 78 79

In 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia suspended production of strategic bombers. This suspension lasted until 1999, when the production was resumed. Since then the strategic aviation added two new Tu-160 aircraft to its force and expects to add one more in 2005-2006. In addition to this, in 2001 Russia initiated a modernization program that will equip the Tu-160 bombers with new avionics that allow them to use gravity bombs and conventional high precision weapons.

The Tu-95MS aircraft will probably get some avionics upgrades as well, but this improvement is likely to preserve their current role as nuclear cruise missile carrier. No significant reduction of the Tu-95MS bomber force is expected.

With air-launched cruise missiles remaining the primary weapon of strategic aviation, Russia is working on modernizing its Kh-55/AS-15 Kent missile, which is currently deployed with bombers. A modification of the Kh-555 missile will be replacing the Kh-55 in the coming years.

While it is unlikely is that the strategic aviation will change its status relative to other components of the Russian strategic forces, its role may undergo some serious transformation. In contrast to ballistic missiles, bombers offer a certain degree of flexibility in carrying out an attack and could, in some circumstances, be used for demonstration of force. Bombers could also carry out conventional missions, which makes them the only leg of the strategic triad that can be potentially “usable” in various conflicts. It is possible that with time an increasingly larger fraction of strategic bombers will be diverted to conventional roles.

Early warning and missile defense

Along with the strategic launchers and nuclear warheads, Russia preserved the key elements of the command and control system that supported operations of the strategic forces. This includes the early-warning system together with the various command and communication systems and facilities that were supposed to support timely decision-making and disseminate launch orders.

An early-warning system is a key element of a strategy based on a launch on warning posture. This posture relies on timely detection of a missile attack to ensure that a retaliatory strike can be initiated before the attacking missiles hit their targets. This option in theory can enhance deterrence, since it effectively denies an attacker the advantage of a surprise. At the same time, it is quite dangerous, for it leaves very little time for decision-making and therefore creates an opportunity for an error.

One way to reduce the probability of an error is to have at least two types of early-warning systems that would use different physical principles to detect missiles. The detectors that are used in early-warning systems are 1) infrared sensors deployed on satellites, which can detect a missile plume shortly after a launch, and 2) radars, which can detect warheads at the later stages of flight.

The Soviet Union deployed systems of both kinds – a constellation of early-warning satellites and a network of radars. However, the deployment had not been completed by the time of the Soviet Union breakup, so these systems provided only limited early-warning capability. In the years after the breakup, the system has deteriorated further, so its capability is even more limited now.

Table 4. Soviet and Russian early-warning radars

Radar station Country Radars Year operational
Olenegorsk Russia Hen House 1976
Pechora prototype 1978
Mishelevka Russia 2 Hen House 1972-1976
Pechora never operational
Pechora Russia Pechora 1984
Krasnoyarsk Russia Pechora never operational, dismantled in 1990
Balkhash Kazakhstan 2 Hen House 1972-1976
Pechora never operational
Sevastopol Ukraine Hen House 1979
Mukachevo Ukraine Hen House 1979
Pechora never operational
Gabala Azerbaijan Pechora 1985
Skrunda Latvia 2 Hen House dismantled in 1998
Pechora never operational, dismantled in 1994
Baranovichi Belarus Volga 2002

Of the eight early-warning radar sites that were operational in 1991, five were outside of the Russian territory, as can be seen in Table 4. However, Russia has lost only the site in Latvia, where all radars have been demolished. Other sites remained operational and continued to provide Russia with early-warning information about missiles and space objects (the radars also work as part of the space surveillance network). At the same time, Russia could no longer upgrade the radar network – most of the newer more powerful and more accurate phased-array radars of the Pechora type never went operational. The early-warning network relies mostly on older Hen House radars, which were built in the 1970s.

