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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Terrifying Way Russia Would Start a Nuclear War

Russia Nuclear War
Topol-M Missile - By Vitaly V. Kuzmin

In 2020, Covid 19 gave us a very small taste of what a war with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would be like.

While Covid 19 may be the product of biological weapons research in China, it is not nearly lethal enough to be a fully developed biological weapon. Our experience with Covid 19 should reinforce the perception of the critical importance of nuclear deterrence, which is the only credible means of deterring such an attack. The arms control regime has completely failed with regard to chemical and biological weapons and should serve as a warning that arms control is no substitute for nuclear deterrence.

The year 2020 was a good year for enhanced understanding of both Russian nuclear weapons use doctrine and the development of Russian nuclear capability. Unfortunately, the news was sobering. The revelations about Russian noncompliance with its arms control obligations in the 2020 Department of State annual report on noncompliance with arms control agreements were also very bad. This included Russian nuclear testing and noncompliance with the chemical and biological warfare conventions.

In June 2020, Russia made public a Presidential directive on nuclear deterrence. The content was disturbing enough regarding Russian plans for first use of nuclear weapons, but, unfortunately, it is almost certainly not the entire story, and, as noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer observed:

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.”

It is now clear that the most alarming Russian press reports over the last two decades, including those in the state media, which indicated a lower Russian nuclear first use threshold than made public in official documents, were accurate. Paragraph 19 of President Putin’s June 2020 decree states:

19. The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:

a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

c) attack by an adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;

d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

It is clear that the Russian nuclear weapons use threshold in the 2010 and 2014 versions of their military doctrine (which is contained in paragraph 19d) was a deception. There are a number of important aspects of this newly released language. First, Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out, the Russian formulation is consistent with a nuclear response “possibly even [to] single missile launches…” Second, the condition of a nuclear response to “other types of weapons of mass destruction…” is broader than the three previous formulations in their military doctrine documents which talked specifically about chemical and biological attack. Third the use of the formulation “nuclear forces” rather than “strategic nuclear forces” in the provision related to non-nuclear attacks on Russian nuclear and command and control facilities opens up the possibility of a Russian nuclear response to conventional and cyber-attacks on a vast number of Russian facilities, air, naval and military units. This is because dual capability (conventional and nuclear capability) is almost universal in Russia.[1] The Russians are trying to use the threat of nuclear escalation to negate our conventional and cyber capabilities effectively. If they impose this targeting constraint upon us while they hit targets in the U.S., we lose the war.

Paragraph 4 of the decree is also very interesting. It states the role of nuclear weapons is:

…to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state and to deter a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies in the event of the emergence of an armed conflict by preventing the escalation of military activities and ending them on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.

This confirms previous reports in the Russian media, including state media. In light of what Putin has said about what constitutes attacks on both Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, it implies a very low nuclear use threshold, including pre-emptive strikes. In late December 2009, someone as well-connected as former Duma Vice Chairman of the Defense Committee Alexei Arbatov said, “Russia’s new draft military doctrine drawn up by a Russian Security Council commission contains a preemptive nuclear strike concept…”[2] In September 2014, General of the Army (ret.) Yuriy Baluyevskiy, a former Chief of the Russian General Staff who developed the 2010 revision of Russia’s nuclear doctrine when he was Deputy Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, stated that the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”[3] In October 2018, state-run Russia Today published an article by Colonel (ret.) Mikhail Khodarenok (former editor-in-chief of Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kuriyer, a Russian military journal) on Russian nuclear strike options which, after discussing Russian nuclear retaliatory options, stated, “…the last option envisages a pre-emptive nuclear strike.”

Indeed, in 2015, President Putin declared, “Fifty years ago, I learnt one rule in the streets of Leningrad: if the fight is inevitable, be the first to strike.” No one but Putin would put language like this into a Presidential speech. This is Putin’s policy. There is much talk in Moscow and in Russian doctrinal literature of preemption against NATO. A 2018 study by the Harvard Belfer Center found, “Military Thought has published at least 18 articles in support of preemption from 2007 to 2017.” Military Though is the official journal of the Russian General Staff. As Dr. Stephen Blank observed over 20 years ago, in Russian military doctrine, “Essentially there is no clear firebreak between conventional and nuclear scenarios in the open sources.”

