Can Russian nuclear weapons reach the United States?

The Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor, became a nuclear power in 1949 and carried out over 700 nuclear tests. It is estimated that Russia and the Soviet Union, respectively, have produced around 55,000 nuclear weapons since 1949. The Soviet Union joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1972.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Nuclear-Notebook, the Russian arsenal contained 6,370 nuclear weapons in spring 2020, of which approximately 4,310 represent strategic nuclear weapons. Of these, an estimated 1,570 are active and serviceable nuclear warheads. There are also around 2,740 nuclear weapons in storage and a further 2,060 nuclear weapons have been decommissioned and should be destroyed in the course of time under bilateral agreements.
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Arms control

The Moscow Treaty (SORT) between the USA and Russia from 2002 stipulated that both states would reduce their strategic arsenals to 1,700 to 2,200 active nuclear weapons by 2012. With the New START treaty, which Russia ratified in January 2011, the number of operational strategic nuclear weapons should be further reduced to 1,550 each by 2018. The number of deployable, deployed launch systems should not exceed 700 and in total each state should not have more than 800 launch systems.

On February 5, 2011, the US State Department published the first data from New START, according to which Russia had apparently already achieved the reductions for stationed nuclear weapon systems under the treaty.

According to new data from September 2019, 513 ready-to-use launch systems were stationed, far lower than the 700 permitted launch systems. However, there is criticism of the counting method, which, for example, artificially lowers the number of warheads. For example, only one bomb per aircraft is included in the statistics under the New START, although aircraft can carry far more warheads. The number of warheads on ICBMs, sea-based ballistic missiles and bombers is 1,426. This means that Russia complies with the new START limit. Further details were not made public, such as B. the number of non-deployed nuclear weapons.

The expiry of the New START treaty in 2021 without a successor agreement could mean the end of nuclear weapons reduction on a bilateral level between the USA and Russia and the beginning of a new arms race against the background of new arms programs.

Nuclear weapons doctrine

Russia sees its nuclear armed forces as essential for the security of the country and for its status as a great power. The government's goal is to maintain parity with the United States. In addition, the military-industrial complex has a lot of influence in politics.

The Russian nuclear weapons strategy remains unclear. There is evidence that the threshold for a mission is falling. Some analysts see Russia copying the West's already existing selective deployment strategy. The Russian government itself publishes little information on this.

In December 2014, Russia published a new military doctrine reserving the right to use nuclear weapons against attacks with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. A conventional attack on Russia that "jeopardizes the very existence of the state" could also trigger the use of nuclear weapons. This formulation is almost identical to the military strategy published in early 2010. The 2010 strategy said very little about the use of nuclear weapons, but was judged by experts to be an advance on the 2000 strategy. The threshold for deployment was raised at that time, preventive attacks with nuclear weapons are no longer provided.

In October 2018, Russian President Putin confirmed this position by declaring "Our nuclear weapons doctrine does not include a preventive first strike". Instead, he stated that the concept is based on a retaliatory strike. That means they would only be willing to use nuclear weapons if they were certain that an aggressor would actually attack Russian territory.

Nonetheless, US strategists are sticking to the idea that Russia plans to use tactical nuclear weapons as a warning device to prevent an escalation in the armed conflict. However, this so-called "escalate to deescalate" doctrine is denied by the Russian side. And yet the Trump administration uses the supposed existence of this doctrine as a reason to develop "tailor-made" deterrence itself. The former head of the US strategic command (StratCom) John Hyten even claimed that with this doctrine Russia does not want to de-escalate a conflict, but wants to win it.

Modernization of the nuclear forces
For several years, Russia has been working on the modernization of its nuclear armed forces on the grounds that, among other things, it is necessary to be able to penetrate the planned US missile shield. In March 2009, Russia's then President Dmitry Medvedev announced that nuclear weapons would be modernized from 2011 onwards, including the NATO expansion plans. Then begin a "comprehensive conversion" of the army and the fleet, he said. In 2016, Russia increased spending on nuclear weapons by more than half for the following years.

Like the US, Russia is pursuing the goal of having a wide range of new and existing nuclear weapons at its disposal. According to certain expert opinions, this could imply that there is a covert doctrine that serves more than just deterrence, but possibly also serves regional warfare. For example, plans for the development of a new nuclear underwater vehicle - the “Poseidon” long-range torpedo - have been announced, which will be launched from a submarine in order to allegedly radioactively contaminate large areas of land and thus prevent military and economic activities over a long period of time.

