In August 2016, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is building large numbers of underground nuclear command bunkers in the latest sign Moscow is moving ahead with a major strategic forces modernization program.” In November 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Gertz’s report about a new deep underground nuclear command and control bunker. He stated:
First of all, we need to work seriously to boost the survivability of the control systems. We all realize this, and we are aware that a lot depends on the survivability of these systems and their ability to continue operating in a combat environment. In fact, we have to guarantee this even in the event of a nuclear strike. They have told me that the creation of an absolutely secure facility for controlling strategic nuclear forces, among others, is nearing completion and that it will have a very high safety margin.
Secondly, we should constantly check the efficiency of the main components of the systems for controlling strategic nuclear forces during command post exercises and other events, including unexpected challenge inspections for assessing the triad's combat readiness that has already become regular.
Thirdly, we have to continue developing advanced systems for controlling strategic forces. What we are talking about is that we are doing the right things today, and these systems are in a good state. However, no matter how modern and advanced they may be today, we cannot remain idle, and we all realize this. We need to think about what happens tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Please report on long-term working plans in this field at this meeting.
According to state-run TASS, Putin said, “Russia has considerably expanded the analytical and operational capabilities of the strategic nuclear forces’ command and control systems…” It added, according to Putin, Russia, “…has considerably modernized stationary and mobile command and control centers, expanded their analytical and operational capabilities, including information provision, monitoring and situational analysis.” Resistance of the system to electronic jamming has also been increased.
The reason why Putin spent very great sums to build a new nuclear bomb-proof deep underground bunker for nuclear command and control (not to mention Gertz’s report that Russia is building “large numbers of underground nuclear command bunkers”) is of great concern. Like most dictators, Putin places a very high value on protecting his own skin. The contrast of Russian capabilities and their current activities to improve them greatly and the U.S. lack of capability and action is rather striking. In a great Freudian slip, the U.S. refers to its nuclear command and control system as the “Thin Line.” This is seriously worrisome in light of recently announced Russian interests in using nuclear hypersonic missiles to attack the U.S. National Command Authority.
The Soviet-era deep underground bunkers have enormous survivability. Putin himself just said that the existing Russian systems “are in a good state.” In 2014, the Chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, Lieutenant General Andrey Kartapolov, said the newly operational National Defense Management Center in Moscow was safe from a nuclear strike.
In 2012, Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Jr, then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated, “Russia is upgrading massive underground facilities that provide command and control of its strategic nuclear forces as well as modernizing strategic nuclear forces as another top priority.” These facilities are depicted in the 1988 edition of Soviet Military Power, which noted that the latest round of construction in the 1980s “…coincided with intensified Soviet preparation for the possibility that a nuclear war could be protracted.” There is an enormous difference between modernizing Soviet-era facilities and building completely new, very expensive ones which “will have a very high safety margin” against nuclear attack, according to President Putin.
In 1988, then-Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said the Soviet Union had built an “enormously expensive” network of underground facilities capable of surviving for months and that, “There can be only one purpose for these shelters--to provide the Soviet leadership the ability to fight a protracted nuclear conflict.” While this was not exactly a popular view in the 1980s, he was correct. Indeed, Putin’s November 2020 statement quoted above confirms Carlucci’s assessment. Putin said the nuclear command and control system must “…continue operating in a combat environment…even in the event of a nuclear strike” and that its capability must be tested by “…command post exercises and other events, including unexpected challenge inspections for assessing the triad’s combat readiness that have already become regular.”
The U.S.’ ability to threaten these deep underground facilities is critically important for deterrence. Our capability to do so has dramatically declined due to a vast reduction in the number of our deployed nuclear warheads and the elimination, largely due to ideology, of the most effective U.S. strategic nuclear forces (e.g., the Peacekeeper ICBM, the stealth cruise missile) and the complete lack of strategic force modernization since 1997. Because of the great difficulty in destroying hard and very deeply buried facilities, high-yield gravity bombs and high-yield earth penetrating nuclear bombs have been used in military planning. In 2015, this author pointed out:
The U.S. is not funding life extension of the B-61 Mod 11 [B61-11]earth penetrator warhead (designed against hard and deeply buried targets); the B-83 [B83] bomb (a “megaton-class weapon” and our best general use weapon against hard and deeply buried facilities); and all of the higher yield versions of the B-61 bomb. Absent earth penetration, yield is the critical factor in destroying HDBTs. Thus, there will be a serious reduction in U.S. capability against HDBTs if the Obama Administration goes forward with the existing plan.