While the words “nuclear pre-emptive strike” are not in Putin’s June 2020 decree, the essence of it is. Preemption is nothing more than first use, which is in the decree. The decree itself will likely increase open advocacy of nuclear preemption in Russian doctrinal literature.

Central to Russian nuclear strategy is the idea of “escalate to deescalate” or “escalate to win.” This was announced officially in 2003. It probably dates back to Putin’s first military doctrine in the late 1990s. The Obama administration brought this to widespread public attention starting in 2015. According to Dr. Blank, “…arguably [escalation dominance] is merely a part of a much broader nuclear strategy that relies heavily upon the psychological and intimidating component of nuclear weapons.”

In 2017, then-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart affirmed that Russia is “…the only country that I know of that has this concept of escalate to terminate or escalate to deescalate, but they do have that built into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea and it’s really kind of a dangerous idea…”[4] He also said that he had seen no evidence that this policy was changing.[5]

As Pavel Felgenhauer noted in 2018, Putin’s approach to dealing “…with the increasingly bitter confrontation with the West is based on a kind of internal logic: scare everyone with an array of fancy nuclear superweapons, and the West will yield or at least some key countries may waiver under duress.” “Escalate to deescalate” is the implementation of this concept in warfare. In February 2021, Dr. Maxim Starchak, a fellow at the Center for International and Defence Policy of Queen’s University U.K., observed that while Russia will not admit “to escalation for de-escalation, but this is, in fact, what is going on.” 

The Number of Russian Strategic Nuclear Weapons and the Total Russian Nuclear Inventory

We have no recent official unclassified U.S. estimated number for current Russian strategic nuclear forces or the total number of Russian nuclear weapons. In November 2011, the Obama administration estimated Russia had 4,000-6,500 nuclear weapons. It is clear that Russia has far more strategic nuclear weapons than what is declared under the New START Treaty data (1,447 as of September 2020). In 2019, even Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris of the Federation of American Scientists estimated that Russia has 2,670 strategic nuclear warheads. In 2014, Houston Hawkins of the Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote, “Today, estimates are that Russia has about 4,500 strategic weapons in its inventory.” In December 2019, Russian Strategic Missile Force Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev stated, “…the nuclear potentials of the sides have [been] reduced more than 66% since the signing of START I.”[6] This is a major departure from the Russian position. At the United Nations in April 2018, First Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N. Dmitry Polyanskiy declared that “Russia cut its nuclear arsenal by over 85 percent as compared to its stockpiles at the height of the Cold War.” If the reduction is 66% from the late 1980s Cold War level (10,000 warheads), Russia has over 3,300 strategic nuclear warheads.[7]

In February 2021, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten confirmed reports of large scale Russian deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons when he stated there were “thousands low-yield … and tactical nuclear weapons that Russia is building and deploying…” These are the weapons that Putin would use in an initial nuclear attack. General Hyten noted the critical importance of deterring Russian, first use with our much smaller low-yield force. He is correct. Before it became forbidden in Moscow to talk about Russian low-yield nuclear weapons in 2003, the Deputy Commander of Russia’s ICBM force stated that “the deterrent actions of strategic forces…[involve] strikes with both conventional and nuclear warheads with the goal of deescalating the military conflict,” and Russian forces “should be capable of conducting ‘surgical’ strikes…using both highly accurate, super-low yield nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones…”

There is other evidence of Russian expansion of its nuclear weapons numbers. In 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in an important speech at the Hudson Institute, stated that “…during the past decade, Russia has improved and expanded its production complex, which has the capacity to process thousands of warheads annually.” There is no plausible reason for such an expansion unless Russia plans a massive nuclear force increase.

Russian press estimates of Russia’s nuclear capability are frequently much higher than ours. Indeed, recently, Russian expert Sergei Rogov has noted that the number of Russian strategic nuclear warheads could be around 6,000.

