Russia's Nuclear Rearmament: Policy Shift or Business as Usual?

RT-2PM2 Topol-M TEL with Yars system transport-launch container, Wikimedia Commons

For over fifty-years, both the Soviet Union (later Russia) and the United States concluded that having three separate systems to deliver nuclear weapons was instrumental to deterrence. These included heavy bombers, ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The redundancy of these systems meant that a surprise attack on the opponent's nuclear forces would be complicated to the point of futility. More than two decades since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States still maintain all three legs of their strategic nuclear "triad." Recently, however, a significant debate has arisen within the United States as to whether it needs three methods of deploying its nuclear weapons. Some defense analysts and military strategists argue there is no need to maintain such a costly infrastructure in a post-Cold War world where "the specter of nuclear war has lifted." [1] In the Russian Federation this discussion is not taking place; rather than debating whether it needs all three legs of its nuclear triad, Russia is recapitalizing and modernizing its entire strategic arsenal.

Analysis of actions Russia has undertaken, as well as official and unofficial statements, suggests there are three reasons for this decision. First is Russia's perception of its strategic and military position, especially with respect to NATO. Second, and related to the first point, Russia possesses an aging nuclear stockpile and must modernize in order to maintain its capabilities. Last, Russia is concerned about the "technical preeminence" of the United States, and believes the modernization program will provide opportunities to counteract this trend.

This paper begins with an overview of the current and planned state of Russia's strategic triad. After that, it explores Russia's military doctrine and statements on NATO and emerging U.S. strategic capabilities, including Ballistic Missile Defense and Prompt Global Strike Systems. Following this, it presents some information on the service life and extension programs for the current strategic forces, discussing the case for modernization. Finally, it concludes with a forecast of what the future will hold for Russia's triad, and implications for the United States.

Current State of Russia's Triad

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia's economic collapse led to severe reductions in capabilities throughout the 1990s. Air-delivered and silo-based weapons systems became vulnerable to lack of investment, and submarine patrols at sea became virtually non-existent. [2] Russian emphasis was largely restricted to developing and fielding the low-cost truck-mounted Topol-M ICBM and keeping enough ballistic missile submarines at sea to maintain a credible level of deterrence.

The surge in world oil prices at the start of the century led to marked improvements in Russia's financial situation. [3] This in turn has allowed the Putin administration to begin an intense program of nuclear modernization and recapitalization. From 2013 to 2016, Russia plans to increase its nuclear weapons spending by 1.5 times. [4] While this is an impressive figure, it is useful to place it into context by describing Russia's current strategic arsenal.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)
Russia's land-based missiles, operated by the Strategic Rocket Forces (RSVN), have historically been the largest component of the Soviet and later Russian strategic forces. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had roughly 6,600 warheads on over 1,400 ICBMs. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union this number has changed drastically. In 2013 there were roughly 1,050 warheads on 326 ICBMS; but ICBMs still make up roughly half of Russia's strategic warheads. [5]

Russia's silo-based ICBMs - the RS-36M (SS-18), the UR-100NUTTH (SS-19), and the RS-12M (SS-25) - were all deployed in the 1980s, and have had their service lives continually extended. Russia's oldest ICBMs - the SS-18 and SS-19 - are both liquid-fueled silo-based missiles that carry between six and ten multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Additionally, Russia fields two types of solid-fueled single warhead missiles - the Topol (SS-25) in both a mobile and silo based platform, and the Topol-M (SS-27 Mod.1). Beginning in 2010, Russia started to deploy a mobile MIRVed version of the Topol-M. Known as the Yars, the missile is reported to carry up to four MIRVs. Russia currently deploys 18 road-mobile Yars ICBMs, and has stated that it will deploy an additional forty Yars ICBMs in 2014. [6] Russia has begun the process of removing SS-25 Topols in favor of the silo and road-mobile SS-27 Mod.1 Topol-M, and silo and road-mobile SS-27 Mod.2 Yars. Despite this, the Topol-M has recently had its service life extended to 25 years. [7] By 2013, the RSVN will field 45% new weapons and equipment, and by 2021, Russia plans to field 98% new missile systems. [8]

In addition to the deployment of improved weapons systems, Russia has begun a campaign to design and field a completely new class of medium- and heavy-class ICBMs. During a meeting to discuss developments of the RSVN in November 2013, President Vladimir Putin ordered that the RSVN be re-equipped with new generations of missile technology. [9] According to a number of statements from the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin, Russia is developing a series of medium- and heavy-class ICBMs, including a new road-mobile ICBM, a train-mobile ICBM, and finally, a heavy silo-based ICBM. Little is known about the specifics of these projects due to discrepancies in reporting, but some general facts are known.