Best known is the public controversy over the development of a new land-based cruise missile, the SSC-8 cruise missile. According to the USA, this violates the INF contract because its range is more than 500 km. That is why the former US President Barack Obama announced in October 2018 that he would terminate the INF treaty, which his successor Donald Trump did in February 2019. According to the statement of the director of the US intelligence service Daniel Coates, the SSC-8 can be equipped conventionally or atomically and was developed secretly. Russia confirms the existence of a new system with the Russian designation “9M729”, but denies the incompatibility with the INF treaty. According to Russian statements, the ranges relevant to the INF contract were never tested.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Russia has come very far with its ICBM arsenal modernization program. All Soviet-era ICBMs are to be replaced by the early 2020s:

  • The SS-18 missiles will be replaced by the SS-29 (Sarmat / RS-28).
  • The SS-19 missiles have now almost all been replaced by the silo-supported SS-27 missiles mod 2 (Jars / RS-24). Two converted SS-19 missiles (Mod 4) remain in operation with the new Avangard Hypersonic Gliding Vehicle (HGV). The Avangard was designed to bypass missile defense systems and is to be mounted on modified SS-19 missiles and possibly on SS-29 missiles at a later date.
  • About the SS-25 missiles (Topol / RS-12M) there is no valid information about how many are still operational.
  • There are two new versions of the SS-27:
    As early as 2012, the SS-27 rockets mod 1 (Topol-M) were stationed in two variants - mobile (RS-12M1) and silo-supported (RS-12M2).

    The stationing of mod 2 (Jars / RS-24) began in 2010 and has now come a long way. The infrastructure for the Jars missiles is to be upgraded by 2021.

  • The final development and deployment of the mobile SS-X-28 missile (RS-26 / Jars-M) seems to have been delayed and the train version (Barguzin) may have been canceled.
  • In 2021, the SS-29 missiles (RS-28 / Sarmat) will also replace SS-18 missiles. This new rocket is also known as "Satan's Son" because its predecessor, the SS-18, was called "Satan" in the USA, probably because of its high destructive power.

Also in development is a new nuclear-powered cruise missile that can carry nuclear weapons and is called SSC-X-9 Skyfall (9M730 Burewestnik). This cruise missile experienced a number of difficulties during the test phase, including a major accident in August 2019 where an explosion released radioactivity and killed seven people.

Six Delta III and one Delta IV submarines are to be replaced by new Borej-class submarines (Project 955 / A). Each submarine should be able to carry up to 16 Bulava missiles. So far, three submarines are in operation and another five are still being built. The FAS expects a total of 10 submarines to be built, the same number as in the United States.

The first upgraded version of the Borej-class submarine (Project 955A), which was the fourth of the Borej submarines, was launched in November 2019 and began testing at sea. The new Bulava missile was successfully fired from this submarine underwater as a test in October 2019. The delivery of the submarine to the Nordic Fleet was delayed in December 2019 due to "defects". The 5th, 6th and 7th Borej-class submarines were also not delivered on time. Three more submarines are to follow, the first of which is to be completed between 2021 and 2023. Five submarines will be assigned to the Nordic Fleet and five to the Pacific.

Some of the aircraft in Russia are also being upgraded. However, the information about the existing aircraft and their armament is not reliable, as it comes mainly from satellite images. The first seven modernized Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95MS aircraft were put back into service as early as 2014. Another nine followed in 2016 and another five in 2018, but not all are to be modernized, so that the fleet will consist of 50 to 60 aircraft in total. These will be able to carry nuclear Kh-102 or conventional Kh-101 cruise missiles. According to the Russian Defense Ministry (2015), a new aircraft, the Tu-160M2, should be launched in 2021. Series production of the Tu-160M2 is not expected to begin until 2023 and will produce three aircraft per year. It is believed that all Tu-95MS aircraft will then be taken out of service. The next generation is the PAK-DA aircraft, which has been in development for a long time, whose research and development phase will soon end and whose first prototype is expected in 2021 or 2022. However, it is believed that Russian industry does not have enough capacity to produce two such strategic bomber aircraft.

In the long term, it can be expected that the introduction of improved conventional weapons will lead to fewer tactical nuclear weapons.

According to the Russian military, there is a need for these armed forces to counter the superiority of conventional NATO or US armed forces, as well as the large Chinese armed forces in the Far East. So Russia wants to maintain a kind of parity through tactical nuclear weapons.

The naval fleet has the largest number of tactical nuclear weapons with more than 900 nuclear warheads on cruise missiles, anti-submarine missiles, torpedoes and underwater bombs. Modernization is also taking place here, albeit very slowly. Project 885M (Yasen-M) includes attack submarines, only one of which has been in operation since 2015. This probably carries a sea-based, nuclear “calibr” cruise missile (SSB-30A) and possibly, according to US sources, the nuclear-capable SSN-26 (3M-55). Further submarines have not yet been completed. A number of other nuclear platform upgrade projects are in progress, including for the following submarines: Sierra Class (Project 945), Oscar II Class (Project 949A), Akula Class (Project 971).