In March 2021, a German publication published said it had obtained a German Defense Ministry document which stated Russia has about 6,375 nuclear warheads ready for use. This appears to be substantially higher than the threat level assumed in the U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

In December 2017, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along with modernizing deep underground bunkers, according to Pentagon officials. The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads to circumvent arms treaty limits and support Moscow’s new doctrine of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.” In August 2019, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matter Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter Fanta confirmed the Gertz story stating that “The Russians are going to 8,000 plus warheads.”[8] Again, it does not appear that such a threat level was assumed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

According to Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “We estimate that approximately 1,800 warheads are currently deployed, of which roughly 1,400 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and another 300 at strategic bomber bases in the United States. An additional 100 tactical bombs are deployed at air bases in Europe.” They also rote that the number of U.S. low-yield Trident warheads was under 25. If General Hyten is assuming the official U.S. estimate for Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons, his statement implies 1,000 or more low-yield strategic nuclear warheads.

It is clear that the U.S. does not have nuclear parity with Russia. As Ambassador Robert Joseph observed, we are “Second to One.” Thus, the difference between U.S. and Russian nuclear capability may be several-fold. From a deterrence standpoint, numbers matter.

Modernization of Russian Strategic Nuclear Triad

In November 2020, at Sochi, President Putin reiterated the long-held Russian view that the nuclear triad was Russia’s first priority: “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. 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.” In December 2020, President Putin stated, “First, it is necessary to maintain our nuclear weapons in high combat readiness and develop all components of the nuclear triad.” In December 2020, Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Valeriy Gerasimov, “…nuclear deterrence remains a key element in ensuring the military security of the Russian Federation.” In January 2021, Russian Minister of Defense General of the Army Sergei Shoigu stated that “To ensure the security of our country and maintain strategic parity, it is necessary to maintain a high level of readiness of the nuclear triad and develop its components.”

Russia has been modernizing its Cold War legacy strategic nuclear force since 1997. A decade later, it greatly accelerated. The 2018 Nuclear Posture report states that “In addition to modernizing “legacy” Soviet nuclear systems, Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads and launchers. These efforts include multiple upgrades for every leg of the Russian nuclear triad of strategic bombers, sea-based missiles, and land-based missiles. Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.”

In February 2021, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles A. Richard pointed out:

The strategic capabilities of our competitors continue to grow, and they are sobering. More than a decade ago, Russia began aggressively modernizing its nuclear forces, including its non-treaty-accountable medium- and short-range systems. It is modernizing bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, warning systems, command-and-control (C2) capabilities, and the doctrine to underpin their employment—in short, its entire strategic force structure. This modernization is about 70 percent complete and on track to be fully realized in a few years. In addition, Russia is building new and novel systems, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered torpedoes and cruise missiles, and other capabilities. And its leaders have not been reticent to leverage these capabilities to coerce its neighbors. During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, President Vladimir Putin reminded the world of Russia’s nuclear weapon capabilities, both through words and deeds, to warn against any attempts at reversing the outcome.

A key point here is that it is not just a single ICBM, SLBM and strategic bomber that is replacing the legacy Cold War systems, it is always multiple systems. Russia has somewhere between 20 and 25 active strategic nuclear modernization programs underway. About 80% of these are new systems or further improvements of these new systems.  A few of these are used for both strategic and nonstrategic purposes. An increasing number of these are hypersonic missiles. Moreover, it is not just modernizing the nuclear triad. As Admiral Richards pointed out, it is systems that go beyond the nuclear triad.

In December 2020, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said it has already modernized 86% of its strategic nuclear forces and it will reach 88.3% by the end of 2021. The difference between General Shoigu’s and Admiral Richard’s recent assessments on the extent of Russian modernization (86% vs. 70%) seems to be a difference in definition rather than substance. Russia apparently counts the modernized Russian Delta-IV submarines armed with improved Sineva and Liner missiles as modern systems. Both of these missiles carry at least two times as many warheads as the Soviet-era SS-N-23. Irrespective of the definition one uses, the comparable U.S. number with respect to strategic nuclear modernization since 1997 is zero.

In December 2020, Colonel General Karakayev said that Russia had modernized 81% of its ICBM force. The modernization has entailed deployment in silos and mobile launchers of both versions of the SS-27 but mainly the MIRVed Yars version. They will apparently be deploying another 11 (of the 13 planned ICBMs) in 2021, which is down from about 20 in recent years. Two additional Avangard hypersonic missiles were deployed in 2020.

