Does Russia Have 2-to-1 Advantage in Deployed Strategic Nuclear Weapons?
Every year in November and December the Russian government releases substantial information about the Defense Ministry’s yearly accomplishments and its plans for next year. A main focus of the information release is military intimidation of the West. I did not expect much this year because at the November meetings in Sochi President Putin’s public speeches provided virtually no new information. Also, Russia was then trying to moderate its threat profile in the West in an effort to end sanctions, end NATO defense preparations and exercises against Russian aggression and terminate U.S. nuclear modernization. I was wrong. Russia turned on a dime (apparently because of the Trump administration’s effort to enforce Russian compliance with the INF Treaty) and went back into high nuclear threat mode. This is President Putin’s default response when the West does or says things he doesn’t like.
In 2007, the Russian nuclear missile targeting threat was first employed by the then-commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Force Colonel General Nikolay Solovtsov who said that “if need be, our missiles would be targeted on the new [U.S.] ABM facilities, if they are built.” Then and now, there is no indication in open sources that the Russian ICBM force has anything other than a nuclear capability. Putin unleashed new nuclear threats, including a targeting threat in October 2018. By late December 2018, five more targeting threats were made by President Putin and his senior military leadership – two more by President Putin, and one each by the Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, by the Strategic Missile Force Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev and by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Additionally, there were also chilling statements by President Putin about the enhanced risk of nuclear war. Significantly, senior Russian officials threatened a nuclear arms race, gloated about Russia’s new super nuclear weapons, and warned about the end arms control. Moreover, Russia conducted bomber provocations, including the deployment of Tu-160s nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, with its implied threat of a new Cuban Missile Crisis.
In December 2018, Russia released a great deal of information concerning its military accomplishments and plans with emphasis on the nuclear superweapons revealed by Putin in his infamous March 1st Duma address, particularly those that are now operational or will soon become operational (the Kinzhal and the Avangard hypersonic missiles, the bomber upgrades including their new nuclear-capable cruise missiles and the Sarmat heavy ICBM with a 2021 IOC.). Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergey Shoigu stated that: 1) “The modernity level of the Strategic Nuclear Forces has reached 82%...”: 2) the new Sarmat heavy ICBM had been successfully tested in a “pop-up test”; 3) in 2019 “the first missile regiment equipped…with [the] Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle” would become operational; 4) in 2019 a total of 31 Yars and Avangard nuclear ICBMs would be put “combat duty”; 5) in 2019 the first Borey A ballistic missile submarine would become operational; 6) four Tu-95 nuclear-capable bombers would be modernized, and 7) Russia had conducted a salvo launch of 12 nuclear capable Kh-101 cruise missiles from a Tu-160 heavy bomber. This adds up to the modernization in a single year of about 10 percent of the declared Russian strategic nuclear force under the New START Treaty. TASS also reported that the new version of the Tu-160 (the Tu-160M2), which will add 500 additional deployed warheads to the Russian strategic nuclear force, is now being manufactured.
On December 24, Defense Minister Shoigu said Russia had achieved “an unprecedented level of equipment with modern weapons,” surpassing all other nations. Two days later, President Putin presided over a successful test of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and stated that “We will continue to work according to the plans that were designed for this system and other promising systems for equipping the army and the fleet.”
One of the most important of the December revelations, but one that has been completely ignored in the West, was the statement by General Karakayev that “…the nuclear potentials of the sides have [been] reduced more than 66% since the signing of START I.” This is a major departure from the Russian position. At the United Nations in April 2018, First Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N Dmitry Polyanskiy declared that “Russia cut its nuclear arsenal by over 85 percent as compared to its stockpiles at the height of the Cold War.” If one uses the late Soviet declared number of over 10,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads for the calculations, the difference between an 85% reduction and a 66% reduction is almost 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads above the supposed New START Treaty allowed level of 1,550. This is much higher than any previous unclassified Western estimate of currently deployed Russian strategic nuclear warheads. For example, in 2018, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris estimated that Russia has 2,522 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.
While the New START Treaty warhead limit is not real because of loopholes, a force of over 3,300 Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads (a two-to-one and growing Russian advantage in strategic nuclear weapons) is very significant and could impact Putin’s future decisions regarding war or peace. To deploy more than 3,300 strategic nuclear warheads, it takes more than simple exploitation of the New START Treaty bomber weapon counting rule which counts a bomber load of nuclear weapons as one warhead. The Kristensen and Norris number already does this. A current level of over 3,300 warheads requires a substantial covert force of heavily MIRVed mobile ICBMs and/or cheating on warhead numbers on declared delivery vehicles.
The existence of a covert mobile ICBM force is consistent with General Karakayev’s repeated statements that he has about 400 operational ICBMs when he cannot legally have more than about 300 consistent with Russia’s declared New START Treaty data on delivery vehicles. He was very explicit about this in 2014 when he said the Strategic Missile Force “…has around 400 missiles with warheads on combat duty.”
During the Cold War, there were covert Soviet mobile missile deployments detailed in State Department reports to the Congress. This included the SS-16 mobile ICBM banned by the SALT II Treaty and the SS-23 mobile short-range missile banned by the INF Treaty. Recently, the Russian Federation has attempted to covertly deploy the SSC-8/9M729 intermediate-range nuclear capable ground-launched cruise missile. Thus, there is no apparent reason why there could not be a covert Russian deployment of the heavily MIRVed mobile SS-27 Mod 2/RS-24 Yars ICBM. Cheating with mobile ICBMs is facilitated by the fact that the New START Treaty omitted almost the entire START Treaty verification regime for mobile ICBMs. Most significantly, permanent on-site monitoring of mobile ICBM production has not happened since the expiration of the START Treaty in 2009. Even with the comprehensive START Treaty verification regime, the Senate Select Committee report on the monitoring of the START Treaty concluded that “…U.S. intelligence will have less than high confidence in its monitoring of such areas as non-deployed mobile ICBMs….” It is much easier to cheat with mobile ICBMs than with INF-range missiles because production and testing of mobile ICBMs were allowed by the START Treaty (with an extensive verification regime) and is allowed by the New START Treaty without any significant verification regime.
Another problem pointed out by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s START Treaty report was counting the number of warheads on deployed missiles. Subsequent to this report, there were Russian violations of START Treaty verification provisions related to counting the number of warheads on deployed missiles as detailed in a State Department report. The New START Treaty made the situation worse by increasing the time allowed to get inspectors to an inspection site from nine hours in the START Treaty to 24 hours in the New START Treaty,  thus reducing the value of the inspections at mobile ICBM bases, making cheating easier by providing the Russians more time to remove the offending missiles.
If Russia now has over 3,300 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and programs underway to increase this number, Russia has obtained a substantial strategic nuclear advantage over the U.S made worse by the decade-old advantage they have had in non-strategic nuclear weapons. The Russians believe this is very important. Indeed, then-Kremlin Chief of Staff Colonel General Sergei Ivanov linked Russia’s refusal to engage in new strategic nuclear arms control negotiations after 2010 to the asymmetry in nuclear modernization: “When I hear our American partners say: ‘let’s reduce something else’, I would like to say to them: ‘excuse me, but what we have is relatively new’. They [the U.S.] have not conducted any upgrades for a long time. They still use Trident [missiles].” If General Karakayev is correct, they now have a 2-to-1 advantage in deployed strategic nuclear weapons. This could encourage a Russian belief that the U.S. will back down in a future confrontation with Russia, and hence, result in more aggressive behavior by Russia.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
 Even when Russian leaders are on relatively good behavior with regard to official high-level nuclear threats, the they still use the state media to make nuclear threats.
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