The Russian Air Force can use nuclear gravity bombs through the tactical medium-range atomic bombers Tu-22M3 (Backfire), Su-24M fighter jets (Fencer-D), Su-34 fighter jets (Fullback) and MiG-31K interceptors (Foxhound) . The first prototype of the Su-57 aircraft (PAK-FA) - called "Felon" by NATO and classified as nuclear-capable by the USA - should have been delivered in 2019. A total of 76 nuclear-capable aircraft are to be produced, which are supposed to be equipped with hypersonic missiles of the "Kinzhal" type. The new "dual-capable" (conventional and nuclear capable) airborne long-range ballistic missile - the Kh-47M2 (Khinzal) was developed, which is similar to the Iskander short-range missile, but has a range of up to 2,000 kilometers. It can be fired from a specially modified MiG-31K. The Khinzal has allegedly been in operation since December 2017 and was shown in an air show in August 2019.

The Tu-22M3 can use Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) ALCM. A new Kh-32 ALCM is under development to replace the Kh-22. The Tu-22M3 and Su-24M are being upgraded and the new Tu-22M3M has already passed flight tests.

Tactical nuclear weapons in missile defense
The United States' 2018 Nuclear Posture Review found that Russia continues to use nuclear warheads in its air and missile defense forces. The missile defense forces use the Gazelle interceptor for this purpose. It is not clear which air defense system has a dual capacity and how many of them are actually equipped with nuclear warheads. The March 2018 U.S. Global Threat Assessment alleged that Russia may also have warheads for surface-to-air and other air-missile defense systems. An upgrade of the nuclear armed A-135 missile defense system with nuclear warheads around Moscow, which bears the abbreviation A-235 (Red Star 2017), is currently in progress.

In 1991 the inventory comprised 2,000 to 3,000 air defense warheads. The following year, Russia promised to destroy half of its nuclear air defense warheads, but by 2007, 60 percent are said to have been destroyed, according to Russian officials. Assuming that stocks have continued to decline since 2007, it is estimated that there are now around 290 nuclear warheads available to the air defense forces, plus another 90 for Moscow's A-135 missile defense system and coastal defense units, for a total of about 380 warheads equivalent. It must be emphasized, however, that there is considerable uncertainty associated with these estimates.

Ground-based tactical nuclear weapons
In December 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the completion of the upgrade of all army's missile brigades to the SS-26 (Iskander) short-range ballistic missile. This includes at least twelve brigades, between two and four per military district. Each SS-26 launcher can carry up to two missiles with a range of at least 350 kilometers. It is estimated that around 70 warheads are intended for short-range ballistic missiles. There are also unconfirmed rumors that the SSC-7 (9M728 or R-500) ground launchable cruise missile may have nuclear capabilities.

In addition, the US government claimed years ago that Russia had developed and deployed a ground-based cruise missile (9M729 or SSC-8) with double the efficiency, which was a violation of the INF Treaty, which has since been terminated. The first two battalions are said to have been deployed at the end of 2017. After denying the existence of this type of missile, the Russian military showed a missile launcher, missile canisters, and schematics of a missile called the 9M729 in January 2019, but claimed its range was less than 500 km. However, a U.S. intelligence report later concluded that the allegations were false.

Russia is believed to have continued to deploy 9M729 battalions beyond the four battalions reported in December 2018. After Russian recognition of the existence of the 9M729, it was reported that “electronic shootings” of the 9M279 had been carried out around St. Petersburg in the western military district of Russia. This could indicate that the 9M729 has been added to a fifth brigade. According to other reports, the Russian military plans to add a fourth battalion to each Iskander brigade. It remains to be seen whether this means 9M729 launchers will be added to all 12 Russian Iskander brigades.

Nuclear arms control and disarmament
The INF Treaty (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, INF for short), was a bilateral treaty between the USA and Russia or the Soviet Union. In it, the disarmament of short and medium-range missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers and their systems was specified. It came into force on June 1, 1988.

In 2014, Russia was accused by the Obama administration of violating the rules of the treaty and of being opaque to the US. These accusations continued in the following years, including in 2018 by the foreign ministers of the NATO countries. Under US President Trump, the United States announced the termination of the treaty. The contract was signed by the USA on Jan.February 2019 and canceled by Russia on March 4, 2019. Since no new agreement was reached between the two states, this one expired on August 2nd of the same year. This means that both countries will again be able to manufacture, test and deploy new systems of nuclear-capable ground-based medium-range missiles without hindrance.

If the New START treaty is not renewed in 2021, the Russian nuclear forces could grow and transparency about it could be lost. However, the contract can easily be extended for five years with the approval of both presidents. Russia has repeatedly declared its readiness to extend the treaty without preconditions and, if necessary, to include new nuclear weapons such as Sarmat or Avangaard in the treaty provisions. So far, under the Trump administration, the United States has stuck to its demand to hold talks about an extension only with the inclusion of China.


Russia has stated that it does not want to sign the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (TPNW). Kazakhstan, on the other hand, joined the contract in August 2019. It is therefore unclear whether Russia can continue to be allowed to use the Kazakh test site in Sary-Shagan should the treaty come into force. Article IV (2) of the Treaty provides that States parties must guarantee “the disposal or irreversible conversion of all nuclear weapons-related facilities”.

Processing status: June 2020