Beginning in 2014, Russia will deploy a new road-mobile ICBM named the Rubezh. [10] Developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MIT), the developer of the Topol, Yars, and Bulava, the Rubezh is set to replace the Yars and Topol-M according to RVSN Commander Lt. Gen. Sergei Karakayev. [11] It is not immediately clear whether the Rubezh is an entirely new missile similar to the Topol-M/Yars, or an improvement of the existing Topol-M/Yars missiles.

MIT has also begun work on a new combat railway missile system. It is not yet clear whether the new system will incorporate a new missile or simply use an existing missile such as the Rubezh or Yars, but some information on what the railway system may look like is available. According to experts, the system will be based on the RS-22 (SS-24) system first deployed in 1989 and removed from service in 2005. The system is intended to act as a bulwark against NATO's ballistic missile defense system, and will be deployed by 2020. [12] [13] If it is to resemble the system deployed in years past, it will consist of a locomotive and one or two missile-carrying cars. This previous system was deployed in three missile divisions near Kostroma, Krasnoyarsk and Perm, with twelve trains equipped with thirty-six missiles, each of them carrying up to ten MIRVs. Again, it is important to note that it remains unclear whether this RS-22 (SS-24) replacement is a new ICBM or simply a modernized version of the Topol-M/Yars based system.

In October 2012, the Ministry of Defense approved a preliminary design for a new 100-ton heavy liquid-fueled MIRVed ICBM. [14] The new ICBM, developed by the Makeyev Design Bureau in conjunction with NPO Machinostroyenia machine-building company, is believed to be what some analysts have called the Sarmat. According to statements from the Ministry of Defense, the new ICBM will replace both the SS-18 and SS-19. [15] An exact timeline for development of the ICBM has not been made public, but according to Andrei Goryayev, Deputy Director General of NPO Mashinostroyenia, the development could take up to ten years. [16]

Strategic Submarine Programs: SLBM & SSBN
Russia is also carrying out a large scale modernization effort with its strategic submarines equipped with new sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The program, much like ICBM modernization, is largely being driven by the need to replace aging submarines and missiles.

Russia's strategic submarine force includes six Project 667BDRM 'Delfin' (Delta IV) submarines and three Project 667 BDR 'Kalmar' (Delta II) submarines. Each of these submarines is capable of carrying 16 SLBMs. Project 667DBRM is equipped with the R-29RM Sineva (SS-N-23 M1) with four warheads, and Project 667DBR is equipped with the R-29RL (SS-N-18 M2) with three warheads. Project 667BDRM submarines underwent overhaul in the last ten years, and have been approved to remain in service for an additional ten years per submarine. [17]

In conjunction with the overhaul, Project 667 BDRM submarines were re-equipped with R-29RM Sineva (SS-N-23M1) SLBMs. These missiles are a modification of the liquid fueled R-29RM missiles that Project 667 BDRM carried before the overhaul.

Russia has also tested a ten-warhead modification of the Sineva that can be carried on Project 667 BDRM submarines known as Liner. [18] According to Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, all of Russia's SSBNs will be rearmed with the Liner. [19]

As Russia begins retiring the older Project 667 BDR class submarines from service, it will begin introducing the new Project 955 Borei and subsequently the Project 955A class submarines. Project 955 and Project 955A submarines will be equipped with sixteen new six to ten warhead MIRVed R-30 Bulava (SS-NX-30) SLBMs. [20]

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Russia's naval deterrent in Russia's strategic nuclear deterrence policy. [21] Russia plans on constructing up to eight new Project 955 and Project 955A missile submarines by 2020, which will serve as the basis of its naval deterrent force for the next 30 to 40 years. [22]

To date, Russia has launched three submarines of the Project 955 class. The Yuri Dolgoruky entered into service in January 2013, while the entry-into-service of the Alexander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomakh has been delayed to mid-2014 due to Bulava failures. [23] Construction on the first Project 955A type, known as the Prince Vladimir, is currently underway at the Sevmash Shipyard.

In addition to the entry-into-service of the Project 955 submarines, the Russian Navy has resumed continuous combat patrols of its SSBNs, something it has not done in almost 26 years. [24] Since 1986, the Soviet and later the Russian Navy, deployed SSBNs for limited combat patrols on a temporary basis, with periods of time when no combat patrols took place at all.