In December 2019, the commander of Russia’s ICBM forces, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, stated that Russia will complete its nuclear modernization by 2024. Russian dates are usually based upon best case assumptions. However, there will almost certainly be full strategic nuclear modernization before ours even begins. Even more important is the fact that Russian modernization is never-ending.

In December 2020, General Karakayev also said that Russia would begin deploying its new Sarmat heavy ICBM in 2022 and that the development of new ICBMs “…will begin in the short-and mid-term perspective.” This is a classic example of Russia’s never-ending modernization, TASS had previously reported that Russia would be developing a new, smaller mobile ICBM to replace the Yars. In March 2021, TASS also said Russia has begun “the development of the new-generation Kedr strategic missile system…” It included no details about it.

In December 2019, Putin was told that Russia planned to deploy 20 regiments of the Sarmat by 2027.[9] Twenty regiments of Sarmat ICBMs are an absurd allocation of resources if there is any Russian intent to comply with the New START Treaty or any subsequent arms limitation agreement. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the “…Sarmat will be able to carry up to 20 warheads of small, medium, high power classes.”[10] Thus, 20 regiments add up to between 2,400 and 4,000 warheads on the Sarmat force alone. The absurdity is made blatant by the very high cost of heavy ICBMs. There is clearly a hidden agenda here.

In 2021 (reportedly in May), Russia will lay down two Borei-A-class ballistic missiles submarines, and two of them will join the fleet. This has never happened before in the history of the Russian Federation since ballistic missile submarines are very expensive. Indeed, taking into account the fourth Borei-class submarine that became operational in 2020, the number of new Borei-class ballistic missile submarines will have doubled in 18 months. By comparison, in light of the projected 2031 IOC of the first U.S. Columbia class ballistic missile submarine and the projected one per year construction rate, the U.S. won’t have six new ballistic missile submarines until 2036.

Russian strategic nuclear bomber force modernization is continuing. This includes upgrades to existing bombers, new nuclear stand-off missiles and the development and deployment of new bombers. In February 2021, Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu stated, “In 2020, upgraded Tu-160M [usually referred to as Tu-160M2] and Tu-95MSM strategic missile-carrying bombers performed their debut flights.” He also said that production of the new version of the Tu-160 heavy bomber was one of their highest priorities. In December 2020, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko said that it will reach the troops by 2021 and that the Tu-160 force will be increased by more than 50% by 2027.[11] He added that “…further expansion of the fleet of aviation complexes [Tu-160M2] is expected to be achieved within the framework of the new state armament program for 2024-2033.”[12] He also said that work was underway on promising cruise and hypersonic aircraft missiles.

Two of the new versions of the Tu-160M2 have already been produced. The announced Russian goal is at least 50 of these. In January 2021, Krivoruchko said that Russian Tu-95MSM strategic bombers will be armed with hypersonic weapons and state-of-the-art long-range missiles and their “combat characteristics will double.”[13]

In January 2021, state-run Ria Novosti reported that the Russian Defense Ministry plans that the new Pak DA stealth bomber will enter service by the end of 2027.[14] If true (and it likely is optimistic), it is roughly on the same schedule as the U.S. B-21, although Russia is vastly ahead in the nuclear missiles it will carry – long-range nuclear cruise and hypersonic missiles. Significantly, there is no announced U.S. program for a nuclear-armed hypersonic missile. Russia has threatened to use hypersonic nuclear missiles in a pre-emptive attack on the U.S. National Command Authority.

Production of additional Tu-160s violates a Russian commitment not to produce more Tu-160s under the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.

Russia is developing the Husky “5th generation” nuclear missile submarine, which reportedly carries ballistic, hypersonic and cruise missiles. The Husky is about ten years in the future and none are reportedly under construction yet.[15]

In November 2020, President Putin stated, “Work on the Poseidon system [nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed drone submarine] is going well. We are on plan in building a global range nuclear engine.” According to Russian press reports the Poseidon carries a 100-megaton warhead, possibly salted with cobalt to intensify radioactive fallout.[16] This is a terror weapon and, as such, can’t be used consistent with international law. Russia reportedly will have 30 deployed Poseidons by 2027.

