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Experts See Russian Strides on Nuclear-Force Updates

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A column of Russian RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers follows an armored personnel carrier near a strategic missile base near the town of Teikovo in 2011. Russia has made significant strides in modernizing its nuclear forces over the last 12 months, two experts said in an analysis this week. A column of Russian RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers follows an armored personnel carrier near a strategic missile base near the town of Teikovo in 2011. Russia has made significant strides in modernizing its nuclear forces over the last 12 months, two experts said in an analysis this week. (Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)

Analysts say Russia achieved "important steps" over the last year in modernizing submarines, aircraft and missile forces critical to its nuclear deterrent.

Moscow's new weapons-development initiatives -- as well as its recent progress in updating aging combat systems -- have added "to growing concern in other countries about Russian intentions and help justify nuclear modernization programs and political opposition to reductions in other nuclear-weapon states," issue experts Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"Those developments are not in Russia's long-term interest," they asserted in a 2014 edition of their longtime data-and-analysis series on "Russian nuclear forces," published this week.

The analysts said Russia is closing in on its goal of phasing out long-range nuclear missiles dating back to the Cold War, in favor of newer technology. The country has finished fielding a more modern force of Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, while its deployment of even newer road-mobile RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles is "well under way," the report states.

Separately, Moscow appears set this year to begin manufacturing its new Sarmat long-range ballistic missile, according to the analysts. They added, though, that it is unclear whether the forthcoming weapon will be of an entirely new design or a more minor modification to its predecessor, the Cold War-era SS-18.

Meanwhile, the analysts saw what they described as a worrying reduction in Russia's overall missile count of favor of placing more nuclear warheads on fewer delivery systems. They said Moscow is on track by 2022 to decrease to between 220 and 250 long-range nuclear missiles, a fraction of the 400 land-based nuclear missiles that the United States is expected to still hold at that time.

"That trend is unhealthy for strategic stability because relatively few warheads on more U.S. ICBMs can threaten many warheads on fewer Russian ICBMs," Kristensen and Norris wrote. The dynamic could make Russia more inclined to pre-emptively launch its ground-based nuclear missiles in a crisis, if Moscow leaders believe they might otherwise lose their weapons to a U.S. strike, according to nuclear strategists.

Russia's missile activities ran parallel to its progress toward fielding eight planned new-generation Borei-class submarines, according to the report. However, the analysts said Moscow has faced continued technical setbacks tied to the Borei vessel's planned key weapon, the Bulava missile.

Russia's sea-based nuclear deterrent will continue to rely on half-dozen Delta 4 submarines for the remainder of this decade, and reports have conflicted on whether a planned update to the vessel's Sineva missiles would revamp the entire missile or just its warhead, the analysts wrote.

They added that Russia in November approved plans to develop and build a "a subsonic stealthy flying wing aircraft" to serve as a future nuclear bomber.

Kristensen and Norris added that a Russian missile test allegedly conducted in breach of an arms-control pact with Washington "probably involved" the developmental R-500 Iskander-K cruise missile. The analysts did not take a position on whether the reported trial constitutes a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, but they attributed arguments in the affirmative to U.S. security "hardliners."

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