The Bulava has encountered technical problems throughout its development. In the first five years of testing, from 2004 to 2009, the Bulava had less than a 50% success rate. Following a brief suspension of testing, and after several adjustments to the missile production process, the Bulava had a series of successful launches between 2010 and 2011, with a 100% success rate after the Yuri Dolgoruky entered into service. This was followed up with two failed launches in 2013, leading to a freeze in any new tests aboard the Alexander Nevsky and the Vladimir Monomakh. [25] [26]

Russia's ability to deploy its Project 955 and 955A class submarines is directly linked to the success of the Bulava. Since the submarines are designed to carry the Bulava and not the Sineva/Liner, if the SLBMs are not functioning, the Alexander Nevsky, Vladimir Monomakh and future iterations of the Project 955 and 955A submarines cannot be launched.

The Project 955 and 955A submarines will replace the Project 667BDR submarines in the Pacific, and eventually the Project 667BDRM submarines. The current build-up will temporarily increase Russia's operational deployed naval portion of its strategic triad, but as the Project 667BDRM submarines are retired from service, the number of warheads will not vary greatly.

The Soviet Union's and later Russia's strategic bomber fleet has traditionally played a secondary role in its strategic nuclear posture. Russia's strategic bomber fleet consists of fifty-nine Tu-95MS (Bear) aircraft capable of carrying 654 nuclear weapons spread between air-launched cruise missiles and bombs, and thirteen Tu-160 (Blackjack) supersonic aircraft capable of carrying 156 nuclear weapons spread between air-launched cruise missiles, bombs, and short-range attack missiles. [27]

Current modernization plans for Russia's strategic bomber fleet are limited to the overhaul of three Tu-160M Blackjacks by 2015 and ten Tu-160M Blackjacks by 2020, all of which will be equipped with new communications, cockpits, electronics and other avionics. [28] In addition to the overhaul of the Tu-160M fleet, Russia has resumed long-distance strategic patrol flights to the remote regions of the country, something it has not done since 1992. [29]

Russia's strategic bomber modernization is not only limited to the overhaul of Tu-160Ms; statements from Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Viktor Bondarev and other senior Russian officials indicate that Russia has designed a new long-range bomber that will eventually take over the roles of the Tu-95MS, the Tu-160 and the Tu-22 non-strategic bomber. [30] The Tupolev Design Bureau, the designer of the Tu-95 and Tu-160, will begin research and development on the bomber project, currently known as PAK-DA (future long-range aircraft) in 2014, and Russia's Kazan Plant (KAPO) will begin production by 2020. The bomber is reported to be subsonic but to possess stealth capabilities. [31] Although this bomber is set to eventually replace Russia's current bomber fleet, Russia has continued to upgrade and construct bombers.

Early Warning and Command and Control
Russia's modernization program is not limited to its strategic triad. Russia is preserving and modernizing key elements of the infrastructure that supports early warning and command and control functions.

During the Soviet era, many early warning radars were located outside of Russia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia lost many of these locations. Though it was able to maintain some coverage in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Russia's early warning ability was severely stifled.

Starting in the early 2000s, Russia began to develop and deploy new radars with up to a 6,000km range and better angle detection on its own territory. [32] Russia has expedited construction of these radars by utilizing pre-fabricated modules to bring deployment time down to twelve to eighteen months from five to nine years. [33] Stations in Barnaul and Orsk in southern Russia are currently under construction; stations in Kaliningrad and Mishelevka in western and south-eastern Russia, respectively, have started initial operations; and, stations in Olenegorsk and Pechora in northern Russia are being planned. [34] In addition to these stations, Russia has plans to commission two more radars in 2014, to construct five more stations in the southeast and in the north, and to modernize existing systems in the north by 2018. [35] By 2018, Russia plans to deploy a continuous radar field. [36]

The command and control of the RSVN is undergoing a 4th generation modernization of elements of its functions in connection with the further deployment of the road-mobile Yars system. In particular, "the combat control systems and combat weapons will be qualitatively improved, primarily by upgrading their capability of overcoming missile defenses and improving viability of the RVSN mobile component," according to Karakayev. [37] Progress with this modernization was tested on 30 October with a large-scale readiness test of the RSVN, Navy, Air Force, and Army Aerospace Defense and Missile forces.