The Russian program to develop the Burevestnik nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missile is currently a disaster area due to repeated flight test failures. However, they may eventually solve the technical problems.

An Atlantic Council publication by Matthew Kroenig, Mark Massa and Christen Trotti, on Russia’s new “novel” nuclear (Putin’s new nuclear superweapons which the report states are the “Sarmat, Avangard, Kinzhal, Burevestnik, and Poseidon”) concluded that:

  • “Russia may be pursuing these systems as a means of obtaining a real or perceived strategic superiority over the United States within the New START framework.”
  • “The new nuclear weapons may be intended as a backstop to Russian aggression and coercion against NATO.”
  • “From this perspective, Moscow may believe the new nuclear systems contribute to Russian state survival by serving as a deterrent to non-kinetic threats of regime change.”
  • “A final, and perhaps most speculative, strategic motivation is that these new nuclear systems may be designed to conduct a decapitation strike against Washington, DC, and/or the decision-making centers.”

Russian Hypersonic Missiles

Senior Russian officials, including President Putin, incessantly brag about their unique nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons. The Russian nuclear-armed Avangard hypersonic boost glide vehicle became operational in 2019. Russia indicated it added two additional Avangard missiles during 2020 and plans to complete the first regiment of Avangard missiles (6 launchers) by the end 2021. In January 2021, Deputy Minister of Defense Alexey Krivoruchko stated that the Tsirkon nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missile will become operational on surface ships in 2022. After that, it will be deployed on submarines. The characterization of this weapon as strategic or nonstrategic is somewhat arbitrary since Russian TV and TASS have talked about targeting the U.S. National Command Authority with this weapon. Russia’s Northern Fleet is preparing for the nuclear-capable Kinzhal hypersonic missile currently deployed on the Mig-31. Whether the Kinzhal is classified as a strategic or nonstrategic nuclear missile is also somewhat arbitrary. According to TASS, the Tu-160 heavy bomber will carry the Kinzhal. In February 2021, General Shoigu stated there would be “additional procurement of hypersonic and high-precision long-range weapons…” He also said, “The development of long-range high-precision weapons and equipping the Armed Forces with them is under the special control of the President of Russia.” President Putin is to be briefed in April 2021 on the results of the decision-making process.

Russian Non-Strategic (Tactical) Nuclear Weapons

Russia is far more secretive concerning its nonstrategic nuclear forces (tactical nuclear weapons) than its strategic nuclear forces. Russian officials usually talk about them only when they are in extreme threat mode, as evidenced by statements made by President Putin in 2015 and 2018. This is probably because of the massive Russian advantage in these weapons (they don’t want to motivate any U.S. effort to close the gap) and because they don’t want to stimulate U.S. pressure to limit nonstrategic nuclear weapons in any future arms control negotiations. The Russian stockpile of nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons is very large and expanding.

In 2017, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva said that Russia has been “…developing new nonstrategic nuclear weapons…” The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report stated, “Today, Russia is modernizing these weapons [nonstrategic nuclear weapons] as well as its other strategic systems.”

According to Pavel Felgenhauer:

After 1991, as the Cold War ended, the U.S. unilaterally retired and eventually scrapped almost all of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons—both the delivery systems and the warheads themselves. Only several hundred nuclear bombs, designated for use by NATO-allied jets, have been left at bases in Europe. Russia has retained its nonstrategic nuclear arsenal. In the last two decades, it has been expanding it by deploying nuclear field artillery, different land, air and sea-based missiles, nuclear torpedoes and other weapons.”

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review Report summarized the types of Russian-nonstrategic nuclear weapons as follows:

These include air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines, a nuclear ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 INF Treaty, and Moscow’s antiballistic missile system.

You will find a very similar list in Russian sources.

The official Pentagon number for Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons is 2,000 and growing. I believe this estimate is very low. In 2014, reported, “Russia, according to conservative estimates, has 5,000 pieces of different classes of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] – from Iskander warheads to torpedo, aerial and artillery warheads!” The official Russian claim that Russia has reduced its tactical nuclear weapons 75% from Cold War levels equate to about the same number. Russian expert Sergei Rogov has noted that assessments of Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons range between several thousand and over 10,000.

