Strategic Nuclear Weapons and the Russian Navy
Russia sets its highest value on its strategic nuclear forces. In November 2020, President Vladimir Putin stated, I want to emphasize that, despite the constantly changing nature of military threats, the nuclear triad remains the primary, key guarantee of Russia’s military security. From a broader perspective, this applies to global stability as well. Preserving this balance of power neutralizes the threat of a large-scale military conflict, making vain any attempts to intimidate or pressure our country.”
Russian attitudes about nuclear weapons are very rare in the world. In 2006, President Putin declared that the new Borei class ballistic missile submarine would “secure Russia’s glory as a great sea power.” Indeed, strategic nuclear forces are literally the highest priority of the Russian Navy. Talking about the “glory” associated with nuclear missile systems is uniquely Russian and reflects their world view concerning the role of nuclear weapons.
Russian naval nuclear strategy is a subset of what is contained in Russian military strategy documents. In 2017, President Putin signed into law a very important directive to the Russian Navy. Fortunately, this was translated into English by the Russia Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. It dealt with the broad range of issues relating to the Russian Navy and its modernization, including nuclear weapons. It reflects Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” (or “escalate to win”) nuclear strategy. Specifically, it says, “The key components of the strategic deterrence system are nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence. The general-purpose naval forces occupy an important place in meeting strategic deterrence challenges.” The Navy is directed to “maintain the combat potential of the naval strategic nuclear forces at a high level,” while stating that the first priority of the Russian Navy is “to modernize and maintain naval strategic nuclear forces at a high level as a part of strategic ballistic missile submarine groups.”
With regard to Russian SLBM targeting, Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin, former Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, has stated that Russian ballistic missile submarine missiles “…hit targets that do not have any serious protection, such as cities and enterprises…” Since this statement was made in 2010, it is possible that Russia’s SLBM targeting may have expanded somewhat due to the introduction of improved Russian missiles.
In June 2020, Putin signed a decree on nuclear deterrence. Putin's decree contains four announced conditions for nuclear weapons use, all of which involve first use of nuclear weapons. It states:
19. The conditions which determine the possibility for the use by the Russian Federation of nuclear weapons are:
a. the receiving of creditable information concerning the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
b. the use by an enemy of a nuclear weapon or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
c. enemy actions against critically important state or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the disablement of which will lead to a disruption of retaliatory operations of the nuclear forces;
The condition on the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks on “nuclear forces” rather than “strategic nuclear forces” in paragraph 19(C) opens up the possibility of a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack on a vast number of Russian military facilities, airbases, naval ships and Army bases and units. This is because dual capability (conventional and nuclear capability) is almost universal in Russia. Russia may use the threat of nuclear escalation to enforce rules of engagement on U.S. and allied forces that assure a Russian victory.
In August 2020, noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer warned, “The Kremlin is constantly playing the deterrence game by trying to scare the West. But this situation has two dangerous ramifications. First, the nuclear threshold is becoming lower: in any serious skirmish, the Russian navy would either need to go nuclear or risk being sunk. And second, while the Russian leadership believes it has surpassed the West militarily thanks to its dazzling superweapons, Moscow’s threshold for employing military force in conflict situations may also drop further.” Indeed, Putin’s new superweapons are all nuclear armed or nuclear capable. Felgenhauer, who has for over twenty years warned about the risk posed by Russian first use of low-yield nuclear weapons, continues to believe that Russia might use nuclear weapons in very limited conflicts.
Russian Naval Strategic Nuclear Weapons
In late 2019, Russia revealed additional information concerning its programs for the development and deployment of strategic nuclear weapons. Prior to 2019, Russia had announced two programs for new (post-Cold War) ballistic missile submarines and two new ballistic missile programs for them – the new Borei and the improved Borei-A (955 and 955A or DOLGORUKIY-class) ballistic missile submarines carrying the new Bulava-30 SLBM and the Husky "fifth-generation" nuclear ballistic missile submarine carrying an unnamed new liquid fueled SLBM. The first three Borei submarines reportedly used leftover components from never completed late Soviet-era submarines. The improved quieter Borei-A is apparently the submarine the Russians call 4th generation. It is two years behind the initial Russian projection of its operational availability.