The existing network does not provide full coverage of all possible directions of attack. Dismantlement of the radar site in Krasnoyarsk in the late 1980s, done under pressure from the United States, as well as the loss of the radar site in Latvia have left gaps in radar coverage. However, the most important approaches are partially backed up by other radars (for example, by the new radar in Belarus), so the gaps do not significantly increase vulnerability of the strategic forces.

The situation with the space-based early-warning system is very similar. The system operates at a fraction of its full capacity, but still provided Russia with adequate information about a possible missile attack. Russia maintains two space-based early-warning systems – a first-generation one, known as Oko or US-KS, that relies primarily on satellites on highly-elliptical Molniya-type orbits, and the second-generation US-KMO, which includes geostationary satellites.

The US-KS system can detect only those launches that originate from U.S. territory. The full constellation of first-generation satellites, which can provide reliable 24-hour coverage, would include up to nine satellites on highly-elliptical orbits and one geostationary satellite. But for the past several years the system has been operating with just three satellites in it. Still, the satellites continuously cover the U.S. territory and would be able to give a warning about an attack, although not with the reliability that a full system would provide.

The second-generation early-warning system was built to detect launches of sea-based missiles as well as land-based ones. A full constellation of these satellites would include up to seven satellites on geosynchronous orbits, which would provide coverage of most of the Earth surface. However, as of 2005, there were no satellites of this type in orbit and it is not clear if this system will ever be fully operational.

Another important part of the Russian strategic forces is the missile defense system deployed around Moscow. The system consists of 100 nuclear-tipped interceptors and a battle-management center with a large phased-array radar in Pushkino. The system in its current configuration was accepted for service in 1994, replacing the old missile defense deployed in the 1970s. There are conflicting data on whether interceptors of the system are deployed with their nuclear warheads on a regular basis, but the battle-management radar is operational. It provides backup to the early-warning radar network and works as part of the space-surveillance system.

Tactical nuclear weapons

In addition to the strategic offensive arsenal, the Soviet Union built and maintained a large tactical nuclear force. Estimates put the number of tactical nuclear warheads at the end of the 1980s at about 15,000-20,000. These ranged from artillery shells and nuclear mines to short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and nuclear torpedoes.

Tactical nuclear weapons present a unique security challenge. Unlike their strategic counterparts, which are deployed as part of weapon systems that are under constant highly centralized control, tactical weapons can be quite compact, they are usually deployed in a decentralized manner and often lack the safeguards that exist in strategic weapon systems. All this potentially makes tactical weapons more vulnerable to diversion or unauthorized use.

Recognizing this threat, in September-October 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged unilateral initiatives that called for elimination of most of the tactical nuclear weapons or for their withdrawal from active service. Russia later confirmed the Soviet obligations and extended them to cover additional systems.

Russia agreed to eliminate all weapons deployed with its ground forces – short-range missiles (medium-range missiles were being eliminated in accordance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty), mines and artillery shells. Russia also agreed to remove all naval nuclear weapons – cruise missiles and torpedoes – from its ships, eliminate 1/3 of them and place the rest into storage. Another measure was the elimination of half of the air force and air-defense weapons and placing the rest into centralized storage.

Most of these measures, including the elimination of warheads removed from service, have been implemented by the end of the 1990s (some ground-forces weapons were still awaiting elimination as of 2000). However, tactical nuclear weapons still constitute an important part of the country’s nuclear arsenal and Russia’s political and military leaders would like to see an expanding role for these weapons. The prevailing mindset among the Russian leadership today is that tactical nuclear weapons can compensate for the weakness of Russia’s conventional forces. This argument, which first appeared in the early 1990s and mirrors the logic used by the United States and its allies in Europe during the Cold War, became more prominent with the expansion of NATO, the growth of China’s economic and military power, and the deterioration of Russia’s conventional military capability.

Even though tactical nuclear weapons have not been withdrawn completely, Russia has done a lot to reduce them. It is estimated that Russia has about 3,400 operational weapons while up to 10,000 to 12,000 weapons are in reserve or at various stages of dismantlement.