Dr. Philip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation, has stated that roughly half of Russia’s 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons have been modernized with new sub-kiloton nuclear warheads for air-defense, torpedoes and cruise missiles. Dr. Karber’s source is under Chatham House rules, but the source is a very good one. Certainly, General Hyten’s statement that Russia has thousands of low-yield strategic and tactical nuclear weapons suggests something like this has happened. 

It is frequently stated that Russia has 10 times as many nonstrategic nuclear weapons as we do. It may well be that the Russians actually have several times as large an advantage. Even with the low-yield Trident, we are grossly outnumbered. These are warfighting assets for Russia. Indeed, in 2017, President Putin directed:

During the escalation of military conflict, demonstration of readiness and determination to employ nonstrategic nuclear weapons capabilities is an effective deterrent…. Indicators of the effectiveness of measures undertaken to execute the State Policy on Naval Operations are…the capability of the Navy to damage an enemy’s fleet at a level not lower than critical with the use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons.”

The Development of New Types of Nuclear Weapons

Senior Russian officials and Russian press reports during the Bush administration said that Russia was introducing new and improved nuclear weapons. For example, in 2005, Russian Defense Minister Colonel General Sergei Ivanov asserted, “We will develop, improve and deploy new types of nuclear weapons.”[17] According to Colonel General Vladimir Verkhovtsev, then-chief of the Defense Ministry’s 12th Main Directorate, Russia’s nuclear weapons organization, the newly developed and manufactured nuclear munitions will have “improved tactical and technical specifications….”[18] 

The yields reported in the Russian press for the new Russian strategic nuclear missiles are significantly different from those reported for Soviet missiles suggesting the warheads are new types. These include both high and low-yield nuclear warheads. While the roots of this may go back to the Soviet period, the open source evidence clearly indicates that the existing and emerging capability dates from the rise of Vladimir Putin in the late 1990s. In 2002, Pavel Felgenhauer wrote that in April 1999 the Russian Security Council approved a concept for developing and use “nonstrategic low and flexible-yield battlefield weapons” and that their yields would be tens or hundreds of tons.[19] The declassified year 2000 CIA report stated, “According to Sergei Rogachev, Deputy Director of the nuclear weapons design laboratory: “Russia views the tactical use of nuclear weapons a viable alternative to advanced conventional weapons.” This would explain General Hyten’s revelation that Russia has produced them by the thousands. The purpose is warfighting as a substitute for more expensive conventional weapons.

A number of Russian press reports indicated that Russia had developed a new warhead with a weight of 100-kg with a yield of about 100-kt. This warhead is apparently a new design. According to Russian expatriate Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian strategic forces, the warhead for the new Bulava-30 SLBM is better than the best Soviet-era designs, which he says were in “the 110-130-kg range (this includes reentry vehicle body and electronics) and [had] yields of 50 and 75 kt. respectively.”

According to Vice Admiral (ret.) Robert Monroe, former Director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, “Russia has followed exactly the opposite course from the United States. It has focused on low-yield weapons research, design, testing, and production. It has pursued advanced concepts, and greater use of fusion, less of fission (possibly achieving pure fusion).” He estimates Russia is now 20 years ahead of the United States in these weapons.


Nuclear deterrence is critical. If we don’t deter WMD use against us, we will likely die in a nuclear or biological weapons attack. In the event of war, Russia will initiate the use of low-yield nuclear weapons anytime it is in their national interest to do so. The central aspect of our nuclear deterrence policy must be to make our adversaries believe that it is not in their national interest to take such action. For decades I believe we have been sleepwalking toward minimum deterrence. If we get there, there is a high probability it will fail.

Modernization is critically important. Without it, our nuclear deterrent will collapse. However, numbers are also important. There is no indication in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review of any intent to increase the number of deployed U.S. nuclear warheads. From Putin’s perspective, this is likely to erode deterrence. Even more, so would be the elimination of elements of the U.S. nuclear Triad.

The cost difference between what we plan now and a force several times more capable is very small. We say that nuclear deterrence is our highest priority. We have to prove we mean this. President Joseph Biden’s recent observation that Putin is a “killer” is accurate but not particularly diplomatic. When attempting to deter a heavily armed “killer,” unilateral cuts in our deterrent capability are not particularly good policy.