In addition, Russia updated the legacy Delta-IV (Project 667BDRM) ballistic missile submarines with the improved SS-N-23 SLBM called the Sineva and the Liner (or Layner), which reportedly carry a larger number of warheads than the Cold War version. There is apparently also one Delta-III (Project 667BDR) submarine carrying the SS-N-18 SLBM still operational. It participated in the Grom-2019 large strategic nuclear exercise. One Project 941UM Akula (U.S. designator Typhoon) class SSBN, used for early Bulava-30 testing, is still in use.
In late 2019, the previous program of eight “fourth generation” Borei ballistic missile submarines was increased to ten by the addition of two more 955A submarines carrying 16 missiles each. The hull of the 955A was modified for increased quietness. The Russian Defense Ministry also announced that the two new submarines were under contract and construction would begin in 2020. State-run Sputnik News claimed that the “Brand new Russian Borey-A and Yasen-M class submarines will become almost ‘invisible’ to hydroacoustic stations, the main means of submarine detection…” In 2010, Izvestia said that the Yasen was quieter than the U.S. Seawolf-class submarine. Claiming that Russian weapons are better than those of anyone else is almost the norm in Russia, irrespective of the fact situation. In 2014, Russian journalist Anton Valagin wrote, "…the Boreys are superior to the main strategic submarine of the U.S. Navy, the Ohio Class. Their noise levels are 93 and 102 decibels, respectively.” In November 2018, Maksim Klimov, a Russian journalist who frequently writes about the Russian Navy, citing foreign sources, said that “…our fourth-generation [submarines] lag U.S. Navy multipurpose nuclear submarines by not less than 10 decibels.” The Russians are clearly working on ways to reduce the detectability of their submarines, resulting in the erosion of the advantage that the U.S. and NATO had during the Cold War in submarine quietness.
We know a great deal about the Bulava-30 SLBM and the Borei submarine that carries it because it was declared as a six-warhead missile under the original START Treaty, and its technical data (including throw-eight) were automatically made public under the provisions of the START Treaty. According to Colonel (ret.) Robert Hawkins, Senior Fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nuclear warheads it carries are “newly designed and newly manufactured warheads.” The Bulava-30 SLBM is generally reported as carrying 100-kt warheads (although there are sometimes higher numbers reported), and it has also been reported to carry a low-yield sub-kiloton warhead (as does reportedly the Sineva). The low-yield weapon is clearly linked to Russia’s strategy of first use nuclear escalation, which is critical for the U.S. to deter. The development of an advanced version of the Bulava-30 has also been announced. The Russian press frequently reports that the Bulava-30 carries ten maneuvering hypersonic warheads. This is unlikely in light of its limited throw-weight (1,150-kg). At some point, some type of maneuverable warhead (MaRV) may appear, but it really makes no sense in relation to existing and projected U.S. strategic missile defenses. (It would be good against the Moscow ABM system, which uses short-range interceptor missiles that operate in the atmosphere.)
In 2019, state-run TASS reported that Russia might develop and deploy two Borei-K strategic cruise missile submarines after 2027. In 2018, TASS said that Russia planned 14 Borei ballistic missile submarines. In light of the later TASS report about the Borei-K and the financial restraints on the Russian Defense Ministry, it is unclear whether they will be able to build more than seven Borei-As. At this point, it does not look likely that Russia will go ahead with the reported Borei-B class submarine, although we can't rule this out. It does seem clear that Russia wants 14 modern strategic nuclear missile submarines. The actual timing of the construction of the Husky “fifth-generation” submarines may impact the number of Borei submarines constructed.