Following this effort, Russia plans to begin 5th generation modernization of the command and control of the RSVN in 2016. The 5th generation modernization would expand current capabilities to include integrated automated command and control systems to allow for rapid retargeting of missiles, as well as to streamline information management and daily operations of the RSVN command. [38]

Russia's Strategic Doctrine and Reliance on a Triad

As demonstrated by Russia's three military doctrines since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1993, 2000 and 2010), Russia is increasingly concerned that the United States and NATO may threaten or commence limited military action against it to achieve limited political goals (e.g., to stop the war in the North Caucasus). In its most recent 2010 Military Doctrine, Russia notes that "despite the decline in the likelihood of a large-scale war involving the use of conventional means of attack and nuclear weapons being unleashed against the Russian Federation, in a number of areas military dangers to the Russian Federation are intensifying." [39] The 2010 Military Doctrine then makes the distinction between "military dangers" and "military threats."

Russia's first four 'external military dangers' include: the geographic expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); threats to strategic stability; the deployment of foreign troops in territories adjacent to Russia and her allies; and, the deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) and strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems. All four of these factors implicitly or explicitly refer to the United States and NATO. Other defense concerns, such as nonproliferation, noncompliance with international measures, and the spread of international terrorism are lower on the list.

According to the published doctrine, Russia's "main military threats" include: a drastic deterioration in the military-political situation (interstate relations); the impeding of the operation of systems of state and military command and control, the disruption of the functioning of the country's strategic nuclear forces, missile early warning systems, systems for monitoring outer space, and nuclear munitions storage facilities; the creation and training of illegal armed formations and their activity on the territory of the Russian Federation or on the territories of its allies; a show of military force with provocative objectives in the course of exercises on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation or its allies; and, stepping up of the activity of the Armed Forces of individual states [or groups of states] involving partial or complete mobilization and the transitioning of these states' organs of state and military command and control to wartime operating conditions.

Russia's strategic doctrine illustrates two things. First, it shows that the focus of Russia's nuclear policy has remained ultimately unchanged since the Soviet-era; it still considers strategic stability and parity with the United States to be as an essential element in its national security strategy. This concept was well demonstrated during the lead up to the New START Treaty in 2009-2011. Russia, eager to achieve parity with the United States, enthusiastically negotiated and was quick to sign and ratify New START. New START favored Moscow in that only the United States needed to make cuts; Russian delivery vehicles and warheads were already below negotiated limits. Furthermore, under New START Russia was able to maintain the numbers of its tactical nuclear arsenal.

Second, and more importantly, Russian doctrine frames a response to BMD and strategic non-nuclear precision weapons systems. Russia views the development of both of these systems as a threat to its national security. Utilizing the second portion of the 'main military threats' section, Russia can argue that the deployment of BMD and strategic non-nuclear precision weapons systems impede the operation of systems of state and military command and control and disrupt the functioning of its strategic nuclear forces, missile early warning systems, systems for monitoring outer space, and nuclear munitions storage facilities. Russia has not only stated that both BMD and strategic non-nuclear precision weapons systems are destabilizing and must be brought into any future arms control measures, but has gone so far as to threaten a nuclear strike if these are developed. [40]

Modernization Trends: Russia Is Likely to Continue to Modernize

The biggest problem facing Russia's strategic triad is age. After a large recapitalization and modernization campaign in the 1980s, much of Russia's strategic arsenal stagnated during economic and political hardship in the 1990s. Russia has added some new strategic systems to its arsenal, but the strategic triad as seen today is very similar to the triad of days past.

At present, the Russian nuclear triad includes:

  • RVSN possessing 326 ICBMs with 1,050 warheads;
  • the Navy possessing 10 strategic submarines, 128 missiles and 448 warheads, and;
  • the Air Force possessing 72 strategic bombers, equipped with air launch cruise missiles, short-range attack missiles, or bombs.

Russia's military and political leaders have expressed their anxieties about the current state of the strategic triad and its ability to maintain parity with U.S. and NATO forces. Given this anxiety, it is no surprise that Russia is recapitalizing and modernizing its strategic nuclear triad to resemble the Cold War triad.

The land-based component of Russia's strategic triad, its silo-based and road mobile ICBMs, have gone far beyond their service lives and will be withdrawn from service over the next decade. According to Karakayev, SS-18s, SS-19s and SS-25s will only make up 40% of the RVSN attack force by 2016 and 2% by 2021. [41] Russia currently does not have an operational heavy, silo-based ICBM ready to replace the SS-18s and SS-19s. Though the SS-18 received a life-extension in 2012 to 30 years, the missile has already surpassed its planned life by 50%. [42] Furthermore, if the development of a new heavy liquid-fueled ICBM could take up to ten years, it is unclear how many additional years would be required before the missile is deployable. It is possible that for an extended period of time, Russia will be left without a heavy ICBM in its arsenal.