The piece is adopted from my presentation at the Mitchell Institute March 11, 2021 on Russia’s nuclear doctrine and capabilities.

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.


[1] Alexander Mladenov, “Best in the Breed,” Air Forces Monthly, May 2017, p. 51.; Mark B. Schneider, “Russian Tactical Nukes Are Real,” Proceedings Magazine,  April 2018, available .at proceedings/2018-04/russian-tactical-nukes-are-real

[2] “Failed military reform in Russia reason for preemptive nuclear strike concept – analyst,” Interfax, December 22,

2009, available at 177929FDF3C47F48853/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=177929FDF3C47F48853/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_1782d1eb1cc

[3] “Russia classifies information on pre-emptive nuclear strikes – military,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, September 5, 2014, available at Interfax-AVN military news agency, Moscow, in Russian 0728,0752,0826Sep

14/BBC, available at /1560021754 /fulltext/1778D9036BA671A14DE/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1778D9036BA671A14DE/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_178280f074d

[4] “S Armed Services Hearing on Worldwide Threats,” Political Transcript Wire, May 23, 2017, available at https: //

[5] Ibid

[6] “U.S. to seek ways of leveling capacities of Russian strategic nuclear forces – Gen. Karakayev,” Interfax, December 17, 2018, available at /2157713172/fulltext/1778D9FCBCF24B968F0/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1778D9FCBCF24B968F0/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_178281e9c12

[7] “FACTBOX – Strategic Missile Forces Day in Russia,” Sputnik, December 17, 2018, available at https://dialog /1? accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=170A13075F1754EEEB6/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcit


[8] “082319 Crane Naval Submarine Warfare Center Symposium on Strategic Nuclear Weapons Modernization and Hypersonics with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matter Peter Fanta,” mimeo.

[9] “Russia plans to finalize tests of new Sarmat ICBM in 2021 – National Defense Control Center (Part 2),” Interfax, December 24, 2019, available at 8625/fulltext/16EA95F44AC53E23FA3/115?accountid=55509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=16EA95F44AC 53E23FA3/6&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_16f43e5c4d1.: “Russia to Finish Testing New Sarmat ICBM in 2021 – Military,” Sputnik, December 24, 2019, available at https://dialog proquest. com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2330046793/fulltext/16EA95F44AC53E23FA3 /198?accountid =155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=16EA95F44AC53E23FA3/10&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief &t:zoneid=transactionalZone16f44002.;7f. State-run Ria Novosti also reported 20 planned regiments of the Sarmat. “Highlights of Russia’s arms procurement programme for 2018-2027,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, December 30, 2019, available at 2331240824/fulltext/16EE61E9B4F3E41099/9?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewssta nd&t:ac= 16EE61E9B4F3E41099/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone 16f809d68c8

[10] “Guaranteed defeat of enemy infrastructure: how the Sarmat ballistic missile will enhance the combat potential of the Strategic Missile Forces,” R.T., December 16, 2019, available at—guaranteed-defeat-of-enemy-infrastructure–how-the-sarmat-ballistic-missile-will-enhance-the-combat-potential-of-the-strategic-missile-forces-SkxuY8bHRB.html

[11] “Russia Defense Ministry Expects Modernized Tu-160 Bombers to Be Supplied to Troops in 2021,” Sputnik, December 30, 2020, available at 2473441557/fulltext/1769A5 EFABA7C05F9C6/6?accountid=155509&site=professional newsstand&t:ac=17 69A5EFABA7C05F9C6/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17734de29b0

[12] “Aviation; Delivery of profoundly modernized Tu-160M strategic bombers to forces to begin in 2021 – Russian deputy defense minister,” Interfax, December 30, 2020, available at professionalnewsstand/docview/2475314885/fulltext/1769A5EFABA7C05F9C6/13?accountid=155509

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[13] “Aviation; Comprehensively modernized Tu-95MSM strategic bombers to carry hypersonic missiles – Russian deputy defense minister,” Interfax, January 15, 2021, available at professionalnewsstand/docview/2479709807/fulltext/1769A5EFABA7C05F9C6/20?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1769A5EFABA7C05F9C6/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcit

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