By Husky “fifth-generation” nuclear submarines, Russia does not literally mean fifth-generation (by some counting rule for what constitutes a generation); rather, it means an advanced design which will be very quiet with high speed and deep diving capability. We know a lot less about the Husky than we do about the Borei because of Russian secrecy, although the Russian Defense Ministry continues to brag about it. It is reportedly capable of carrying both ballistic and cruise missiles and Tsirkon hypersonic missiles. The head of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation said the Husky would appear in the late 2020s. Vice Admiral Viktor Bursuk, Russian Navy Vice Commander for Armaments, said, "The fleet will start getting fifth-generation submarines around the 2030s.” There are reports that there will be strategic and multirole versions of the submarine and some reports that it will combine both functions. Interfax says that “materials circulated in the run-up to a Russian Federation Council meeting on shipbuilding” said that, “The Husky submarine design reportedly will use modules with anti-ship and ballistic missiles.”
The Poseidon Nuclear-Powered, Nuclear-Armed Drone Submarine
Russia is developing a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed ultra-deep diving drone submarine. The early Russian press reports said the Poseidon had a yield of 100 megatons. Pavel Felgenhauer stated, “The plan is to deliver a 100-megaton nuclear bomb to the U.S. shores.” The Russian government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta said that the weapon could achieve “extensive radioactive contamination” and the weapon “could envisage using the so-called cobalt bomb, a nuclear weapon designed to produce enhanced amounts of radioactive fallout compared to a regular atomic warhead.” A cobalt bomb is a “doomsday” weapons concept conceived during the Cold War but apparently never actually developed. It intensifies the duration of deadly radioactive fallout.
Russian Naval Hypersonic Missiles
While nearly all ballistic missiles have hypersonic speed, what is now generally called “hypersonic missiles” are missiles designed to operate in the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds (Mach 5 and above) and, thus, they can maneuver at any time it is desired to do so. This makes them even more difficult to intercept than ballistic missiles. Since they fly in the atmosphere, the detection range of missile early warning radars is reduced.
In January 2020, in an apparent reference to his new hypersonic missiles, President Putin told the Russian Duma that, “For the first time ever – I want to emphasize this – for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, we are not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses.” Putin also boasted that other than Russia, “Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons.”
Except for the Avangard boost-glide vehicle, which is carried on the legacy Soviet SS-19 ICBM, the classification of Russia’s hypersonic missiles as “strategic” or “non-strategic” is somewhat arbitrary. Much depends on how they are used and what platforms carry them. Russia’s non-strategic missiles are almost entirely dual-capable (nuclear or conventional). At least half of Putin’s six new nuclear superweapons -- the Avangard, the Kinzhal aeroballsitic missile (2,000+ km range), and the Tsirkon hypersonic missile (1,000+ km range) with a maximum speed of Mach 9 -- are the new officially announced hypersonic missiles, and they are all reportedly nuclear armed or nuclear capable. In October 2020, Russia began launching Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic missiles from warships. Although this has not been officially claimed, there are some reports that Russia’s nuclear-powered 9M730 Burevestnik, one of Putin’s nuclear superweapons, is a hypersonic missile. There is also reportedly a smaller version of the Kinzhal for the Su-57 fighter. Additionally, Russia is reportedly developing the KH-MT, a “ram-jet powered hypersonic design apparently intended for internal carriage [on the Tu-95MSMbomber].” In particular, the Kinzhal and the Tsirkon are capable of both land-attack and antiship strikes. For several years Russia has had the near hypersonic Kh-32 cruise missile operational on its Backfire bombers.