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review made useful but inadequate changes to the Obama administration’s program relating to hard and deeply buried targets. The B61-11 and the B83 will continue in the U.S. stockpile, but they will not be life extended. The effect of this policy will be to continue our existing capability for a while, but eventually, it will die as the weapons age out. If what Putin says about his new nuclear war command and control bunker is true, neither of these weapons will have sufficient capability against it. Moreover, the number of U.S. nuclear bombs is being reduced by 50%, diminishing our ability to destroy hard and deeply buried targets with multiple nuclear strikes.
The B61-12, according to the Obama administration’s statements, has a maximum yield comparable to the lowest maximum yield of earlier versions of the B61. Also, it is not an earth penetrator. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists says its maximum yield is 50-kilotons. Such a yield would not have capabilities against hard and deeply buried facilities remotely comparable to those of the B61-11. According to Kristensen, the B61-11 has a yield of 400-kt. It is also is an earth penetrator that dramatically enhances capabilities against hard and deeply buried facilities. The B83 bomb reportedly has a yield of 1.2 megatons. The B61-11 was developed as a replacement for the multi-megaton B53 bomb because both the B53 and the B83 were not adequate against hard and very deeply buried targets.
The U.S.’s ability to deliver any of these bombs with our strategic bombers will decline until nuclear-capable B-21 bombers are available, optimistically, after 2025. The last B-2 was produced over 23 years ago. The recent termination of its B-2 defensive systems upgrade will degrade B-2 penetration as more and more Russian air defense missile systems such as the S-400s, and then the new S-500s are deployed. Testing of the S-500 will be completed in 2021. The B-2 has no standoff nuclear capability other than the rather modest ability that will be provided by the B61-12 JDAM capability. That is not enough. In July 2017, General Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, then-Commander of Air Force Air Combat Command, stated, "The Air Force also must have a follow-on to the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bomb that is stealthy and maneuverable enough to survive the last few miles of an attack on ever-improving air defense systems.” The B61-12 is a nuclear JDAM. The only bomber standoff capability we have is the B-52, which carries the very old (1982) AGM-86B, which is inadequate and declining. As early as 1982, the Air Force recognized that the AGM-86B was too vulnerable to advanced Soviet air defenses. Russian defenses are now two generations beyond what the Soviets had in the 1980s.
In June 2017, General John Hyten, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said replacing the existing AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) is particularly needed because it is so old, “It’s a miracle that it can even fly,” and its reliability was “already unacceptable” and would get worse every year. Before the AGM-86B is replaced by the new nuclear ALCM, the LRSO (assuming this program actually goes forward), will have to deal with the SA-10, SA-12, SA-20, S-350, S-400, S-500, new Russian short-range defenses, and probably one or more Russian air defense systems that Russia has not talked about yet. The LSRO may be able to suppress defenses in the Moscow area, but it can’t destroy hard and very deeply buried facilities. The reported yield of its W-80 warhead is much less than that of the B-83. It will not be available until the early 2030s. Nor is there any indication that the LRSO missile is supersonic, so it is not ideal for attacks directly against advanced air defenses where both supersonic speed and stealth may be necessary. Since leadership bunkers are very important targets for deterrence, Russia can deploy air defenses directly with them.
The stealthy, supersonic F-35 will be operational with a nuclear capability in 2023. However, its combat radius is only 590 miles. Since it is being based initially in the U.K., it will require air-to-air refueling to reach targets in the Moscow area and beyond on a two-way mission. Since it will only be able to carry the B-61-12, it will be unable to destroy many of the even older Soviet-era bunkers..
In my opinion, Vladimir Putin is the most likely head of state of a nuclear power to start a nuclear war. In November 2020, he said, “I want to emphasise that, despite the constantly changing nature of military threats, the nuclear triad remains the primary, key guarantee of Russia’s military security.” His assertion that Russian strategic nuclear capability “neutralises the threat of a large-scale military conflict” is another way of saying that he plans to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in any major conflict. His new nuclear bomb-proof bunkers could very well contribute to his decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. In June 2020, he signed a decree adopting a very low threshold of nuclear weapons first use. His actual nuclear weapons first-use threshold is probably lower than what is contained in the public decree. The implications of the new nuclear bomb-proof bunkers should be seriously examined regarding our nuclear deterrence requirements.
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.
 “Russia: State trials of new missiles for S-350 Vityaz air defense systems to be over soon,” Asia News Monitor, May 25, 2017, available https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professional newsstand/docview/1901736413 /fulltext/175522F510037786F46/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=175522F510037786F46/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone175ecae2960