Most Russian submarines entered into service during the 1980s, and as such are in urgent need of replacement. Over twenty-five years have passed since the last SSBN was commissioned in Russia, many of which are due to retire in the next few years. Concerns over the reliability of the Bulava and in turn, Russia's ability to deploy the new Project 955 and 955A submarines, will be directly linked to the retirement of the Project 667BDRM submarines. Though an overhaul of the Project 667BDRM was undertaken in the past few years, the service lives of many of these submarines will expire. If Russia cannot deploy a new class of submarines, the current state of the submarine force will soon leave Russia with a greatly inferior naval deterrent force.

The bomber fleet will see very few changes made to its structure. The Tu-95s have been in service for over half a century, albeit with modifications, and the Tu-160 fleet is still in production. It is estimated that Russia will deploy one bomber every one to two years and increase the Tu-160 fleet to thirty planes. [43]

Though Russia has begun recapitalizing and modernizing its nuclear arsenal, it has decided against changes to the structure of its nuclear command. Although Russia has opted to create a central defense authority, it has resisted calls to consolidate its strategic triad into a unified command and control organization. Russia will continue to command each element of its strategic triad independently for the foreseeable future.

Will Modernization Be Successful?

Once Russia completes recapitalization and modernization of its strategic triad, the structure and composition will largely mirror the strategic triad the Soviet Union created during the Cold War, and that Russia attempted to maintain following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia will maintain a large reliance on its land-based ICBMS, albeit with an increased number of road-mobile ICBMs, and SSBNS, and will maintain a secondary role for its strategic bombers.

Russia's modernization of its nuclear triad is long overdue. Eagerness to complete its modernization as fast as possible will inevitably cause this process to occur in a haphazard manner. Undoubtedly, defense contractors will have many challenges fulfilling the orders from the Ministry of Defense, leading some analysts to say that Russia is at risk of fielding a quantitatively smaller arsenal. Nonetheless, the combined threats of system obsolescence and Western military superiority likely will continue to spur the modernization effort.


Following forced reductions of its bulky Soviet capabilities, Russia has begun to recapitalize and modernize its strategic arsenal. Although this is primarily to remedy its aged system, statements from high-ranking military and political figures also link recapitalization and modernization to U.S. and NATO development of BMD and strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems. During the negotiation of New START, Russia was successful in maintaining its number of warheads and delivery systems, but it did not achieve any substantive limits on BMD and strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems. If the U.S. continues to deploy the BMD system and pursue strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems, it can continue to expect aggressive statements from senior Russian officials. For this reason, Russia's recapitalization and modernization should be seen as an attempt to deter both current and future Western military capabilities.

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[35] "Russia plans to build several radar stations by 2018." Interfax: Russia & CIS Defense Industry Weekly, November 2, 2012; "Russia to build five more early warning stations by 2018 – RTI," Interfax: Russia & CIS Defense Industry Weekly, August 6, 2013.
[37] "Russian Strategic Rocket Forces to be almost fully re-armed by2021 – commander," Interfax: Russia & CIS Defense Industry Weekly, December 16, 2011.
[38] "Система боевого управления в РВСН становится более совершенной (Sistema boevogo upravleniia v RVSN stanovitsia bolee sovreshennoi – Command and control system in the Strategic Missile Forces is becoming more perfect)" I-Mash, September 20, 2013,
[39] "Военная доктрина Российской Федерации (Voyennaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii – Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation)", February 5, 2010,
[40] "Putin Again Slams US Missile Defense Plans," RIA Novosti, December 10, 2013,
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[42] "Russia to keep SS-18 Satan ICBM on combat duty at least until 2020," Interfax: Russia & CIS Defense Industry Weekly, October 11, 2012.
[43] "Russian Air Force receives new Tu-160 strategic bomber," RIA Novosti, April 29, 2008,

December 18, 2013

This paper provides an overview of the current and planned state of Russia's strategic triad. It also explores motivations for Russia's planned upgrades to its strategic nuclear arsenal, offers a forecast of the likelihood of success, and suggests some implications for the United States.

Jerry Davydov

Research Associate, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Bryan Lee

Director, Eurasia Nonproliferation Program, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2018.