In December 2019, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksey Krivoruchko said, “Hypersonic weapons prototypes are created to use them with both air [Kinzhal system], and land and sea carriers [Zircon]. The development of crucial technologies that provide an increase in flight speed — to more than Mach 10 — range, and precision pointing continues.” (Emphasis in the original). For an “aeroballistic” missile like the Kinzhal, increased speed means longer range. For a powered hypersonic missile like the Tsirkon, this might increase the range. A retired Russian Admiral has stated that the range of the Tsirkon is 2,000-km. This is probably a reference to an improved version of the Tsirkon. Since the Russians are attempting to scare us, they frequently attribute the characteristics of improved versions of their weapons to the first generation.
Today, we have no defenses against hypersonic missiles. This is because the Third-World (North Korea and Iran) focus of U.S. missile defense has resulted in no U.S. effort to defend against the Russian threat until very recently. The conventional wisdom is that Russia has developed hypersonic missiles to penetrate U.S. strategic missile defenses. This is not the case. Indeed, the most senior Russian leaders have stated that they have no problem penetrating U.S. strategic missile defenses. There are much cheaper means to penetrate them than hypersonic boost-glide weapons. Indeed, the Soviet version of the SS-19 ICBM will get more warheads through U.S. missile defenses than the same number of SS-19 carrying a single Avangard. This is because the Soviet SS-19 was heavily MIRVed and carried extensive missile defense countermeasures. State-run Sputnik News says the Bulava-30 SLBM “can deploy up to 40 decoys to try to divert defensive missiles fire[d] by anti-ballistic missile systems like the Alaska-based Ground-based Midcourse Defence system.”
Highly capable destroyers and cruisers and the carriers they defend with advanced air defense weapons and sometimes ballistic missile defense capability are probably the most important non-strategic targets for hypersonic missiles. Their extremely high velocity probably gives them a significant advantage against such targets compared to any other type of anti-ship missile. This is particularly true with regard to penetrating short-range defenses. The same would be true concerning advanced land-based SAM systems, although unfortunately, they are few and far between in NATO. The Russians are now beginning to deploy terminal defense laser weapons. Hypersonic missiles are likely to be more effective against such a defense.
General John Hyten, then-commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, has warned about the threat posed by Russian hypersonic weapons if the U.S. does not counter them. He said that hypersonic weapons would allow Russia to attack on a global basis with little or no warning. General Hyten noted that a hypersonic missile "disappears, and we don't see it until the effect is delivered." While with a ballistic missile, General Hyten stated, it would take 30 minutes to strike a target with a hypersonic weapon, "it could be half of that." Thus, capability against time urgent targets is one of the most important advantages provided by Russian hypersonic missiles. The Tsirkon hypersonic missile will be carried by a broad range of Russian surface ships and submarines, including the 885/Yasen class submarines, which a 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency report on Russia Military Power characterized as “extremely quiet.” Russia also has an improved Yasen-M submarine. The Tsirkon will be widely deployed on Russian surface ships and submarines, including the advanced Yasen class multirole submarine. Existing Russian launchers for Kalibr and Oniks cruise missiles can reportedly launch the Tsirkon.
A major target for Russian strategic nuclear hypersonic missiles or, indeed, nuclear-armed non-strategic hypersonic missiles like a Tsirkon launched from a Yasen-class submarine would likely be the U.S. National Command Authority because of its very important association with command and control authority over U.S. nuclear weapons use. Use of Russian hypersonic weapons against the U.S. National Command Authority was hinted at by President Putin in his 2018 State of the Nation Address to the Duma, reported on by Russian state-run television which contained a “list of American targets” that “the Kremlin could strike with hypersonic nuclear missiles within five minutes if war breaks out,” and this was overtly talked about by the Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Valeriy Gerasimov who said that Russia would be forced to “plan future delivery of strikes against decision making centers…” These weapons would also be useful for surprise attacks against bomber and missile submarine bases. While existing Russian subsonic cruise missiles could also be used for such attacks, the probability of surprise and success would likely be much greater with hypersonic missiles.
Does Russia have an accuracy problem with its hypersonic missiles?