The number of deployed tactical weapons is still large enough to justify a concern about their theft or unauthorized use. Ensuring safety and security of these weapons is one of the major tasks that Russia is facing today. However, there are several factors that make the situation more stable than it was in the early 1990s. First, all weapons have been moved to centralized storage facilities. In normal circumstances they are no longer deployed with the units to which they are assigned (although they could probably be distributed to these units in a time of a crisis). Second, most of the storage facilities have been undergoing security upgrades (major funding for this program is provided by the United States). Although this program has not been completed yet, it has made significant improvements in warhead security.

It is unlikely that Russia will forgo its tactical nuclear weapons unilaterally or as part of an arms control agreement. Moreover, it is possible that it will reverse some of the steps taken after the 1991 declarations. For example, it is possible that a new short-range missile, known as Iskander, could be deployed with nuclear warheads. Given that the capabilities of Russia’s conventional forces are still in decline, the calls for an increased role of nuclear weapons and tactical weapons in particular will continue. In this situation it is important to keep the dangers associated with these weapons under control and continue to work on reducing them by providing incentives for further reductions and assistance to safety and security improvements.


There are several books that provide good reference information on the history and the current status of the Russian nuclear forces.

One of the most detailed and recent studies is Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Pavel Podvig, ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). This book by Russian authors provides description of development and the current structure of the Russian strategic forces, of the military industry, including the nuclear industry, and of the Soviet nuclear testing program.

Another volume of this kind, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume IV: Soviet Nuclear Weapons, Thomas B. Cochran et al (New York: Ballinger, 1989), was based on the information that was publicly available in the United States in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, it provides very detailed and accurate information about the Soviet nuclear forces, which is still relevant today. The only exception is the chapter on the Soviet nuclear industry and this has been updated in Making the Russian Bomb: From Stalin to Yeltsin, Thomas Cochran, Robert S. Norris, Oleg Bukharin, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), which contains a very detailed description of the Russian nuclear weapons producing complex. The Soviet Nuclear Weapons book is especially valuable because it provides detailed information on tactical nuclear weapon systems that were deployed by the Soviet Union.

A very good narrative but still technical and detailed account of the development of the Soviet and Russian forces can be found in The Kremlins’ Nuclear Sword: The Rise and Fall of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces, 1945-2000, Steven J. Zaloga (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2002). A more scholarly publication, Russian Strategic Modernization, Nikolai Sokov (Lantham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), analyzes various aspects of the Russian modernization policy. In recent years the Russian military produced a number of official publications that contain descriptions of various weapon systems and components. An example of a publication of this kind is Russia’s Arms and Technologies: The XXI Century Encyclopedia, Volume 1: Strategic Nuclear Forces, Sergeyev, I., ed (Moscow: Oruzhie i Teknologii, 2000).

In addition to these books, there are a number of reports published by non-governmental organizations and academic centers that provide information on various aspects of the Russian nuclear forces.

A report by the Bellona foundation, “The Russian Northern Fleet”, Bellona Report 2, 1996, is probably the most comprehensive study of the Russian fleet and the problems associated with it available in the open literature. Another report, “The Russian Nuclear Industry – The Need for Reform”, Bellona Report 4, November 2004, provides a good overview of the recent developments in the Russian nuclear industry.

The following report provides an up-to-date analysis of the issues related to safety and security of the Russian nuclear warheads and materials: “Securing the Bomb 2005: The New Global Imperatives”, Matthew Bunn, Antony Wier, Project on Managing the Atom, May 2005 (

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a regular column that provides an update of the status of the Russian nuclear forces. The most recent publication is “NRDC Nuclear Notebook, Russian Nuclear Forces, 2005,” Robert S. Norris, Hans Kristensen, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2005, pp. 70-72 (earlier versions and updates are available at

Another sources of information on the current status of the Russian nuclear forces is the web site Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (, which is updated regularly to reflect changes in the Russian forces.