Atomic Pulse

NTI Experts Present New Reports on New Russian Weapon Systems and their Implications

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This post was
written by Ashley Curtis, an intern working with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Curtis holds a
Master of Arts degree in International Relations and Economics from the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She also holds a Bachelor of
Arts in Political Science from Brigham Young University.

In March 2018,
Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly announced the development of multiple
new nuclear weapon delivery systems. The announcement added a new, complex
layer to an already deteriorating nuclear relationship between the United
States and Russia. Since then, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF)
Treaty has collapsed, and the deadline to extend the New Strategic Arms
Reduction Treaty (New START), now set to expire in early 2021, continues to
draw closer. At such a critical juncture, understanding and following the
development of the new Russian nuclear weapon delivery systems is essential for
the future of arms control agreements and strategic stability policy decisions.

On November 13, Jill Hruby,
the inaugural Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow at NTI and the former director of
Sandia National Laboratories, released the first comprehensive, open-source
analysis of Russia’s new systems during an NTI public luncheon event. As NTI Co-Chair
and CEO Ernest J.
stated at the opening of the event, “Gathering good
information is the first step in mitigating threats.”

The report, Russia’s New Nuclear
Weapon Delivery Systems: An Open-Source Technical Review
, divides
the systems into three distinct categories: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
(ICBM), Hypersonic Delivery Systems, and New Advanced Strategic Weapon Delivery

  • The
    new ICBM – called the Sarmat – will replace Russia’s outgoing SS-18 ICBM. The new
    missile has the same objective as its predecessor but, according to Hruby, is
    specifically designed to evade U.S. missile defense systems (as are all of the
    new Russian systems). Full-scale systems testing is still needed, and
    deployment is likely four years behind schedule with an expected time frame beginning
    in the 2020s.
  • The
    hypersonic systems – Avangard, Kinzhal, and Tsirkon – are unique not because of
    their speed (ICBMs already travel at hypersonic speeds) but because they are
    especially hard to detect and follow. The Avangard – a long-range hypersonic
    glide vehicle that would be deployed on an ICBM – has garnered much attention in
    policy circles. Hruby concludes that the system is unlikely to be deployed
    before 2022. The Kinzhal and Tsirkon (a conventionally-armed system) are both
    short-range systems that are traditionally not covered by strategic arms
    control treaties.
  • The
    New Advanced Strategic Weapon Delivery Capabilities are Poseidon and
    Burevestnik. Poseidon is a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped torpedo that is
    reportedly designed to destroy U.S. coastal cities and infrastructure. Given
    the technical challenges associated with developing nuclear-powered systems and
    unmanned capabilities, however, Hruby predicts that deployment within Russia’s announced
    2018-2027 timeframe is highly unlikely. The Burevestnik is a nuclear-powered,
    nuclear-tipped cruise missile intended to sustain extremely long flights. While
    research and development of the power source are ongoing, no long-range tests
    have been successfully completed and deployment in the next decade is also

Building on
Hruby’s analysis, NTI experts Mark
and Lynn Rusten
also released a companion paper, Russia’s
New Nuclear Weapon Delivery Systems: Implications for New START, Future Arms
Control, and Strategic Stability
, which examines the implications of Russia’s new systems for  the New START Treaty, future US-Russia arms
control, and strategic stability. New START, which limits the deployed
strategic delivery vehicles and warheads of the United States and Russia, is
set to expire in 2021. However, the Treaty includes an option to extend its
terms to 2026 by executive agreement. While the Russian government has
indicated it is prepared to extend the Treaty, the United States government is
still reviewing the matter.

Some observers have suggested that New START should not be extended
because of the new Russian systems. Rusten and Melamed, however, come to the
opposite conclusion. Here’s why: Hruby’s analysis makes clear the only two new
strategic systems that are likely to be deployed by 2026 are Sarmat and
Avangard. Rusten and Melamed determined that Sarmat fits squarely into the New
START framework as an ICBM (and therefore would be limited by the Treaty), and
that Avangard systems deployed on ICBMs would count as warheads (and therefore
also be limited) under the Treaty. Notably, their analysis was confirmed when senior
Russian officials just recently stated publicly that these two systems would be
subject to New START’s limits and verification provisions. This means that
extending the New START Treaty would actually restrict and require transparency
about these new Russian systems, whereas allowing it to expire would remove all
limits and intrusive access to inspect them.

Speaking at the event, Rusten noted that although the two other new
long-range systems, Poseidon and Burevestnik, do not fall squarely under the
definitions of the New START Treaty, the agreement provides a platform called
the Bilateral Consultative Commission for the parties to raise questions about
and discuss how the treaty might apply to new kinds of strategic weapons.  Moreover, the Hruby report makes clear they
are unlikely to be deployed while even an extended New START Treaty remains in
force. Allowing New START to expire in
2021 would take away this established forum for discussing these new systems
and how they should be addressed in current or future arms control

Closing out the event, NTI Co-Chair Sam Nunn
lamented the current state of “strategic instability” between the United States
and Russia. He said
that it was
not too late to prevent a new arms race with Russia, and that the stakes were
too high to be complacent.

As policymakers
and experts tackle an uncertain nuclear future, both new NTI reports can serve
as a foundation for understanding and mitigating the increasing threat to
strategic stability from the emergence of new technologies and the erosion of arms

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