Army Chief of Staff General James McConville, when asked if he thought Russian hypersonic weapons were “game changing,” replied, “No, I don’t. I have not seen them actually hit a target with that system, and I know where our [hypersonic] technology is.” This is the first indication of a Russian accuracy problem by a senior Defense Department official. According to TASS, if “that system” is the Avangard, it is armed with a 2-megaton nuclear warhead. If “that system” is the Kinzhal or the Tsikron (Zircon), it is dual-capable. Ultra-high accuracy regarding the Avangard is not necessary against any likely target of a very high-yield nuclear silver bullet force, which is what the Avangard is. For the Kinzhal and the Tsirkon, which have conventional and nuclear options, accuracy is much more important.
There is some open source evidence that Russia is exaggerating the accuracy of its new supposedly precision cruise missiles. While Russian military leaders frequently claim accuracy of a few meters or at least under ten for their new precision systems, some Russian journalists have reported much less accuracy. For example, Russian journalist Igor Kozin, writing in Russian state media, reported 5 to 50 meters accuracy (presumably CEP) for the Kh-101 long-range air-launched cruise missile and 30 meters for the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile. Similarly, Colonel (ret.) Nikolai Litovkin, also writing in state media, said that the Kalibr had an accuracy of 30 meters. Thirty meters is usually assumed as the threshold of near precision accuracy, but it does not necessarily equate to one missile, one target destroyed with conventional weapons. This is particularly true with regard to hard targets, in which case very high accuracy is necessary.
We must remember that these Russian missiles are not conventional missiles; they are dual-capable. Against most targets, if nuclear weapons are used, it matters little if Russia’s missile CEP is 5 or 50 meters. Keep in mind that until the B-61 Mod 12 bomb becomes operational, there will literally be no precision or near precision nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear deterrent force. Against most target types, nuclear weapons use does not require precision or near precision accuracy to destroy them. Against some targets, a CEP of 50 meters might rule out the use of the lowest yield nuclear missile warheads reportedly available to the Russians, which in turn could impact collateral damage. In its initial use of nuclear weapons, Russia would certainly attempt to limit collateral damage. However, if the Russians reached the stage of nuclear targeting of the U.S. National Command Authority, they would probably be beyond the point where they were worried about collateral damage.
Anti-ship missiles targeting ships at sea require some type of terminal guidance to hit them with any type of warhead. Warships are comparatively large targets. Assessing the probability of destruction against a warship is different than simple CEP calculations against land-targets. The Russians have made it clear that the Kinzhal, the Tsirkon, and the near hypersonic Kh-32 have an anti-ship role, and they are all reportedly nuclear capable. There is little or no open source information about the degree of realism in Russian testing of its anti-ship missiles. Hypersonic missiles get to their targets far faster than sub-sonic cruise missiles, making it easier for these missiles to acquire their intended targets.
If the Russians do not have sufficient accuracy for precision conventional strikes with their hypersonic missiles and are producing large numbers of them in the coming years, a high percentage of them may be nuclear-armed.
It is clear that Russia has substantially improved its naval strategic nuclear capability and will continue to improve it for the foreseeable future. With the announced Russian deployment dates, even assuming the normal Russia availability slippage, all of the Borei class submarines will be in service before the initial deterrent patrol by the first U.S. Columbia class submarine in 2031. The Husky might be available in the same time frame as the Columbia. Russia has apparently closed much of the gap between the quietness of Cold War Soviet and U.S. submarines. Moreover, there are likely to be multiple modernizations of the new Russian SLBMs before the U.S. introduces the Trident D-5 SLBM replacement missile, which is now to be a life extension version of the current missile.
We need both deterrence and active defenses against Russia’s hypersonic missiles. One is not a substitute for the other. Right now, we are playing catch up in hypersonic missiles, and there are no announced programs for a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. There has been a substantial increase in conventional hypersonic missile funding, but funding is still limited for defenses against hypersonic missiles. This should be of great concern.
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.
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